Culture

How Into This ‘Barbie’ Movie Do We Have To Be? A Conversation

Two culture writers question whether they have to see this film.

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People are very excited about the Barbie movie. Do these people need to calm down? Deputy Editor Reena Gupta and Contributing Editor Nick Bhasin break down some of the discomfort they feel about the movie (based on the new trailer, which is OK, take it easy) in a breezy, free-flowing conversation. About Race.

Reena Gupta: I’ve just finished watching the trailers. 

Nick Bhasin: Hold on. How many trailers are there?

RG: Two, I think. A teaser and the official trailer. I’m exhausted. 

How’s your timeline at the moment? Is everything pink?

NB: Well, I only follow accounts that post photos of cats playing baseball, so I wasn’t even aware the new trailer dropped. And honestly, now that I’m aware of the new trailer, I am struggling to figure out how many trailers there are and which ones are the teaser trailers and which ones are just the teasers. But I’m a journalist, so I’m determined to figure it all out by some time next month.

One thing appears to be certain: There will be dance numbers in this film.

RG: I saw that! How daunting. It also looks like the cast will include many Barbies, and many Kens. Have you seen the images online? Issa Rae Barbie is President!

NB: I actually saw those promo posters before I watched the new trailer. They started with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken, of course, but then as I scrolled down I couldn’t help but notice something. Something VERY interesting. Very interesting indeed.

RG: Maybe just say what it is.

NB: Well, the Barbies and Kens appeared to be getting more and more… diverse. Sorry, meant to put that in quotes. “Diverse”. The Barbies and Kens are “diverse”. They included actors like Simu Liu, Ncuti Gatwa, Alexandra Shipp, and Kinglsey Ben-Adir. There’s even some body diversity! 

All of these people are very talented and good in the other things that they are in. Except Ariana Greenblatt, who is terrible in everything. I’m just kidding. I don’t know who she is. (Just looked her up: She’s one of the “busiest young actresses in Hollywood”.) And the casting is certainly in line with what Barbie – the dolls, the TV shows, and whatever else – is today. But I haven’t played with Barbies in months and I’m unfamiliar with that world, so I was just looking at this like I would any other movie. And it kind of felt like the people putting it together said to themselves, “Okay, we’ve got two super hot popular leads, but they’re white. How are we going to make it so that Twitter doesn’t come after us? Okay, we’re going to just throw as many coloured people as we can into this thing. Let’s see the discourse handle that!”

RG: Yeah, it does make the movie seem very conscious of itself and what it could potentially look like without any people of colour in the mix. I mean Barbie has always been very white and blonde, not to mention too thin to have a period. So a movie only consisting of that aesthetic would be weird.

NB: That’s partly why the Instagram account Barbie Saviour is so resonant. Even after becoming aware of all the diversity Mattel put into the product line, it’s still a world centred on a white woman – and that’s reflected in the movie.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Barbie Savior (@barbiesavior)

But let me ask you this: Is there any way to make a movie like this — a movie based on a toy from 1959 — appropriate for 2023 without looking like you’re trying too hard with the diversity?

RG: I don’t know. Maybe if they had made its leads non-white? Or at least one of them non-white? It’s this posse of non-white supporting characters that to me feels weird and forced. And patronising! Are you not patronised?

NB: I would definitely put this diversity effort into the Patronising category. (I suppose it is possible the movie turns all this stuff around and Margot Robbie is suddenly replaced in the lead by Greenblatt, but that doesn’t seem likely.) And it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. There’s big money in a Barbie movie and maybe this is how it has to be made.

RG: But any attempt to diversify Barbie in the world won’t take away from the fact that her name will always conjure an ideal of beauty that’s thin, blonde, and white. 

Judging from the trailer, it also looks like the movie is packed with scenes that happen on the beach, which is such a racialised place, especially in Australia. It’s not an Australian movie, but Margot Robbie is an Australian person, so it does feel like the whole thing is very loaded. I guess what I’m saying is, this would make a great thriller about the Gold Coast.

NB: Well, there’s certainly a particular image that’s pushed on us when we think of the gorgeous beach-ready sunkissed Australian — it’s someone like Lara Bingle in that Tourism Australia ad. 

RG: Or Margot Robbie.

NB: Now I’m hoping this movie turns into a careful examination of racialised beach culture.

RG: Get Jordan Peele on the blower!

NB: It looks like Barbie and Ken (the white ones) are going to get out of Barbie Land and go into the real world, right? That feels like it would be the move. Then they’re fish out of water and we get lots of “Why are these people acting so weird?” jokes. 

RG: That would explain why America Ferrera’s character tagline is “She’s a human.” Typecast again! 

NB: What if… and hear me out here… what if they’ve put together this huge diverse cast only for Robbie and Gosling to drive off and spend most of the movie on their own in another world? So it’s… “Look at how many diverse friends Barbie has! Okay great we’ll see you guys later the people paid to see us.” That will sting.

RG: Wow. White flight. It will definitely sting but I don’t think the film should be afraid to go there. 

