life in plastic
Barbie is fantastic. And Greta Gerwig has made history as the first female director of a film that grossed $1 billion at the global box office. It’s truly inspiring that such a frothy, feminine film marketed towards adults has been a resounding success. It is exactly the sort of film that deserves to be seen on the big screen with an audience laughing in delight. Barbie is wholesome and lacks cynicism. It’s very nearly perfect.
Margot Robbie is perfectly cast. I cannot express enough how fortunate we are to have her in the lead role instead of Amy Schumer. She not only looks like the iconic doll, she portrays her with such earnestness and with an irrepressible shine. I never gave much thought to Barbie’s personality, but it’s obvious that she’s an indefatigable optimist with a sunny smile. But beneath that camera ready exterior is a vulnerable woman. This Barbie thinks about death! That’s the premise this film hinges on: why is Barbie’s inner world suddenly beset by turmoil? Even her perfect body is showing signs of decay: cellulite, morning breath, and flat feet. The answer Barbie seeks is in the Real World. So like many heroes & heroines before her, she sets out on a journey to discover the truth.
Joining her is Ken (another perfect casting in Ryan Gosling), whose longing for Barbie goes unrequited. In the real world, Barbie confronts misogyny in all its myriad forms while Ken discovers the patriarchy. His understanding is that being male affords him automatic respect, unlike in Barbieland, where he’s just an accessory. Barbie is on a mission to find the girl playing with her who has introduced the concept of death. Ken brings patriarchy back to their world, undoing the woman-ruled utopia so that all the smart, successful Barbies become subservient bimbos to the Kens.
This is all executed very well. The jokes are often hilarious and the contrast between Barbieland and the Real World is stark. Barbie has been living in ignorant bliss about the state of women. She believes that her existence has empowered women to become presidents, doctors, Supreme Court justices, even construction workers. It’s earth shattering that the opposite is true. Barbie has actually made millions of girls aspire to an unrealistic beauty standard. She’s also a fascist. The film doesn’t endorse this view, so what it does is strip away those layers of perfection to make Barbie far more ordinary and human.
Really the message of the film is that even Barbie can’t be Barbie. Women are not plastic, we don’t fit into boxes and we aren’t capable of being everything. It’s a bit puzzling because Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie isn’t the president, a doctor, or a nobel prize winner; she’s simply herself. So my understanding was that she didn’t need all those titles or achievements to be worthy.
As fun and clever as this movie is, I would’ve preferred a film without so much meta. Give me a classic adventure story where Barbie has to save Barbieland from an existential threat, not one where she has an existential crisis. The inclusion of patriarchy was another odd choice, considering this was a story that didn’t need the presence of male power. Do all women’s stories essentially boil down to smashing the patriarchy? It would’ve been so much more interesting for this movie to go the route of The Lego Movie, showing the visible effects of children playing. My friend made a salient point:
“Boys can have their story about toys be about play and imagination and the liberation that comes with both in childhood, but girls have to contend with these important coming-of-age concepts always through the lens of feminism as a political act and girlhood as a response to the patriarchal world.”
Barbie is kooky, but not kooky enough. There should have been more emphasis on the bizarre worlds little girls create for their Barbie dolls, how vivid and downright weird their imaginations are.
Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie turns in a stellar performance, but even she had untapped potential. She could’ve been the one to lead a revolt in Barbieland. The Barbies have no knowledge of misogyny or sexism, but they did know to exclude and mock the one Barbie who wasn’t traditionally feminine or ‘normal.’
Truthfully, I think as an expensive theater filling blockbuster, this had to be about Barbie as a cultural institution. It also had to address all the criticism people have been leveling at the toy for decades.
But what works really works. It’s a pink dream that I want to live in. Movies need more pink! The set designs in Barbieland are immaculate and so are the clothes. An array of simple and classic pieces that are fabulous without being flashy. I love a collar and anything heartshaped. There’s plenty of nods to classic movies as well. Here is Gerwig’s list of those films.
Gosling is such a treasure as Ken. He gets a big song and dance number too. Ken is just so very silly and endearing. Even when he’s acting like a jerk I couldn’t help but laugh. I want to believe Michel Keaton’s enduring performance as Ken in Toy Story 3 helped Gosling’s own portrayal. (In fact, this movie owes a lot to Toy Story; Barbie and Buzz Lightyear have similar awakenings but in reverse).
There’s also spiritual truth to be found in it. Barbie meets her creator Ruth Handler and the conversation they have clearly alludes to God. I wept. I wept because I too am a creation, fearfully and wonderfully made, but I am not controlled by my creator. In fact, He’s even given me the ability to be creative too. This video provides lots of insight on that idea and the Biblical references in the film.
I don’t think anyone will regret watching Barbie, except for the insecure men who claim it’s anti men. Mind you, the film makes it clear that Ken has inherent dignity and like Barbie, he is enough as himself. But the idea that men have clear advantages in this world over women is just too offensive. I doubt the very basic feminism presented here will alter the way these buffons think.
I know I’ll be making another trip to Barbieland. I just have to do the opposite of Barbie and ignore the real world when I’m there.