I grew up in a Barbie family, in addition to a deeply feminist family. Together with My Little Pony, Cherry Merry Muffin, and (prized above all) my in depth assortment of She-Ra motion figures, my mom gave me and my sister Barbie dolls for “imaginative play,” one thing Mother inspired simply as a lot as she inspired us to play video video games, for hand-eye coordination and for our potential careers in STEM, naturally. Our TV habits had been mediated with feminism in thoughts, too; I watched and rewatched She-Ra: Princess of Energy on VHS, however I barely knew He-Man, whom I thought of as irrelevant as Ken. As I grew older and met different youngsters, although, I noticed I had been dwelling in Reverse Land. Everyone else knew He-Man higher than She-Ra. The feminine-dominated world of Barbie, She-Ra, My Little Pony, and so forth was a farce. The actual world was made for Ken.
Heading into the press screening for Barbie, I regressed again into the attractive, childlike misconceptions of my toy assortment. I spent my drive to the film considering again on my love of Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey and I, Tonya, in addition to my admiration for Greta Gerwig’s physique of labor, from Frances Ha to Little Girls. Even realizing this film must wrestle with Mattel’s involvement and management over the huge Barbie model, I knew director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach would discover their very own strategy to unpack and analyze trendy requirements of femininity and feminist thought. I figured it’d be slightly humorous, slightly deep, perhaps slightly too fundamental, however hopefully smarter than The Lego Film.
I didn’t anticipate this to be a film about Ken — and extra importantly, a film Ryan Gosling steals with such superb aplomb that I can’t even be that mad at him for it.
[Ed. note: Minor setup spoilers ahead for Barbie.]
Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.
Don’t get me improper. Margot Robbie isn’t any slouch as what the film calls “Stereotypical Barbie” — the blond bombshell youngsters in Mattel focus teams level to when offered with various Barbie dolls and requested, “Which one is Barbie?” Stereotypical Barbie begins the film as a assured lady who is aware of precisely who she is, and doesn’t ever need something to alter. She lives in Barbieland, a fantasy realm conjured by Mattel that’s powered by the imaginations of children who play with Barbie dolls. It’s a world dominated by Barbies, and unashamed of conventional female tropes. The president is a Barbie (performed by Issa Rae, in a pink silk “President” sash). The Supreme Court docket is all Barbie. And each Nobel Prize winner in historical past is — you guessed it — a Barbie. Each pink-washed DreamHouse mansion in Barbieland is owned by a lady who makes her personal cash and spends her free time indulging in “ladies’ nights” the place everyone shares a wonderful communal wardrobe.
Stereotypical Barbie has no motive to depart this stunning female realm. She’s pressured to trek into the cruel world of Actuality solely as a result of someplace, somebody is taking part in together with her whereas experiencing such intense existential angst that their feelings are reaching Barbieland and drilling into Barbie’s psyche. Her real-world proprietor is inadvertently inflicting her to consider loss of life, get precise cellulite on her thighs, and even develop articulated ankles that have all-too-real ache when she stuffs her toes into stiletto heels.
However even earlier than the wall between Barbieland and Actuality begins breaking down, it’s all too clear that that is Ken’s film. On the movie’s outset, Barbie has all of it, and Margot Robbie sells Barbieland’s bland, uncomplicated happiness with a frozen-but-satisfied smile. For Ken, although, it’s by no means been that straightforward. Barbie is comfortable by default, however Ken is just comfortable when Barbie acknowledges him. In a world the place each night time is ladies’ night time, Ken can by no means expertise satisfaction.
Ken isn’t simply annoyed about competing with all the numerous different Kens for Barbie’s affection — though that is a matter, with sizzling, comparatively youthful it boy Simu Liu taking part in a model of Ken who makes Ryan Gosling’s Ken sweat bullets. Ken lacks objective in Barbieland, and he needs that to alter. With out Barbie, he’s nothing — and more often than not, Ken is with out Barbie. He’s an afterthought whose foremost position in life is holding her purse.
Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Warner Bros.
Barbie begins off gradual, doing the work of building the cutesy realm of Barbieland so there’s a transparent, darkish distinction when the movie ultimately enters Actuality. However even on this opening act, Gosling swipes every scene from the sidelines, his face wracked by the near-constant heartbreak of Barbie’s lack of curiosity in him. As a viewer, I used to be way more drawn to his arc, whilst I nervous, Is it a foul factor that Ken is the perfect factor in regards to the Barbie film?
However Barbie stays one step forward of that thought, as a result of it’s all main as much as an skilled commentary on how little ladies will at all times understand, eventually, that the true world is run by males, and that its Kens have extra energy than its Barbies. And as soon as Gosling’s Ken makes it to Actuality, he realizes this too, and he goes full males’s rights activist, transitioning from Barbie’s placeholder boyfriend into some of the fascinating antagonists in trendy pop cinema.
