Whenever I think about the heap of my toys in the basement or even going to a toy store, I feel an intense pang of sadness. Toys promise a simple happy life and sheer joy one can feel by touching something as simple as a piece of industrially-crafted plastic. Like that promise and joy, they also are forgotten and left behind as soon as one enters the testier times of adolescence.
Given my sentimental view of childhood, it is unsurprising that the films that had me in tears when I was a kid were “Pleasantville”, and “The Hook”: stories about innocence lost and briefly regained so that the protagonists could go on to deal with their imperfect lives a bit wiser by remembering their more profound ideals and dreams. “Enchanted” and “13 Going on 30” are equally touching and provide smart and funny commentary about the roles we give to women.
I am also a fan of Greta Gerwig as an actress, writer and director. “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” are warm, intelligent films about growing up and female relationships, something Gerwig continued depicting while behind the camera in “The Little Women” and “Lady Bird”.
Alas, “Barbie the Movie” is almost wholly devoid of either warmth or smarts that you would expect from a film about a beloved toy coming to life, made by one of the most talented directors and a superb cast.
While it mocks infantilising influence Barbies and their brand of “perfection” can have on girls, with the intensity of a teenage girl who just discovered punk, along with dark and raggy clothes, it ends up being even more infantilising by mixing up existential problems of growing up, being a unique, complicated individual and mortality, with two dimensional (pop-feminist) social critique.
The premise of the film is that Barbie suddenly starts having conflicted thoughts about her “life” despite living in the perfect Barbieland where every Barbie (no matter the shape, size, and profession) is beloved and joyful, while every Ken (apart from one) is content with being an eye candy and a source of infinite attention and affection for the Barbies. Along with thoughts about death (wow, so radical), Barbie also develops flat feet and cellulite, which send her into the “real world”, along with an also weirdly discontented Ken, to seek a cure for her new, imperfect state.
Another problem with the film is that it is sloppy in world-building and character consistency, reminding me of weird 70s films where plot points immediately get resolved, and characters start behaving entirely differently when needed for the plot. While in those films, the inconsistencies were due to limitations of skill, technology and budget, in “Barbie” , a film that so wants to provide social commentary, the inconsistencies stem from the reluctance of creators to accept basic human psychology and complicated implications of their narrative choices.
The most telling example is that Barbie, who was so revolted by mere patches of cellulite and flat feet that she decided to go on a dangerous adventure, is almost immediately accepting of the real-world imperfections of humans. Instead of beatifically gazing upon the elderly as soon as she sees them, a more honest, consistent and fun film with the fish-out-of-the-water premise would have her either grossed out and/or confused by the ageing process.
While in Barbieland her problems were individual and existential, as soon as Barbie enters the “real world”, she shifts focus towards social issues, completely losing interest in how people actually live with mortality, cellulite and one another. The film is not helped by the fact that its depiction of reality is almost as heightened as that of Barbieland. Apparently, in 2023 LA, women in large corporations can only be secretaries, and all men are either dumb or aggressive. Even though one of the key questions of the film is what sort of relationships men and women should have, we are not meaningfully shown various ways we interact with each other in reality.
Instead, the film only feels safe in tackling one’s relationships with oneself by trying to probe the relationship between Barbie and her owner, a discontented middle-aged corporate worker who is a mother of a Barbie-hating teenage girl. Even here, we remain on the surface: we do not really see that Gloria is particularly unhappy, nor is there much probing into why, apart from her very broad monologue, which is supposed to serve as the emotional high point of the film. In this 21st century, gendered version of Kipling’s “If”, Gloria angrily lists paradoxes that underpin her existence in the world, but unlike Kipling, does not think that life, and especially life with other people, is necessarily paradoxical and tough (albeit in different ways) no matter the sex, age or social rank.
“Barbie the Movie”, however, sees that the root cause of all ills is “the Patriarchy”, and the overlong and confusing third act of the film is focused on tearing it down so that Barbieland can return to its blissful state.
This part of the film seems to have been especially difficult to tackle for the creators as any more probing into how and why Ken was unhappy and how he managed to create a consensual and rather happy (if a bit crass) Patriarchy would require tackling some tricky subjects around human motivations, desires and relations of power in the real world.
A more subversive film would take the premise that troubles in Barbie land are due to the frustrations of a hard-working career woman with a weak but doting husband and have the imposition of Patriarchy be her escapist fantasy that she realises is silly and harmful in the end. Such a film could skewer both the silly fantasises of Andrew Tate and RETVRN to 50s-style societies, as well as the simplistic view that all individual problems can be solved by corporate sloganeering about representation.
Of course, I do not see Mattel or Warner Brothers standing behind such a film. Instead, we got an infantile fantasy that all personal problems – from relationships to fear of death – are a function of imperfect but improvable social relations, which is as banal and outright silly as believing that we would all be happy if we lived in the plastic fantastic world of Barbie.
In a week that saw Hollywood reassessing two pillars of the USA’s post-WWII dominance, military and cultural, via “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie the Movie”, it is telling that “Barbie” turned its back on the promise of plasticky opulence but is now exporting even shallower drab and confused ideologising. The whole film is a massive waste of talent and opportunity to probe interesting questions in via the visually captivating and beloved world of Barbie. No matter how much Gerwig tries to make fun of the silly plastic perfection of Barbie, her critique falls short because she seems reluctant to show what makes our imperfect flesh-and-blood world interesting and great.