Doubts About Barbie
When I first heard about a Barbie movie coming out over the summer, I reacted with a dismissive laugh and a somewhat derisive comment about Hollywood’s “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” I thought the film would blend in seamlessly with the usual slew of mediocre summer blockbusters (The Little Mermaid was unremarkable, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3, although marginally better than recent Marvel movies, wasn’t anything special).
Then I heard that Greta Gerwig was directing it, and I reconsidered. I’d watched Lady Bird and Little Women and loved their well-crafted dialogue, witty humor, and plentiful heart, so I was willing to give her third directorial work a try. And then when Barbenheimer showed up in The New York Times, I resigned myself to the fact that I was watching the film alongside its darker, grittier partner.
Still, as I went into my double-feature experience, I was skeptical, to say the least — could the genius of Grega Gerwig really draw insight from a movie co-produced by Mattel, the creator of the doll?
I’m sorry to say that the movie didn’t prove me wrong. Was it funny and fairly entertaining? Yes. But did I come out of it with a new understanding of feminism or of Barbie’s legacy? No. Gerwig may have done what she could within the constraints she had, but at the end of the day, it was the second of the two movies I watched — Oppenheimer — that I enjoyed most.
Barbieland vs The Real World
In the film, Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives a perfect existence in Barbie land, a seemingly utopic community where a diverse array of Barbies run the show. Yet a series of irregularities — flat heels, thoughts of death, tumbles off of her roof — prompt her to venture out into the “real world.” Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty to enjoy in the film, starting from the opening scene’s nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A gargantuan, swimsuit-clad Barbie descends upon a group of girls in an origin story Gerwig has likened to a flipped Genesis: one where a woman (Barbie) comes first, and the man (Ken) follows, created as a counterpart to his more important predecessor. It’s one of many movie references throughout the film — cinephiles will get a kick out of them.
I laughed out loud multiple times: The humor is witty and self-aware, and there are more than a few fourth-wall breaks. Perhaps the most impactful of these funny moments is one in which Barbie is calmly eviscerated by a teenage girl who dubs her a “fascist.” In fact, it’s this scene (though not that particular comment) which comes closest to actually critiquing Barbie’s legacy.
Barbiedoll ‘s New Purpose
And that’s just it: the movie is hemmed in by the fact that it is, at the end of the day, produced by Mattel. It does a good job of discussing the double standards patriarchy imposes on women, and Barbie’s arc revolves around becoming human, both literally and figuratively. Some parts are cathartic: Gloria, a mother working at Mattel, gives a speech on womanhood near the end that resonated with me. But coming out of the movie, I didn’t find myself looking at the doll in a new way, or understanding my predicament — as a woman of color — in a new way; and that’s what great storytelling is supposed to do.
In many ways, Barbie reminds me of Don’t Look Up: the cynical jokes are witty, but the question remains: What’s the point? What is this movie doing? What is it accomplishing? The messages it offers — women should be allowed to be human, patriarchy should be rejected — are too shallow to do much good, and the movie makes it abundantly clear that neither of those things is going to happen anytime soon.
In that light, some of the jokes hurt rather than help. Throughout the movie, it’s a running joke that all of Mattel’s employees are men, but they’re portrayed as goofy, well-meaning guys who don’t properly understand that they’re perpetuating the patriarchy (just like Ken). This presentation undercuts the film’s message about the potency of patriarchy, as one reviewer for The Guardian wrote.
In pursuing greater meaning behind the cynical humor, the third act also feels much too long. Oppenheimer had a three-hour runtime, and yet it still felt shorter than Barbie. The movie drives in the message again and again in long, slightly cheesy dialogue — at some point, I just wanted to yell, “I get it!” The plot, too, becomes progressively less cogent: the humor is enough to buoy it along, but I still find myself wondering why the Mattel employee subplot was necessary, and whether there might have been a cleverer way for the Barbies to resolve their predicament in the end. The clichéd “someone-realizing-the-beauty-of-humanity” montage — you know, the lens-flare-heavy shots of rustling trees, babies crying and people laughing with light piano or lush orchestra in the background — took up time as well, without much-added value.
Barbie Ignores Intersectionality
But perhaps my biggest gripe with the movie is the way it deals with intersectionality — namely, that it doesn’t. Although Barbieland includes a plethora of Barbies of color (although as my friend and I exited the theater, she noted that the movie also failed to include an East Asian Barbie), I suppose it would take another foray into the “real world” for them to realize that racism exists. Even in the “real world,” though, as Barbie is guided by two Latina women, the difficulties women of color face aren’t discussed.
I’m not denying that women of all ethnicities should support one another. But how does race contribute to the differing social and economic conditions women face and the differing ways in which they struggle for autonomy? Barbie doesn’t consider these questions despite its diverse ensemble and instead sticks to more of a cookie-cutter, white-feminist approach to feminism — albeit with some self-awareness (in one scene, the same teenage girl calls Margot Robbie’s Barbie “white-savior Barbie”).
Adding the dimension of race could have made the movie more relatable for women of color like me, and could have offered all women — white and BIPOC alike — valuable insights into what intersectional feminism looks like. It could have also provided a window into how toy companies change over time: what societal pressures led to the release of Barbies of color? It’s not as if Mattel’s inclusivity has been ahead of its time; rather, it has reacted to criticism and changing political climates in shaping its repertoire.
Plastic Dolls & The Patriarchy
The bottom line, this movie exists to get people to buy Barbies. That’s why I hesitate to call it feminist. It’s working within Mattel’s need to sell: it’s a movie that colors inside of the lines, a feminism that works within the capitalist system that brings Mattel’s money in. Barbie is neither here nor there.
It can’t take itself too seriously — it’s about a plastic doll entering the real world — but at the same time, it tries to provide real insight into patriarchy. It’s not a truly raucous comedy, and it’s not a true exploration of gender or feminism.
So when it comes to the relatively narrow niche of funny movies about plastic dolls, I think TheLEGO Batman Movie still takes the cake for me. (Full disclosure: I have not watched The LEGO Movie, and from what I hear, that may have been even better. I’ll put it on my list.) I doubt I’ll find myself coming back to Barbie anytime soon.