Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is an entertaining, albeit uneven mix of escapism, social critique, self-parody and meta cinema. It seeks to represent the Barbie doll and brand as something more than “sexualised capitalism”, and yet it unabashedly indulges in the superficial, reinforcing the kind of empty iconography that features heavily in Aqua’s 1997 song, Barbie Girl.
The film centres on “stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie), a version of Barbie who enjoys doing what the film imagines to be “Barbie stuff” – going about her morning routine with make-believe appliances, exchanging empty pleasantries with other Barbies, and parting every night for “girls’ night”. Stereotypical Barbie becomes interesting when she begins to falter in behaving like and literally embodying this idea of the “perfect” doll. She starts to worry about the future (almost as if she has gained an awareness of the preciousness of time) and undergoes physical changes.
The opening act also sets up the world of Barbie: everything is pink, job prestige is exclusively awarded to the women, while the men, most of whom take the name Ken, are mainly interested in becoming a romantic partner to one of the Barbies. We also gain insight into the other inhabitants of “Barbieland”, which include, alongside variations of Barbie and Ken, the undesirables – those who either lack or have lost their commercial significance.
The film suggests a connection between this land of Barbies and the “Real World” (which we are encouraged to view, for the most part, as the same reality we inhabit as viewers). The exact nature of this connection isn’t really explained besides the idea that the lives of the Barbieland inhabitants are intertwined with the figurative lives of their “Real World” counterpart dolls.
The other main character of the film is Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), who is played similarly to Robbie’s Barbie as a jovial, if slightly silly Barbieland inhabitant, whose naivety towards outside social realities constitute much of the film’s comedic moments. By intention, these two characters are introduced to us as one-dimensional, yet the situation Beach Ken finds himself in from the beginning is vastly more relatable. He has a thing for Stereotypical Barbie, yet he is unable to gain her attention and make himself noticed.
Soon enough, Stereotypical Barbie embarks on a mission to the Real World. She hopes that by finding the person who played with her (by her I mean the counterpart doll), she would be able to identify and solve her problems. Ken joins Barbie as a stowaway, hoping that this would give him the chance to finally get noticed. Although they initially leave Barbieland for different reasons, we soon come to recognise that both characters are really searching for the same thing, a sense of identity that Barbieland alone cannot facilitate.
What these characters encounter in the Real World generates its fair share of laughs, and there is certainly something to be found in watching these impressionable characters attempt to make sense of a world with lasting icons and yet ever shifting consumerist interests. Unfortunately, any fleeting moments of nuance are quickly quashed by Gerwig’s need to push the story forward.
Gerwig opts to ignore the many complexities of the Real World, focusing on its faults in order to drive home certain points about gender inequality. I especially take issue with the way Gerwig frames our real-world mentalities. She reduces the way we consume certain types of media by characterising them as acts of gender affirmation. In so doing, she genders them, from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to images of plain old horses. Now, I am not one to typically complain if a film decides to throw in a couple of tongue-cheek references now and again. I just find it ironic that a film set on taking an explorative view of the Barbie IP, is so willing to throw other examples of popular culture under the bus.
Perhaps I shouldn’t actually find this ironic, because Gerwig’s Barbie ends up doing very little in addressing what makes Barbie special to many young consumerists. I am not even convinced that Gerwig understands Barbie beyond its superficiality. Having grown up watching many of the early Barbie films (I have my sister to thank for that), it is abundantly evident that Robbie’s Barbie, and the world of which she is a part, are not even remotely related. These early films, which include the likes of The Nutcracker, The Princess and the Pauper and The Island Princess, are often explicitly anti-materialist, and clearly emphasise empathy and kindness as the defining features of its heroine.
Gerwig’s film is also far too pre-occupied with figuring out its stance towards the brand’s shortcomings. Barbieland is introduced as a very superficial and unimaginative place, and yet the film wants us to care when news breaks out that it is succumbing to Real World influences. One could explain the one-dimensional, plasticised depiction of Barbieland as a simulacrum of sorts, a place that serves to juxtapose its artifice and pop-culture significance with the very real meaning that its young consumerists give to it in the Real World. But the film does not commit to this, almost as if it is afraid to disavow the very things that make the Barbie IP less than it is.
What we are left with is a film that simultaneously criticises and celebrates the brand’s flaws. It appears to have a certain audience in mind, one which is incapable of forming its own opinion – the trailers feature prominently the words: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you”.
This is a passable comedy, but a terrible Barbie film. Were it not for the occasional eye-candy and memorable jokes, Gerwig’s Barbie would be a total misfire.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan