BARBIE (2023)

Barbie is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

Seriously, what the hell is this movie?

If that seems an inappropriate way to open a review of a film about a child's toy, I can only say that: a) I toned down my language from the first draft; b) it is the most sincere question I have about Greta Gerwig's Barbie (2023); and c) the question itself is no less appropriate than its answer.

I also doubt I'm the first person to ask it. I guarantee you that this question was repeatedly posed—probably in the stronger phrasing—in board rooms and executive offices at Mattel. I think I can see the question lingering uncomfortably in the eyes of the film's grotesquely talent-stacked cast, as they gamely dance their way through a cotton-candy confusion of shallow existential angst and scattershot feints at third-wave feminism. I feel certain it was the question in the mind of the young mother who—unwisely, perhaps, but quite understandably—ignored the PG-13 rating and brought her two tiny Barbie-loving daughters to my screening. And it must, surely, have been the question with which co-writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach began to tackle the challenge of writing a movie that would both celebrate and satirize a corporate product, perhaps already suspecting that they could never arrive at a satisfactory answer.

After a decade of start-and-stop development, a seemingly endless amount of anticipation, and nearly a year of what is now recognizable as the cleverest and most desperately aggressive marketing campaign an increasingly nervous corporate machine could devise, Barbie finally arrives in theaters. And if it turns out to be a far more interesting movie than we had any right to expect, it does not, unfortunately, turn out to be a better one.

Barbie begins charmingly enough. (There is a general rule of screenwriting that the second act of a film should be the movie the audience came to see. Here, however, it's the first act—and the first act alone—that fulfills the quirky pastel promises of the trailer.) A prologue featuring a 2001: A Space Odyssey homage establishes Barbie as the doll that broke the mold, the first that gave girls an opportunity to play at something other than being mothers. (The sight of sweet little girls smashing their baby dolls' heads open is the sort of genuinely funny and subversive energy Barbie could have used more of.)

Then we are in the pink plastic paradise of Barbieland, with nothing but happy Barbies living in open-faced Dream Houses as far as the eye can see. The whole world is run by Barbies: there is a Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), a Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), even President Barbie (Issa Rae). And the center of the community is Barbie (Margot Robbie), the O.G., also known as Stereotypical Barbie: blonde and beautiful, long-legged and hourglass-shaped, unfailingly friendly and fabulously dressed.

There are also a number of Kens (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Ncuti Gatwa), who are just…Kens. They do not live in Dream Houses—no one knows where they live, really—and they do not have professions except to "beach" and bask in the (only occasional) attention of Barbies. Chief among these is Ken (Ryan Gosling), blonde and handsomely bland and desperately vapid. Every day is great for Barbies, but "Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him," narrator Helen Mirren tells us.

The plot is set in motion when Stereotypical Barbie starts to glitch, existential cracks appearing in the plasticine facade of her idyllic Eden. Her imaginary shower is cold, her plastic waffle is burnt, and her permanently angled ankles (usually shaped for high-heels) have fallen into right-angles so she must learn to walk in flats. Most troublingly, she has also started to contemplate the emptiness of her own existence, and is plagued by persistent thoughts of death. The other Barbies have seen this sort of thing before—an odd fact the movie never really explains or deals with—and they advise her to go see the oracular Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a Barbie who "was played with too hard." (With a hack-job haircut, magic marker on her face, and a lack of tension in her joints that causes her to drop into frequent, straight-legged splits, Weird Barbie is an inspired creation, one perhaps left over from a better version of this movie that actually understood—or cared about—the relationship between children and their toys.)

It is Weird Barbie who counsels Barbie—orders her, really—to go to The Real World, and find the girl who plays with her, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. Barbie sets off on her quest in her pink Corvette, accompanied—reluctantly—by a stow-away Ken.

Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) in BARBIE

And it is here—for reasons we will discuss—that Barbie went completely off the rails for me, so let us pause for a moment to discuss what works well in the film. First, Margot Robbie is sensational. There are few actresses alive who could convincingly suggest the idealized image of Barbie—there are no human beings who mirror her anatomically impossible shape—and I can think of exactly none who could better embody her necessary quality of approachable, empty perfection. Stereotypical Barbie has no real personality or defining characteristics, after all: that's kind of the point. She is an idealized vessel for projection, an impossibly beautiful blank slate for aspirational identification. That Robbie manages to imbue that characterless character with not just likability but actual life—quirky, confident, and achingly vulnerable all at once—is a remarkable feat.

Gosling, too, is marvelous, and very funny. The news of his casting felt a little skewed—he seemed a slightly odd choice for the role—but that was before we knew that Gerwig's vision of Ken absolutely depended on someone with Gosling's combination of placid, pretty-boy looks and a creepy, potentially dangerous character-actor soul. Ken the doll—even more than any Barbie—is a totally hollow shell, and here Gerwig uses that empty vessel as the Ultimate Incel, whose unrequited obsession with Barbie masks a personality vacuum ready to absorb the most toxic elements of masculinity.

