This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
There’s a moment in Barbie where Ken (Ryan Gosling), having recently learned about patriarchy, says to a businessman who’s informed him that they mostly hire women now, that they aren’t doing patriarchy very well. The man chuckles and assures him that they are, in fact, doing it very well; they’ve just become better at hiding it. It’s a good joke because it’s so true; the only problem is that it’s also exactly what Barbie is.
The film takes explicit aim at patriarchy, advertising as entertainment, and IP-mining, but is also set to be the first in a series of toy-based movies from Mattel. At one point, a character comments on the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman in the real world (well, the United States). But there’s no awareness from the film that this scene speaks to the film’s own cognitive dissonance. It’s a story about the evils of a greedy corporation owned and operated by men that simultaneously functions as a real-world (meaning our world) celebration of that corporation and the first step in its plan to conquer another lucrative medium.
What makes that cognitive dissonance all the more sinister and possible is that the film is one of the most glorious motion pictures Hollywood has produced in years.
A Shocking Edge Dulled Over Two Hours
Barbie begins in Barbieland, where the Barbies, Kens, and one Allan (Michael Cera) believe that the many capable, accomplished, and successful Barbie toys fixed all of the real world’s problems of sexism. They go about their perfect days led by a black woman President Barbie (Issa Rae), cared for by a trans woman doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), and generally living perfect lives where all people are accepted and loved.
It’s a joke that works because it’s poking fun at the rampant hollow representation in current media, albeit without ever actually addressing blackness or transness. It’s also a perfect example of a film having its cake and eating it.
The plot is set in motion when Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) begins to have thoughts of death and learns that she must go on a quest to the real world to help the girl playing with her. That girl’s sad thoughts and feelings are bleeding into Barbie’s life, giving Barbie an existential crisis and, even worse, flat feet. When Barbie and Ken make it to the real world, there are surprisingly explicit jokes about the violence of men’s gazes, the toys’ lack of genitals, and Barbie’s legacy as a sexist ideal of womanhood.
But all of that edginess about sexism, representation, and consumerism begins to fade as the film continues. Its multiple targets are narrowed to sexism and the difficulties of being a woman without considering race, class, sexuality, or any other aspects of identity that might impact how women exist in the real world. The jokes about the surreptitiousness of patriarchy’s function give way to undeniably hilarious but far less cutting jokes about men’s egos and stereotypical interests. And by the end, the film feels like a prime example of consumer feminism.
It makes sense that a movie based on an iconic toy will lean hard on universalism for women and ultimately function as a celebration of the toy (and the company that makes it) as a celebration of femininity. But Barbie’s surprising commitment to subversion and incisiveness early in the film makes the transformation into what the Barbie movie would always be almost devastatingly disappointing.
The fulcrum point of that transformation comes about halfway through the movie during a car chase sequence featuring only Chevrolet vehicles that looks more like a car commercial than a thrilling movie car chase, because that’s what it is. It’s telling of just how sinister the ostensible anti-corporate jokes in the film are that the literal commercial in the middle of the movie isn’t even for a Mattel product.
Real Hollywood Movie Magic
Besides that uncomfortably glossy TV ad sequence, though, Barbie is a stunning piece of filmmaking. The production design of Barbieland is impeccable, with gorgeous bright pastels in every shade of pink, life-sized plastic toy accessories that look fresh from the factory line, and costumes that will make anyone self-conscious about dressing up to see the film think they didn’t go big enough.
The film has several musical numbers, several lovingly inspired by Busby Berkeley, and one featuring a truly breathtaking soundstage set. The lead-up to the car chase is a foot chase that’s joyously in line with Benny Hill and Scooby-Doo. The scenes of travel between Barbieland and the real world are portrayed with massive paper cut-out animation-style panels that paint beautiful pictures of land, sea, and space travel. At one point, we even see the panels rolled into the frame from off-screen.
At another point, Helen Mirren’s narrator comments on the casting of Margot Robbie. But these moments don’t register as Brechtian, rather as a success over the claim that camp cannot be intentional. It’s blatant artifice in a way that we haven’t seen in mainstream film since the Classical Hollywood period, and it is amazing.
Also amazing are the performances from leads Robbie, Gosling, and America Ferrera as the real-world woman who becomes involved in Barbie and Ken’s adventure. Gosling, in particular, is astounding as he plays the film’s broad comedy fantastically while simultaneously delivering one of the finest dramatic performances of coming to consciousness of the new century.
Barbie is a truly remarkable film that lives up to the aesthetic promises of its aggressive marketing campaign and may well transform people’s understanding of what movies can be. But it’s also a disquieting film that talks the talk of valuable and intelligent criticism of existing structures before giving way to a celebration of corporate products. And perhaps most unnervingly, it seeks to pave the way for its corporate parent, currently headed by a man, to make more money without any consideration for making real women’s lives materially better.
Rating: 6/10 SPECS.
Barbie opens in theaters nationwide on July 21.
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