|Synopsis||After a series of unusual events, Barbie must travel to the real world to understand why her world has changed. And then there’s Ken.|
|Length||1 hour, 54 minutes|
|Release Date||July 21, 2023|
|Writing||Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach|
|Composition||Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt|
|Starring||Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, America Ferrera, Michael Cera|
The news of a live action Barbie movie wasn’t exactly exciting. The intellectual property had made its way into the film world numerous times before, each one appealing to young girls that were fans of the dolls. So it was assumed the new movie would deliver more of the same; a cash grab for a young demographic with a vapid plot to match.
Then the trailer dropped, and everything changed.
There’s a love/hate relationship with this brand. Mattel’s Barbie is one of the most iconic and successful toys ever made. It reached a point where the doll’s fame grew to such an extent that it became heavily entwined with the experience of childhood. Barbie is practically synonymous with the stereotypical ideas surrounding the term “girlhood” (or rather, Barbie is the stereotype). Indeed, many girls have fond memories of playing with their Barbies. Then again, there were a lot of girls like me that never saw the appeal, and as a result, started to question the authenticity of their femininity—Barbies were for the “girly girls”, and for everyone else, they just didn’t fit in that box and were left to question why. And if you were a boy that liked playing with Barbies, then best of luck to you.
Naturally it’s a little silly to tie up one’s identity with whether they liked a certain toy or not, but that just demonstrates the sheer influence this doll had on the world. While Barbie won’t be the first film to analyse the relationship between fans and their childhood experience, with The LEGO Movie having paved the way years ago, there really isn’t an equivalent for the symbolism that Barbie represents. No singular toy manifests masculinity as much as Barbie manifests femininity. She isn’t your average doll, and with Greta Gerwig not being your average director, the people that haven’t had positive experiences with this toy are wondering if there’s going to be more to this story than a simple live-action remake that caters to only the “girly girl” fans. There’s a whole lot more to unpack here, but will Gerwig be brave enough to really take a critical look at this popular, money-making icon?
Violence/Scary Images: The majority of the characters are playing the role of dolls, so fight sequences, car crashes, falls from heights are all very cartoonish in nature and without any real consequence. One character discusses her thoughts about death.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-word is said at one point but is bleeped out. There are lesser swears mentioned, like “fr*ggin”, “h*ll”, and derogatory name calling such as “bimbo”. Barbie and Ken’s lack of a vagina and penis are directly stated.
Drug/Alcohol References: Men are served beers, and a culture of drinking is established.
Sexual Content: Barbie and Ken’s lack of genitals are mentioned. One character makes a lustful comment that they’d like to see Ken’s nude lump. A man slaps a woman’s derrière without consent. Catcalling and some light instances of sexual harassment. Women are seen in short, sexy outfits. Some double entendre.
Spiritual Content: No mention of God, but there is a creator and discussion surrounding death, the endurance of ideals, and inspiration. Lots of existentialist angst.
Other Negative Content: Characters only experience light consequences for assault and theft. Some severe representation of gender stereotypes are displayed, though the tone is very tongue in cheek.
Positive Content: The film sympathises and analyses the plight of women in their battle against societal expectations, digging deep into the psychology behind the creation of one of the most iconic feminine symbols in modern history and whether it’s inspirational or destructive.
Barbie is not as perfect as its subject matter. Granted, the concept of perfection is broken down over the course of the movie’s runtime. It’s a film that wants to have fun but it understands there’s an opportunity here to address everything—both positive and toxic—that has been bundled up with the iconography of Barbie. In its quest to unpack all the societal nuances surrounding this famous doll, the story varies wildly between deep existential thoughts to overly simplistic representations that borders on tedious to watch.
In order to do this topic justice, the film takes a Brechtian route. There are amusing stereotypes galore. The fourth wall is broken multiple times. The song lyrics are hilariously cheeky and assist in pushing the artificial atmosphere. There are several dance numbers that are a hoot to watch. A narrator will sometimes interrupt pivotal scenes to attract the audience’s attention to some other amusing detail. There are freeze frames of items, as though the movie has turned into a commercial for Mattel. And finally, there is a literal feminist rant. All of these Brechtian techniques are used to remind the audiences that they are indeed watching a film, creating that emotional barrier so to engage viewers on a more critical level. It has a lot of fun while doing it, but it’s so a message can be delivered.