Barbie (Margot Robbie) ad a lot of Kens do a musical number in BARBIE

The costumes by two-time Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran are wonderful, as is the pitch-perfect production design by Sarah Greenwood (who is on my personal How-does-she-not-have-an-Oscar-yet? list). But even in saying that I also have to segue into my problems with the film, because the eye-popping design of Barbieland is doing a lot of work to compensate for the fact that Gerwig is not remotely the right director to bring this candy-colored world to life. This is most evident in the choreographed musical numbers and the crowded "action" sequences late in the film: as a director, Gerwig simply doesn't bring any imagination or playfulness to match this imaginary play-land, and so the more madcap scenes—which should feel joyous and effervescent—feel flat and rather rote.

But here, I think, we get to the crux of my problem with Barbie: It may not be that Gerwig couldn't bring the joy to Barbieland—she's a very good director, if not an obvious choice for this—but that she didn't genuinely feel that joy herself. As mentioned, Barbie lingered in development Hell for nearly a decade, with a number of directors and stars attached before Gerwig was approached. And I can't help but question whether anyone bothered to ask Gerwig if she actually likes Barbie—if she has any genuine affection for the product and the brand. ("The idea of directing a Barbie movie wasn't that interesting to me," Gerwig told interviewer Simon Mayo this week. "It was directing this Barbie movie.")

To be clear, I think Gerwig is to be congratulated, certainly, for attempting to grapple with the product's complicated legacy and problematic contribution to the self-image of American girlhood, in a film produced by Mattel that is designed to launch (God help us) the Mattel Cinematic Universe. "If you love Barbie, if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you," the trailer says, and it tries to deliver on that paradoxical promise. But in trying to thread that needle, Gerwig actually errs too far on the unexpected side: the love feels almost entirely feigned, and it's the hate—a cynical, bitter-edged, mean-spirited contempt for Barbie—that comes through clearly beneath the lightness of tone.

Barbie (Margot Robbie), wearing a bright pink cowgirl outfit, introduces herself to a bunch of black-clad real world teenagers.

This is first evident in the opening narration, which mocks the faith Barbies in Barbieland have that their "girls can do anything" style of representation has completely solved sexism out in The Real World. And it becomes unignorable once Barbie and Ken get to The Real World, and Barbie confidently introduces herself to her Player, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), now a surly black-clad teen-ager who cruelly rejects everything Barbie stands for. She reduces Barbie to tears, calling her a professional bimbo, a cheap manifestation of sexualized capitalism, and a fascist who has set back the cause of feminism 50 years.

This in itself is a promising twist, forcing Barbie—and Barbie—to examine the more troubling aspects of the doll's role in a child's imagination. But the film—perhaps all too aware that the Toy Story franchise and The Lego Movie already did it so well—is not interested in really exploring the relationship between children and their toys. It is not interested in issues of growing up and putting away childish things, or even (though lip-service to the question is certainly given) in the role images like Barbie play in how a woman's self-image forms and evolves. Both Sasha and her mother Gloria (America Ferrera), who conveniently works for Mattel, do eventually become allies to the Barbie cause, but it is not through any genuine exploration of these issues: the film should have been, but is not, about them. Greenblatt and Ferrera are both excellent, but the film quickly forgets their characters as anything other than hangers-on and occasional mouthpieces for unearned platitudes.

For surely the legacy of Barbie is more complicated—in both directions—than Barbie really acknowledges? In "daring" to critique Barbie's role in society, Gerwig never really gets around to celebrating it. No, Barbie dolls did not solve sexism. (The introduction of Barbies of color didn't solve racism either, but that never even comes up: like Gerwig's other works, Barbie is infused with that particular brand of White feminism that has no acknowledgement of, let alone time for, intersectionality.)

But did Barbie as a toy have no value at all? Did the notion that Barbie could be anything, any profession, have any positive impact on the little girls who played with them? I kept waiting for the scene in which Sasha would remember what she did get out of playing with Barbie—even if she, quite rightly and naturally, eventually not only outgrew her but came to recognize the icon's limitations. Sasha, after all, did play with Barbies, and also grew up to be a strong, intelligent, socially-conscious young woman with a fiercely critical mind. It is in the nexus of those two realities that an opportunity to truly celebrate Barbie's complex contribution existed, but the film never explores it. Gerwig is so intent on her shallow subversion that she never more than nods towards acknowledging that any element of Barbie might actually be empowering.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling, and Ncuti Gatwa as Kens in BARBIE

Gerwig doesn't have time to celebrate Barbie, or thoughtfully explore a child's evolving imagination in relationship to the doll. She has, bafflingly, given over far too much of her movie to Ken.

(And here I must warn you that I'm about to venture further into spoiler territory than I usually do. I don't see any way to discuss my issues with the movie otherwise.)

