In a recent interview, Diablo Cody opened up about her own failed efforts at turning in a screenplay for a film about Barbie. In summary, Cody attributes her failure to two crucial factors: Nobody could figure out how to replicate the recent success of The Lego Movie without ripping it off outright; and mainstream discourse at the time wasn’t yet ready to accept Barbie’s pink and flirty presentation as a valid form of feminism.
But now we’re close to a decade out from The Lego Movie, and that movie’s industry-shaping impact has so thoroughly run its course that Barbie is now free to crib from them with impunity. They even cast Will Ferrell to chew scenery as the corporate antagonist, for Gods’ sake.
Then came Little Women (2019), so capably adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig that she was hired to get Barbie onscreen pretty much immediately. For extra measure, she brought along her frequent collaborator and former mentor Noah Baumbach to help exec produce and co-write the script. And the film came out not a moment too soon.
The past few years have been catastrophic for WB, and they’re coming in hot off the most humiliating box office loss in their 100-year history. (Indeed, one of the worst in cinema history altogether.) WB needs a high-profile hit so badly that if Barbie bombs, the company as we know it likely won’t exist in another five years.
Which makes it interesting that in the weeks before Barbie came out, Gerwig didn’t sign on for a sequel or even re-up with WB at all. She’s jumping over to Netflix to head up their attempt at a Narnia relaunch. If Barbie succeeds (and let’s be real, it already has), Gerwig could write her own check with WB, and that still wasn’t enough to keep her around. That’s fascinating, and it makes WB look pathetically bad, but I digress.
Of course you already know that producer Margot Robbie plays Barbie. In fact, a great many actors play different iterations of Barbie. They all live in Barbieland, a place where everything is perfect and it’s all fun and pink and everything operates on toy logic. By which I mean that everything is hard and plastic, all liquids are imaginary, and everyone either travels by slide or by levitation so that nobody actually uses stairs.
Literally from the outset (Remember that first teaser with the parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’s seriously the first minute of the movie.), the film establishes a tongue-in-cheek tone that lends itself to all sorts of meta comedy. Crucially, this means that the plot is inoculated from any complaints pertaining to logic. So the distances don’t make sense? So the timeline doesn’t add up? So the relationship between Barbieland and the real world is pure nonsense? Who gives a shit?
Speaking of which, the residents of Barbieland are directly tied to their toy counterparts in the real world. Which means that when Barbie (specifically referring to Stereotypical Barbie, the one Robbie’s playing) starts getting flat feet and cellulite and persistent thoughts of mortality, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong with her toy counterpart — and more to the point, whomever is playing with that toy counterpart — in the real world.
Even crazier, the connection goes both ways, such that anything happening in Barbieland could affect the toys and commercials coming out of Mattel in the real world. Thus Mattel is motivated to keep everything in Barbieland exactly as it is, except for when they want to change things for their own benefit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The upshot is that Barbie can only fix her ongoing malfunction by venturing out into the real world to find and confront whomever is playing with her toy. Stowing away for the journey is Ken (Ryan Gosling), who insists on coming along because he has no identity whatsoever without Barbie. Hijinks ensue.
Getting back to Barbie and her perfect existence in Barbieland, the tragedy is that it’s all built on a lie. The Barbies have somehow been led to believe that women in the real world can be whatever they want to be, gender inequality doesn’t exist, and the real world is every bit a feminist utopia as Barbieland. Of course you can imagine the culture shock when Barbie arrives in the real world.
Inevitably, Barbie has to deal with things like sexual harassment, a depressing lack of women in power (most especially among her corporate overlords at Mattel), and the heartbreaking news that she’s unwittingly become a standard-bearer for unhealthy body standards and capitalism run amok. But even more than all of that, Barbie — ALL the Barbies — are suddenly faced with their pressing and unprecedented need for critical thought.
The Barbies have never had to think before. They’ve been given everything without the need to really earn anything or question anything they’ve been given. Which predictably leads to disastrous results when any of them are given something not in their best interests.
Moreover, Barbie — most especially the Robbie iteration — is supposed to be perfect and happy all the time. Thus Barbie is sent into an existential crisis upon the realization that she isn’t perfect, that she may indeed have failed at the very purpose of her existence, and the simple fact that she’s feeling sadness is enough to make her anxious. But then again, if Barbie was meant to be the perfect woman, and if the perfect woman cannot exist (especially by the confusing, contradictory, actively malicious standards of modern society), then Barbie can only ever be fake. That said, if Barbie or any other woman really was perfect, there could be no way for her to improve or to be anything more than she is now.