These techniques are very heavy-handed, but Barbie mostly pulls it off because of the nature of the beast—it’s very much a story about dolls. Their worldview, motivations, interests, lifestyle, and interactions are all woefully simplistic and artificial, and yet it’s all on point with their character. There is a delirious sense of innocence with their hometown of Barbieland, as it captures and reflects a prepubescent little girl’s understanding of the world, free of a lot of the harder realizations and pressures of life.
There is a slight coming of age story throughout Barbie. Most would assume the titular character is the lead, though it has been said that the person with the greatest amount of growth is the real protagonist, in which case it could be argued that Barbie has deuteragonists. Ken has a fairly impressive character arc as well, which does go hand in hand with Barbie’s. This fact may annoy a lot of viewers, particularly if they feel that too much emphasis on a male’s journey impedes on their idea of what a feministic film should be, but Ken’s intrusion may actually be part of the point.
The movie reminded me of when I tried to buy a male doll for my niece. Like many little girls, she was obsessed with Frozen. She loved princesses, loved dolls. A real “girly girl”. Had various dolls of Elsa and a few of Anna. But she didn’t own any of the other characters. She loved making up imaginative stories and adventures, so I figured I would buy her a Kristoff to expand her make-believe world. Except it’s genuinely hard to find figurines of male characters in traditionally female-orientated narratives. Just like how there’s Barbie, and then there’s “just Ken”. An add-on. An afterthought. Ryan Gosling says that he accepted the role of Ken when he noticed his daughter’s Ken doll lying face down in the mud, next to a squished lemon. He took a photo and sent it to director Greta Gerwig, texting: “I shall be your Ken, his story must be told”.
Men aren’t really a factor in a little girl’s imaginative world. So what happens?
Barbie and Ken’s world expands when they enter reality. While it’s all very overt and comical, there’s a sadness involved when Barbie really begins to notice men and how they notice her. With puberty comes an awakening of how the world really works and the removal of childish innocence. This then comes with a second realization of how the game between the sexes can be played. Certain viewers might be annoyed that Barbie spends a good portion of the film placating Ken’s feelings, but when you factor in the theme that these dolls are a reflection of society, then those events feel almost inevitable, where onlookers could choose to commiserate as opposed to condemn. There is a snarky irony to it all—Ken does feel like he’s there to draw in male audiences, because without him, it may result in a collective whining regarding their lack of inclusion. It all gets a bit meta. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ken sales see an uptick after this film, and there’s an odd desire to see the Mojo Dojo Casa House become a real piece of merchandise purely for the hilarity of it all, which would ironically make the story’s main source of conflict a reality.
Barbie is subversive on a number of levels, though it’s questionable as to how many things were intended. While the trailers certainly poked fun at stereotypes, many are walking into this film with several assumptions: that Barbie is going to be this strongly feminist, “you go girl!” inspirational piece that raises up women and tears down men. In some ways that’s true. Those moments are also the film’s weakest. In what seems to be the movie’s climatic speech, it bluntly spouts the contradictory frustrations that come with womanhood. Despite whether one agrees or not, this rant is not as revelatory as the film wants it to be; there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been said before. Barbie re-treads a lot of old ground. Hollywood has (unsuccessfully) been exploring these topics for a while now, where the enemy to “girl-power!” must be the patriarchy, and in order for women to be elevated then the men need to be relegated to stupidity. It didn’t work in 2016’s Ghostbusters so it’s disappointing to see Gerwig believe this tactic will work now. The silliness of the Kens contextually can be forgiven, though it’s clear no one really knew how to handle other male characters, such as the Mattel executives, whose role loses steam over the course of the film’s runtime. There’s one chase sequence in particular that really doesn’t work as the script struggles to change its comedic tack between two wildly different worlds, with the artificiality and cartoonishness of fiction nonsensically blurring into reality.
