Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ Invites You To Take The Pink Pill

'Barbie' is less satisfying than it could be, but you’ll still end up watching it more than once. Words by Kristen S. He

By Kristen S. He, 26/7/2023

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In 1995, Toy Story asked, can toys have feelings? In 2014, The LEGO Movie asked, can a multi-billion dollar brand inspire children to be creative? And now in 2023, Barbie asks, can a doll have a relatable existential feminist crisis?

The good news is, the pink musical wonderland of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is every bit as joyful an experience as promised. But when the fantasy fades, what will you be left with — its message of female empowerment, or its inescapable undertones of Mattel corporate branding?

From the beginning, Barbie has been a cultural phenomenon — and a lightning rod for debate around how women should be represented. Invented by Mattel executive Ruth Handler in 1959, the Barbie line emerged into a toy market dominated by baby dolls. Barbie was a powerful symbol that young girls didn’t have to play-act at being mothers, but could aspire to be women with dreams of their own. Or… was she a canny invention by a company looking to take over the world?

Barbie is more than a mere doll. She’s a blank slate, but she’s also everything that we say she is — good and bad.

In the years since, the Barbie range has gotten more diverse — with dolls representing a broader range of body types, disabilities, people with Down syndrome, and over 200 careers. But the discourse around her is fundamentally the same: Barbie is more than a mere doll. She’s a blank slate, but she’s also everything that we say she is — good and bad.

Life In Plastic

To its credit, Gerwig’s film understands the world it’s entering — and the script never hesitates to remind you that it’s self-aware. Over the opening, a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody where the first Barbie doll revolutionises girls’ playtime forever, Helen Mirren’s omniscient narrator intones, “Because Barbie can be anything, women could be anything. Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved!” At the film’s premiere in Melbourne, this got the first of many riotous laughs.

We’re swept up into a day in a life in Barbieland, where every residence is a Barbie dreamhouse, and the water is as plastic as the grass and the sky. As Stereotypical Barbie — the one every girl supposedly wants to be — Margot Robbie is perfectly cast. In fact, she’s almost too flawless, which is exactly what the role asks for — except the little, charming moments where a glimpse of her Australian accent slips through. She puts on imaginary make-up, takes an imaginary shower, and steps her permanently raised feet into a pair of heels, nailing the strange physicality of a doll — elegant and feminine, yet limited and artificial.

This is a world where every Barbie is perfectly glamorous and empowered, and every Ken is a lovable himbo. Even though Barbies hold down all the jobs, and even government positions, no one has any problems — because every day is exactly the same. The days are an endless summer vacation, and the nights are the ultimate disco fever dream. An early dance sequence, set to Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance the Night Away,’ puts the viewer directly into the Barbie dreamhouse — and it’s absolutely breathtaking, worth the price of admission alone.

Of course, stories can’t progress without conflict, and Margot Robbie’s Barbie starts having intrusive thoughts — of death! The next day, she wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, permanently shaken by her newfound sense of mortality. With Ryan Gosling’s Ken in tow, they set off into the real world to find out how to put everything back to the way it was — and identify who the hell is responsible for her existential crisis.

In the real world, Barbie and Ken discover that the film’s narrator is misinformed — Barbieland’s vision of female empowerment has not come to pass. She’s not a hero, but a fish out of water — casually ogled and objectified by men.

Amid the many slapstick gags, a sense of melancholy sets in. As the toy meets grown-up women who once played with her, and gen-alpha tweens who want nothing to do with her, Barbie realises that she’s not exactly human — she’s a screen onto which people project; a vessel for girls’ aspirations and women’s unfulfilled dreams. She can no longer look at the world through rose-tinted glasses, and at this point Barbie becomes as much a coming-of-age film as any other Gerwig work.

Meanwhile, Ken discovers a fantasy of his own — patriarchy! While Robbie’s existential crisis is quieter, Ryan Gosling gets to be an absolute goofball. He’s never been more game, playing Ken as a 14-year-old boy in the body of a grown man with perfect abs on display at all times. His total lack of self-awareness makes him the punchline of every scene he’s in.

Many of Barbie’s biggest laughs come from its ensemble cast of Kens and Barbies, each with an impeccable talent for physical comedy, and Gerwig’s tight editing of line deliveries and visual gags.

But its deepest moments are the ones where Margot Robbie’s Barbie experiences a glimpse of real human emotions. It’s Barbie singing along to an Indigo Girls song as she drives, hair flapping in the wind; her experiencing empathy for the first time, and shedding a single tear. If the film could stay there forever, it might well be flawless. But…

The Pink Pill

On the surface, it’s impressive that Gerwig manages to make Barbie an adventure, fantasy, satire and musical all at once. But within the glitter and plastic, the film is a pink pill with a message: that if even Barbie can’t live up to the impossible standards society puts upon women, how can anyone?

