Barbie

Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Discovery

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

When one thinks of a Barbie, the word “feminism” likely does not come to mind. Nor should it, considering the brand’s rather tumultuous history with the girls whom they aim their dolls at, but in the summer of “Barbenheimer,” it seems that anything is possible. Barbie can become a beacon of hope and feminism. Sure, why not?

Well, I can give you some reasons why not. But let’s start with the good things—and there are plenty of good things to be found in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” starting with its opening homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which shows girls enjoying their favorite pastime: smashing dolls while Dame Helen Mirren narrates about how Barbie, who could be a doctor, a president, or a Nobel Prize winner, showed little girls they could become anything, and thus shepherded in a new age of equality. “All problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved,” we are told, and we chuckle because, well… it’s Barbie. 

This fun, self-effacing opening sets the stage for the rest of the movie, which repeatedly finds itself (deservedly) insulting its subject matter in one breath and idolizing it the next—much like its protagonist, “Barbie” finds itself caught in a push and pull between what it was made for, and what it’s really trying to say. The Barbie in “Barbie,” also known as “Stereotypical Barbie,” looks like Margot Robbie, and therefore looks exactly like a Barbie doll come to life. Though her life seems perfect, surrounded by beautiful and accomplished friends and doted on by Ken (Ryan Gosling)—despite never kissing him—Barbie finds herself plagued with thoughts of death, cold showers, and the ever-dreaded cellulite. To solve this dilemma, Barbie must leave Barbieland and its picture-perfect production and costume design to venture into the ominous real world and find the girl to whom she belongs, and soon both she and Ken find themselves on the streets of Los Angeles.

From there, their paths diverge: Barbie finds Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), an edgy high schooler who derides her former toy by explaining how Barbie creates unrealistic beauty standards and perpetuates the dangers of consumerism (all this said during in a movie that is about as consumerist as you can get), and Sasha’s mom, Gloria (America Ferrera). Ken, meanwhile, discovers something beautiful—horses. Also, the patriarchy. Though Robbie is magnificent and beautiful as our Barbie, it’s Gosling who steals the show as Ken wanders around Century City and comes to the realization that he deserves respect on account of his manhood, though he repeatedly reminds us that he does not, in fact, have genitals, just a plastic mound. It’s a comedic performance for the ages, eclipsed only by Gosling’s own work in “The Nice Guys.” 

And thus Barbie and Ken leave the Garden of Eden and encounter sin, though Ken turns towards it and Barbie turns away. There is something hefty at work here, touching on the coming-of-age themes that Gerwig explored in her previous efforts, “Little Women” and “Lady Bird,” here shown through the eyes of two adult actors playing dolls aimed at children. The outside world does not bring either Barbie or Ken happiness, even when Ken brings patriarchy back to Barbieland—it only brings understanding. But for all the hidden depths of “Barbie,” for all the doll’s relatable doubts and fears about womanhood, and even with the healthy serving of meta humor courtesy of the all-male Mattel executives, there’s only so much Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach can do to make Barbie the feminist icon Mattel so desperately wants her to be. 

Every self-referential joke only serves to remind us why Barbie has been so maligned in feminist circles for so long, or how corporate greed is slowly eating away at every corner of our lives: Mattel’s fictional CEO (Will Ferrell) blusters on about how much he respects women (for he is the son of a woman!) and how he wants to show girls they can be whoever they want, but his jokes about the all-male boardroom are just that—jokes. Mattel might be able to brag about how self-aware they are now, but it’s only so they can make a bigger profit (see: the enormous slate of Mattel toy movies that have been announced, including a Polly Pocket movie from Lena Dunham). “Barbie” jokes about the malignancy at its own heart to distract the viewers, to say, “Hey, we know we’re bad!” and so alleviate any responsibility to fix things. But self-awareness alone can only do so much. The big, show-stopping monologue, delivered courtesy of America Ferrera, is one of the most ham-fisted, watered-down depictions of feminism ever put to screen, and I’m sure someone at Mattel gave themselves a nice pat on the back for that before looking to see if their stock price had risen. (Compare this speech to anything in “Little Women,” where Gerwig manages to wrap up the contradictions of womanhood much more succinctly and much less didactically.) How much creativity and soul can there be within those confines? 

For Gerwig, the answer is quite a lot, but never enough to overcome the crumbling foundation the movie is built on. 

“Barbie” Trailer

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