The movie’s comedic but incisive commentary on poisonous masculinity is its strongest throughline, because it infects Gosling’s Ken, and ultimately the entire remainder of Barbieland’s Kens and Barbies. Each time the film is joking in regards to the patriarchy and the very concept of the boys’s rights motion, it sings. It additionally actually sings, with frequent in-jokey background songs, and a sequence the place all of the Kens bore their respective Barbie girlfriends to tears by whipping out acoustic guitars to sing at her somewhat than to her. Everyone knows what we don’t need in a person. The far harder level to make, it seems, is about Barbie herself, and what she represents. Who’s Barbie in 2023?
Margot Robbie’s Barbie asks that query in quite a lot of alternative ways, however the reply turns into no clearer as soon as she visits Actuality. It’s helpful to capitalize Actuality when describing Barbie, as a result of not like Splash or Enchanted, this film doesn’t try and depict a recognizable model of our human world. Actuality as depicted in Barbie is as a lot of a caricature as Barbieland, filled with recognizable tropes: sexist, catcalling development staff, fist-pumping health club bros, and well-heeled white-collar executives who helpfully clarify how the patriarchy works. Actuality is simply as cartoonish as Barbieland. That works completely for instance the intense cartoonishness of males’s rights as interpreted by Ken, but it surely falls a bit quick on the subject of illustrating the complexities of Barbie’s identification as a doll, a world model, and a social phenomenon, a lot much less a personality trying to know up to date American womanhood.
Photograph: Warner Bros. Footage
There’s a 3rd rail that Gerwig and Baumbach scarcely dare to the touch in Barbie: physique picture. Barbie designers at Mattel have struggled on this area, too, as Barbie’s nonstandard however idealized physique proportions have remained controversial, whilst the corporate has launched a number of variations lately. (They embody a “curvy” Barbie, a “petite” Barbie, a Barbie with articulated knees who can use a wheelchair, and so forth.) Sure, Barbie can have each profession possible — she may be president, even when real-life girls can’t — however can she handle to rise above a dimension 6?
Within the Barbie film, she actually can. Margot Robbie positively doesn’t have the proportions of the unique “stereotypical Barbie,” though I’d say she’s shut sufficient. (I don’t care to search for the numerical comparability, as a result of it could solely depress me.) However this film’s full forged of Barbies would completely not be capable of share their outfits, which the film by no means explicitly addresses or resolves. Sharon Rooney of Hulu’s My Mad Fats Diary will get to be a Barbie with out her dimension ever being talked about. Hari Nef, the primary transgender mannequin to signal with IMG Fashions, can be a Barbie. Like all the opposite Barbies (and in contrast to so many trans folks), she by no means has to fret about anyone questioning her genitalia, as a result of no person in Barbieland has any genitalia in any way.
Barbieland is a fantasy of good inclusion, but it’s additionally a flattened one, as a result of even in Actuality, the problems going through non-Barbie-type girls by no means totally floor. They get a fast, pointed acknowledgement from the mouth of Gloria (America Ferrera), a put-upon Actuality mother who works for Mattel, and nonetheless loves Barbie despite all the luggage that comes together with her. At one level, Gloria runs down the ever-expanding checklist of double requirements trendy American girls face, such because the strain to be “skinny,” which girls should declare is as a result of they need to be “wholesome” so that they don’t look useless or shallow, although they’ll actually simply be judged for not being skinny. Not one of the non-thin Barbies react thus far, as a result of they don’t fairly work in a story that has to simplify all of the social and gender points it raises, at the least if the credit are ever going to roll.
By the identical token, the non-white Barbies and Kens argue about “the patriarchy” amongst themselves upon studying about it, however they don’t ever appear to find out about racial politics, although Simu Liu’s Ken wouldn’t have existed 13 years in the past. (The primary-ever Asian Ken doll was, um, “Samurai Ken” in 2010.) And Kate McKinnon, taking part in a so-called “Bizarre Barbie” who skilled an excessive haircut and makeover by the hands of an experimental youngster, by no means really solutions the query anyone would have upon seeing her gay-ass haircut and realizing the actor’s sexuality. But even when nobody says it, “Bizarre Barbie” is clearly “Homosexual Barbie.”
Photograph: Warner Bros.
Skipping over all these conversations isn’t an oversight: It’s a sequence of intentional selections designed to maintain an already overstuffed, heady, and cerebral film transferring alongside at a sprightly tempo. I don’t want the Barbie film, delivered to me with Mattel’s approval, to supply incisive political commentary on each difficulty of the day. It’s greater than sufficient that it unravels so lots of America’s masculine anxieties of the second, and that it does its job backward and in excessive heels.
Barbie the doll needs to be every part for everybody, and she or he’s by no means succeeded. Barbie the film has been requested to carry out the identical unattainable trick — and similar to I nonetheless really feel a sentimental attachment to Barbie, I really feel an amazing fondness and admiration for the film’s daring try and make it work. I had forgotten that I had ever even skilled the dream world Barbieland provided me as a younger lady. Barbie made me keep in mind. That alone is sufficient to make the entire film sparkle with stunning, refreshing hearth.
Barbie opens in theaters on July 21.