2023 | PG-13 | starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Will Ferrell | directed by Greta Gerwig | 1h 54m |
The tagline that comes with Barbie boasts that this movie is for you if you “Love Barbie or Hate Barbie”. The people that hate Barbie are certainly going to get their itch scratched with Greta Gerwig’s bright, pink fantasy, but the people who love Barbie are going to be left out in the cold here, wondering why their childhood toy was hijacked to make a satire of contemporary gender politics. There is a lot going on in this movie, which I appreciate even if it’s more an achievement of ambition then an entirely successfully executed satire. We’ll try to unpack it all.
In Barbieland, all the women are Barbie and they run the world – and all the men are Ken, who exist to admire Barbies. Everyone leads a carefree life of dancing all night and lounging on the beach every day until one day Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) develops an existential crisis, walks on flat feet and starts thinking about death. The Barbies, as explained by played-to-hard Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) are connected to children in the Real World and something is wrong with her owner, so Stereotype Barbie and her tag-along Ken (Ryan Gosling) journey to the real world to find a very different society than the one they think they created. This trip turns Barbieland upside down, inspires Ken to lead a bro revolt and runs Stereotype Barbie afoul with the executives at Mattel.
As a long-time fan of writer/director Greta Gerwig, it’s kind of annoying that this is her launch into the mainstream studio blockbuster space. The co-writer, with her husband, director Noah Baumbach, are responsible for several favorites of mine – Frances Ha, Mistress America, Lady Bird and her recent 2019 adaptation of Little Women, which I crowned with a perfect score. All solid films with whip smart dialog and thoughtful character work. So I have no choice but to assume every point made in this movie is intentional – and every point that contradicts that point is intentional. Ultimately, Barbie runs like a particularly pointed episode of South Park. It makes it’s point,, makes the counter point and by the end of it, it has bounced back and forth and gotten so clouded in silliness that it’s hard to take seriously. All this is by design. It’s a call back to when comedies were about something, almost as far as the Battle of the Sexes comedies of the 40s (The Philadelphia Story, The Palm Beach Story, etc).
The first act of the film is grating. It opens with it’s weakest example of trying to weave the point around a joke: a statement that all dolls were designed to teach kids to be mothers until Barbie came along, conveyed by a random parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now Barbie teaches girls they can be anything, hold any job. In Barbieland, Barbies do everything from fly around in space shuttles to pick up the trash, while the Ken’s seem to come out of nowhere and exist only to be arm candy for Barbie. We’re supposed to think this is the inverse of our real world in which women run the show and men are treated like objects, however that throughline falls apart as the movie goes along.
I don’t envy Gerwig and Baumbach here. How would you make a care-free comedy about a figure that feminists have spent decades poisoning for having unrealistic beauty standards? It’s been the defining thing about Barbie for generations. The film creates a world where both Barbie allowed women to see themselves in jobs and take those jobs and are still miserable by her unrealistic beauty standard. Barbie can’t win. She’s, apparently, a “fascist” says Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) in the real world, the daughter of miserable Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera) and the source of Stereotypical Barbie’s identity crisis. The film gives a sounding board to all these ideas, but doesn’t connect them. For example, if women were supposed to be made happy by getting jobs, why are they so unhappy in the real world? Did it not work, was it corrupted or was it doomed to fail? Some plot threads are too big to tie together, even in a a universe metaphor that Gerwig has created entirely herself to explain such things.
The big problem is for such a broad comedy, on some points, the film simply refuses to joke about. It can’t even dialog such things like real people do, instead when talking about issues of inequality or the patriarchy, the characters simply lapse into speeches. Despite, it’s ironically fun look, there is an undeniable strain of bitterness running through it all. The film seems to be running with competing interests that constantly intersect and undercut each other. In one scene, a group of construction workers all yell out pick-up lines at Barbie. It’s funny because we know it’s about to happen, because the lines are cheesy and because they all yell them at the same time – and then the film undercuts it by suggesting there is a tinge “of violence” to it all. In another scene, Gosling’s Ken finds himself in LA and overwhelmed with men running the show. It’s hilariously conveyed in a montage of very manly things. That is undercut by a guy saying men still enforce a patriarchy just more covertly and then that is double-undercut by Ken trying to get jobs just because he’s a man and being turned away because he lacks the qualifications.