Yet some people want that standard, stereotypical type of feminist film, so it’s refreshing to see subtle pushes against those expectations and challenging those ideals, taking the narrative to another level. Barbie takes a few snarky quips at society’s simplistic version of female empowerment: if you just merely show racial diversity and women in various career positions, that’s enough, right? Right? It’s one of the few mainstream “feminist” films that begs to wonder what the next stage is, trying to articulate a deeper core issue and yearning, smacking down those viewers that may wish for a return to the childish ideas of a feminine utopia, and instead offering a more mature and balanced perspective of the needs and reliance of both men and women. It grabs the current feminist movement by the shoulders and shakes them awake, telling them to grow up, mature, and to come to realization that men aren’t going anywhere, Barbieland is an infantile idea, and to start working towards a different world.
Yet the film’s strongest moments are when it focusses on other themes. It ponders what it means to be a doll. What it means to be human. What it means to be a woman. What it means to be an idea. There are two beautiful moments in the movie that can only be expressed through the medium of film, as it grapples with intangible concepts and inarticulate feelings. Barbie is really poignant at times. While society points the blame at Barbie for the pressure her existence exudes, in turn characters defeatedly point back, lamenting that a doll only reflects their creator. The pressure of being an icon and representing all the ideals of “stereotypical” Barbie becomes too much for even Barbie herself, that essentially there needs to be an acceptance and permission to just be. It’s quite profound, to the extent that this might be the thematically richest movie you might watch this year if you’re willing to go there. However, the final scene does undercut some of the story’s lessons.
Barbie is what you make of it, much like the toy itself. It might sound like a massive visual gender studies essay so far, but that aspect can be tossed aside and the glossier, more light-hearted story can be equally as enjoyed. It’s like Zoolander; you can laugh at the goofy jokes and/or delve into the deeper commentary about the fashion world. Barbie is still a fun romp filled with bimbo and himbo characters, trying to make sense of a world they don’t understand, where large issues are reduced to the microcosm of their fantastical world.
A lot of fun is found within the level of detail and love this film takes with its production design. It’s a strong contender for the Oscar in this department. Every item and piece of clothing is a replica of a real-life Barbie product. It pokes fun at the failed marketing ideas, discontinued models, and just the corporate brand machine in general. There are a lot of Easter eggs that fans will enjoy. The cast are also superb with many nailing their comedic beats, though a special note needs to be given for Kate McKinnon’s surprisingly relatable role—she captures a certain spirit of childhood that many might have forgotten, and every scene that she’s in is hilarious. Just be thankful the movie doesn’t go into Decapitated Barbie territory!
While Barbie explores some childhood beliefs, this isn’t a film I would recommend for young children. Some countries are not rating the film above a PG, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for younger audiences. If you haven’t guessed already, Barbie gets deep. Too deep. So deep it’s boring for those that don’t have a good understanding of the themes it’s trying to express. Some kids will be entertained by the flashy sets, musical numbers, and dance offs, but there are long stretches of deeply existential themes which consist of tears, staring into the camera, nuanced conversations, and flashbacks to the innocence of childhood. Those are the moments that will whoosh over your child’s head and will have them running up and down the cinema aisles while they wait till the next comedic scene. Kids won’t take a lot from this film. It’s not really made for them. Barbie is for the older generation. Stick with the animated films if you want to entertain your younglings.
Barbie has a lot to say, and it’s not just for fans. There’s a lot of hesitation to see this film, and some of that is because of a resentment towards Barbie’s legacy. As the trailer says, if you hate Barbie, then this film is still for you. Greta Gerwig understands that duality of this character and tries to heal whatever hurt she may have unintentionally caused. There are some Woke elements. It is a bit celebratory of “girly girls” which may not be relatable. There’s a lot of pink as well. But there’s a lot of heart, deep questions, and worthy conversations in this piece as well, that deserves a look no matter your demographic.
+ Production design
+ Costume design
+ Brilliant casting choices
+ Great songs
+ Moments of hilarity
+ More profound than it ought to be
- Lack of reasonable male characters
- Occasionally too heavy-handed with messaging
- Some characters and sequences fall flat
- Occasionally tedious to watch
- Not suitable for young children
The Bottom Line
Barbie takes some of the shallowest characters and makes them explore profound ideas in a film that isn’t made just for the fans.