Change is scary, but it’s a part of life. More to the point, Barbie — and by extension, all of our toys and fantasies — have always changed with the times. Precisely because she’s an immaterial idea, plastic in every sense of the word, she can be whatever we need her to be. But because that goes both ways, the onus is on all of us to think about what we want our perfect society to look like, and how we can make our toys and stories to reflect that ideal.
Which brings us to Ken. The basic gist of Gosling’s Ken is that he has no real identity or purpose without Barbie. It’s never just “Ken”, only “Barbie” or “Barbie and Ken”, and of course Barbie is oblivious to this fact. Thus Ken goes looking in the real world to figure out who he is without Barbie, and what he can do to win her affections. This predictably leads him down a rabbit hole of toxic masculinity. In turn, this makes Ken an uber-macho parody of the patriarchy, every bit as much as Barbie is a bright and colorful parody of feminism.
Basically put, Ken unwittingly makes himself into everything that Barbie was made to be an icon against. In the most wantonly destructive and ass-backwards way, Ken makes himself into a cast-iron case for why we need Barbie.
Alas, the film stops just short of giving a definitive answer to the question of “Who is Ken?” The film clearly states that he can’t be her codependent hanger-on, but he definitely can’t be her opposite either. The film doesn’t provide an answer, but the answer to my mind is clear and obvious: Ken has to be a partner. He and Barbie have to support each other. And we never see that at any point in the movie.
Of all the people and toys and discontinued merchandise in the movie, it’s Allan (Michael Cera) who gets to be the one to step up and act as a true feminist ally. The opportunity was right there for any or all of the Kens to learn from his example, but the film never goes there. What a waste.
A lot of ink has already been spilled about Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. I can confirm they both give dynamic performances that full-on commit to these off-the-wall bonkers roles. But the true MVP here, the one who deserves so much more credit for holding this movie together, is America Ferrara.
She plays Gloria, a put-upon Mattel receptionist going through a mid-life crisis while dealing with her own cynical and rebellious teenage daughter (Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt). It’s Gloria who was most clearly built to be the audience surrogate, which of course means that she has cherished childhood memories playing with her Barbie dolls and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the brand. (groan)
But more importantly, she intrinsically gets the idea of Barbie while she also understands the cruel realities of everyday life as a modern working mother. As such, Gloria’s uniquely qualified to mediate the discussion between Barbieland and the real world, while also moderating the discussion between the Barbies and the Kens. Gloria is the fulcrum of this story, she’s the axis this entire movie turns around. And she singlehandedly earns this movie’s right to exist by way of a showstopping monologue.
And what about the corporate execs at Mattel? Sadly, this is another time when the filmmakers dropped the ball. Yes, Will Ferrell is clowning it up to the rafters and he’s a blast to watch, but that’s about it. There’s otherwise no reason for these execs to be in this movie, and there’s no clear motivation for anything they do. Yes, we know that the events in Barbieland are messing with the toy lines in the real world, but there’s no stated reason as to why Ferrell or the other execs should care so long as the toys are making money (and we’re told they are). I get that the execs are there to talk about performative feminism and the hypocritical practice of hyping up Girl Power to a degree that’s profitable without actually putting any women in power. Nice of the film to bring that up, crappy of them not to actually make any kind of firm statement on what to do about it.
Perhaps most importantly, while the film brings up Barbie’s controversial status as a capitalist icon diametrically opposed to feminism, there’s no firm rebuttal to that. The Mattel corporate execs were a fine opportunity to refute that, but the film never did. For that matter, the execs could’ve been a mutual shared enemy for Barbie and Ken to take on together in a show of coequal partnership, but that scene never happens.
Yes, I know I’m asking for the Mattel corporate execs to play a more openly antagonistic role and to make more of an anti-capitalist statement in a film that Mattel itself co-produced to sell more toys. Maybe I’m asking too much here. But then again, I didn’t make the choice to put the execs in the movie. If the filmmakers put the Mattel board into the movie in a cartoonishly antagonistic role and without the will or ability to follow through, that’s on them.
There is A LOT going on with Barbie, and it’s not 100 percent effective at keeping so many plates spinning. Furthermore, I seriously doubt this film will be so huge and influential as The Lego Movie was. Even so, the cast is uniformly solid, longtime fans will love the obscure shout-outs and references, the film looks beautifully distinctive, there’s a fantastic sense of humor throughout, and the brand is used in a fantastically cartoonish way that’s great fun to watch. I might add that for all the themes that don’t get resolved or sufficiently explored, the ones that do land hard.
Of course this isn’t the movie to justify the continued existence of WB — no one movie can do that — but this is one movie tie-in that definitely justifies its existence. It’s an intelligent and engaging movie, well worth checking out.