I was one of the first people to champion Greta Gerwig’s Barbie live-action film. The possibilities for a movie about one of the American culture’s most prolific and influential dolls seemed endless. And a film depicting femininity in all its iterations felt (and still feels) like one we very much need. But Gerwig’s take fails to dig deeper than Barbie’s own plastic molding. Where, beneath the glossy, pink, smiling veneer of the Barbie iconography lurks a far more sinister interplay of gender and sex.
Barbie’s downfall is not its hyper-capitalist agenda or the men who’ve responded to the film with predictably fragile masculinity but Barbie‘s lack of nuance about what it advertised itself to be. We could argue all day long about whether or not Barbie can or should be just a “fun” movie – in fact, some people are still arguing over exactly this! But inherent to Barbie, the movie is the same sociopolitical and gender issues we can’t separate from Barbie the doll.
Portrayed by the undeniably talented Margot Robbie, Barbie begins where all dreams seem to come true for women: Barbieland. Barbie wakes up in a heart-shaped pink bed with perfect hair and makeup. In an impressive artistic overture by production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer, Barbieland is a gorgeous, life-sized recreation of Barbie’s Dream House expanded for the film into an entire world. Pink roads stretch beyond the confines of the screen as Robbie’s Barbie greets her fellow Barbies. Their ranks include award-winning physicists and members of Congress; Barbieland’s president is played by none other than the multi-talented Issa Rae.
By rather sharp contrast, the Kens exist pretty much solely to be eye candy. Their job is beach. It’s supposed to be the punchline for a generic joke that men make, which women pretend to find charming. If their job is beach, appeasing a man’s ego is a woman’s full-time job. A perfectly sculpted Ryan Gosling is the headlining Ken in glossy bleached blonde hair. Barbieland is the perfect dream world until it isn’t.
Barbie‘s premise is as one-dimensional as its core message. Barbieland is the “ideal” world where women run most major sectors of its civilization while the Kens stand around looking cut and waiting for their Barbie to notice them. Then Gosling’s Ken returns to Barbieland from the real world and brings the patriarchy back with him, inciting his fellow Kens to rebel against the ruling Barbie empire. But the plot development leads Barbie to spend most of its second half appeasing the male perspective in a jarring tonal shift from what it promised initially. Suddenly, Gosling gets a musical number, and Robbie spends even more time repelling Ken’s advances and lovesick attitude. This extends into deprogramming the other Barbies, after the Ken Collective convinces them to take on our own patriarchy’s stereotypically domestic roles (including stroking the Kens’ egos). The shift means that Barbie essentially wastes time establishing our own world’s basic gender roles within the context of Barbieland but without destabilizing gender stereotypes themselves.
This is only one of the complex human issues Barbie brings up but fails to delve into. It’s good old-fashioned existential dread that drives Barbie to seek the real world, once she realizes that Barbieland’s perfection is no longer enough for who she’s become. Barbie’s journey involves realizing that the person who inspired her own uncomfortable growth is America Ferrera‘s Gloria, whose emotions are transmitted to Barbie because Gloria’s own anxiety and dread have her yearning for the days when she played Barbies with her daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). And Barbie does sense the disconnect between Gloria and Sasha. But the mother-daughter dynamic – which also appears in Barbie’s scenes with her real-life creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) – takes a back seat to Ken’s existential crisis. By the time Barbie‘s credits roll, we know far more about him than we do about Gloria. We’re likewise left with the sense that this wasn’t Barbie’s story at all.
No, the story that ironically drives the plot for most of the film, a film titled Barbie, is that of Ken’s existential crisis. One he literally hijacked when he stowed away in Barbie’s car when heading into the real world. With his Mojo Dojo Casa House and obsession with horses, we’re left wondering where are all the women. What happened to Gloria’s existential crisis, and why did the film supplement it with Ken’s? Don’t get me wrong, I think Gosling shined as the dumbfounded, bleached-out Ken, but he shouldn’t have. Not unless this film was supposed to be titled Ken. Greta had the right idea in casting Gosling. However, I think she and her writing partner, Noah Baumbach, let Gosling’s natural charisma steal the focus away from its titular character.
By the final scene, Barbie‘s shallow interpretation of femininity is particularly distressing. The big reveal is Barbie arriving for her first gynecological appointment; the final punchline is female genitalia. What I’m sure was intended to empower women only serves to exclude all women who aren’t defined by their genitals. While a trans woman does play a role in Barbie, the film’s final scene feels exclusionary. It’s as if Barbie wants to suggest that femininity is most strongly affirmed through our vaginas, not through the many nuances and interpretations of gender.
Barbie invited me to a party but then changed the venue without telling me. Part of my reaction is undoubtedly due to overhyped expectations, which is hardly Gerwig’s fault. But her movie does make me question her female vision in some regard. Where does the fluid nature of gender come into play when a film about a doll with no genitalia chooses gender conformity in the end? If you’re not bringing it up to question the audience’s gender bias – and, by extension, the role of women in a violent, male-dominated world, or general and horrifying prejudice against transgender people – then why bring it up at all?