For a toy as old as Barbie, you would think that we have finally decided what to think of her. Is she the empowering icon that inspires young girls to dream big? Or a problematic doll holding real-world women to impossible beauty standards and playing into a capitalist and patriarchal world? Director Greta Gerwig seems to believe in the former. However, addresses both in the new comedy-drama of the infamous doll first introduced in 1959.
Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, and the rest of the Barbies in Barbie Land have the best day every day. They have fixed the world, women are in charge and can be whatever they want, Ken is by her side, and all is good. Until Barbie’s foot goes flat and the doom of an existential crisis threatens the peace in Barbie Land. She visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) looking for answers. Here, she is faced with the choice between a high heel or a Birkenstock – a simple, but effective analogy of our heroine’s journey away from childhood innocence.
Barbie is poignant, entertaining, satirical and highly meta. Because of Barbie’s pre-existing fame the plot is nothing but what you would expect of a movie about feminism, sisterhood and criticism of the patriarchy through the plastic-fantastic doll.
However, Barbie’s experience of sexualisation, harassment and control in the real world while rollerblading next to a unfazed and awe-struck Ken is all too familiar. Similarly, the point is not lost in humour when Barbie points to a billboard of women and announces that it’s the Supreme Court. She is mistaken, of course, but that is how it really is back in Barbie Land. (There is perhaps only one joke about cellulite that feels like a hit or miss.)
Gerwig hammers in the message in her best style and is not shy about showing women’s experiences by introducing Barbie to them. The script includes wonderfully encapsulating points on womanhood perfectly executed by America Ferrera as Gloria, a Mattel employee and Barbie-lover. However, we know about this already, it’s not that new. It begs the question: who are these not-so-shocking epiphanies for?
Unfortunately, the movie will not be seen by the people who need to hear this the most. Barbie was scolded as an attack on all men and cursed by Christian preachers long before the release. By no means a shortcoming of the movie itself, but the fans who grew up with Barbie as a role model are left to wonder what the movie has to offer outside of its critical parameters and meta world.
Everything is pink and sparkly – of course! But the ode to the original Barbies through the costume design (courtesy of Jacqueline Durran) and cinematography, which at times feels strikingly akin to Wes Anderson’s two-dimensional worlds, honours Ruth Handler’s vision with the Barbie doll and her evolution through the past six decades. The bubble-gum colour palette is a refreshing change from the summer’s otherwise darkly coloured Blockbusters, while still being a movie largely catered to adults.
And then there’s Ken. Just Ken. Ryan Gosling delivers a convincing performance of the sold-separately accessory to Barbie. Unexpected for the otherwise static arm-candy, Ken’s arc becomes a major part of the storyline, and the Kens of Barbie Land find out that they are still Ken outside of their attachment to Barbie. And that is (k)enough.
Whether Barbie changes anything – the attitude towards the toy or the structure of our society – is yet unknown. But the movie holds its own as a fun but dramatic actualisation of an idea as old as the patriarchy. At least now Barbie gets to pick the pink Birkenstock.
Barbie is in cinemas now.
Featured Image Credit: Warner Brothers