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  • Eve O'Dea

Barbie (2023)

Updated: Apr 28

Barbie begins with a stroke of brilliance in the form of an homage to the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather than pre-humans simultaneously discovering tools and violence, little girls discover self-actualization and glamour. Then, we get an explanation of Barbie’s history and positive influence on the real world. Barbie can do and be anything, and so can women of planet Earth. Problem solved. Enter, Barbieland.

Gerwig and her creative team have masterfully created a fully realized and aesthetically fulfilled land in which all Barbies and Kens (and an Allan and a Midge) live in something close to harmony. The sets are perfectly playful, the direction of the actors within these sets is flawless, and the world itself is enviable. It’s paradise (for some). It draws to mind the “Post-Avatar depression syndrome” that plagued some viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar who were so enamoured with the fantastical and beautiful world of Pandora as to cause painful dissatisfaction with the banality of real life. The visuals of this world are only made more delightful by a pitch-perfect soundtrack featuring the likes of Tame Impala, Nicki Minaj, Charlie XCX, and Billie Eilish.

Not every joke in Barbie lands, owing their failure to either excessive repetition (the “Beach-off” sequence) or exaggeration (a handful of Barbie’s shrieking and retching at the sight of “flat feet” feels like a placeholder for something more clever). Other gags were written especially for the “terminally online” such as a reference to the Zack Snyder cut of the Justice League, a joke I can only imagine went over the heads of many viewers and will surely have little cultural caché for future audiences. The film's strengths are in its visual gags and plot elements. Typically, it is the more abstract bits that work best, alongside the moments of great production design such as the war of the Kens, the fantastical voyage from Barbieland to the real world and back again, the troupe of bumbling executives (and an intern), and Ken’s newfound (and hilarious) obsession with horses. All these bits, which compliment the absurdity of the very concept of Barbieland, work together as cohesive bits of storytelling and world building. It is these little details which elevate the fantasy where Gerwig’s directing choices truly shine. These pieces are unfortunately undermined by Barbie’s stumble into the real word, when the film loses much of its artistic value and originality and becomes a classroom.

The real world Los Angeles that Barbie and Ken enter is so laden with explicit misogyny as to shake the confidence of any female viewer once out of the theatre. It is through this blatant portrayal that Ken learns of “the patriarchy” and it soon becomes his favourite word. It is a word that is thrown around a lot, appropriately depicting the delight of a child when learning a new grown-up word. The film, despite its attempted disruption of gender roles, seems to paradoxically uphold the binary of "man" and "woman". Given that Ken and Barbie are neither man or woman but Sontag-ian, overtly camp representations of the gender spectrum, the film misses the opportunity to explore the absurdity of gender and the arbitrary signifiers we use to perform them. Because of Ken’s patriarchal enlightenment, he brings it back to Barbieland to rebuild it as the “Kendom”, brainwashing all the Barbie’s into walking around in minidresses, serving them beer, and being their personal cheerleaders. The film never explains how he does this. While play-logic can generally be accepted for several of the story’s choices, that all the Barbies of Barbieland can so easily be manipulated into complacency feels out of touch with their previously established intelligence and social dominance. In this narrative oversight, there is a discrepancy in how Gerwig portrays the patriarchy as both unstoppable and easily breakable, if only we tried hard enough.

The way to deprogram these once brilliant Barbies takes the form of a Tumblr blog post from 2014 about how unbearable it is to be a woman. This speech, made by America Ferrera’s Gloria, once again, feels straight out of a culture when palatable feminism became a capitalizable marketing ploy. It is not original, it is not particularly insightful, it is (and I regret to say this lest I should in the wise words of Cher Horowitz become “a traitor to my generation”) preachy. Still, because of how easy it is to digest, it is making the rounds on the internet as the supposed pillar of female empowerment. It does not work for me, but I seem to be an outlier. It is only because of such oversimplified portrayals of the female experience that I begin to consider my gender as a barrier in the first place. I refer to a statement by director Douglas Sirk, the master of melodrama and broken hearts. In an interview with the BBC in 1979, Sirk shared some thoughts on the art of moviemaking and the relationship between filmmaker and audience: “The moment you want to teach your audience, you are making a bad film.” That is to say that a film’s themes are best presented in the form of showing, not telling. Gerwig, who has previously displayed her screenwriting abilities with Lady Bird and Little Women, should have trusted her audience to understand the very real and complex challenges of womanhood without over-explanation, to not tell us how sorry we need to feel for ourselves but rely on us to build from our real-life experiences.

Despite all the things I loved about Barbie, it is these kinds of moments, and the exaggerated misogyny portrayed in the real world sequences, that make me feel more like a victim because of my gender than I had before entering the theatre. This message is only muddled by an underlying mother-daughter conflict subplot, a trope so cliché that it fizzles and dies against the bubblegum pink backdrop. The film tries to tie its many conflicts together with a deus ex machina-shaped bow in the form of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Pearlman. The complexities of the mother-daughter relationship is familiar to Gerwig’s filmography, but feels forcibly crammed into the film’s runtime. These themes are only further set aside when our hero Barbie decides that she wants to become a human, a creator of ideas rather than an idea herself. If this were Barbie’s goal throughout the entire film, if she had referenced her ennui prior to this moment, this would be a compelling point of reference for her character that could direct her actions throughout the movie. From what the audience sees Barbie is horrified by the real world and cannot wait to get back home. The Wizard (or Mattel CEO played by Will Ferrel) was just some man behind a curtain. Instead her decision comes out of nowhere and therefore delivers little satisfaction at the end of our heroine’s journey. Even as Barbie is shown a touching compilation of real-world female joy to give her something to look forward to, I am unable to get Gloria's words out my head that directly contradict the images I am seeing on screen, depriving them of their strength. Sure, the film’s very final line is a winner, but all the film’s comedic and artistic elements would be much stronger were they held together by one central theme and story rather than a tangled collection of unexplored ideas.

There is little middle ground to be found in Barbie reviews - most people knew how they would feel even before they saw the film. They approached it with unwavering optimism or seething vitriol. I have tried to avoid both extreme perspectives, and have (as I often do) found myself somewhere in the middle. I refuse to board the train those who erroneously dub the film “man-hating”; that too is an oversimplified reaction by those who refuse to see how the film’s depiction of the patriarchy shows its harmful effects on men. The film does, of course, aim to celebrate women, but while doing so dives only into the shallow end of the many facets of what makes us special, and unfortunately spends too much time telling us to be scared.

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