In between the successful variations of Barbie over the years, there are discontinued ones. Backlash came for certain Barbies (“Math class is tough!“) and didn’t stop for her friends and family (pregnant Midge and puberty Skipper, for starters). But were they failures? The history of Barbie, in its entirety of celebrations and rejections, contributes to Barbie the Product — a concept that lives in recycled relevance for the next generation. Whether in good news or controversy, the evolution of Barbie is known through its sprawling inclusion — that there is a Barbie for every person, every job occupation, every life stage. Similar to the halts in certain Barbie doll lines, there have been different developments in the cinematic representation of Barbie in real life, which has led us to this moment in time to the first live-action Barbie.
God knows I’d drafted several different thought-vomit variants about Barbie. Like a juror for a highly publicized trial, I wasn’t sure how I was going to separate how I and the rest of the world wanted to feel about Barbie (extremely excited!) and how I felt about it afterwards. Undeniably, the resources gathered to mobilize the Barbie zeitgeist have been over sixty years in the making. In addition to the massive promotional force funded by Mattel, all of the racial/socioeconomic/genomic/etc lineages of Barbie + co. has led to Greta Gerwig’s depiction of Barbieland: the undeniable pink utopia of Barbies running the land. We have President Barbie (Issa Rae — now that’s my president!), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Attorney at Law Barbie (Sharon Rooney) — the sort of positive depictions we’d expect to see. We also have sanitation worker Barbie, pilot Barbie, and mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), who are all threaded by Barbie’s common denominators: competent, confident, and complacent. Barblieland is production design heaven: delectable practical props, the Dream House and Corvette in life-size glory, and the unshakable feeling that the place looks so artificial and inviting. The Kens also harmoniously live in the utopia, gratified by the Barbie collective reigning supreme in this functional society while they “beach” and provide unwavering admiration for their female superiors (the Kens’ respect doesn’t extend to all of their male peers, though I’m not sure what disagreements or personality traits has caused to separate them into different Ken-friend groups).
The movie introduces Barbieland through a typical day centering Margot Robbie’s Barbie (distinguished as the Stereotypical Barbie in the film, but who will simply be called Barbie here). All the Barbies and Kens greet each other in automated bliss, rarely furrow their brows, and perform synchronized moves at a disco party. But such as the dark cloud of an existential crisis goes, Barbie starts to ponder about death, which begins to materializes into bad luck: her Dream House appliance magic isn’t hitting right (the shower “water” is cold, the toaster burns her heart-shaped waffle) and her iconic heel position deforms to flat-footed blasphemy. From the advice of the others, Barbie seeks out Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who informs her that her owner in the real world must be going through a mental hurdle that is intercepting Barbie’s experiences at Barbieland. To fix things, Barbie must set out to the real world to find her owner.
I imagine that most people could have surmised what was going to happen up to this point by watching the trailers. For the parts that are not as easily guessable, the inspired facets of Barbie might require visual readjustment, suspension of disbelief, and borrowing the same open-mindedness used for Men and Beau is Afraid to realize that Gerwig is in her balls-to-the-walls third-film era. Plainly stated, Barbie is a two-hour product for sale, heavily invested by a founding company that can afford the endless promo that we see in clothes brands, fast food, and search engines (just Google “Barbie”). We might share a skepticism with the in-film characters who meet Tyra Banks’ character in Life Size or Amy Adams’ character in Enchanted that are easily disenfranchised by unwavering positivity — though Barbie has an additional layer of manufactured meta-ness (Will Ferrell’s character as the unnamed CEO of Mattel is a recognized evil in the film, which feels a little too “see, we get it!”). Many times the humor teeters toward breaking the fourth wall, which sometimes fits (such as using a Depression Barbie commercial as an interlude) and sometimes feels like a hasty post-production trick (when Barbie starts to cry and professes to feeling ugly, a voiceover provided by Helen Mirren states that the movie must have created a casting mistake in having Margot Robbie say such a thing).
