Barbie: A Painfully Honest Beautiful Impossibility

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The “Barbie” movie was a wonder – I say this without exaggeration.  An exploration of pop culture, gender, identity, and humanity with an exceptional cast and amazing visuals, it deserves all the praise it’s gotten ad then some.  I expect it will be the focus of viewing parties, re-releases, and film class studies.

Yes, it’s that good.  It is also a surprise it’s that good because this movie is one with baggage.  Barbie the property brings in issues of sexism, merchandising, strange choices, and often being low-hanging fruit for mockery.  It could have easily failed, or just been a mildly fun ephemera if the people behind it played it safe.

They didn’t, they leaned into the very large load of issues Barbie brings with her, turning all the challenges of making a film about her into the movie.  “Barbie” is good because it’s incredibly honest about the flaws in what it’s based on, and that is what the story is about.

“The poison becomes the medicine,” as the Buddhist saying goes.  So let’s look at why it works – and yes there are spoilers, if you haven’t seen it yet, just go do it.

Barbie as a toy is aspirational, presenting a woman who can be in any profession, but bears a legacy of sexism.  Barbie is still the slim consensus-pretty woman even if she’s been President.  The movie leans into this, ranging from the character of Barbie finding she and her friends didn’t fix the world, to Barbie being told to her face all the negative things she represents.  The ambiguity of Barbie the toy is dealt with in the film directly to the point that the doll herself gets told off.

Barbie is also the subject of decades of blatant merchandising, with new Barbies, new accessories, and more – indeed this movie has its own merchandise.  The movie of course mocks and calls this out in many ways: conversations, showing Barbie’s ridiculous accessories, to Mattel executives (led by a wonderful Will Ferrel) seeing dollar signs from new ideas.  The film never lets you forget it knows what it’s based on, admits it while celebrating the good of Barbie, and mocks the hell out of it’s origins.

If you want to talk merchandise, you have to talk Ken, because the Barbie-Ken pairing is what people expect.  However, what do you do with Ken who is, basically, an accessory?  You turn his own issue of identity, where he forever craves Barbie’s attention yet has no life of his own.  When Ken finds the patriarchy of our world, he imports it back to Barbieland, to seize control in a sad attempt to be empowered and to matterKen is the villain.

When the film dives into patriarchy it is brutally hilarious, as various Kens try to adapt the signifiers of self-destructive macho swagger from our culture.  Their antics are knee-slappingly funny, but also disturbing as these plastic men lean into posturing and the omnipresent hint of violence.  The human women who become involved in Barbie’s adventures are brutally honest about the sexism they deal with – but also find a way to turn that knowledge into a way to defeat the Kens.

But “Barbie” isn’t just about these issues.  It deals with everything from the value of play to questions of humanity versus immortality.  “Barbie” uses a famous plastic doll to cram in enough ideas for three films.  There’s “going hard” and then there’s whatever Greta Gerwig did in this film.

This is all pulled off by a stellar cast that – and I cannot emphasize this enough – deserve multiple Oscars.  Margot Robbie delivers an incredibly nuanced performance.  Ryan Gosling turns living-accessory Ken into a complex and messed-up character.  There’s not a single actor who isn’t “on” in this movie.

Like I said, it’s good.

It is a strange, funny, disturbing, hilarious movie about a popular doll.  It could not have been these things and done it so well if it had played nice or avoided controversy.  But fortunately for us, “Barbie” is about all the flaws and ambiguity surrounding the toy and it’s world, and that’s why it’s a truly good film.

It’s a movie that celebrates Barbie by being about everything wrong about her and our world – and that’s an achievement.

Steven Savage