Film Review: “Barbie” — Existential Crisis in Pink
By Peg Aloi
Director Greta Gerwig’s hard-edged but affectionate paean to Barbie is sweeter than it is satirical, slightly more perky than political.
Greta Gerwig’s garrulous, grandiose, glittery, giddy, and gorgeous gem of a movie is a candy-colored cinematic juggernaut. Beyond its playful plot elements, Barbie is chock full of pop culture baubles, and a rollicking running commentary that is by turns scathing, hilarious, and transgressive.
The backdrop is pure kitsch, familiar to those of us who grew up in the Age of Barbie, roughly spanning the ’60s until the present. Decades’ worth of attempts by manufacturer Mattel to keep Barbie (a white, blonde, long-legged, slender, buxom bombshell) relevant as both a toy and a cultural icon are infused into the film’s production design, from the fastidiously accurate costume designs (based on actual doll fashions, “sold separately”) to the clever, surreal topography of Barbieland: a perfectly pleasant place where every woman is accomplished, smart, confident, and happy. Or so all the doll citizens believe.
Barbieland also contains a utopia-cornucopia of diversity: race, ethnicity, size, shape, and ability. The omniculturalism is an acknowledgment of the brand’s recent attempts to address its history of homogeneity as well as an ironic response to the fascistic miasma of bigotry that’s reappearing on the American landscape. We see numerous “special” Barbies (which they didn’t have when I was a kid: Barbie and Ken were pretty standard issue then) that encompass a glorious spectrum of accomplishments: Barbie as doctor, lawyer, scientist, artist, author, even a President Barbie. There are two rather glaringly obvious omissions from this admirable sociopolitical zeitgeist: sexuality and gender. But the latter receives a nod with the casting of several nonbinary actors (like Hari Nef), and the former with tongue-in-cheek PG-13 references to homosexuality and the (to the denizens of Barbieland) baffling — and slightly embarrassing — absence of genitalia. Beneath the layers of peppy topical humor there’s some subtle sophistication (the PG-13 rating assumes smart kids are in attendance). Even better, the film gathers fantastical tangents into this gently Jungian fable, detours that often provide moments of surprising pathos.
Barbie, aka Stereotypical Barbie (the stunningly good Margot Robbie), is having a bit of an existential crisis that is assumed by her and others to be a mechanical malfunction. She is thinking about death, even wondering if there might be more to life than total happiness and perfection every day. She’s told by her many friends she must go visit Weird Barbie (the marvelous Kate McKinnon) who, like a witch on the edge of the forest, lives on the outskirts of Barbieland. This weird Barbie wears bright pink — but her clothes are baggy and shapeless. Her affinity for Birkenstock sandals is a sly wink to McKinnon’s status as an out lesbian (and the Indigo Girls are on tap), and a hint that the “real world” offers experiences still untried by Barbie and her friends. Her face, painted with geometric symbols, and her messy, spiky hair (a sort of desexualized punk look) suggest that she is a Barbie who was mistreated (her hair chopped, her face drawn on with magic markers). She was forced to live on the fringes, unlike the Barbies who inhabit a pink plastic suburban dreamscape. Perhaps she has survived trauma and lived to tell the tale, or perhaps her edge-dwelling status makes her a kind of elder priestess, convinced she knows how to heal all of the Barbies in Barbieland: send them to the Real World on a quest, to witness the fullness of existence in all its messiness and pain.
While Barbie is immersed in her mission, experiencing various troubling aspects of the Real World, including glimpses of what the patriarchy has wrought, Barbieland undergoes a transformation. To say more might reveal too much of this film’s wacky journey: let’s just say it unfolds with picturesque glee, cartoonish at times, yet also precise in its aesthetic/archetypal vision. On top of that, there’s the soundtrack: great songs from across the pop music spectrum, including two stunning originals by Lizzo and Billie Eilish.
The cast isn’t given too much to do beyond look physically perfect and frolic in the clownish phantasm of their shiny world. Still, when things become a bit dark, when glimmers of pain shine through, when the perfect pink pastel world is overshadowed by gray, grim reality, the excellent cast morphs itself to fit the downcast moods and the challenges of self-actualization. Standouts include America Ferrara as a “real” person who still harbors a deep love for what Barbie meant to her as a girl, but who wants so much more for women and girls to aspire to. Also, kudos to Ryan Gosling for being so effective in a role that he was (arguably) miscast in. Or was it intentional, a reminder that a Ken who is older and less physically perfect than his doll doppelganger is acceptable in a way that an actress less physically perfect than Robbie might not be?
I found myself wondering about Barbie’s ending. Despite being shown a bigger picture, the inhabitants of Barbieland still choose to live in a colorful, nonmessy world, one that is hopelessly mired in rigid roles, crass elitism, and toxic positivity. These dangerous platitudes take considerable strength to shake off — is that why they keep accepting them? The film is proof that Barbie’s longevity as a cultural icon is a marvelous yet mysteriously resilient thing. Gerwig’s hard-edged but affectionate paean (co-written with husband Noah Baumbach) is sweeter than it is satirical, slightly more perky than political. I was entertained, and moved; provoked by nostalgia and impressed by the film’s astute macro-vision, but, well, I wanted more. How Barbie of me.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.