27 July 2023

Barbie's pink existentialism

Well, I've just seen the new Barbie film, my first trip out to an actual theater since quite a while before the pandemic.  This post contains spoilers, so if you prefer to skip over it without reading and go to the one below, click here.

First off, contrary to the impression created by the trailers and so forth, this isn't just a movie of zany hijinks set in a benign dollhouse world.  There is a fair bit of that at the beginning, and the inherent silliness of a world whose inhabitants and artifacts are actually just toys is sustained throughout (for example, a battle is fought with weapons like frisbees and arrows with suction cups on the ends instead of arrowheads), but the themes explored quickly become serious, even challenging.

Second, this is probably the most bizarre and original movie I've ever seen that still manages to achieve genuinely coherent, easy-to-follow storytelling.  At various times, even in the midst of hot pursuit, our characters suddenly shift from wherever they are to someplace that looks like it doesn't even belong in the same universe.  I can see why the film is sometimes compared to Pleasantville (another favorite of mine), not because it's actually very similar, but because both movies focus on an almost-impossible-to-describe relationship between the real world and a fantasy world derived from it, and on the effects of the one intruding into the other -- though in Barbie the intrusion goes both ways.

When I say "coherent storytelling", that doesn't mean it's done entirely in the way you're used to seeing in movies.  At first the jumps from scene to scene seem jarring, linked only by brief narration, but you get used to it -- perhaps it reflects the way children actually play with toys, following storylines of their own imagining while simply leaving out anything that doesn't interest them.

The overarching theme is the contrast between female-dominated Barbieland and the male-dominated real world.  Of course, an actual female-dominated society wouldn't just be a mirror-image of the real world, because men and women really are different -- and that's the case here.  Barbieland's males suffer not from oppression but more just benign neglect; they feel not exploited but merely superfluous.

The film is complex and multi-layered.  Without going into too much detail, Margot Robbie's "Stereotypical Barbie" character must travel from Barbieland to the real world, with Ken (Ryan Gosling) tagging along.  They find the real world unexpectedly strange, not least because of male domination (yes, the term "the patriarchy" is overused, but with satirical intent).  Ken decides that he likes "the patriarchy" and manages to install a (rather silly) version of it back home in Barbieland, though only briefly.  A woman from the real world, Gloria (America Ferrera, who almost steals the show) is inspired by Barbieland's plight to discover her inner revolutionary, delivering a fiery feminist speech which has gone viral and may become the movie's defining moment, though I have a feeling it will afford many male viewers and critics an unparalleled opportunity to nit-pick and miss the point.

Robbie and Gosling do an awesome job embodying their characters, and director Greta Gerwig is definitely someone to watch.  Despite how it may sound here, Ken is not a villain.  He's too naïve for that, and his resentments are shown to be well justified.

After Gloria, Barbie, and their allies overthrow Ken's amateurish patriarchal regime, the film proceeds to a long (a bit too long, to be honest) series of scenes where various characters grapple with the profound existential issues the preceding events have forced them to confront.  Right-wing critics who accuse the film of being "woke" are not only wrong (it isn't preachy or constantly throwing explicit identity politics in your face) but hopelessly superficial.  The film doesn't offer easy answers, and avoids the standard clichés -- love isn't always the answer, and Barbie and Ken don't get romantically involved, as would have been inevitable in a more conventional storyline.  The film is not anti-men.  Yes, it pokes fun at men, but it pokes fun at everything.

Despite all these "heavy" themes, the movie is both very funny and aesthetically awesome.  Yes, Barbieland is every bit as beautiful and weird as this video suggested, but under Ken's brief male-centric rule, the same settings become hideous, with beer and flatscreen TVs and macho kitsch everywhere.  There are also some excellent songs, notably the initial "Pink" which helps ease you into this bizarre world.

(Yes, I know there is a trans actor in the film.  This is consistent with the source material, since there was actually a trans Barbie doll.  The issue of transgenderism is never explicitly mentioned.  It's not that kind of movie.)

This is not a film for ideologists.  If you watch it with what I call a checklist mentality, checking off which aspects of it are consistent with leftist politics and which are not, you're wasting your time watching it at all -- because, again, it's not that kind of movie.

A minor criticism -- there's too much crying.  Yes, Barbie has lived all her "life" in an unchanging utopia where she's never needed to deal with an actual problem, so it's not surprising that, while in the real world, she can be reduced to tears by a bratty teenager's string of tired and clichéd insults (ending, of course, with "fascist"), but there is too much giving up and bursting into tears in response to challenges.  It's Gloria, toughened by life in the real world, who inspiringly rises to the occasion and displays unexpected abilities.  The same could be said of "Weird Barbie" (Kate McKinnon), an outcast who has had to fend for herself and learn to think.  Even Gloria's daughter (that same bratty teenager) quickly adapts to her strange new situation and shows real character development.

