/ 27 July 2023

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ movie is worth the hype

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Barbieland: Margot Robbie plays the perfect Barbie with Ken (Ryan Gosling) as one of her accessories . Photo: Supplied

Despite the highly saturated pink of Barbie mania the world experienced during the build-up to the premiere of the 2023 Barbie movie, nothing can prepare audiences for something as life-altering as this film. 

Barbie is a roller coaster of emotions. You will laugh and then you will cry; you will gasp at the short-tongued humour and then you will cry a little more after being confronted with the reality of your own childhood. 

But the film does have both depth and quirk, which is the signature genius of Barbie’s director and writer, Greta Gerwig, who has her finger on the pulse of where society is today. 

Barbie does pay homage to the widely popular toy of little girls, but the movie is for the little girls in adults and not for a young audience. 

Everyone has an association with the Barbie doll, whether it is a happy memory of playing with them or opposition to everything Barbie represents. 

To understand the complexities of Barbie, Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) transcend Barbieland — a realm adjacent to the Garden of Eden where every day is perfect — and enter the real world. Here Barbie experiences the consequences of being a woman in a patriarchal society and Ken is shown the privileges he has by default because he is a heterosexual white man. Although Ken’s perception of patriarchy and all the benefits it has to offer him is warped, the humour lands every single time because it is so caustic and juvenile. 

Barbie highlights both the iconic Barbie doll and the counter-arguments many have against her, like the tension between Barbie as an aspirational figure who also represents unrealistic standards. But, just like most women, Barbie is a complex character. 

We see this in America Ferrera’s monologue, which articulates the female experience of watching ourselves and other women tie themselves into tight knots in pursuit of safety and likeability under patriarchal pressures. This scene is swooping and powerful, making it the stand-out scene of the film. 

Gerwig and Robbie do such a good job of portraying Barbie in the everyday from the perspective of how the Barbie doll is played with by a little girl. There is no water in Barbieland because Barbie is perfect and wakes up every day with perfect hair. She is clean and well put together because that is Barbie’s legacy. There are also no stairs in Barbie’s Dream House because little girls do not walk their dolls down the stairs, but float them from one place to the next. 

On the flipside, in Barbieland there is Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who is the result of little girls playing too hard with their Barbie doll, twisting her limbs, cutting her hair, and drawing on her skin in an almost sadistic fashion. 

Every female character in Barbieland is named Barbie because she is not one person, but rather whatever career or character toy manufacturer Mattel made her to be. Barbie’s jobs range from being a doctor to being president (Issa Rae), a mermaid (Dua Lipa) and an astronaut. By being all these things in Barbieland, Barbie believes she is a leading feminist who has transcended the barriers imposed on women. 

One can say the complexities of Barbie’s existence add to the oppressive patriarchal conventions that keep women in boxes, just like the box a Barbie doll is sold in before a little girl takes her out and explores her own imagination. 

In contrast to Barbie’s many roles, Ken’s job is “beach” — as in he just stands on the beach. Barbie’s exploration of the psychology of the Ken doll is compelling because, in Barbieland, Ken is an accessory to Barbie, whereas in the real world, Ken is entitled to power and success. 

Barbie is also refreshing in that Mattel takes ownership of how young girls were made to feel through creation of the perfect Barbie doll. Mattel’s chief executive (Will Ferrell) makes a pseudo-feminist product that tells young girls they aren’t good enough unless they look like a Barbie doll. 

Many are calling Barbie the movie of the year, but it is not. Barbie is the movie of the decade because it is cerebral yet funny. The film is both a tear-jerker and a knee-slapper, while also poking at nostalgia in its purest form: one’s childhood.