Gerwig’s Barbie, girls, and a Barbie world

A Barbie movie on face value, in the age of Hollywood intellectual property mining, would be easy to deride as a glorified toy commercial. She ticks off the boxes after all: cross-generational appeal, an iconic figure and hot-pink image, a cultural reference point that’s evolved to mean very different things to all ends of the feminist movement. It’s a lot of nuance for a piece of plastic to hold. Simultaneously a progressive paragon and upholder of everything vapid and misogynistic, depending on who you ask, she’s nevertheless inseparable from the end goal of rampant consumerism. The latest installment of the ever-shifting brand sits squarely in the evolution of the Barbie world: self-aware, shameless. Does it transcend its toy-box roots? It’s complicated.

 It’s hard to talk about Greta Gerwig’s Barbie without talking about the bona-fide event it’s become, from the very first images of Margot Robbie in that fuschia cowboy outfit to the bubblegum rush of the first trailers to the Barbenheimer phenomenon. Unabashedly feminine, unabashedly Barbie, many of us found ourselves talking about the film with the sort of reverence comic book purists reserved for authentic Spider-Man adaptations: the Barbie Lore™ was in it! Look at those details, like how Barbie floats everywhere, because nobody ever bothered to walk their Barbies down the stairs to their cars! It’s even in the marketing: She’s everything. He’s just Ken. It’s the rare blockbuster that aims directly at the nostalgia of women — and, with Gerwig’s filmography of Little Women and Lady Bird came an implicit promise of something more. 

Barbie is undisputably a blast. A no-holds-barred comedy. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfect as Barbie and Ken, approaching the roles with complete commitment. The whole thing is pure camp, refreshing in its genuine love for its source material. The production design is a strong contender for best of the year. It’s incredibly funny. But more than anything, it understands the female experience and puts it front and centre through pointed social satire. 

Gerwig pulls off the difficult balancing act of sharp self-awareness and real sincerity and heart — where the Barbie brand can be the butt of the joke without it ever feeling mean-spirited. But more impressively, that eternal real-life discourse about Barbie and Ken allows for them to be vessels for something broader: what it means to be human, to find purpose within sharply gendered society and all the patriarchy entails. In this way, Gerwig tries to reconcile the delights the film takes in Barbie’s consumerist nature, a love letter to a multi-million dollar brand, by tapping into real-life emotional truths. Even Barbie’s cross-generational status is wrapped into a meditation on mothers and daughters — how women relate to each other, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go —that comes with surprising tenderness between the bombastic dance number and lighthearted antics. Ken, played to standout perfection, gets a farcical but resonant storyline that functions as a clever allegory for the harm that patriarchal systems also inflict on men.

It’s not perfect, of course. Some character arcs outside of Robbie and Gosling’s main Barbie and Ken feel a little underdeveloped, and at times can veer slightly too far towards white-2016-girlboss-feminist rhetoric. In fact, its jabs at Mattel’s corporate suits themselves are comical in a way that allows it to be too-easily brushed off, meaning it’s hard to forget that even amongst the self-aware schtick, it is, in fact, an advertisement. But in many ways, it’s an acknowledgement that this product has taken on so much meaning beyond mere product, and our senses of selves are, within capitalism, nonetheless shaped and understood by our consumerism intertwined with our childhood nostalgia. 

Barbie’s a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Consumer girls in a consumer world doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it’s exactly this. It’s how Barbie looms so large as a nexus of feminist debate that makes her so well-suited to a film that explores the constant criticisms and unrelenting expectations put on women to be perfect, to be everything, to be purposeful.  

Yes, Barbie is effectively a toy commercial. Mattel, in fact, currently has 45 films under development based on their other I.P.s. But it’s hard to see a Hot Wheels or Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots film resonating like Barbie does. 

Ultimately, Barbie is a film about what it means to exist as a woman; about growing up and realising how the real world doesn’t afford the same freedom as one’s endless childhood Barbie-esque dreams, that to exist is to be constantly criticised. To paraphrase America Ferrera’s monologue at the heart of the film: you need to be brainwashed and accept complacency, or you’re “crazy” for pushing against patriarchal standards. But it’s a film that insists we can’t simply give up on ourselves as women — and to nevertheless persist and live, and that to embrace and find our inner strength even in an unfair reality, allows us to find a new conception of ourselves and the world, flaws and all. 

To criticise Barbie for her capitalist ideology, in this case, feels simultaneously valid and a misjudgement of the film itself. We, as an audience, can reconcile this just as Gerwig aims to: with nuance and perspective. I can’t help but think of all the male-targeted I.P. that has escaped the cultural consumerist, anti-feminist discourse, film franchises being churned out to massive returns. 
I saw Barbie at a pink-themed preview screening — flooded with women all decked out in the signature shade, multiple packed theatres followed by ecstatic chatter. Throughout the screening: applause, riotous laughter, a sense of solidarity. It’s difficult to be cynical about something like that. The eternally-criticised Barbie exists just as we do as a symbol of womanhood, and all that entails as we define ourselves with her or against her, linked to childhood nostalgia, possibility and beyond. Contradictory and complex, Barbie transcends itself simply by remaining firmly itself.

Editor: Anh Noel