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What about Ordinary Barbie?




One has to take one’s hat off to the Barbenheimer phenomenon, perhaps the more so because it appears to be an organic, rather than studio-initiated, one (they’d never willingly come up with something as smart as increasing audiences for their own movie by cross-promoting another studio’s. Albeit, the Nobel Prize = for Horses, for Physics – is mentioned in both). Nevertheless, Barbie is feeble. Not feeble for the reasons many of those maligning it suggest – that it’s variously the latest woke-garbagefest and explicitly misandrist with it, although one can legitimately argue both charges – but because it resoundingly fails to make hay from its meta-potential, delivering a series of tired and tiresome, obvious, repetitive jokes and allusions wrapped up in a bow of empty, comfort-food affirmations. 

Barbie’s also fatally found wanting in the requisite visual-acumen department. Sure, there’s the “vibrant” colour palette, which has evidently hidden a whole host of shortcomings for many, but Greta Gerwig lacks the larger-than-life sensibility this particular toy-range adaptation demands. She can’t even boast an eye for composition in the Wes Anderson range (because Barbie is appears to be aiming, in terms of static shooting approach, for the Anderson-esque, but he has a very clear, inspired purpose in how he embroiders his tableau frames). 

Gerwig is far from the first to lack the chops for such endeavours; she’s a solid indie director, and she’s received legitimately favourable notices in that ballpark (although Little Women, with its meta-period-feminist overlay, was beginning to show the limitations of her reach). But she’s been royally anointed, it seems – gotta have a legit superstar female director out there – and with the help of second-units and effects teams may indeed make it as a bona-fide A-lister (The Chronicles of Narnia is coming up for Netflix, doubtless purged of any Christian metaphors). Barbie put me in mind of other directors who conspicuously failed to show an aptitude for a styled milieu, from Mark Steven Johnson with Daredevil, to Rachel Talalay with Tank Girl, to Chris Weitz with The Golden Compass, to Barry Levinson’s empty vessel Toys (even the considerably more talented John McTiernan and the much better than this but similarly meta Last Action Hero, which was a mismatch of director and material). 

At no point in Barbie did I sense a director boosting the material with energy, brio or idiosyncrasy, less still technique. This is the Hairspray remake vs the John Waters original. The only personality this picture has is that of the by-now more-than-familiar meta template previously instituted by the likes of The Lego Movie. Which as, of course, super-slick, but Lord and Miller are nothing if not comedy craftsmen. At best, Barbie’s targets are hit-and-miss, courtesy of a screenplay from Gerwig and paramour Noah Baumbach (I hesitate to call him Sugar Daddy Ken, but since the movie goes there…) But even the halfway-decent ones tend to languish or falter due to Gerwig’s unfamiliarity with such heightened comedy playing and timing. 

The couple’s previous indie dramedy brand(s) don’t suggest this kind of fare is really in their wheelhouse. Baumbach, admittedly, might be argued as having some prior form, with Wes Anderson collaborations The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox (oh, and six pages of rewrites on Madagascar 3). But in those cases, a stronger guiding hand – be it director or house style – established the ground rules. By all accounts, they inherited several kernels when they came to Barbie, ones considered necessary to make the project viable; it was always going to be a meta-movie, and a comedy.

The Lego Movie dictated the standard form for the toy-adaptation approach when the product is merely a totem, absent of embellishing a character or story (Super Mario Bros, as a game, for example, is already equipped with a world, a plot, motivation and objectives, however thin they might be). But The Lego Movie was in turn, feeding off the self-awareness of prior pictures (from the Toy Story franchise to The Brady Bunch Movie). Also incumbent on Barbie was that it had to celebrate, rather than simply mock, its product (it is incumbent upon it to sell more of that product off its back). 

