Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence. (from IMDB.com)
It's been quite the summer 2023 surprise that Greta Gerwig's live action take on the beloved Mattel toyline for girls, Barbie, has been such a smash at the box office. The movie sold itself as a fun, light-hearted look at the popular dolls, but instead, Gerwig has used it like a trojan horse to get a not-so-subtle message across to audiences. Barbie, the movie, is part delicious escapism and part gender politics propaganda, but the movie never settles completely on one direction. When it's funny, it's really funny and quite clever, but when it's trying to deliver its message of gender inequality, it's far too heavyhanded and uneven. Sure, I think most of us can agree there is probably a serious image-issue with the plastic perfection that Barbie represents to young girls, but I don't think it's quite as mean-spirited and evil as this movie tries to make it seem.
Part of the problem, too, is that Barbie, the movie, tries too hard to make a cultural impact with a toyline that has probably too much history to it. For example, when the movie opens, we're introduced to "Barbieland," an adorable world where all of the dolls and their play sets through the years exist in an idealistic, perfect society. You know the one... we saw it already in a lovable movie called The LEGO Movie. That film brilliantly poked fun at the perfection in the lives of the LEGO characters, and Barbie largely feels like it's attempting the same idea (heck, both movies even star Will Ferrell and are distributed by Warner Bros). Granted, LEGO toys don't make little girls feel body-conscious, but there's a similar feel to how these two toy worlds are represented. And, to be fair, this review is being written by an adult male who grew up on G.I. Joe, LEGO, and Transformers - not Barbie; I don't know what it's like to grow up with a toyline that gives some girls body-image complexes. (To also be fair, I have grown up with my own fair share of body image issues, but I can't fault any particular toyline or brand for this issue.) My wife played with Barbie dolls as a little girl and not only wanted to see this movie, but has fond memories of the toys and ended up loving this movie. I am not the target audience here, but I was a little interested in the movie largely because of its two central players - Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling - and I can say with certainty that they truly are the best parts of this movie.
Margot Robbie takes a lot of weight on her beautiful shoulders for this movie. She's a stunning young woman and she plays the part of "Stereotypical Barbie" quite well. Robbie gives the character the expected vulnerability and confidence without ever being obnoxious. She stays likeable throughout the film's runtime. Meanwhile, it seems quite evident that Gosling is having the time of his life playing a version of Ken whose life completely revolves around Robbie's Barbie. He's lovably naive -- even when he enters the real world and discovers that men generally "rule the world," compared to women (which is the complete opposite of Barbieland). As soon as Ken discovers this, Gerwig has already started to show her hand to the audience. Robbie's Barbie is suddenly becoming aware of the dark aspects of life because a girl who used to play with her - for which she also shares a deep bond with - is struggling with depressing thoughts on life. Robbie ventures into the real world with Ken to meet her designated human, and is suddenly met with the cold reality that, in the human world, men cat-call women and have the lead in most of the professions. Ken, who was feeling especially inadequate in Barbieland, suddenly feels empowered, especially when he discovers a little thing called "patriarchy." The movie then spirals into a Back to the Future II-style world where, when Barbie returns to Barbieland, Ken has brought patriarchy to their world and the men now rule. Barbie soon learns that her fellow Barbies, who are now serving the men gladly, are under some kind of spell that she needs to snap them out of. While the movie is getting slammed by some people for being man-hating, I wouldn't quite go so far as to dub it that, but it does seem to go out of its way to shame men in any kind of role of "power" or significance. I understand the problems Gerwig is trying to spotlight here, but she's not only using a little girls toyline to do it, but she's making Barbieland's idealistic and "perfect" society out to be a kind of benchmark for what society should be? Again, I acknowledge that there are problems with the roles between the two genders in our society, but I don't think a Barbie movie is the place to try to make a statement -- and I don't think Gerwig makes her point all that well. In the end, it seems like all she's concerned about is making sure even the "slowest" viewer will get her message, and not in making a good movie about Barbie.
In fact, the movie seems to be at war with itself. Where The LEGO Movie celebrated the toyline and feels like a feature-film-length toy commercial, encouraging the viewer to fan the flames of their own creativity, Barbie seems to mostly just highlight everything wrong with the toyline, borderline shaming anyone who has had anything to do with it. At one point, tween girls are scolding Robbie's Barbie for the damage she's done to womankind, and the next moment, the movie is celebrating the woman who created the toyline in the first place. Pick a lane, Gerwig.
There's another ironic issue that rears its head in the film regarding gender roles, as well. Doctor Barbie is played quite obviously by a trans man. A male actor has transitioned over the years to a woman and somehow was cast as the iconic "Doctor Barbie" here (over a biological woman, mind you. Think about that for a second). Even sadder is that the character is given more than its fair share of screentime, too. In a movie talking about women's equality and struggles with beauty, it seems completely backwards, if not misguided (or even twisted -- but at the very least, insulting to real women) to have a man who is trying to pass himself off as a woman in real life trying to play a woman in a movie that is so seriously about real women. It makes the efforts of Barbie (the movie) all that more odd and confusing. Hari Nef barely resembles a real woman (his voice is especially distracting), and it makes a scene where Gosling's Ken compliments Nef on "her" beauty all the more counterfeit and disturbing.
It's all a shame, too, because Gosling's performance as Ken is worth the ticket price alone. He's also given some hilarious dance scenes and dance-off's that are true highlights in the movie. One could argue that Gerwig just wants all men in the movie to look like a joke, and I'd be tempted to agree with that, as Barbie and her counterparts are mostly represented with serious scenes. Even when Stereotypical Barbie rejects Ken's affections, he struggles with an identity crisis, desperate to discover who he really is (and it's played more silly than genuine). Sure, it earns some laughs, but is the message here just a continuous effort to dumb down all men and make them seem inept and useless? I, personally, have no problem with women in powerful roles (and I love Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman); I don't feel threatened by women in take-charge roles. But it's no secret that Hollywood and much of today's society is actively trying to deconstruct men and their roles in family, authority and the workplace, and a movie like this one does give cause to stop and contemplate this. As Christians, the Bible has very specific roles for men and women, and I think, at the end of the day, the Good Book is where we're to look for guidance on how our society should best be handling these two gender roles. It seems the most misguided people with the most flawed views on these topics have the loudest voices today, and it's something we need to be sensitive to.
Since we're dealing with a movie about a childrens' toyline, there's a good reason why this movie is rated PG-13 and not lower. It's not a kids movie. It's not even a family movie. (There's really only one family represented in the movie, and that one is only shown together once in the movie, very briefly. And of course, in the few short moments the husband/father is shown, he seems inept at best.) There is some mild innuendos and language (the worst being a bleeped-out "mother f-----"), but the movie's themes and tone are surprisingly grim and dark. Because Stereotypical Barbie's "human" counterpart is in despair, we see Barbie in Barbieland suddenly being self-aware and contemplating death. It disturbs her perfect society and brings up all kinds of serious topics like mortality, growing old, career, discontentment, troubles in parenthood, and purpose. Barbie even gives up at one point, feeling as if she has no real purpose in life. Yeah, it's kind of a downer. At the same time, Gerwig leans on the Ken characters for humor to lighten the mood a bit, and those really are the movie's best moments.
I'm still kind of surprised by Barbie's success at the box office. I'm not sure if it's mostly curiosity that's filling the theater seats, or if it's actually that big of a hit with audiences. But one thing's for sure -- if you do decide to watch Barbie, there's a good chance you're in for a much different viewing experience than what you might be expecting.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 8/21/23)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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