Released 2023. Director: Greta Gerwig
MEN RUIN EVERYTHING. JUST LOOK AT the mess we’re in. If only women ruled the world everything would be pink and rosy. This message is as conspicuous as a flamingo in snow, or Margot Robbie in a swimsuit standing as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
Movies about female empowerment (think of Mulan, Hidden Figures, Thelma & Louise and many others) have rarely come to this extreme as Barbie, as envisioned by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, real-life partners known for their quirky and insightful comedies often exploring family dysfunction and gender norms. Gerwig in particular has risen to prominence with smartly written and handsomely directed women-centred movies such as Ladybird and Little Women, both garnered Oscar attention.
Barbie goes the furthest distance in terms of feminist aspirations, not only dismantling patriarchy but in its depiction of male vanity, uselessness and that the entire gender is essentially pointless.
Let’s consider the plot. In some alternative universe Barbie dolls are alive and living their best day every day. They wear pretty outfits, saunter in high heels and live in pink houses with a pool. Every day is sunny and bright and every evening ends with a Dua Lipa party. All the Barbies are highly accomplished, counting the President, Supreme Court judges, Nobel laureates and doctors among them. All the Kens, on the other manicured hand, hang out on the beach, clutching surfboards (even though they can’t surf), flex muscles and idle. They have no jobs. They don’t do anything.
Life is wonderful in Barbieland until stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie, who looks like she was born to play this role) wakes up one day and finds her perkiness contaminated with notions like death and god forbid, cellulite!
Barbie, with Ken (Ryan Gosling plays dumb and goofy) in tow, must traverse a portal into the real world to search for the little girl so sad her negative thoughts are affecting the eternally cheerful Barbie. But it isn’t a little girl whose disheartened projections are wreaking an existential crisis in Barbie, and the two plastic toys will return to Barbieland having picked up very different inspirations through their encounters with real people.
Ken reshapes Barbieland into Kendom where all the other versions of Ken (played by Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans, etc) now call the shots, playing sports, tinkering with their precious cars, lounging and drinking all day. All the versions of Barbie (played by Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Alexandra Shipp, etc) now dressed in cheerleader or French maid uniforms serving beer, delighted that they no longer have to make decisions as their brains are “having a spa day”. It’s up to stereotypical Barbie to right the wrong by foiling Ken’s patriarchy and returning the women to their positions of power.
While Barbie (and all her variations) is the obvious hero of the story, fashioned as saviour, conqueror, protector and role model, Gerwig is careful to first address the criticisms against the toy doll. Barbie is shocked to hear how she, as a doll, makes women feel bad about themselves, promotes unrealistic physical ideals and has set the feminist movement back 50 years. And to have the stinging rebuke coming from a teenage character is a smart move on Gerwig’s part.
But the point of the movie is not to dwell on what’s wrong with Barbie. Having acknowledged the negative baggage, Gerwig celebrates Barbie as inspiration and attempts to restore its image. After all, Barbie can now “be anything”. The fact that Mattel, the corporate giant that makes Barbie dolls, is able to laugh at themselves and simultaneously market their products is shrewd.
The veneer of bright colours and broad comedic tone give a false impression that you’re watching a breezy, funny movie about the world's best-selling doll. Barbie is really rather wicked, and perhaps provocative in its prevailing theme. It is a one-sided perspective that all men are stupid, inept, selfish and sexist. Either they are dumb and vain beefcakes like Ken, nervy and insecure (Michael Cera's Allan doll) or like the Mattel executives, a bunch of utter nitwits. The relentless male-bashing is tiresome and an exaggerative approach most unlike the wit and intelligence Gerwig has brought to her previous movies.
On the other hand, all women are capable, progressive and enlightened when given the opportunity. The concept of collaboration or middle ground doesn't exist. Barbieland can only remain a utopia if women have complete control and men are pity objects. As Helen Mirren intones in her narration, “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
In this make-believe fantasy world, the message to any little girl watching is basically all boys are bad and you should never let them be in charge. Did anyone expect a Barbie movie to be this extreme? Is it not possible to raise one up without putting down the other?
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