Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a Fascinating, Spectacular Philosophical Experiment
Barbie Literalizes the Abstract and Abstracts the Literal in an Engaging, Thought-Provoking Inquiry into the Female Experience
Do you remember the scene in Singin’ in the Rain where Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance a romantic, longing modernist-ballet number? That scene is a dream sequence within a dream sequence. Gene Kelly’s character, an actor in late 20s Hollywood, is pitching a movie to a studio head and the film allows the viewer to watch the description he is conjuring. In this imaginary scene, a “young hoofer” comes to Broadway with dreams of being a star, and has them stymied for a while, along the way meeting a beautiful woman—Cyd Charisse—who is dating a gangster. He imagines falling in love with her anyway, and so the film takes us to that fantasy, which takes the form of a windy dance on a blue-and-pink-tinted soundstage.
What we’re watching is so far removed from the plot of the actual Singin’ in the Rain—which is about the Hollywood community adjusting after the advent of sound technology—but it doesn’t matter. It is a beautiful scene, a stunning bodily representation of desire and passion in the brief moment they are allowed to manifest. Movies don’t exist just to relay plots; they have tools and qualities all their own that permit experimentation, and even allow the visual exploration of abstract things like feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
It is known, via a Letterboxed profile curated by the writer-director-Greta Gerwig, that her new film Barbie takes some inspiration from Singin’ in the Rain, as well as other musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Kelly’s even more abstract An American in Paris. Gerwig’s Barbie, a dramatically hyped mainstream film about the famous Mattel doll that was created in 1959 and went on to become one of the most influential pop cultural forces in history, shares an essence with these movies.
It is an inventive, highly wildly conceptual thought experiment—not merely about the doll Barbie or even her complicated legacy and what she represents, but also about what it means to be a woman. It takes place in a similar kind of space as “the movie musical” writ large, a genre of alternate reality in which emotions and thoughts can be explored through music, song, dance, and other stuff that doesn’t happen in real life.
Barbie combines the rules of the movie musical’s imaginary netherworld with the investments of a Beckett or a Ionesco play. We’ve all seen plays where human actors play unwieldy concepts like “the city of St. Louis” or “polio” or even real material things like “bullets.” That’s the variety of inquiry Barbie is; yes, it explores the complex figure of the Barbie Doll through cinematic conventions of faux-documentary, movie-musical, and traditional Hero’s Journey narrative, but it also is simply an unreal experiment, a highly symbolic exercise where theoretical entities get to speak for themselves, and where real people get to tell anthropomorphized theoretical entities what effects they have on the human experience. The whole movie is a mise-en-abyme-heavy dream sequence, a fantasy of a dialogue between real women and womankind’s evolving, go-getting golem plaything.
I was fascinated by Barbie, which was written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, and which earnestly takes on a lot of hard work and mostly pulls it off. Compellingly, Barbie literalizes the abstract and abstracts the literal as it progresses. Gerwig’s own (presumed) thoughts and research into three-score years of Barbie frame the story, especially via the movie’s opener, a 2001: A Space Odyssey pastiche in which little girls discover the Barbie doll for the first time; the narrator (Helen Mirren) reminds us that, before Barbie, little girls could only play with baby dolls, pretend to be mothers; Barbie was the first grown-up doll. She was the first major girl-marketed cultural signifier insisting that a girl could be someone other than a mother. And not only that, but that she could be someone glamorous and exciting.
After this, the film follows a day in the life of a blonde Barbie, the main Barbie, the “Barbie you think of when someone says ‘think of a Barbie,'” the film calls her. She is played by Margot Robbie, who also produced the film. She lives in Barbie Land, a realm where the souls? subconscious minds? astral projections? of literal Barbie Dolls live and interact together. While their doll-bodies are being played with in the Real World, their selves live here, though they take on the characteristics of the things happening to their doll-bodies in play. This means that Barbie Land is kind of magic; outfits change spontaneously depending on the activity, Barbies float from one level of their Dream Houses to another—as if they are being played with by invisible hands.
Barbie Land is a paradise of female empowerment. The narrator reminds us how Barbie has taken on many more meanings and identities since her debut in a bathing suit in 1959, and that the Barbie concept is diverse in terms of representations of female excellence and perfection. Barbie is all women, the narrator reminds us, and she is a reminder that women can do anything. In Barbie Land, the Barbies—beautiful, accomplished, happy in all their different appearances and jobs and roles—run a supportive, productive world. There are also Kens, who do not have jobs or purposes. Barbie’s Ken (Ryan Gosling) lives for her, longs to unite more with her, wants her to love him. In interviews, Gerwig has noted that Barbie, and not Ken, is the main draw of Mattel products, and analyzed its fascinating implications: “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”
Gerwig notes the potential for Barbie’s incredible progressiveness and takes advantage of it—telling a story about a Barbie who discovers that, in actual life, women are seen as the accessories. For the record, I don’t think the film advocates that people of any gender should be accessories to those of another gender, but Barbie still allows us to revel in the delight of an all-female paradise for a while.
Anyway, one day, our Barbie begins to experience an existential crisis—she begins to wonder about dying and freak about about “forever” and stasis. Her feet loosen from their arched position and land flat on the floor. Panicking, she goes to see an oracle-style Barbie known as Weird Barbie, maimed with crayons and perpetually in a split position after her doll self got “played with too hard.” Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) explains that Barbies are psychically connected to the children playing them, and so in order to correct these out-of-place crises, Barbie has to travel to the Real World and find that girl and help her assuage her concerns.