I would encourage everyone with any interest in these kinds of themes, or in movies generally, to see this.  I'm not surprised that it has been enormously successful with audiences so far.  Indeed, I now feel some hope that the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer and Sound of Freedom means that American film is finally emerging from the long dark age of franchises and superheroes and remakes and reboots in which it has been mired for what seems like forever.  Whatever you think of those three movies, there's no denying that they're fresh and new and original and different -- indeed, very different even from each other.  This is new green growth in the wasteland; it's what our culture needs.


Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Thanks for letting us know about this one I wasn't sure what to expect from this movie.

28 July, 2023 10:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'd encourage people to see it. It's fun and really unusual.

28 July, 2023 22:59  
Blogger Marc McKenzie said...

Nice review! I have yet to see Barbie or Oppenheimer, but they are on my list. And honestly, the minute I saw that Greta Gerwig was writing and directing this film, I figured that it would not be a cookie-cutter type of movie.

I am, though, tired of the "versus" mentality of some who tried to pit both films against each other (and the bashing of Oppenheimer by some was just ridiculous). Still, it is good to see original films out there, but...there have always been original films being made and released in the theater despite the perception that it's all superheroes and sequels and remakes. Not so.

Some years ago, director John Carpenter brought up the question: Why were original films not doing well at the box office? Carpenter's answer was simple--because people were not seeing them. The very people who complained about not seeing these films spent more time going to see the films they claimed to hate--the sequels, the remakes (the superhero film boom hadn't really happened yet). The same thing is true about video games as well.

I don't mind a remake or a sequel or a superhero film if it is done well. And there have been those films. On the other hand I've seen enough films that were original and not tied to any existing property (book, TV series, comic, movie) perform poorly at the box office (off the top of my head I can point out Ad Astra and Underwater).

The WGA and SAG strikes that are going on now will have an impact on any new film projects, so that must be paid attention to (and of course, I'm on the side of the strikers, especially the writers. Harlan Ellison's words "Pay the writer!" still ring in my head).

29 July, 2023 07:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks! I knew nothing about Greta Gerwig before this came out, but apparently she's quite an innovator.

I certainly wouldn't put Barbie and Oppenheimer against each other. They're so different (I haven't seen Oppenheimer, but it's obvious) that nobody would ever have bracketed them together is it weren't for the coincidence of release date.

Of course sequels or remakes can be done well, but there are reasons why it so rarely happens. Franchises usually start with something great, but any concept has only so much juice in it, and over time it becomes just a matter of desperately trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of a concept that long ago ran dry, with little creativity involved. I saw this happen with Alien. The original movie, Aliens, and Resurrection were original and unique. Then we got mindless cash grabs like the prequels and the AvP stuff which had none of the same creativity and originality and ended up completely trashing the whole concept because of writing that had no respect for it. The alien species was already on Earth in Antarctica in 1904? The "space jockey" was just a big man in a suit? The aliens were created by engineering instead of being a naturally-evolved species? That garbage totally ruined the original premise. It's unsalvageable now.

Remakes and reboots suffer from the same basic problem. They're always done for originals that were already great or at least popular, so it's rare that they measure up, which makes them pointless -- again, except for money. These days a lot of them also vandalize the original concept for the sake of being woke and preachy, which also applies to many original films (which thus similarly flop with audiences).

Not all original films are good, and it takes a lot to get people into theaters these days with the ridiculous ticket prices, assigned seating, interminable ads before the movie, assholes with bright-glowing smartphone screens in the audience, etc. But there have been enough hits recently to show that it can be done, all their remake/franchise/etc stuff seems to be turkeying out as soon as it hits the screens.

I hope the writers win the strike. There are rumors that the big studios will try to replace writers with "AI". Of course they will still have to hire a human to "edit" or "smooth out" whatever junk the "AI" produces to make it usable, meaning that that human will be the actual writer, but presumably won't be paid like a writer. Whether audiences will turn out for the results strikes me as dubious.

29 July, 2023 23:19  
Blogger Martha said...

I haven't seen it yet but I've watched a few trailers and it has caught my attention. It is indeed completely fresh and different...what we definitely need!

30 July, 2023 14:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm not surprised it's become such a big phenomenon. It's a lot deeper than the trailers would suggest.

30 July, 2023 20:45  
Blogger Daal said...

that actually makes me want to see it - am always apprehensive about anything that's been super hyped

31 July, 2023 18:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

If you do see it, I hope you'll post what you thought of it.

01 August, 2023 01:32  
Blogger run75441 said...


Excellent review and commentary. I enjoyed the read.


02 August, 2023 08:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks! Glad you found it interesting.

02 August, 2023 09:44  
Blogger run75441 said...


Sorry, I have not been around much. You are an excellent writer. I miss the conversations. The Bear has me busy since Dan passed.

04 August, 2023 20:29  

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