Barbie was in development for a decade and a half, nigh on, before its belated delivery, coming closest with Diablo Cody and Amy Schumer’s – then Anne Hathaway’s – “anti-Barbie” (Cody: “I heard endless references to The Lego Movie in development, and it created a problem for me because they had done it so well. Any time I came up with something meta, it was too much like what they had done”). As Cody noted, though, it’s less that Gerwig and Baumbach cracked it than enough water had flowed under the bridge, such that they can cast Will Ferrell in a virtually identical role “and nobody cares” (of course, Ferrell was alive when The Lego Movie came out, and his clone is conspicuously underpowered by comparison).

That was when Sony had the rights. Now it’s a Warner Bros production, the studio dumping movies left and right and trying to avoid the fallout from its flops. So they’ll be rubbing their hands with glee at the movie’s success. What we get is, in some respects, closer to Legally Blonde than Lord and Miller – ditzy airhead becomes a super-capable example to women everywhere – but without that movie’s charm and clarity of intent. 

If that’s the background, what are we to make of its arrival now, in the current global environment? What is Barbie’s purpose, in a socio-political – and light/dark – context? Was it allowed as a “by their own mouths…” self-demolition (à la, presumably, all the Disney MCU, Pixar, Star Wars fare of the last few years), one that somehow managed, against the odds, to be embraced by audiences (perhaps because it wasn’t swimming against the tide of an increasingly irate fanbase)? That is, replete with the kinds of progressive inclusivity that have been turning audiences against other examples (the movie includes a super-fat Barbie, a trans-Barbie and – I had to check myself, as this was the biggest boast for the picture being genuinely meta-meta, commenting on the absurdity of maximum wokeness, the sort of thing Daniel Waters might have thrown in, back in his heyday, except that it’s just about the only example – a wheelchair Barbie during a dance routine. Of course, while we’re shown every ethnicity of Barbies and Kens, the leads are still thoroughly, shamefully white). 

Gerwig considered Barbie’s “Do you guys ever think about dying?” as emblematic of the movie’s “anarchic” nature.  But this is a picture that voices “existential” doubts (via Ferrell’s CEO character, of all people) in aid of blandly “humanist” (Gerwig’s word) ambivalence. How could it be otherwise in a materialist dream, one where the only touchstones are the Hegelian conflicts that keep everyone from seeing the wood (that is, the movie selects gender differences as its focus, but then gets rather confused by the implications)? It’s telling that concerns of cellulite immediately trump those of mortality. 

The idea of Kens existing to serve Barbie (which is, I would assume, essentially how the actual dolls are utilised for play, so not simply a gender switch on “how women are treated in the real world”), is a decent starting point, as is the Kens taking over; there needed to be some conflict, some quest to be resolved, if the toy’s going to be successfully stretched to movie length. But the glib coda that “One day, Kens will have as much influence in Barbieland as women have in the real world” – the Barbieland matriarchy is restored, and Kens are back to being subservient, as it should be – is self-perpetuating, “it’s your turn” schtick that has been used to justify any objections to progressive extremism. Added to which, it derives from a nominally feminist position that wants to compete in, and thus perpetuate the accepted patriarchal – if you want to call it that, although Elite might be a better term – corporate, financial and social paradigm (feminism itself being an engineered, Hegelian movement). 

Gerwig throws a soft ball that, “if women want to be mothers”, they should be allowed to be (by which I’m assuming, without the accompanying job that would prove they’re “real” women). But really, the picture is schizophrenic about what women want to be – hence America Ferrara’s embarrassingly salutary speech on how difficult everything is for her gender: “It’s literally impossible to be a woman”. For a man, sure, that’s “literally” impossible – but without the additional layer that would make that pointed and meaningful in itself; it’s much easier simply to rest on the crutch that it’s men holding back any self-actualisation. Which is to say, it wouldn’t have taken too much more to make a genuinely clever Barbie movie, but that would have required getting above the easy-meta to the next level, and clearly, Gerwig and Baumbach either don’t have the attunement for it or don’t have the permission.