Barbie heads on a journey to the Real World, accompanied by Ken, who longs to prove himself to her. But when they arrive in the modern world (Los Angeles), they discover something jarring: the world is not, in fact, a feminist society in which women get to exercise (and be celebrated for) their skills and aptitudes, but… the opposite. Barbie herself grows very depressed, while Ken feels empowered, by this rift. Ken runs back to Barbie Land to tell the other Kens that “men rule the world” in reality while Barbie discovers that she’s unwittingly something of a villain there. She discovers, from a group of tween girls, that not only is Barbie not a feminist hero, but is also a controversial and outdated toy who has contributed to and participated in the creation of impossible, unhealthy, and problematic standards for women, not to mention the glorification of capitalism and the mass production environmentally-poisonous plastic. And she discovers Mattel, an FBI-style entity determined to keep the existence of the Avalon-like Barbie Land a secret.
While evading the Mattel G-Men, Barbie winds up meeting her playmate, who turns out not to be a child, but the mother of a child. She, Gloria (America Ferrera), has always loved Barbie, but her love for Barbie cannot override the frustrations and problems of her regular life, including a lack of professional and creative fulfillment (she’s a secretary at Mattel). But something happens when they’re together, and Barbie decides to bring her new friend and her Barbie-hating preteen daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) back to Barbie Land to help empower them. But when they get there, they discover that Ken has brought the idea of male supremacy back, taken over the paradise, and brainwashed all of the brilliant, accomplished Barbies into serving them and ornamenting their spaces.
Barbie isn’t a subtle movie, and that’s okay! Subtlety is overrated. It’s clear now, if it hasn’t been before, that Barbie slings many, many metaphors about the state of female existence in its current moment. Barbie is about a jealous, women-hating current that runs deep in male perspective. Ken is ultimately a bit of an incel (even though he’d be called a Chad BY the incels), and in Barbie we watch as all the progress, works, dreams of women are dismantled and erased and destroyed by men who need to feel like they control powerful women in order to feel powerful, themselves. It’s a movie that feels like it’s about Abortion Bans and the January 6th insurrection and our Post-Trump society just as it feels (sadly) timeless.
But even more insightful is what happens to Barbie when she realizes her world is a disaster. She grows depressed, begins to hate and doubt herself. She feels unattractive, unimportant, like a failure. Gerwig was influenced in writing the screenplay by the 1994 nonfiction book Reviving Ophelia, about the sudden, mass self-confidence and depression crisis that hits girls around puberty. “They’re funny and brash and confident, and then they just—stop,” she explained of the phenomenon to Vogue. “…All of a sudden, [girls think], Oh, I’m not good enough.”
Watching Barbie, this moment (when Robbie’s Barbie collapses into despair, feeling like a failure because she can’t fix the horrible things happening around her), was one of the most intuitive moments I’ve ever seen on film. Even more so is when Gloria comforts her, by acknowledging the horrible double-standards that make women feel this way, universally, delivering a heart-rending, passionate soliloquy that provides the film’s heart as well as its thesis statement. I cried a lot during the Barbie movie, but I really cried here.
Barbie not only understands what it’s like to be a woman, but has a lot of love for women, which is refreshing. It also has a lot of love for childhood, but it doesn’t allow the nostalgia for girlhood to muddle the empowerment of adult women. Barbie is a genuine masterpiece for its studies in making the intangible tangible, and this is epitomized by its magnificent production, set, and costume design.
The Barbie Dream Houses don’t have walls, just like in life. The Barbie World doesn’t come with food, just adhesive decals and plastic pieces. There is an extroardinary tactility, solidity to this world that is so reminiscent of playing with Barbies, like how McKinnon’s defaced Barbie almost always has her legs split apart. Watching the film, I remembered the feel and movement of these toys. There’s a Proust joke in Barbie, but I’m not joking when I’m saying that if Proust saw Barbie, he’d write another 1,000 pages. That’s how evocative Gerwig’s direction is. There are whole scenes in the movie that seem intended just to allow the audience to feel.
Robbie, who demonstrates tremendous physical comedy skills while also relaying depths of humanity, is wonderful as this torn Barbie. Gosling, whose relentless commitment to his character is astonishing, would be the film’s scene-stealer if Robbie wasn’t such a strong anchor. But Ferrera is the best part of the star-studded cast, a phenomenally real woman.
Barbie is so insightful in its symbolic intervention that when it returns to its Hero’s Journey/Barbie-vs. Mattel plot, it becomes a lot less satisfying. Mostly because, after watching ideas come to life, becoming reminded about the tethers to branding and commercial interests feels irrelevant and almost contradictory and even occasionally unpleasant. There’s a little too much humanization in the end, actually, partially of entities who might not deserve it, in a story that is, ultimately, about women. Things get messy and very, well, imperfect.
Still, I spent the nearly two-hours of Barbie noting how thoughtful and ambitious it was. Personally, I felt very seen and understood. I was moved and even felt a little appreciated, in a universal way. And that’s not an easy to do with a main character who is essentially a lump of plastic shaped like a person. But there is nothing fake, nothing false about Barbie. To Barbie, life may be plastic, but it’s also profound.