The Barbie doll carries more weight in the cultural consciousness than she can bear on her famously disproportionate frame.
She’s at once a symbol of feminine aspiration, the careerist everywoman who in 1962 owned a home before most real women could have credit cards — and she is also, as a teenage character in the newly released Barbie movie puts it, “a professional bimbo,” “a symbol of sexualized capitalism,” “a glorification of rampant consumerism,” and “a fascist.” Welp!
As narrator Helen Mirren tells us during the film’s opening scene, which playfully mirrors that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, girls have always had dolls. But when they spot a towering Barbie (here subbing the iconic monolith from the classic Kubrick film), the primitive toddlers around her smash their boring, parenthood-simulating baby dolls. Barbie is invented; a new dawn has arrived.
That duality-of-woman premise was perfect fodder for Barbie director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, who typically explores the liminal space that women occupy between adolescence and adulthood (Lady Bird, Little Women) or young adulthood and the real thing (Frances Ha and Mistress America, in which she starred and co-wrote with her partner, the filmmaker Noah Baumbach).
In Gerwig’s hands, Barbie (Margot Robbie) is a vision of feminine ideals — with effortless beauty and brains — until her flawless lifestyle in Barbieland is disrupted by physical imperfections and intrusive thoughts.
“Do you ever think about dying?” she blurts out during a disco party, still grinning, her brain still processing a new feeling of existential dread.
Her toast is burnt, her milk is sour, her shower runs cold. Why is this happening? We discover that her real-world owner Gloria (America Ferrera) has been ascribing the true pain of womanhood to a doll that her daughter Sasha loved but has now abandoned. What if there were an Anxiety Barbie™ — the movie suggests — or a Barbie with flat feet and cellulite? Now that would be representation.
Barbie jumps in her hot pink convertible, where she’s surprised and dismayed to find that her boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) — needy, adoring, submissive — will be joining her on a mission to the real world. Oblivious to what goes on outside Barbieland, a harmonious matriarchy where every day is perfect and every night is girl’s night, they quickly discover that the real world isn’t what they thought. Barbie is appalled by our misogynistic mess; Ken is enamoured with our patriarchal ways.
Many will be pleased to know that Gosling is, without a doubt, the movie’s most valuable player. His Ken is sweet and silly — until he goes delightfully berserk as a patriarchy-empowered strongman who is both menacing and ridiculous, staging a coup d’état on Barbieland after getting a taste of a male-centred world order.
When Barbie returns, he’s imposed a new society where Barbies serve brewskies to the Kens, who now fix cars, play sports and do reps. Just don’t expect any grand insights about the nature of violent masculinity; Barbie is more concerned with the impossible question of modern womanhood.
Yet there isn’t an answer, hence the 50-year hubbub about the doll’s societal worth. Barbie offers that the tired, excitement-seeking Glorias of the world — the people who love Barbie so much they want a doll who can reflect their identity and experience back at them — and the young, cynical Sashas — who hate Barbie for her unattainability, for being designed for the male gaze — can live with and be comfortable with a contradictory existence.
If you’re a Barbie agnostic who doesn’t give a damn about how we project our complexities onto something as simple as a doll and just wanted to see a good movie, we’re full-throttle into meta-comedy territory here. The bright technicolor, ambitious set design (there are hints of The Truman Show in its intentional artifice) and a few dazzling, high-concept dance sequences lend an escape that we could probably all use.
But something itched at me as the movie wore on. Gerwig, whose roots are in independent film, had the tall task of overseeing a Barbie movie that depicts its producer Mattel without bending knee to corporate micromanaging. While the script doesn’t handle the company with kid gloves (a CEO character played by Will Ferrell defends his feminist credentials by calling himself “the nephew of a female aunt,” before ordering his all-male board to seize the escaped “jezebel” Barbie and put her into a box), it lacked the sharp teeth that we’ve come to expect from a Gerwig-Baumbach venture.
The earnestness with which this movie approaches its primary subject is sweet and necessary — it almost works the whole way through, and as Gerwig said in a recent interview with The New York Times, it wouldn’t have worked any other way. But it requires a delicate balance that is hard to pull off, particularly when you’re trying to convince an audience to care about a plastic commodity produced by a multibillion dollar company.
I felt an uneasiness bubble up inside me during a borderline saccharine scene when Barbie interacts with the real-life woman who invented her, Ruth Handler (portrayed by Rhea Perlman). Handler’s role during this scene is to remind Barbie of her purpose, and she returns during the film’s rushed conclusion to do so again.
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Perhaps these scenes jarred me because they felt designed to tug at the heartstrings, introducing a human element to give Mattel a face that was easier to swallow or reconcile. It seemed to dilute the work the filmmakers had done up to that point to establish the corporation as Barbie’s adversary, even if a soft and bumbling one. “Things can be both/and,” Gerwig said during the aforementioned interview. “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Somewhere along the way, the balance teetered toward doing the thing. So when Handler appears to tell Barbie that she was created so that she “wouldn’t have an ending,” I felt my own existential dread bubble to the surface. There are things to love and hate about Barbie; there are things to love and hate about the Barbie movie, too.