“Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”Narrator
Barbie’s opening riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (seen in the teaser trailer) feels like a statement of intent: it is meaningless to children whilst establishing the themes of feminism and the doll’s historical context. Although Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfectly cast — each able to portray insecurity and heartache beneath the plastic veneer — director Greta Gerwig was the primary draw for me, because she is such a surprising choice for Mattel to entrust its most valuable brand. She and Noah Baumbach have penned a hugely ambitious script that grapples with identity, women’s liberation, corporate and social satire, and patriarchy within the framework of Barbie and Ken travelling to the real world. I have never seen cellulite used as a call to adventure before, but that is also where the themes begin to muddle. Early on we see how perfection can be its own prison, forcing Barbie to hide her existential crisis, yet her quest for most of the film is restoration of that “perfection”. There is pointed commentary, like the undertone of violence in the attention that Barbie receives in the real world by comparison to Ken. Most of the satire is gentle, however, the film needing to appease its corporate masters and appeal to a core audience which adores the toy. The production design and attention to detail (like a waterless shower) is exquisite, like The Lego Movie embracing the limitations of the toy. Arguably its strongest allegory is when Ken (who as a doll has no identity beyond Barbie’s himbo boyfriend) discovers on arrival in the real world that men can hold all manner of jobs and power, this reversal providing a stark illustration of how important Barbie’s representation of women can be for girls. Yet the narrative result is for Ken to introduce patriarchy to Barbieland and inexplicably succeed. A rant about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman (and, by extension, how it is impossible for a doll representing women to be liked) is astute but swiftly followed by the Barbies manipulating the Kens into turning on one another, culminating in a huge song and dance number (allowing Simu Liu to shine as a rival Ken). Thematically, it’s a bold and broad mess of competing ideas. The thing is, it’s all really entertaining. If superhero films can be praised for their entertainment value despite underdeveloped attempts at sociopolitical commentary, so too can Barbie.