Because I keep going back to Baumbach’s White Noise in this context. I thought it was an engaging picture, in a kind of messy, bloated way, but its main legacy became evident subsequent to its release. Namely, how the movie’s toxic chemical cloud predictively programmed an actual toxic chemical cloud; White Noise was a Black Hat project, doubtless devised with however many months/years’ potential lead-in to the real-world event. So where does that place Baumbach in terms of culpability? And by extension, Gerwig? A knowing and willing participant? A reluctant one? Oblivious? Was the project itself “allowed”, as seems to be the case with many activities in the pre- and post-plandemic media environment? Once can’t simply call attention to collaborators on such a mission of intent (Adam Driver may be deceased, but he’s having an immensely prolific cloned career). 

Narrator: Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.

To wit, Barbie. Starring Hollywood hermaphrodite Margot Robbie (who better to play an icon of “stereotypically pretty” – see quote above – womanhood than someone intergender?). Who’s a White Hat. And Ryan Gosling, who, it seems, is in plea-bargaining mode. Parsing this movie is additionally problematic because it’s such a conceptual muddle. The asleep/awake aspect of Barbieland runs hand-in-hand with a Garden of Eden element, but this a rickety, mix-and-match construction. Barbie will eagerly volunteer, in the real world, “We don’t have genitals”, a joke at the expense of internal (character) consistency. Which is fair, to an extent – a joke always wins out – but less so, if you ‘re also straining for emotional resonance (if she’s just become aware of this, how has she become aware? That is, how does she even know what genitals are?) 

Hence her final line “I’m here to see my gynaecologist” – the post-credits reveal should have been of a waiting Dr Hari Nef – such that Barbie’s enabled to become a real girl after meeting her creator (it’s a crass “mike drop”, as Gerwig admits. And for a movie kids are going to see, underlines that it’s about as suitable as Turning Red). So presumably, in Barbieland, gender is a state of mind? Which, I guess, is what wokesters would have you believe of the actual one. And if those playing with Barbies are imbuing them with their consciousness and awareness, shouldn’t a lack of genitalia along with poor tailoring and a tendency to plasticity preoccupy all the toys?

Ferrara’s Gloria – as a woman – is responsible for Barbie’s existential funk, as a consequence of submitting to the rules of a patriarchal system where she can’t please anyone (juggling a job for Mattel with motherhood). Fair enough, down with men. But the Barbie line is a creation of women – the enormous boon (or bone) of having a woman co-founder of Mattel, super-wise spiritual matriarch-Geppetto Ruth Handler (Rhea Pearlman) who can fortuitously be celebrated for… thriving on patriarchal values – so who is more culpable, precisely? 

Barbie is initially unbelieving at Mattel’s boardroom infrastructure – “Are any women in charge?” – in this “Very long, phallic building” (that’s about the level of gags here). But what have the men in the power structure done wrong, aside from perpetuating Handler’s “glorious” legacy? A Mattel minion offers “I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?” And the answer, obviously, is that it depends how demonstrative you are about your pronouns. There’s a scene where Ken can’t get a job and asks a suit “Isn’t being a man enough? He receives the reply “Actually, right now, it’s kind of the opposite”, which you think might be an opportunity to get outside the programming and comment on it. Instead, he advises that, actually, it’s still the same as it’s always been: “We’re just hiding it better”. Phew, message stuck with and on point: create the conditions of a struggle that never ends, and when necessary, move the goalposts or disrupt the paradigm in order to institute and focus upon a new struggle of social inequality.

Ugly Betty attests “Either you’re brainwashed. Or you’re weird and ugly. There is no in-between”. Which is an interesting comment, if extracted from its most obvious, humanist association. Barbie decides to become human, which one might argue is akin to graduating from being an NPC, but there’s a muddle there, in that Gloria is also an NPC, and as far as we can tell, so is the Mattel CEO. In this mix, Handler possibly makes for some kind of benign demiurge: “I created you so you wouldn’t have an ending” (also a recipe for Luciferian apotheosis). The abiding impression, then, is one of half-formed ideas and undeveloped themes, aside from the necessarily platitudinous need to send viewers from the theatre on an empty high. Handler might not be an NPC, but she offers no invitation to move beyond the artificial constructs and vocabularies – be they feminism, humanism, consumerism – that limit self-awareness (notably, the picture becomes bound up in self-consciousness on arrival in the real world instead, which is very Edenic, but cheaply so).