Superficially, this is going to confuse a lot of people. It’s also textbook good writing on Gerwig’s part. She’s clearly working through her complications with modern gender dynamics here. She doesn’t have the answer and doesn’t propose to (though the ending gets close in a caustic way). A good story is one where you don’t write about something you know to be true, but something you’re still working through. That’s this movie in a nutshell.
The third act of Barbie is actually pretty good fun. The jokes start to really land and the absurdity gets cranked up higher than the bitterness. Gosling is allowed to run away with the movie, turning into a full blown bro who topples the Barbie feminist utopia in a day after thinking “men and horses” run the world. He builds a society where everyone has fun and the Ken’s get to achieve their dream of being seen by Barbies. This somehow, “brainwashes” the Barbies into a contentment they aren’t supposed to be content with – though it’s not explained how. The movie has it’s most fun with Gosling and bro culture in a way that makes them utterly, stupidly, charming. While Robbie’s Barbie goes to the real world and back, it’s Gosling’s Ken who has the story arch, whose desires and flaws make him grow as a character. Gosling is so fun and charming that Robbie’s Barbie’s complete lack of interest in him endears him to us and threatens to turn the title character into the villain of the piece.
It’s here where the film really goes into uncharted and forbidden territory and takes it’s aim at feminism. Given that a movie will not be made openly criticizing feminism, Gerwig and Baumbach code Barbie for feminism and don’t give us the key to that code until the film’s final speech. In the film’s most obnoxious scene, Ferrera “gives voice to the cognitive dissonance of being a woman living under patriarchy” by explaining all the ways women have to behave contradictory at all times – behaviors actually enforced by feminism. In the film’s most out-and-out hilarious scene, the Barbies take their power back by using their innate sexuality to pit the Ken’s against each other – by playing in their desire to share things they like with women, such as explaining The Godfather. It’s pointed, it’s funny and it pretends to not acknowledge the inherent power dynamic women have over men.
All of this creates a swirly pink Rorschach test of gender study analysis for the audience. People are going to see points made that they want to see. If you’re prone to think it’s feminist, you’ll ignore all the times it blames feminism for making women miserable. If you’re prone to think it’s anti-feminist, you’ll ignore how often it blames the patriarchy and makes fun of men for making women miserable. This is a movie that can’t be chopped up and viewed in clips and memes, it has to be seen as a whole to get the totality of what Gerwig is doing here.
The film is visually stunning, not just it’s pink sets, but how cleverly Gerwig plays the toy-ish visuals into the jokes (such as the side-scrolling portal to the Real World or the simple funny image of guys in suits rollerblading down Venice Beach). But the jokes themselves are a scattershot mixed bag of duds and hits. It’s not a particularly funny movie. It’s also not a film I would even show to a 13 year old girl, despite it’s PG-13 rating. At it’s most superficial level, the one they will likely only get, Barbie endorses a corrosive view of the gender relations. While the film goes after everyone in terms of who to blame, it does represent a world where men and women cannot get along, cannot cohabitate in the world together, and must be kept separate and segregated. That happiness is about finding your own path, and the strengths and weaknesses men and women provide each other are to be mocked. Barbie sees men and women helping each other as one sex dominating and controlling the other.
Best taken with a heavy grain of salt. Still, Barbie is about something, which is an achievement in a studio era where everything is watered down so nobody at all feels slighted. It’s wrong about a lot of things (the history of the world and the history of Barbie, which it attributes to just one woman), but it’s hard to deny that Barbie articulates the zeitgeist around what a lot of people are feeling. The film serves as a time capsule for the broken gender relationships we live under in 2023. It’s not a complete success, but it has something to chew on and debate long after it’s over. I think Gerwig new exactly what she was doing here.
Note: This was originally intended to be the season finale, but we have several other movies in the pipeline, so I’m just going to roll into 2024.