For once Ken sees The Real World, and realizes that men, not women, actually hold all the power and privilege, the main plot of Barbie becomes a battle against his introduction of patriarchy to Barbieland. Ken becomes a hollow-headed supervillain, who has reshaped the world in his own vapid image. This—not Barbie's existential crisis, or Sasha's conflicted feelings about whether Barbie is an empowering figure or an oppressive one—now becomes the central conflict of the movie.

There are, admittedly, funny jokes here, poking deserved fun at clueless sexist dudes and (specifically) online misogyny: the various Kens mansplain The Godfather, become obsessed with The Snyder Cut, and offer to play their guitars "at" Barbies. But the jokes are old, and they are low-hanging fruit, and they occupy an absurd amount of screen-time Gerwig could have spent in far more substantial ways. Gosling comes as close to stealing the film as Ken comes to stealing Barbieland, and that's a problem in a film called Barbie. It's as if Gerwig and Baumbach found it far more fun to write tired gags about patriarchy—and far easier to make Ken a simplistic problem the movie can solve to restore the status quo—than it would have been to genuinely explore thorny, complex issues of female imagery and empowerment.

To be clear, my issue with Barbie is not that it takes shots at men and patriarchy. I am painfully conscious of being yet another White male critic who didn't like Barbie, and I have no desire to ally myself with the people criticizing it for being "anti-male" or "woke." (Honestly, I would have been delighted to see the film end with all the Barbies killing all the Kens, perhaps melting them all into a mound of molten plastic slag with a souped-up giant pink version of Barbie's hair dryer.)

My issue is not that Barbie is feminist, but that its feminism is so shallow and slapdash. (In perhaps the most baffling and infuriating decision, the other Barbies love patriarchy, eagerly abandoning their professions to embrace their new subservient roles. Being a woman is so hard, Gerwig seems to be saying, that many women are happy and eager to just let the men take over.) My issue is that the film takes such pathetically easy and fundamentally meaningless shots at patriarchy—saying virtually nothing—and does so instead of genuinely celebrating women. I would have appreciated some acknowledgement that yes, the Real World is a patriarchy, and that's why a world in which Barbie is important—and Ken is not—is worth preserving. It's no revelation to say that Barbie's world is a lie, but the film never explores whether there might be value in that lie.

Instead, the film ends with Barbie apologizing to Ken for taking him for granted, and then deciding that not even she sees any value in being Barbie anymore. (The last line of the movie is funny, but jarringly ill-conceived. Barbie makes the same mistake the terrible fourth Toy Story movie made, in forgetting that toys exist for children, not to achieve self-realization themselves.) The end of Barbie's arc is not to commit to becoming a better role-model for girls, but to abandon the effort completely and "grow up" herself? This is empowerment? This is feminism?

Ultimately, Gerwig and Baumbach don't really have anything to say about patriarchy, and they don't really have much to say about feminism, and they don't really have a lot of interest in exploring Barbie's complex, sometimes contradictory role in the female imagination. They just brought their shallow hipster contempt for Barbie as a fascist figure who makes women feel bad about themselves, and the radical observation that being a woman is harder than Barbie makes it look, and they thought that was sufficiently subversive.

Margot Robbie as BARBIE (2023)

I know I am being hard on Barbie, and I know, too, that I will be in the minority on this. Barbie will be a critical and commercial success, and perhaps there's enough working in it that it deserves to be. As I said when I began, it is certainly a more interesting and ambitious movie that we had any right to expect. When I first heard about it, in fact, I fully expected it to be nothing more than a feature-length self-aggrandizing corporate commercial. In a million years, I never expected to end my review of this movie saying that it should have been more of a celebration of Barbie-the-Brand than it turns out to be.

But I can't help but feel that Gerwig sells the venerable icon short, and—more disappointingly—she sells short all the millions of little girls like Sasha who played with her, and loved her, and found in her candy-colored plasticine world inspiration for adventures and ambitions that transcended the doll's obvious limitations. I saw at least a dozen of those little girls, in the corridors of my multiplex, carrying their dolls, dressed up like their icon, and posing for smiling pictures in front of the Barbie displays. They were happy, excited, thrilled—but they were going into the movie, not coming out of it. They didn't yet know Barbie wasn't made for them. They didn't yet know Gerwig's movie would actually presume to judge them, and disillusion them, and tell them to grow up already, because it wasn't actually cool or healthy to love Barbies.

I don't know: maybe there's value in that. But I can't help but believe that those children could have told us a few things about Barbie's role in their childhoods that Gerwig never bothered to consider. To make a movie that really used Barbie to celebrate the imagination and self-empowerment of those little girls: now that, it seems to me, might have been truly subversive.

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1 thought on “BARBIE (2023)”

  1. I'm late to the party, having waited until Barbie came on HBO. I think the theme Gerwig is trying to convey is that the Barbies and Kens as empty vessels are analogous to shallow people who are easily manipulated, and it's by becoming fully and deeply human that Barbie develops true agency.

    And while I agree that many of the jokes are cheap shots, Gloria's speech about the contradictory expectations society has of women makes an important point that's also a plot point.

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