Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a cash grab, a corporate rehabilitation and a cinematic triumph. By Tara Kenny.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie
Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, came up with the idea for the now-ubiquitous toy when she saw her daughter Barbara with a paper doll, acting out scenarios from her own imagined future. She worried that while the variety of toys available to her son promoted diverse, imaginative play, Barbara’s baby dolls singularly prepared her for motherhood and domesticity, and she wanted to provide more choice. The more interesting, seedy addendum to the story is that Handler was heavily inspired by “Bild Lilli”, a German doll for adults based on a smutty cartoon. As M. G. Lord details in Forever Barbie: The Unauthorised Biography of a Real Doll, Lilli was a “golddigger, exhibitionist and floozy” whose idea of a good time was “taking money from men and involved situations in which she wore very few clothes”. In other words, Barbie has always been both feminist icon and minx. All that baggage provides the basis for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a Mattel-backed live-action Barbie film written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and starring and co-produced by Margot Robbie.
Gerwig doesn’t typically centre Barbie-esque women. While her heroines are always white and conventionally attractive, they’re also bookish, weird and ambitious. Frances Ha, Lady Bird and Little Women are all films about brash, smart women who prioritise themselves and their creative aspirations above all else and come out on top, or at least nearby. While Barbie has always been an unusually independent woman – rejecting motherhood, living apart from her boyfriend, Ken, and pursuing all manner of employment, from astronaut to McDonald’s cashier to president – she’s more known for her svelte physique and penchant for pink than her intellectual heft. Sometimes, her connotations are downright dire: in Reviving Ophelia, a 1994 book about the social pressures faced by teenage girls, from which Gerwig drew inspiration, Mary Pipher writes, “To totally accept the cultural definitions of femininity and conform to the pressures is to kill the self. Girls who do this are ‘Muffys’ and ‘Barbie dolls’ with hair and smiles in place and a terrible deadness underneath.” By this definition, Barbies are empty vessels, the opposite of a Gerwig heroine. The director finds a way in by imagining what would happen if Barbie suddenly developed interiority.
When we meet Barbie (Margot Robbie), she’s living a frictionless existence in her sanitised Barbie Land matriarchy, where girls rule the world, women support women and every night is girls’ night. At the same time, abnormal thoughts can make you persona non grata in this world and Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), a doll who’s been scribbled on and stuck in the splits by her owner, is derided by the group. When Barbie is plagued by her own intrusive thoughts of death and develops physical defects, she’s marched off to Weird Barbie, who forces a choice between delusion and awakening, symbolised here by a pink stiletto versus a sensible Birkenstock sandal. With some encouragement, Barbie dons the Birkenstocks and embarks on a quest into the messy and unknown “real world”.
It should come as no surprise that Barbie has a rough time navigating the muck and mire of reality, which is no place for an innocent doll, or a woman who attempts to embody one. Consider Dare Wright, creator of The Lonely Doll children’s books, which chronicle the escapades of a doll named Edith and her teddy bear friend through staged, haunting black-and-white photographs. As detailed by her biographer, Jean Nathan, in The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, Wright responded to her mother’s intense infantilisation by method acting as a living doll. As an adult, she dressed in rompers, shared a bed with her mother, rejected sexual intimacy and naively invited homeless strangers back to her apartment, which often got her into harm’s way. Similarly, Barbie is horrified when her sunny friendliness towards construction workers at Venice Beach is met with ogling and catcalls. She comes to realise that her life in Barbie Land has left her ill-equipped to navigate the sometimes hostile and frightening real world, just as playing with shiny, perfect Barbies may leave little girls unprepared for the battles they will invariably face.
The film suggests that while Barbie may have become a lightning rod for the ills of capitalism and sexism and the conflicting messages society sends young girls, perhaps another act is possible. Besides, Barbie has always taken on meaning beyond what was intended by her makers: embraced by the queer community, immortalised in pop culture by the likes of the Europop band Aqua and The Simpsons, decapitated and made over by children worldwide. Her new role as a Gerwig heroine feels like a continuation of that deviant history, albeit a Mattel-approved version.
While Barbie imagines how the famous doll might transcend her origins, it’s also an earnest celebration of her contributions to architecture and fashion, shown through awe-inspiring interpretations of her Dream Houses and wardrobes through the ages. To dismiss Barbie Land as a fantasy for little girls is to reject the aesthetic history of girlhood and femininity as frivolous and unimportant. Here, Barbie Land is cast as the grandiose and significant triumph of world-building and design that it is.
While Barbie’s feminist message and explorations of womanhood are genuinely moving, if at times trite, it’s clear Mattel is using the film as a vehicle through which to address pervasive critiques of Barbie, without having to make tangible changes. It’s funny to see the film’s Mattel chief executive (Will Ferrell) feebly defend the fact the brand is run exclusively by men, until you look at Mattel’s actual leadership page and realise it’s no laughing matter. However critical Barbie may be, it’s still going to sell a disgusting amount of dolls. Case in point, they’re already hawking “Margot Robbie As Barbie In Pink Gingham Dress” dolls and “I am Kenough” hoodies and T-shirts at Barbie.com. (Regrettably, there is no “Weird Barbie” or “Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie” to be found.)
Just as Mattel is perhaps cynically aligning itself with Gerwig to rehabilitate its image and move the toy brand into the 21st century, she’s using their huge budget and Barbie’s enormous brand recognition and lore to continue her explorations of women’s lives on a grander scale, to delightful effect. Just as Barbie is both feminist icon and bimbo, the film is simultaneously a corporate cash grab and subversive cinematic triumph. Like the storied doll herself, Barbie contains multitudes.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 26, 2023 as "Barbie gets real".
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