July 26, 2023
One of the most fervently held dogmas of the 1969 wave of feminism was that the only reason boys and girls liked different toys was due to sexist socialization. I was young in the early 1970s when androgynous “unisex” fashions were all the rage even in the Sears catalogs, but even then I was skeptical. I mean…come on.
This fashionable belief caused a lot of children’s tears on Christmas morning.
Not me, though. As a rare only child during the Baby Boom, I had plenty of boy toys. So I never begrudged girls their boringly non-awesome playthings, such as Barbie dolls.
But many guys can’t seem to get over their childhood memories of the opposite sex’s appalling, cootie-ridden taste in toys. Hence, many online right figures who complained in 2016 when Ghostbusters, which moved massive amounts of merchandise to little boys in 1984, was remade with actresses are now complaining about Barbie, which has been made with the most perfectly cast lead actress imaginable, Margot Robbie. She memorably played both Tarantino’s quiet quintessence of feminine beauty as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and the loud prole ice skater in I, Tonya.
Granted, little girls tend to be slightly less sexist than little boys (thus Barbie keeps around Ken, her decorative but dull boyfriend), but without puberty neither sex would find much interest in the other. But then we’d all be dead, wouldn’t we?
Further, men tend to be more nostalgic about childhood toys and entertainment than women, who instead look forward to the next fashion trend. But Mattel’s venerable fashion doll juggernaut has brought a huge number of sentimental ladies to the multiplex to see Barbie.
The film has been building anticipation ever since jaw-dropping still photos were released of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling dressed up in late-20th-century neon Rollerblading outfits.
The luminous Robbie is ideal as sweet Stereotypical Barbie.
Why, you might ask, is her character “Stereotypical Barbie”? In case you are rusty on your Barbie lore, back in the 1960s–1970s, there was only one Barbie and she had diverse friends like black Christie and Latina Teresa.
But, in the minds of little girls, beautiful blonde Barbie was so clearly superior to all her friends that in the 1980s Mattel gave up on trying to sell side characters and switched to everybody being Barbie so they could at least all bask in the glory of Extended Barbiehood.
Hence, in the movie there are dozens of different Barbies who all live in Barbieland, a Scottsdale-like pink suburb in the desert, where they spend all day saying “Hi, Barbie” to each other and giving each other awards for doing their jobs so well. But, to be honest, there’s only one real Barbie and that’s Robbie, who lights up the screen like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
And while it’s silly that 42-year-old Gosling is playing Barbie’s blank boyfriend, Ken gets most of the memorable comic bits after he’s awokened about how men are oppressed in Barbieland and liberates it in the name of patriarchy, declaring it his Kendom.
Gosling has traditionally been cast as stoic tragic heroes weighed down by emotions they can’t quite express. But he’s actually funny, and perhaps he’ll enjoy a middle-aged career rather like that of Robert De Niro when he switched to comic roles with 1988’s Midnight Run.
Barbie is carried by its star power, costumes, and set design. I found the dialogue by director Greta Gerwig and her boyfriend Noah Baumbach more amusing than uproarious, but a lot of other people in the theater were in stitches.
Gerwig is committed to the directorial conceit of making this look all the way through like a little girl’s movie. For example, the action scenes tend to be stilted and perfunctory, as if blocked out by an 8-year-old assistant directrix who couldn’t wait to get back to the clothes and the choreography. Hilariously, the one exception to this is that Michael Cera, as Ken’s hapless, forgotten dweeby friend Allan, is given a remarkably kick-ass fight scene that is relegated to the background while more important female characters talk about their feelings in close-up.
On the downside, Barbie’s major premises are largely uninspired. We’ve seen a lot of these inner-lives-of-toys movies since the landmark Toy Story in 1995, so the bar for screenplay cleverness is set high by now. Do Gerwig and Baumbach clear it? Eh…good enough, I guess.
But of course, much of the problem with the script is that Barbie, being an extension of a massively valuable intellectual property, can’t be allowed to satirize the still ominously powerful Great Awokening of the past decade for fear that it will get the lucrative line of toys canceled, the way that the studio is terrified that J.K. Rowling’s honesty about female impersonators will get the Harry Potter franchise blown up by social justice jihadis.
So the Barbie script sticks safely to corporate feminist orthodoxy about Barbie empowering girls to be career women without daring to engage in even such mild persiflage as noting that Barbie’s otherwise Homer Simpson-like list of careers includes only those involving potentially attractive clothes. For instance, even Beekeeper Barbie looks fetching in a veiled pith helmet, but there’s no Deep Sea Diver Barbie.
But that means little of the satire in the movie is very relevant to contemporary America. For example, when Barbie and Ken have to travel from Barbieland to Venice Beach for reasons, Barbie is catcalled by preppies and construction workers straight out of a 1970s movie.
In the real world, however, when filming nobody catcalled the beautiful star, because in the 2020s, everybody, even the horde of homeless meth-heads infesting Venice Beach, knows you don’t dare comment on a woman’s appearance, not even Margot Robbie in an outfit that will probably win a Best Costume Oscar.
And, of course, this silence made the star feel self-conscious, just as the scripted catcalls made her character feel self-conscious. Likewise, in the ideological climax of the movie, a woman delivers an instantly acclaimed monologue about how being a feminist means you feel sorry for yourself when people say things about you and also you feel sorry for yourself when people don’t say things about you, and so forth and so on.
Of course, there’s little evidence that co-writer Baumbach, a handsome half-Jewish half-WASP Chad who has made a string of fine art-house comedies such as The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story in the manner of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, takes feminist orthodoxy seriously.
Hence, when Ken visits the corporate towers of Century City, he realizes that outside of Barbieland, men sometimes do great things. He returns to Barbieland and persuades his fellow Kens to assert themselves, which immediately causes the Barbies to fall head over heels in love with them.
Strikingly, this onset of patriarchy raises the previously vapid intellectual level when Barbieland was run by females, as each Ken develops a not uninteresting topic of specialization to lecture his Barbie upon, such as the pervasive influence of the Velvet Underground or the cinematic mastery of Francis Ford Coppola. (But megalomaniacal Ken has to develop a fascination with horses to keep the interest of girls in the audience.)
What else could Gerwig and Baumbach have done to make Barbie more interesting?
Instead of just Barbieland and the movie’s not-very-incisive Real World, part of the world-building should have included a slum adjoining Barbieland called Broburgh, home to all the Barbies’ unnamed and unmentioned brothers that’s the bane of the Barbies’ otherwise perfect existence, due to the constant clang of car crashes, the glare of fireballs, the unexplained thuds and groans, and the whine of dive bombers and clatter of ack-ack fire intruding upon their genteel idyll.
Also, Barbie lacks a villain to motivate the plot. Rather than cast Will Ferrell as the bumbling but well-meaning CEO of Mattel, I can envision him in a military skirt, like the Biden administration’s amazing Admiral Levine, as the sinister General Pronoun who propagandizes little girls’ pubescent big sisters into believing that the reason they are suddenly moody is because a disastrous mistake was made when they were born and they really have always been boys.
Now, that would be a worthy foe against whom Barbie rallies little girls.