As an icon among dolls, Barbie’s rise to the top has met with little resistance. As an icon of cinema, her box office numbers are good, but she has lacked artistic cache. With Ladybird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig signed on to produce an entirely new film, much of the anticipation was centred on how Gerwig would approach the project. Camp, cool or revisionist? While there’s been plenty of reworked classics, if you’re expecting a live-action version of Barbie as Rapunzel or even the classic Barbie in the Nutcracker, this film steers firmly away from the childish candyfloss. Think of it as cinematic juvenilia. While the iconography remains in place – pink and lots of it – this is Gerwig deconstructing and re-imagining a Barbie fit for the 21st century.
We start at pre-history, or rather, Barbie’s pre-history. In an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, little girls, tired of aping the feminine code (cleaning, ironing, cooing over baby), smash their old-fashioned dolls in the shadow of a towering, glittering vision: Margot Robbie as 1950’s Barbie is taken in by Gerwig’s camera as she looms onto the screen. She cheekily winks at us. It’s more than a shift in fashion: this doll’s ascent signals evolution.
Gerwig takes us to Barbie Land: a utopian vision of matriarchy in action. Separate from the Real World, the dolls live together in perfect harmony. They believe their cultural (and capitalist) supremacy has influenced change in the Real World, for good. In theory, it’s job done. Barbie has led by example. She travels the world, owns her own home and has a wardrobe ready for any occasion (or occupation). Feminism has won the day. Barbie Land is not just pink by numbers: their President is female, their astronauts, female. The Kens, superfluous but decorative, define themselves in terms of their relationships with the Barbies. They hang out, waiting for the next party. Their job, famously, is “beach”.
We are treated to a day in the life of Barbie. With a buff Ryan Gosling as her Ken, Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie appears to have it all. But as they kick off another Girls’ Night, dancing into the small hours, Barbie asks her friends if they ever think about dying. No-one is quite sure how to respond. Barbie becomes anxious and depressed: she finds herself caught in an existential crisis.
In search of answers, she visits Weird Barbie (a glorious Kate McKinnon) who explains that a wormhole has appeared between the Real World and Barbie Land. Barbie must leave her world to find out what (or who) has created the wormhole. As Ken stows away in Barbie’s pink convertible, the pair of them arrive at Venice Beach. They are not welcomed as heroes. Their adorable matching outfits are met with derision. In the Real World, Ken makes the fatal discovery that patriarchy is alive and well. He begins to see himself in a different light.
Gerwig’s script (co-written with Noah Baumbach) acts as a hall of mirrors, reflecting back at us two worlds that are, in themselves, unsatisfactory and incomplete. Gerwig picks apart the ultra-feminine, groomed physicality of Barbie and what it means for self-image, especially in young girls. We may have Black Barbie and Plus-Size Barbie but they’re still bound by the obligation to be impeccably turned out at all times. The ideals embedded in Barbie – perfectionism and exceptionalism – are just as damaging as they are exhausting. The pressure to excel, but not to show off; to be thin, but not too thin, striving for ‘health’ (but really thinness) – Gerwig lays it all bare. There’s a bit of an own goal as Barbie discovers a patch of cellulite (the horror!), but Gerwig largely stays on message. Ultimately, these gender roles, for both Barbies and Kens, are unhelpful and constrictive. As the dolls struggle with their sense of identity, Robbie’s performance reveals a questioning, fragile sensibility that’s anything but plastic. It’s time to step outside the box.
Part of the joy of this film is just how many cinematic references Gerwig manages to cram in. Portraying the tension between Ken’s athletic masculinity and “blond fragility”, Gosling (superb in this role) channels Grease’s Danny Zuko, giving us the full Travolta during the musical number I’m Just Ken, while Gerwig frames him within a Singin’ in the Rain-style mood ballet. Genres collide, and the other Great American Dream Factory, Disney, meets Barbie in the crossover of brands (Dua Lipa features as The Little Mermaid Barbie), but at a more meaningful level during the third act. Gerwig is a fan of British television, and this reflects not only in her casting (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey and Doctor Who-in-Waiting, Ncuti Gatwa feature), but also in the reference to sad-girl comfort watch, the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Gerwig’s multi-layered approach places Barbie and Barbie within a wider cultural context. If she is a doll who can respond to changes in the zeitgeist, Gerwig suggests that she can change in more fundamental ways.
Gerwig’s strongest play has always been to subvert expectations. A feminist takedown, rubbishing everything Barbie stands for, would be too obvious. Instead Gerwig applies nuance. She respects Barbie-core: there’s plenty to charm Barbie’s loyal fans (Mattel will be thrilled). Visually, this film delivers, but it is in the performances where the film comes alive. The characters wrestle with difficult and conflicting feelings, edging from innocence into experience. Gerwig’s refusal to take the easy route has resulted in a better film. Yes, there’s a whole load of pink and it is an (imperfect) feminist fable. There may be contradictory ideas at work, but Barbie emerges from this, icon status in tact. Better than icon, a little more human.
By Helen Tope @scholar1977