Gerwig’s script is not subtle, and it puts much of the burden on America Ferrera — playing a Mattel employee and mother who delivers a pivotal monologue about the difficulties and contradictions of being a modern world. But like Taylor Swift’s most liberalfeminist 101 songs, Barbie delivers those concepts with the broadest of strokes, as if it’s not just young girls, but everyone who must be hearing them for the first time.

Another character, who becomes an unexpected mother figure, delivers some moving snippets of philosophy — “We mothers stand still to let our daughters see how far we’ve come” — that the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach.

Through all of this, Barbie’s journey becomes a metaphor for both young girls taking their first steps into womanhood, and first-time mothers (like Gerwig herself) realising they won’t be able to protect their children from growing up. These themes feel deeply personal to Gerwig, and when they come through in the film’s jokes and big emotional swings, they mostly land.

But think too hard about their broader context — both the fictional Barbieland and as real-life social commentary — and you’ll find some real head-scratchers. For example, the word “patriarchy” is mentioned so often it could be a drinking game, yet the film never articulates why it exists — or how it affects any woman who isn’t upper or middle-class. Despite being a gender satire that looks like a perfect object of camp obsession, with queer and trans cast members, the film is never overtly queer except through little easter eggs.

Barbieland is intentionally too thinly sketched to be a utopia, but the more the film shies away from anything remotely subversive, the more it feels like it’s handling its political ideas with kid gloves. After all, this is still a PG-rated Mattel product — and they’re a company who, 26 years ago, sued Aqua because they thought ‘Barbie Girl’ was too edgy, likening the band’s record label to a “bank robber.”

The film actively encourages you to question the concepts of Barbie and gender on its terms, but does no such thing for its role as a piece of corporate IP. A fictional version of the Mattel boardroom, run by CEO Will Ferrell and a dozen men in identical suits, threatens to derail the movie every time they’re on screen. It feels like Gerwig intended to gently poke fun at the company’s involvement in the film, but the more she depicts them as harmless, well-meaning buffoons, the more it seems like a deliberate distraction from the real Mattel’s agenda. When the Warner Bros. Discovery logo makes an extended appearance, it’s the one scene where the film is blatantly advertising to the audience: not even Barbie as a product, but that Warner and Mattel Films’ corporate synergy is the future of cinema.

That scene hit theatres in the same week that the Screen Actors Guild joined the Writers Guild of America in Hollywood’s biggest strike in decades, on the basis that studios are making record profits not for the benefit of artists, but at their expense. Within Greta Gerwig and Barbie’s pink pill lies Mattel’s corporate agenda — that they have 18 films based on toy franchises in the pipeline, none of which sound half as appealing or ambitious as this one.

For the pessimist, Barbie is a toybox where a simplified version of gender politics plays out; where Barbieland can change in two hours, but the real world doesn’t change at all. For better and worse, it’s a fantasy.

Her Art Pop Could Mean Anything

So, what do we want from a Barbie story? Can a corporate IP film be feminist in any meaningful way? You may leave the cinema with even more questions than answers. But the truth, which the film openly acknowledges, is that it can’t give you the answers — it can only take you on the journey.

Gerwig has one genuinely sophisticated idea: that if Barbie really is an ideal, the embodiment of everything women are told they should be, then she’s a fixed object. And if an object has no desire, if it can’t learn from others, if it can’t change or progress — it can’t truly be human. But if a Barbie doll could think for herself, maybe she wouldn’t want to be an object either. Through Barbie’s realisation that nothing is perfect, Gerwig wants to give everyone — not just girls and women — permission to not be too hard on ourselves.

But Gerwig isn’t telling a single, clear story grounded in reality, like in Lady Bird or Little Women. With Barbie she tosses so many balls up in the air that she can’t possibly resolve them — and maybe that’s the point. It’s hard to think of the last blockbuster that so thoroughly embraced being an imperfect object; where its flaws and strengths feed into its purpose.

As a symbol, Barbie has no inherent value except what she means to us. A doll has no story until someone plays with it. In the same way, Gerwig’s film reflects what we want to see in it. There are no wrong opinions to be had (unless you’re a men’s rights activist). As much as the marketing campaign, that’s why Barbie has captured the zeitgeist — it’s completely inseparable from the culture and discourse around it.

If Greta Gerwig’s writing was as pure as the film’s colours, as detailed as the costumes and production design, more willing to question its corporate nature — then we might truly have an all-time classic on our hands. Instead, Barbie is less satisfying than it could be, but you’ll still end up watching it more than once — to be seduced by the technicolor fantasy, and to see if this time, you can figure out whether or not the film’s ideas actually work.

Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.

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