5 minutes

What’s the Matter With Barbie?

Life in Barbie Land, the utopian pink paradise that’s home to life-size versions of every Barbie doll that has ever existed, is one long party. Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) wakes up in her dream house every morning, hangs at the beach all day with the other Barbies and many admiring Kens, then hosts a girls’ night that’s one long choreographed dance sequence. It is a life of prescribed joy, a brand-managed universe where nothing is ever allowed to go wrong and Barbie’s perfectly arched heels are never allowed to touch the floor. Which is what makes it particularly funny when she, mid-dance, asks aloud, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Record scratch.

So begins the action of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a blockbuster adventure that bakes a big Mattel-branded cake and tries to eat it too, poking fun at the political limitations of America’s most famous doll while also giving her a believable hero’s journey. Combining the meta jokiness with a heap of motivational sincerity is no easy task, but Barbie is a very charming success, an odyssey of self-improvement for a plastic idol whose reason for being is to never change, to always be the same perfect ideal. As with Gerwig’s previous two movies–the wildly successful Lady Bird and Little Women–it’s a clever meditation on the nightmarish puzzle of simply trying to exist as a woman in society, only with more Day-Glo outfits.

Initially, it seems that Barbie will be following a formula set by other movies about brands, such as The Lego Movie and Sonic the Hedgehog, where a character from the brand world crosses some dimensional barrier into our own, blunders around, and tries to reckon with the depressing mundanity of reality. As Robbie’s Barbie (her full name is Stereotypical Barbie, to distinguish herself from the Barbies with jobs like Doctor or President) is made to wrestle with her existential angst through a sequence of dramatic events, she is tasked with a quest to the real world to figure out what’s wrong with her.

Barbie’s favorite Ken (Ryan Gosling) tags along, partly in support, partly because his only function in life is to be near her. Whereas Barbie is the object that Barbie Land revolves around, Ken is distinctly lacking in purpose, repeatedly remarking that his job is designated simply as “Beach”–not lifeguard, not even swimmer. He’s just Beach Ken, forever standing on the sand in his board shorts, a smile frozen on his face. Gosling’s performance hilariously illuminates the shallow but intense anguish of the purposeless action figure, a sort of Toy Story psychodrama given flesh and blood (though Barbie does make it clear that she and all her friends have only featureless bumps where their genitals would be).

If you have even a tiny question about the rules of Barbie Land and how it coexists with our reality, please drop them. Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with her partner and frequent collaborator, Noah Baumbach, is not too hung up on the rules of transit between universes–just know that it’s somehow doable for Barbie and Ken to hop between environments with ease. What’s more crucial is that, when faced with our world, Barbie must contend with twin horrors: the realization that life for women is not the manicured, you-can-do-anything dream advertised by Mattel’s products, and that many real-world women in fact resent her for representing an impossible standard.

It would be very easy for this self-referential gambit to fall flat on its face: Barbie’s limits as an icon of feminism have been widely discussed since her launch, in 1959. Mattel’s deep involvement with the film also seems like a creative sinkhole that’d be difficult for Gerwig to overcome, no matter how hard she strives to wink at the audience. But by placing Barbie on our glum planet and forcing her to reckon with her purpose, Gerwig does somehow dig up some real profundity. Remove Stereotypical Barbie from Barbie Land and plonk her into Los Angeles, and she’s just another woman struggling to find meaning in a world that’s inherently hostile to her very presence. Her real-life avatar turns out to be Gloria (a lovely performance from America Ferrera), a Mattel employee who is racked with similar doubts about 21st-century womanhood.

Ken, meanwhile, encounters a world that affirms and supports him (or at least the hunky male body he occupies), which fills him with a radioactive sense of empowerment. This is where Barbie‘s meta cleverness actually intersects with real plot stakes: Gerwig smartly realizes that whereas a real-life Barbie would face only skepticism and critique, Ken is the ultimate empty vessel just waiting to be filled up with nonsense. But Barbie never descends into a cheap girls-versus-boys final showdown; it just reckons with the different ways self-image gets sold to us, the weary, willing consumer, even as the world grows savvier and more cynical. That it does so through bright musical numbers, acidic quips, and the right scoop of sentimentalism is all the more impressive. Barbie is knowing, but it still has an optimistic twinkle in its eye about how its protagonist might move past other people’s projections of her. After all, there’s no crisis that can’t be solved with a good dance party.

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