I had reservations about going to see Barbie. For one thing I didn’t want to be seen succumbing to the massive marketing campaign and the media hype. For another, I heard it was anti-male – Hollywood’s latest exercise in post #Metoo finger-wagging.
But Barbie the movie turned out to be a lot cleverer and funnier than I had expected. Yes, it could be seen as one giant ad for Mattel’s most famous product, but there was nothing sly or subliminal about the merchandising. It opted for that cleverest of advertising strategies: make the audience laugh and they’ll forgive your venal motives and remember your product fondly.
And yes, there was a definite feminist message but it wore its politics lightly – mostly.
The first pleasant surprise came in the opening sequence – Barbie’s origin story. The setting is a barren rocky landscape. The camera moves in to reveal several little girls playing with dolls. A voiceover in the refined tones of Helen Mirren explains that throughout history little girls have played with dolls, but they have always been baby dolls. True. Until…..cue swelling Wagnerian chords… one day in 1959, Barbie arrives! And there she is, standing on a high outcrop and beaming down at the little girls. She’s the original Barbie, of course: an adult woman in a black-and-white striped swimsuit with pale skin, a perfect long slim figure, gorgeous thick blonde hair and a dazzling smile. One by one the little girls take their baby dolls and hurl them to the ground, whereupon the bits and pieces fly up into the air in slow motion, just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This was the first of countless similar sight and sound gags based on pop culture references.
From there the story moves to present-day Barbieland, where stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in a neon-pink paradise with all her Mattel friends and relations. The sight gags come thick and fast as Barbie wakes up, gets dressed, has breakfast and pops into her pink limo to go out for the day. You’ve seen the one where she steps out of her high heels and her feet stay in the tiptoe position, and there’s plenty more in that vein milking the fact that Barbie is actually a doll who doesn’t have to eat or drink or dress herself or open car doors.
I started making mental notes of the cultural jokes but lost count. Just one: As Barbie cruises about waving to her friends, most of whom are also called Barbie, we see a version of Mt Rushmore in the background, with Barbie faces carved out of the cartoon rock instead of the more familiar male Presidents.
The current President of Barbieland is of course, a Barbie. She’s a black woman, as is Nobel Prize-winning Writer Barbie, which I thought was overdoing the inclusivity just a smidgin but hey, this is Mattel’s joke.
The Barbies have had every prestigious occupation under the sun. There’s Astronaut Barbie, Brain Surgeon Barbie and Supreme Court Justice Barbie – a full bench of them in fact. The girls run everything here. Otherwise, the Barbies come in all different colours and ethnicities and body shapes – within reason; there’s no Grossly Overweight Barbie. But there is Wheelchair Barbie and a Pregnant Barbie but the voiceover – or it might have been an onscreen graphic – tells us that this Barbie was discontinued for being ‘too weird’, although she does reappear towards the end.
There’s Barbie’s little sister Skipper but she gets short shrift because her packaging says ‘Babysitter’ – too lowly and domesticated for a starring role.
And of course there’s Ken. Lots of Kens, as diverse as the Barbies, but they are newer arrivals and are outnumbered by the girls. All the males are Kens, except for one – Alan, who was apparently a short-lived buddy of Ken’s who never got to be cloned into multiple versions. He’s a bit of a dag, and I liked that Mattel gave him a small heroic role in the story.
It’s stereotypical Ken, played deliciously by a platinum-haired Ryan Gosling, who fancies Barbie, although neither of them are sure what that means.
The plot, such as it is, goes like this: one day Barbie wakes up atypically grumpy and troubled by thoughts of death and a curious wrinkliness on her thigh. She seeks advice from Weird Barbie, a doll who’s been turned into a bit of a punk by her owner. Weird Barbie tells her that something must have happened to her in the Real World and she’ll have to go there to get to the bottom of it.
She sets off in her pink convertible, accompanied by devoted stowaway Ken who’s ignored her insistence that she doesn’t need his help. As Barbie and Ken gad about Venice Beach in their tizzy neon gear on their yellow rollerblades they are gradually enlightened to the realities of the real world: people age, they lose their beauty, they have cellulite (that skin thing) and they die.
Also, in the real world the girls don’t run everything, the Patriarchy does. Barbie gets wolf-whistled by construction workers. She and Ken manage to figure out the meaning of this, and she replies, in bright innocence: ‘but we don’t have genitals!’
When the Mattel execs (Will Ferrell does a lovely turn as their goofy CEO) get wind that their two main products have gone rogue, a low-level Mattel employee (America Ferrera) helps Barbie and Ken flee back to Barbieland to escape the fate of being put back in their packaging.
But Ken has had a revelation. He rather liked what he saw in the real world: buff men working out, riding horses, wearing cool dark suits, revelling in masculine toughness. He tries to introduce a spot of patriarchy to Barbieland. He goes all gangsta: he’s a scream in his mink and his shades. The scene is set for a showdown of the sexes.
A friend of mine took her pre-teen granddaughter to see Barbie and reported that while most of it went over her head, the little girl wanted to know: what’s the patriarchy? My friend explained that the moral of the story is that things work best when both men and women have an equal say in things.
And so say all of us. Matters are eventually resolved along these lines, but not before we’ve sat through a speech by America Ferrera that sounds like a cut-and-paste from a Women’s Studies class. She actually uses turgid phrases like ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘paradigm shift’ to explain things like why although it’s the patriarchy that foists high heels on women, it’s still okay to wear them.
The other eye-rolling bit was when the ghost of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, appears towards the end, introducing herself as the inventor of Barbie. (This isn’t quite true. Barbie was taken from a German doll called Lilli, whose designer always maintained he was diddled by Mattel, but that’s another story.)
Ruth delivers a speech excusing the impossible expectations she’s laid on little girls over the years with a whole load of California psychobabble about finding out who you truly are and yada yada yada.
Barbie has just broken box office records for a movie directed by a woman, and Greta Gerwig is now one of Hollywood’s most powerful players. I wonder if she still reckons the patriarchy runs everything. Or will she bravely endure the cognitive dissonance all the way to the bank?
As with advertising, so with politics. You sell your message better when you leave out the sermonising and make the people laugh. Barbie should have stuck to making jokes.
Fortunately the jokes are pretty good, and on the whole Barbie is a whole lotta fun. And the dance routines are hot.