The year was 2003, and I had a friend named Jane. My mother would visit her home as she was friendly with Jane’s mom. Whenever I was over, she would showcase her impressive collection of Barbie dolls. Although she knew that I was more keen on playing with action figures of the superhero type, she’d proudly present a playset with her extensive collection of Barbies, which she had received as a birthday gift. Occasionally, she’d even let her Ken doll join in on the fun, at least once. Little did I know that years later, the Barbie movie would become a sensation, reminding me of those moments spent with Jane and our Barbie adventures.
As Greta Gerwig’s Barbie steadily approached its highly-anticipated release date, I rejoiced by the idea that the Janes of today will be able to see their favourite toys brought to life on the big screen. After all, I remember the sheer joy I experienced after seeing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man for the first time. And even for the Janes (and Johns) of yesteryear, they too will now have the opportunity to get back into their toy box and relive the wonders of their childhood.
Except, this was not the intention that the filmmakers had for Barbie.
Pretty in Pink
Visually, Barbie presents a true work of imagination that will amaze its audiences with its visual splendour. The film takes heavy inspiration from the 1940s and 50s Technicolor musicals, creating a dazzling, charming, and mesmerizing world. Barbieland, a perfect visual combination of Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costuming, truly offers a remarkable sight to behold.
Over the first 30 minutes or so, Barbie delivers a stellar conceptual introduction, in which we meet Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) presented in the form of magical realism that’s depicted with endearing childlike imagination. In its opening, Barbie feels like the type of movie we need right now – a sanctuary from a bleak, divided world into a world of cinematic escapism. Until the film pivots drastically when Barbie finds herself burdened by existential thoughts.
On a quest to find her little girl, Barbie, accompanied by an all-too-enthusiastic Ken (Ryan Gosling), arrives in real-world Los Angeles. There, she quickly shatters her sense of identity as men constantly gawk at her, and she realizes that the real world is a patriarchy. On the other hand, the same revelation empowers Ken as he establishes a new order in Barbieland that involves beer, horses, and unparalleled political power – thus making him the primary antagonist of the film.
Life in Plastics, It Isn’t Fantastic
Fundamentally, Barbie isn’t really a movie for children who like Barbie. It juxtaposes childhood innocence and brutal reality, focusing on women who played with Barbie dolls and want to confront the doll’s impact on their emotional and psychological development. The film’s thematic examination of what makes a doll may amuse adults and avid moviegoers, but I can’t help but feel for the little Janes of today – children who had hoped for something akin to a live-action adaptation of their own experiences with their own Barbie dolls.
In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie world, men have no redeeming qualities. The film portrays them as greedy, sleazy, and enablers of the patriarchal system. This depiction extends beyond the realities of our world, as male characters in Barbieland are often insecure, sexist, or downright awful. Oddly enough, despite the film’s attempt to distinguish, the border between Barbieland and the real world feels ill-defined. For instance, Will Ferrell’s portrayal as the CEO of Mattel (who is from the real world) acts as cartoonish as every other Ken in Barbieland.
Girls & Boys
True equality is beyond dehumanising people of different genders. In Barbie, every interaction is defined by gender, and it’s supported by a binary ideology that reduces male characters into one-dimensional stereotypes, rather than people worthy of respect and understanding. Conversely, I believe that there’s still room for compassion and kindness in today’s world, the same traits that Jane chose to exemplify when she decided to share her love for Barbie with a seven-year-old boy who was by himself all those years ago.
The dazzling aesthetics of the Barbie movie, combined with its unshakable conviction regarding gender roles, create a tonally dissonant experience in the film. Like Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, the movie paradoxically gets caught up in its own ever-changing identity. In its trailer, Barbie boldly outlines its target audience: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” In that regard, Barbie is exactly as advertised – it couldn’t decide.