NB: Let me get this out of the way: This movie might be fun. I laughed at Gosling’s “I don’t know why I want to stay over” line. I think he and Margot Robbie are really good. There’s a reason they’re huge movie stars. Also, I think Greta Gerwig is a good director. I absolutely loved Lady Bird (2017). Well, not absolutely. There was an uncomfortable race joke in there that didn’t sit well.

RG: I feel like having Greta Gerwig direct is such a smart move – her involvement makes it clear that while this is a high-camp movie about Barbie, it’s also very high-brow. Like you could see this at Hoyts or Palace cinemas. 

NB: I’ll definitely be seeing it at both. I just don’t want to dismiss the movie or the participation of the “diverse” people in it. It looks like they’re having fun. But how will people sit through this whole movie without thinking about all the race stuff? I couldn’t look at a few posters without thinking about it.

We’re constantly being told that we need “more stories”. New stories. Then we’ll get that multicultural diversity and inclusion balance right. But how do we get there when all we’re given — which is largely based on what we want — is old stuff in vaguely new packaging?

RG: I think part of why this movie is coming out in 2023 is that we are seeing this nostalgia for the ’90s and early noughties in places like TikTok, a throwback to the hyperfemininity of that time. Elle Woods and baby tees and Paris Hilton. There was a bit reported on this last year when some editors were trying spruik ‘Barbiecore’ as a trend; remember when Anne Hathaway, Hwasa, and Ariana DeBose wore those sky-high pink platform heels at a Valentino fashion show last year?

The vibe seems to be that the pandemic is over, so let’s have fun! But, as that aesthetic was very white and blonde, we’re seeing this attempt to ‘diversify’ it and make it ‘inclusive’. Like, the TikTokers who are embracing this aesthetic aren’t necessarily white, blonde, straight, or rail-thin. And there is something really gratifying about seeing Black and brown women in bright pink hues. It feels powerful. Brown skin looks so good in pink, too. 

NB: The reality is that as long as there’s nostalgia for anything and the “safe bet” is to produce stuff based on stuff that already has big brand name recognition, we’re going to run into awkward attempts to diversify/modernise super old, super white intellectual property. I guess it’s better than nothing. I mean, what would be more jarring – what we got or if the Barbie movie was Whites Only?

RG: Exactly. And I do think it’s good that they’re at least trying. This is something that I kind of admire about the US – they’re at least aware that there’s a problem and discomfort out there with the source material and trying to fix it. The Australian approach would probably be to not acknowledge the race stuff and just do the movie with the all-white cast. At the same time, maybe we’d be better off just leaving Barbie behind all together. 

NB: Barbie has always gone down this Uncomfortable Inclusion road. In 2020, during the protests in the US after the murder of George Floyd, she sat down for a vlog with her Black friend Nikki. The video starts with a deep sigh from Barbie, so you know she’s about to get #real about #race. “It’s a tough conversation,” Nikki says, “but I’m glad we’re having it.” Barbie was celebrated as an ally

RG: What on earth? I hadn’t seen this until now. 

NB: Do you feel like you’re glad to be having this tough conversation with Barbie?

RG: Yes. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

NB: But, if I can not be cynical for a moment, is it possible that Barbie means something totally different to the current generation? A quick look at the doll’s Twitter feed reveals an eye-popping amount of diversity. And Barbie appears to have historically made what appear to be good faith attempts at having Barbie represent more than just thin white blonde girls. The doll has evolved to include a variety of body types, ethnic backgrounds and professions. Some of the efforts — OK, a lot of them — were clumsy and required apologies and recalls. But there were efforts. And some of them were a lot earlier than anyone else. But… still…

RG: Delete this. 

NB: I also don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. People seem to be into this movie – according to this article, the internet has been experiencing a “collective joy” over it. And people are apparently going wild over the shot of Margot Robbie’s foot looking like the doll’s foot. And just look at how much fun the Today hosts are having with the Barbie filter. LOOK AT THEM.

To some people, Barbie is a fashion and feminist icon, and this movie is likely to be a celebration of that. And that sounds fine. Maybe Barbie has been making a huge cultural impact all this time and I’ve missed it because I’m in my BFB (Barbie Free Bubble).

RG: My take is that she’s a symbol of that ’90s and ’00s girliness that people feel has faded away. We want it back, but this time for everyone, and we’re not going to denigrate women for it. You know, because there is this sense that people like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were treated really badly. This time we want 20-year-olds to be able to enjoy being as feminine as they want without all of that baggage. There’s also a splash of drag and queer culture to all of this as well which is maybe being acknowledged in a way that it hasn’t in the past. Maybe that’s what’s going on. The Barbie movie will be a celebration of that. 

But, in the words of Vanessa Hudgens, “I get it, I respect it… but people are going to die.”


Nick Bhasin is a writer in Sydney. His debut novel ‘I Look Forward to Hearing from You’ will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in June. Follow him on Twitter.

Reena Gupta is Junkee’s Deputy Editor. She tweets at @purpletank