President Barbie (Issa Rae) asks another Barbie (not a Ken, obviously) “Would you like a job in my cabinet? Shouldn’t she be questioning her right to lead her cabinet as a non-self-aware construct made self-aware (or, at least, now aware of the concept of inequality)? Call elections (do Kens get to vote)? Or is she still completely oblivious, despite the Ken coup? Such that Barbie the only one who’s awake, which is why she’s now choosing her own genitalia? Most likely, it only pays to put as much effort into deconstructing the workings of this world as Gerwig and Baumbach did writing it. Which isn’t much.

Such muddiness might be less of a problem, were the jokes able to stand on their own. Alas, they’re consistently subject to leaden overstatement, exemplified by the insufferably smug Helen Mirren narration. We’ve seen much of this in riffs elsewhere. Little girls smashing up dolls, 2001-bone style (as in, prescribed maternal behaviourisms instituted by a malignant patriarchy are replaced by, er, Barbies) was funnier when it was Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson with a computer in Zoolander. Barbie waking every day in a Groundhog Day world, only to become conscious something is wrong. Barbie is told “You’ve opened a portal”, but this is actually just a figure of speech (because there’s a portal’s in The Lego Movie, presumably). She returns to an altered, nightmare Barbieland, à la Back to the Future Part II. Crucially, all these earlier examples are much, much better executed.

I was all prepared for Barbie to be a smart movie despite itself, for it to be commenting – in part, at least – on the very things those critiquing it have taken issue with. You might make the argument “it’s a genius mockery of wokeism”, but you’d have to ignore an awful lot of its content to do that. And even if you did, you’d struggle to convince that anything therein is “genius”. 

Sasha Stone similarly offered a “Ten Ways Barbie is Unintentionally Red-Pilled”, which is mostly symptomatic of how one can jump through hoops to read a text in a manner that fits one’s own ideology (at the same time, it’s indicative of how messy and incoherent the movie is, not just in terms of its world(s), but its targets). It’s difficult to get away from Barbie restoring order to “woke utopia” Barbieland, or her emigrating to the real world after she’s given genitalia (ie, far from the movie saying you need a vagina to be a real woman, it’s saying an adult – well, depending on how eager butchering surgeon is – can be furnished with one and so announce herself as a real woman. And then there’s the additional layer of a hermaphrodite playing a toy woman who becomes a real woman. Not that a hermaphrodite isn’t a real woman. She’s just also a real man. As Ken says “I have all the genitals”). Perhaps Barbie is going to the real world because, woke having won in the fake one, she has a new mission in mind? On the other hand, who knows, perhaps Sasha is onto something, and I completely missed Barbie’s “ode to motherhood”.

Then there’s Christianity Today, mostly on board, it seems, because it can run with the Edenic analogy, and finding within the picture a Ken and Barbie discovering their humanity against a backdrop of gender wars. Which… Well, it credits the movie with far more intelligent design – if you will – than I was able to discern.

Ken’s patriarchal mind virus elicits an “Oh my God, this is the 1500s, with the indigenous people and small pox. They had no defence against it”. Which tells you a lot, particularly since Gerwig was inspired in her writing by the “isolation” of plandemic lockdowns. Would a self-respecting movie have allowed clone Will Ferrell to get away with “I’m here for little girls and their dreams, in the least creepy way possible”? Or included – at Gerwig’s insistence – the retch-worthy scene where Barbie tells an old woman “You’re beautiful”, and she replies “I know it”. Which is about as disingenuous as Hollywood gets.

