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23rd July 2023

Barbie review: literal feminist fable

Greta Gerwig expertly and hilariously sketches out the problems with our male-dominated world—but with zero subtlety.

Akhil Arora

Margot Robbie in and as Barbie
Margot Robbie in and as Barbie // Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

When I first heard that the writer-director behind Lady Bird and the most recent Little Women movie adaptation had been picked to give us a live-action feature-length take on Barbie, I figured I knew what to expect. Greta Gerwig was going to offer us a reading of our world—one where mediocre men can fail upwards because society is made for them, while women are criticised no matter how perfect they are, thanks to structures in place that put them through unreasonable expectations—through the eyes of a girls’ toy that was conceptualised as an oversexualised bimbo. It would be a satirical exploration of gender politics and patriarchal failures, alongside commentary on female agency, unreasonable body standards, and the terrifying prospect of growing up.

Unsurprisingly, Barbie is that film. And alas, Barbie is also not that film. Gerwig displays how broken our world is, how shallow men can be, and how easily women are cast aside. With the help of her “heightened theatricality” approach—this is an absurdly goofy movie, one that’s intentionally over-the-top and in-your-face, especially in its farcical third act—Gerwig smartly tackles ingrained patriarchy. But the grown-up handling of these very adult ideas is rare. For most of the film’s near-two-hour runtime, Gerwig is clearly speaking to Barbie’s target audience (or rather, those who used to play with Barbies until a few years ago, I imagine). It’s why the character of Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt)—the teenage daughter of the Mattel employee—exists. She’s the stand-in.

Barbie is, unexpectedly, too literal

It’s impossible to say whether that—catering to teenagers—is Gerwig’s choice, she felt obligated to address the core market, or Mattel imposed those directions. But what I can say is that Barbie is too literal in places. It spells out everything. The film includes variations on nearly every feminist line you’ve likely heard around you. And very little of it is delivered with the depth you’d hope for. Instead of alluding to it, approaching it in a layered fashion, or navigating it with a deft hand, Barbie always opts for the wrecking-ball-through-the-wall route. Gerwig, and her co-writer and partner Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), speak their message plainly—in direct contrast to the rest of their filmography.

Yet, you can’t deny that Barbie is also constantly funny. Packed full of zingers and situational humour, it sketches out the idiotic, the ironic, and the idiosyncratic, driven by the talents of its two leading stars.

And yet, Barbie is also more than the film I expected. By following the journey of dolls out of water—Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) have never seen the real world—the film ends up being a coming-of-age movie in some ways. Gerwig has argued against this, noting that it “ends up, really, about being human.” But I think both those things are true. Barbie is, ultimately, about the human experience. Gerwig and Baumbach are looking at our world through their plastic characters. But though they reach for that goal and more, I’m not sure if Barbie is entirely successful, partly because of the manner it’s done and how much time it devotes elsewhere.

Minor thematic spoilers follow.

Barbie hits at how we develop an image of ourselves

It’s funny that the film is designed for Gen Z, as it begins with a homage to a sci-fi cornerstone that I’m not sure most of them would be familiar with. Soon, we arrive in Barbie Land, a matriarchal utopia where Barbies do everything, from construction to being President. (The Kens are an underclass—they have no function outside of serving Barbies.) The Barbies believe their existence has been a great boon to the women in the real world and that it’s fixed all societal problems. Like that uncle who thinks racism ended because we elected Obama. The Barbies have no idea what it’s like out there. And they signal no desire for increased awareness—all they want is to have a great day every day. They are happy and secure in their bubble.