But when Barbie is introduced to the real world, we see the formulation of Gerwig’s vision. America Ferrera, who plays Mattel employee Gloria, brings a tangible purpose to the real world’s hardships through her relationships with both Barbie and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who is critical of Barbie’s supposed feminism (her being a tween, I’d say this is meant to represent a specific phase/mindset in life for girls). Though Barbie’s growth might seem wholesomely predictable, Margot Robbie has had a winning track record in believing in her characters. This is no different: her sincerity for Barbie’s happiness shines in crowd-pleasing moments and softens in vulnerable moments (there is a poignant scene where Barbie has a conversation with Barbie founder Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman, in front of a muted iridescence that seems to repeat the jazz-rollerblade outfit color scheme and yet has stolen a few wistful tears out of me). I was under a misguided fever in that I wanted the movie to stay in Barbieland for the majority of the movie, but, miraculously, Gerwig is able to depict the real world as breathtakingly nuanced, painful, and worthwhile. It’s how co-existence occurs: the strength of feminism in a system that spites women, Indigo Girls and Nicki Minaj (arguably one of the first to re-popularize Barbie in the last fifteen years) both belonging in the soundtrack, product placement and genuine care for these characters, big studio skepticism and Barbie admiration.
I know it took this long to mention, but Ryan Gosling plays Ken, who is probably Barbie’s most famous accessory. Ken is an “idealized” accompaniment for Barbie: pained and bothered when Barbie is not with him and tail-waggingly happy when acknowledged. He follows Barbie to the real world and finds himself in a soul-searching adventure, which becomes sorta funny as his journey is as monumental as Barbie’s and has a couple of showy scenes worthy of year-enders, but doesn’t quite steal the spotlight of her ending (essentially, the film is really called Barbie…and Ken!). It takes a lot of willpower not to reference every soundbite from the press circuit, but the one thing that has stuck with me was Gerwig’s quote about Gosling:
There is a quality to Ryan’s acting, even when he is hilarious, it’s never the actor standing outside of the role commenting on or judging this person. He doesn’t try and make you know that Ryan Gosling knows that this is silly. He does it in a way that takes on all of the potential humiliations of the character as his own.
I think Gerwig is describing a good comedic performance, which happens a lot more than this specific instance but is often uncredited in larger awards-context. In the throes of method-acting discourse and voice-accent permanence, I wonder if recognition will fall in favor for Gosling’s commitment. He is rigorously anchored to Ken’s persona — if there was an existing one — through physical slapstick means, devoted dance sequences and verbiage, and earnest, unbroken gazes on and off set. Like many others before, with, and after me, I laughed. But has Ryan Gosling existed before this? Was he really a robot in Blade Runner 2049 or a heroin addict in Half Nelson? In Barbie‘s blurring between life in plastic and life in reality, I might not be able to tell you where Gosling begins and Ken ends (at least, for a while).
When screenwriter Diablo Cody recently shared her struggles with coding Barbie as a “girl-boss feminist” back in the days where studios were shilling for Joss Whedon quips and young female protagonists haunted by life-or-death dystopian law, I still wonder if Barbie comes at a frightening time. As Disney’s profits downtrend from their usual superhero-and-Pixar moneymakers, it’s not a surprise that Mattel is proposing a 45-movie cinematic universe. Are we ready for a media conglomerate successor? Do I want to see meaningful portrayals of Barney and Polly Pocket on the big screen? Whatever it may be, it’s an unfair assessment to assume the worst of the future from a project that is here to cheer life into theaters. If you spend time looking for and dissecting the manufacturer label, you might forget to enjoy the toy you wanted to have fun with. Now come on, skeptics, let’s go party.
dir. Greta Gerwig
Opens Friday, 7/21 @ the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Capitol Theatre (the latter of which is sharing a “Barbenheimer” promotion with the Somerville), as well as everywhere else on planet earth