Movie review: Barbie
REVIEWED BY ANTHONY CASTLE
I played with Barbie as a child. As a boy, I spent the day at the house of a family with three daughters, whose toy boxes were filled with the pink plastic of fashion dolls. I didn’t have a Barbie at home.
I was a boy, and boys weren’t meant to play with Barbies, but suddenly I was with children who only owned ‘girls toys’, so I played along and put the dolls in their clothes and cars and Dreamhouses. I remember looking at the toys with their bright pink colours and sparkled fabrics and feeling something about that perfect plastic, feeling something like wonder. Barbie was beautiful.
Directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie is a fantasy comedy film based on the popular Mattel fashion doll. Written with Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the film tells the story of the stereotypical blonde-haired and blue-eyed Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, who lives in a magical place called Barbieland.
Barbieland is populated with a diverse range of successful and independent Barbies, a matriarchal society where female fashion dolls fulfil the roles of judges and lawyers (and the various Kens more or less stand around and look pretty). Stereotypical Barbie finds herself having an existential crisis one night, however, and starts to develop the vulnerabilities of an actual human. Barbie decides to leave Barbieland and travel to reality, to find the child she belongs to and restore her perfect beauty.
The history of Barbie is a fraught one. Created by businesswoman Ruth Handler in 1959, the fashion doll came to be celebrated as a role model for girls. Toys allow children to explore imaginary scenarios, often as rehearsals for the larger situations faced in life. As a fashion doll that could be dressed as a ballerina, an astronaut, or even President, the toy modelled female independence for children and ways to rehearse their own potential and purpose. Barbie showed girls they could be anything.
Over the years, however, Barbie has also come to represent consumer capitalism, gender stereotypes, and harmful body standards. While the fashion doll range has become more diverse in its representations of women over the years, the toy is often treated as a problematic presence in childhood. Gerwig’s film is aware of these tensions, with Barbie entering the real world and encountering all the praise and condemnation society has felt for her.
Margot Robbie’s performance captures Barbie’s reaction to this reality, with the psychology of a toy coming to life and a moving emotional depth. Ryan Gosling is a hilarious supporting presence as Ken, Barbie’s friend and foil. The film features chase sequences, musical numbers, comedic fight scenes, and a number of cameos. Gerwig and Baumbach’s script is fantastically witty, with humour that appeals to all ages and some gags conveniently sailing over younger children’s heads.
Barbie’s journey to the real world challenges her assumptions about herself and why she was created.
Shortly after Barbie’s arrival in reality, there is a moment when she takes a seat at a bus stop and pauses to look at an older woman alongside. Barbie with a sense of wonder before uttering, “You’re beautiful”. The older woman smiles at Barbie and responds, “I know.”
Barbie’s journey to the real world challenges her assumptions about herself and why she was created. At one point, Barbie even meets her maker and must choose her identity, about who she will be. It’s an encounter with the divine, and one that leaves her with an understanding of what it means to be human, to have purpose and potential, but to be vulnerable.
Whether you played with dolls as a child or not, thought the toy was perfect or problematic, Barbie is a fun feminist fantasy and a parable about identity. Barbie taught girls they could be anything, and this two-hour toy commercial also has something to say about the wonder of being human and the vulnerability that brings. Only plastic is perfect. It’s our humanity that’s beautiful.