You know where this is going, right? Owing to unforeseen events, Barbie (Robbie) is forced to make a trip to the Real World, with Ken (Gosling) tagging along because all he wants is to be around her. (The visual shift, from the candy-coloured Barbie Land to the drabness of overcast California, is jarring.) This is where the film’s commentary begins in earnest. Barbie looks at how the nature of the world around us informs us. For Barbie, it results in feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness—she’s catcalled by beachgoers, harassed by construction workers, and even objectified by the cops. As she rightly notes, there’s an undertone of violence in how everyone sees her. For Ken, it’s exactly the opposite.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling and Ncuti Gatwa as Ken in Barbie
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ryan Gosling, and Ncuti Gatwa as Ken in Barbie // Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie tackles how “men” are formed. This is, arguably, the meatier point of the film and the one it spends more time on. Ken is a nobody with no preconceptions. But after he arrives in the Real World, he sees men exuding supremacy and the society catering to them—he learns from that and is transformed. Barbie addresses how our world is set up to ensure that the patriarchy is fanned, while women are tucked away and turned into objects of desire. And the film lays bare the superficiality of it all. Like Ken, because of what they’ve witnessed, most men derive their value from other things: their girlfriends, their interests, and their lifestyles. They’ve never really questioned who they are. The film understands that men being basic is at the heart of our macro issues.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are terrific

Not all of it is big pondering. Along the way, Gerwig affords herself room to poke fun at Mattel and Barbie’s controversial history. It’s commendable that the company allows to make jokes at its expense. That said, there are definitely moments where it feels like Gerwig is struggling to serve corporate synergy while trying to tell her story. Like that small Warner logo in the background of the landscape when we’re at the Mattel headquarters. Or when it showcases a variety of Barbies and even highlights their costumes with titles in freeze frames—very much a case of trying to have its cake and eat it too. The movie attempts to balance that by repeatedly reminding viewers which products Mattel discontinued and why (which is, at times, horrifying).

All of it goes down easier thanks to the excellence of both Robbie and Gosling. They are, in a word, terrific. While Barbie affords them little in the beginning, the depth of their talent comes to the fore the longer the film goes on, as the roles of Barbie and Ken get more complicated. Robbie effortlessly switches between the comedic and the sincere—she’s not only the perfect Stereotypical Barbie visually speaking, but she also channels the (expected) voice in note-perfect fashion, as well as the expressions of someone who’s as naïve and confident as her. Gosling does extremely well in flipping between insecurity and macho, exuding the two sides of fragile masculinity with a panache of a man who’s discovered that he’s nothing but also everything.

Emma Mackey as Barbie, Simu Liu as Ken, Margot Robbie as Barbie, Ryan Gosling as Ken, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Ken in Barbie
Emma Mackey as Barbie, Simu Liu as Ken, Margot Robbie as Barbie, Ryan Gosling as Ken, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Ken in Barbie // Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie is far from superfluous—but it’s not Greta Gerwig’s best

Who is Barbie? Or rather, what is Barbie? The original toy sold an image—it became something for girls to aspire to. That’s problematic. As Sasha claims in her first encounter with Barbie, she set the feminist movement back decades. And maybe she has a point. But as the world developed, Barbie did too. That’s why there’s a Barbie for everything now, a Barbie in multiple skin and hair colours, and a Barbie in every shape and size. Barbie can be anything because women can be anything. (Or at least, that’s the ideal we aspire to.)

At the same time, Barbie is great marketing and image clean-up for Mattel. I feel uneasy about Gerwig allowing herself to be used in that regard—but for what it’s worth, she does confront the queasy bits. And hopefully, she has pushed the brand forward by calling all her characters Barbie or Ken, rather than falling back on the specific names that Mattel came up with when they were introduced. (Yes, we do have Allan and Midge, but they exist to make a point.)

More importantly, though, we’ve a Barbie movie that’s not a two-hour toy commercial or a cash-grab low-hanging fruit extension of the brand. (Although this will undoubtedly help boost Barbie sales. Capitalism, yay.) It has the self-awareness to recognise its pitfalls. It attempts to dissect the culture that gave rise to Barbie and Barbie fed off. And it even asks the ultimate question—what it means to be human.

But it doesn’t have the nuance, the subtlety, and the touch we’ve come to expect from Gerwig. With Barbie, she embraces an aesthetic that is, in many ways, unlike all of her previous work. I’m afraid Barbie ends up going around in circles, hammering away at the same point, unable to dig for any deeper meaning. In the hands of Gerwig, Barbie is far from superfluous—but it’s also not the calibre of movie that I imagined she would deliver.

Barbie released on July 21 in cinemas worldwide.

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