The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Greta Gerwig takes us on a magical, and meta journey to Barbie Land, and beyond
Since 1959, Ruth Handler’s totemic creation has made Mattel corporation a global name. More so, Barbie has served as an inspirational figure to many by breaking away young children from the confines of playing with baby dolls, and playing to positions of motherhood. Her various iterations over the years have showcased the potential for girls to grow up to be whatever they set their minds to. While some see the toy as outdated, and contrary to female empowerment, writer/director Greta Gerwig tackles this contradiction head-on, with a feature that takes the memories of this plastic portrayal of perfection, and looks at her meaning in the world today.
A gleeful prologue paying homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey gives way to the pink, palatial splendor of Barbie Land. A diverse, matriarchal society drawing from 60 years of Mattel’s figurehead releases, and her accessories of course. Barbies galore, fulfilling every position of responsibility and achievement you can imagine. President Barbie (Issa Rae), writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), diplomat Barbie (Nicola Coughlan), lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), and mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), to name but a few. Vying for their attention are the Kens (led by Ryan Gosling, but also including Simu Liu, Ncuti Gatwa, John Cena, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans) companions in orbit of their Barbies, jostling for attention, and peaking if their existence is even acknowledged. There is also Allen (a marvelous turn from Michael Cera). In their midst is stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who, after living a series of perfect days in a perfect world, enters an existential crisis. One featuring cold showers, burnt waffles, flat feet, cellulite, and thoughts of death.
She is sent to consult with “weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), who diagnoses the problem. Someone in the real world is troubled, and is channeling their angst into playing with their stereotypical Barbie doll. The result, an opening of portal between reality and Barbie Land, one that needs closing before irreparable harm is caused. Barbie, with Ken (Gosling) in tow, sets off on a quest to find the person she is psychologically connected to, heal them, and break the bridge between their worlds. Arriving in LA, they find that the female led utopia they came from is a stark contrast. Struggling with an unfamiliar world and it’s rules, Barbie finds help in Gloria (America Ferrera) and her teen daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), as she looks to evade a a team of Mattell executives (led by their CEO (a fittingly farcical Will Ferrell) who are desperate to put Barbie back in her box and prevent the unraveling of reality. Meanwhile, Ken’s head is turned for the first time by something other than Barbie, as his exposure to the power and patriarchy of this male dominated world opens his mind to different ways of thinking, and through him looks set to corrupt the pink paradise they came from.
A fantastical plot, one reminiscent of The Lego Movie, or The Truman Show, where barriers of reality are broken down, leading to self-awareness and growth. From the wild and wacky fun of Barbie Land, to the fish out of water humor as this duo hit LA, there’s an air of chaotic unpredictability, something enhanced as the film veers from comedy to musical, to metaphysical rumination, to dropping truth bombs, incisive social commentary, and even managing a cracking shot at the Snyderverse. Gerwig’s direction balances these components superbly, driving the film forward with a crackling energy and wit. The script, by Gerwig and partner Noah Baumbach is surprisingly meditative at times, as it gets to grips with a rather meta-meditation on what Barbie means, in terms of her past, and present day, and by extension reflecting the state of equality and feminism in what is still a male dominated world.
Fueled by neuroses as much as frivolity, Barbie comes to a generation of women dealing with a loss of innocence, discontentment with adulthood, and aspirations not becoming reality. The oversimplification of the Barbie line is that if you dream it, you can be it. Gerwig doesn’t deny that, but does point out the caveat that “these are the obstacles in the way”, with the added reassurance that these Barbies/women all achieve what they each set out to do, as long as they champion each other in the process. The film also adds balance by opening up this female utopia to critique thorough highlighting this underclass of Kens. Male figures whose reason for existence is barely fleshed out (“my job is….beach”), or entirely wrapped up in his associations or possessions. It taps into a bit of that male rage about being unseen or emasculated, and where blame should really be directed. A simple facet of this toy’s existence, but a concept that neatly taps into the roots of many male insecurities. Beyond holding a mirror up to our present day, the film also takes plenty of shots at Mattel itself, highlighting the faux feminism of this men-led industry, as well as some of the more crass aspects of Barbie’s past. This includes some failed versions of the dolls that stirred up plenty of controversy in their day, we’re looking at you Midge and Skipper. The film manages to have it both ways, leveraging these things for laughs, while also highlighting the inappropriateness of them, and the wider context of progress we’ve made, and what we still need to do.
At the core of the film, is Barbie. She is often positioned as a comedic foil to many of the other characters in the film, but there is a deftly realized arc for her here. Beyond the blonde bombshell image, Robbie brings an energy, warmth, and vulnerability to the character, making her (eventually) as three dimensional and empathetic as Gerwig’s Lady Bird or Jo March. Ryan Gosling’s Ken steals the show with a comedic performance for the ages, a masterclass in timing, physical humor, and using vacuousness to speak volumes. Another standout is the winsome performance by Ferrera who embodies a Barbie fan from a bygone era, but still gets to let rip with a barnstorming speech that cuts to the core of the expectations that surround women in their everyday lives. We could spend all day extolling the supporting cast and the flashes of brilliance they bring to a line or a look, as well as write entire books on the achievements of the production crew. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s manifestation of retro outfits, Sarah Greenwood’s production design (featuring glorious visual gags and Barbie related Easter eggs, and Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt’s sugary score (and accompanying pop star contributions) add up to to a pitch perfect presentation. Beneath this veneer of pink the film never loses sight of it’s universal theme of self-worth. We’re all (k)enough, we just need to realize it.
After the brilliance of Ladybird and Little Women, Greta Gerwig continues her record for crafting richly compelling, smart, and distinct films. Barbie feels imbued with both a sense of creative freedom and also social responsibility. This is not a sell-out, it is a filmmaker, assured in her voice and vision, bringing it to bear on the most unlikely of properties. A pink, progressive powerhouse of a film that leverages star power and a palpable love for this doll, into a wildly entertaining work.
Barbie hits theaters on July 21st