Reporter: Warner Bros have started auditions for the Ken movie, which is already a blockbuster hit!

Really, though, as I said going in, I was most exasperated that there was so little here to keep my attention. The gender deconstruction/reinforcement was a given; it was more a question of how it would be played, of how smart it could be about it. And the answer is, not very. An hour in, and the gloomy realisation dawned that there were still 50 interminable minutes to go. 

But okay: Katie McKinnon was a sparky bright spot as Weird Barbie, able to energise the deadest of scenes (on Ken: “I’d like to see what kind of nude blob he’s packing underneath those jeans”). Robbie and Gosling are fine, as much as they can be (the idea that Ken steals the movie isn’t true, unfortunately, although Ken’s obsession with manly horses is amusing, including wall-screen visions of them running in slo-mo). One has to wonder, who will buy all the Ken dolls in the reconceived, patriarchal Barbieland? Not boys. Perhaps there should have been a GI Joe crossover. “Come on. I’ll play the guitar at you” made me laugh. Michael Cera’s amusing as Alan, particularly his real-world fight scene and assertion that all of N-Sync are escaped Alans. 

Barbie’s made more than $500m in its first week; it’s showing no signs of slowing down, meaning it’s impervious to any voices of dissent coming its way. It’s a mess in both theme and execution, but it’s evidently getting by on its pink-bubblegum dazzle, somehow. Audiences are lapping up what Warner Bros and Mattel have to sell. After all, they’re living in Barbieland, and who am I to burst their bubble? I just hope, for the sequel, they find room for a set piece involving Barbie’s Motor Bike, cruising down the avenue. That might make everything all right again.

Addendum (14/08/23): Another pro-Barbie review worth considering, in the Conservative sphere, comes from Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, as a rejoinder to colleague Ben Shapiro (who hated it). Knowles concludes his reading of the movie’s theme with the claim that, far from being incoherent – my principle objection (well, beyond failing to find it funny) to construing a cogent take on its politics – it is extremely coherent. Unfortunately, Knowles doesn’t bother to support this by taking apart the objections of those attesting otherwise.

Nevertheless, he makes some decent points, even though, as with Christianity Today, they are by necessity the product of cherry picking. Knowles liked Lady Bird (fine), characterising it as “very conservative” and supports this by suggesting, it’s “not even particularly ambiguous that Barbie is a conservative movie”. Of the 2001 opening, where little girls start killing their “babies”, he comments “if that doesn’t sound like feminism, I don’t know what is” and proceeds to note how Pregnant Barbie was discontinued: because promoting traditional motherhood is a strict no-no to feminism. 

Which are solid takes. I’m less on board with Weird Barbie and her blue/red pill, telling Barbie she can’t have the (preferred) high heels and must go to our reality as evidential of feminism only providing one choice (if Barbie Land is the “feminist utopia”, how does that scan?) Knowles then rustles up Rhea Perlman informing Barbie “Women do more than work” (ie an endorsement of their traditional familial/childbearing status) and avers that Barbie rejecting Ken at the conclusion is the right decision, because Ken, as a product of feminism, needs to figure out who he is (in this vein, he also quotes Rhea’s “Humans make things up, patriarchy and Barbie, just to deal with how uncomfortable it is” as critiquing making up the “concepts” – of patriarchy – rather than the “natural” system itself).

His icing on the cake is that Barbie choses to leave Barbie Land because it’s a bad (feminist) place and immediately books an appointment with her gynaecologist because “what really matters here is motherhood”. Which, again, is appreciable fuel to his argument. In support of his position, he references Gerwig using “clear Christian imagery” and saying the movie had double levels of meaning. With regard to the latter, well yeah, double and triple and lateral and tangential and whatever they threw in randomly on the day meaning. You might charitably say it isn’t “accidental” that Barbie can support Knowles’ thesis because Gerwig (and Baumbach) intentionally wanted Barbie to support any takeaway by anyone (making it all things to all people, of all political tastes). I still didn’t find it funny, though.

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