Two ‘Barbie’ Reviews | ‘Plastic politics’ and ‘A doll’s duality’
- Published: July 30, 2023
Plastic politics in ‘Barbie’
By Reilly Dixon
Nothing kills a good party vibe quite like intrusive thoughts of one’s mortality.
Who among us hasn’t been stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder into a sweaty late-night rave, and asked the partygoer to our right, “Do you ever think of dying?” We all have. It’s 2023, and the world is on fire, for chrissakes.
Anyway, thus begins the existential journey for the timeless plastic icon “Stereotypical Barbie,” played by Margot Robbie, in the highly anticipated “Barbie” movie, released last week by Warner Bros. Studios. Following her record-scratching question, the eponymous plaything and her boy-toy accessory, Ken (Ryan Gosling), embark on a there-and-back-again odyssey of self-discovery — away from the perfect confines of Barbieland™ to the gritty doldrums of the “Real World.”
Amid all the expected camp and charm of a movie about toys, “Barbie” managed to accomplish some thought-provoking heavy lifting. There were a lot of wink-and-nudge references to the brand itself; considerations of body politics, toxic masculinity, feminism and “girlbossing” (that all admittedly oscillate between cleverly satirical and contrived); and genuinely novel insights on the importance of storytelling.
While I’m often attracted to narratives that lean into the value of imagination, it’s that particular quality of “Barbie” that might be my biggest rub with the film.
There’s a lot of money to be made from playing make-believe. Just ask Mattel, who naturally had a hand in producing the movie. In addition to grossing $155 million on the film’s opening weekend, “Barbie” is just the latest extension of the brand — which, I should add, does $1 billion in annual sales. Time Magazine reports that 92% of American girls ages 3 to 12 have owned a Barbie doll or product.
Sometimes participating in a cultural phenomenon can be fun, sure, but once the notion of corporate propaganda sets in, the record scratches. Perhaps, then, there may be some implicit critique embedded in “Barbie.”
I don’t think director Greta Gerwig could have predicted her movie would debut as the major Hollywood strike nears its third month. On May 2, the Writers Guild of America went to the picket lines to advocate for adjusted compensation with respect to the shift in streaming services, as well as to petition for safeguards against the use of artificial intelligence. Then on July 14, the actors union, SAG-AFTRA, joined the strike. Now, with thousands of entertainment professionals withholding their labor, the production of many studio-backed movies, talk shows and sitcoms has ground to a halt.
As it turns out, just like Gerwig’s Barbieland, not all that glitters is gold in ol’ Tinseltown.
On the one hand, there’s Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie who achieves self-actualization, and on the other, we’re watching in real time thousands of entertainment workers achieve (and exercise!) class consciousness. Both situations are necessitated by a kind of utopian (read: imaginative) thinking — that the world, one’s relations and one’s self can somehow be made better; that women and workers ought to be treated fairly; and that representation, symbolically or politically, really matters.
So if “Barbie” purports to remind both its characters and its audiences that material change comes from collective action, then maybe playing make-believe can be quite practical after all.
Still, such a message being issued from Barbieland — I mean, Hollywood — may justifiably ring hollow for some. I’m not sure a multimillion-dollar blockbuster ought to be the fount of our political or moral guidance. Similarly, Mattel’s decades-long examination of its brand’s shortcomings in the face of ever-liberalizing gender roles can only mean so much when it aims to cash in on that so-called progressivism.
Good politics aren’t made of plastic. And one can only hope that women’s and workers’ liberation won’t be made into a brand. The ongoing strikes across the country ought to remind us of those facts — and for me, “Barbie” did also.
A doll’s duality
By Lauren “Chuck” Shows
Film reviews aren’t my usual bag in the pages of the News — though close friends will know that doesn’t stop me from transmitting them verbally, at great length. Nevertheless, as a person with a long, personal history with Barbie, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring this time.
Bear with me while I share a little bit — OK, a lot — of background: My Barbies were typically, for lack of a better term, involuntary survivalists: Some invented misfortune always pushed them into the great outdoors to fend for themselves on pine needles and acorns, a la “My Side of the Mountain.”
Sometimes my solitary Ken doll came, too — but usually not.
Putting Barbie in these situations — hunting, fishing, starting a fire, cooking her own meals, sleeping alone, but always, and I must stress this, in the height of fashion — meant imagining myself being self-sufficient, self-reliant. All grown up. Things young me was amazed, and a little incredulous, she would ever really be.
As a teenager, my view of Barbie shifted. I was doing my level best to be a gritty little suburban punk with skate shoes and big pants, and I decried Barbie’s preoccupation with pink and glamour. I would, decidedly, be nothing like Barbie.
As a young woman, I shifted to thinking of Barbie in terms of her representation of a certain kind of ideal: What would be the long-term effects of a doll that promoted an unattainable body, an unattainable lifestyle? Then later: Wasn’t a doll that centered women in every societal position of innovation or leadership — Artist Barbie, Scientist Barbie, President Barbie — a net positive for little girls? Then, later, again: Does the prevalence of whiteness in the Barbie line — where people of color are represented, but neither with equal visibility nor always with accuracy or sensitivity — make the doll a net harm? Later again, again: Is there even such a thing as harmful play?
And then, there I was, the mother of a young girl myself. I handed her a Barbie and put her on the same path — for better or worse.
“Barbie” the film — believe it or not — lies at the epicenter of all of these phases, feelings and questions.
There’s a fantastic tension of comedy and tragedy in Margot Robbie’s Barbie, who is struggling to pit a tight optimism against a growing sense of existential dread as she travels from Barbieland™, where women are the dominant class, to Real World USA, where patriarchy rules. She learns that, yes, she has made millions of little girls happy, but no, creating a playworld where girls run the world didn’t also create a similar reality.
The real trick of “Barbie” is in knowing its intended audience — we who used to play with Barbies — and acknowledging that we have complicated feelings about what she means to us, and that what she means is always informed by who we are when we encounter her. That’s growing up — stepping into the real world.
“Barbie” is not a perfect film. It doesn’t handle its nondoll characters well — particularly Will Ferrell’s Mattel exec, an unnecessary addition whom the film bafflingly tries to humanize a little too much, nor Ariana Greenblatt’s teenage Barbie-hater Sasha, whom it humanizes too little. Some of the film’s observations on womanhood — as accurate and funny as they are — are a little hamfisted.
“Barbie” doesn’t try to give us a solution to the issues borne of patriarchy — hell, if writer-director Greta Gerwig has that answer for us, I’d hope she wouldn’t hide it in a movie about a toy for children.
What it did give me — and I’m guessing a lot of other women, too — was the sense that I’m not alone in my complex relationship with Barbie. That it’s OK to both love her and question what role she fills in the world. That I didn’t make a mistake by passing her, and the possibility of those dual feelings, on to my own kid.
It also, importantly, gave me a scene with a bunch of Ken dolls sitting around a campfire, playing acoustic guitar and singing Matchbox Twenty’s 1996 hit “Push,” and that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.
—Lauren “Chuck” Shows