Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Based on: Barbie by Mattel
Runtime: 114 minutes
Available in: Theatres
There is something so spectacularly shallow in Barbie, but first you would have to wade through how deceptively silly it is, to even scratch at this shallow shore. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) in Barbieland is wracked by an existential crisis — her feet, which were once arched, inclined by her steep heels, are now flat on the floor; she has cellulite; she thinks of death; on waking up in the morning her breath tastes stale. Something, somewhere is deeply wrong.
Her human in the Real World, Gloria (America Ferrera), is osmotically giving Stereotypical Barbie these issues, because she herself is going through them, creating a rip in the space-time continuum that allows ideas, people and dolls to slip between Barbieland and the Real World. According to the sequestered sensei of Barbieland, Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), Gloria needs to be met and inspired out of these ugly thoughts, and so Stereotypical Barbie, along with Ken (Ryan Gosling) — her boy friend, not boyfriend — chart an odyssey into the Real World. Rid her of these thoughts, sure, but what of the cellulite? How is Barbie going to help Gloria get rid of that, and thereby rid herself of that? The movie does not offer much by way of clarity, though it is tempting to note that the plus sized model Ashley Graham, while discussing her Barbie avatar, insisted on not just belly fat, round arms, and no thigh gap, but also cellulite — this last demand was rejected, because it might “look like a mistake”.
Once Stereotypical Barbie and Ken find themselves skating in Los Angeles, their lives — if life is what we want to call it — is spun on its head. Ken encounters patriarchy (and horses) in the real world and is intoxicated by all this attention his ab-baked body receives, something he was starved of in Barbieland. Barbie, on the other hand, recognizes the violence in the male gaze, what art critic John Berger described as the perpetual condition of “women watch[ing] themselves being looked at”. A strange awareness overcomes Stereotypical Barbie. For the first time, she weeps.
Here is the important distinction between Barbieland and the Real World. In Barbieland, even though women reign supreme — from the courts to the construction sites — the men are never violated. They’re merely embellishments, ignored unless heeded. To be powerless in the Real World, however, is inflected by a more sinister, ass-grabbing violence.
Meanwhile Mattel, the corporation that has been making the Barbie doll since 1959 and also the corporation that funded this film, is trying to track down Stereotypical Barbie and Ken and seal the seam between Barbieland and the Real World so such osmotic lunges across worlds are no longer possible. (Will Ferrell is the unhinged CEO who only wants to be tickled between meetings) The real world and Barbieland run on different logical fuel, and the Mattel boardroom, with a heart shaped table around which human men discuss dolls, floats somewhere between the two. You don’t have to know what is real because that question is rendered moot by the film’s flippance. You only have to know the implication of real-ness — the sadness of the human heart, the patriarchy that glazes it, the small joys (the film suggests motherhood?) that make it worth it despite everything. The film tries, and stumbles terribly, while offering a simple answer to a profound question — why be human?
The silly wave to shore past is this: Barbie is a doll. Not a person. A doll. The film wants to both insist on her doll-ness — her lack of genitals, for example — and her sentience, her agency, her authority. She is both the cause and consequence of “sexualized capitalism”. She is both problem and solution.
A decade ago, Rehabs.com, which holds people's hands through their eating disorders, among other conditions, made a quaint conclusion. They reckon that if the “Traditional Barbie” were life-sized, she would be five feet nine inches tall — heel-height built into this, I assume — with a sixteen-inch waist. That waist-size means there is only enough space for half a liver and some inches of intestine. It is a physically impossible body that has created an ideal that has rouged the imagination of generations. Barbie wants to hold this body accountable for its sins, while also deriving joy from the very things that made it sinful — its unreal beauty. So far, so hypocritical.
To be truly silly — aesthetically, narratively — is to have an audacity which is missing here, except in Gosling’s performance which digs its gorgeous face, heart-first, into the role. It is a performance that you want to laugh at and root for, grab at and pat on, all the same. Besides, who knew the word “beach” — Ken’s job — is so phonetically inclined towards humour?
The film, though, is reluctantly silly. With one winking eye on realism, it hopes that the silliness of the staging is not mistaken for the silkiness of the messaging. The blowout party does not have that electricity which would transplant the joy across the space-time continuum of the theater screen. Sarah Greenwood’s production design, Jacqueline Durran’s costume design and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography swirl in the pepto bismol plastic sheen, neither evoking that stain of beauty, that ruthless gorgeousness of the built world, nor entirely happy in the muted impact of its sartorial choices. Too soon into its runtime, the film, with its jerking forward motion and its fragile logic, has nothing left to do but collapse.
Gerwig is a gifted storyteller. Lady Bird (2017) and, to a lesser extent, Little Women (2019) were buoyed by her capacity to be both sardonic and sincere in the same bat of an eyelid. But those films were shored by character, not ideology. How can you both call out the fast feminism of Mattel while also embodying it? This is the shallow core of Barbie. Making fun of casting Margot Robbie as the Stereotypical Barbie Doll, while insisting on the impact of this kind of body being mainstreamed, for example. There is something uneasy here — an ideological bankruptcy. In Barbie feminism is the vaccine to patriarchy’s smallpox (the film’s metaphor, not mine), but what feminism is this? The film stews in its ambiguity, happy to signal a broadness of ideology, while puppeting the very narrowness that seems to have defied the feminist roar. Well, at least, Barbie now wears flats, not heels, and goes to a gynaecologist. So far, so revolutionary.
Besides, no ideology that refuses to take desire seriously should be taken seriously. There is something ironic about these perfectly sexualized bodies — abs, an ample bosom — that are left to rot dry and sexless. These unrealistic standards of beauty which the film rails against are rooted in desire, but by merely rapping the knuckles of these standards and ignoring desire, the film makes its fight against the patriarchy look far more easy, far less matted, than it truly is. It is a starched vision of the world. One that pursues unending euphoria and believes such a condition can be brought about simply by replacing desire with plastic platonicness and a hierarchy where women scheme to disenfranchise men. But as Amia Srinivasan writes in the coda to her essay Right To Sex, “There will still be heartbreak in utopia.”