I really wanted to hate Barbie. I certainly pre-hated it. I tried to avoid the marketing blitz around the movie, but since I have eyeballs, that wasn’t really an option.
Simply existing in America over the past few months meant having the bronzed images of Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken staring you down everywhere you turned, not unlike Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. Every single store in downtown Manhattan seemed to have a Barbie collab: there are shoes, jewelry, clothes, candles, makeup, luggage, and rugs. Even the internet got plastered in pink. I regrettably invite you to Google director Greta Gerwig or any other cast member.
It got to the point that every article of pink clothing that I’ve spotted in the past week has felt suspicious, even corporate.
So when I walked into the theater when the movie opened on Thursday and eyed a thirtysomething woman in a matching bubblegum pink tank top and tennis skirt, holding a real Barbie doll wearing a teal minidress perched in her seat’s cupholder, I nearly screamed.
I’ll admit that even when the actors’ names flashed on the screen as the audience is introduced to Barbie Land, where we see a Barbie lawyer argue to an all-Barbie Supreme Court that corporations risk turning “our democracy into a plutocracy” (this after the Mattel logo blazes red, before the movie), I winced.
But then something happened that I could not control: I started to have fun.
The visual humor is there from the jump. There are Barbie’s permanently arched feet, and the stiff plastic dollop of whipped cream on her waffle that she never actually eats for breakfast. When Ryan Gosling’s Ken tries to jump in the water to impress Barbie, he’s catapulted high into the air because the waves are plastic (there’s no water in Barbie Land, nor is there fire, strife, nor any real pain), and you’re reminded of your own total disregard for gravity back when you played with toys.
Everyday is pink-ly pretend and fantastically awesome in Barbie Land, until Stereotypical Barbie’s (Robbie) feet go flat, and she starts having “irrepressible thoughts of death,” harshing everyone’s mellow, including her own.
Taking the advice of her friends including Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), and Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Stereotypical Barbie makes a trip to the home of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who has magic marker scribbles all over her face and a funky haircut, no doubt brought upon by safety scissors. Weird Barbie tells her that she must go to the real world to find the little girl who is playing with her, and figure out what’s gone wrong.
So off she goes to reality—Ken smuggles himself on the journey too, in her convertible—where our heroine encounters Los Angeles. Barbie’s shocked to find that in the real world, men ogle and harass her. Twice, she’s arrested. At one point, she cries. When she finds the Gen Z kid she’s looking for, the girl, Sasha, unleashes: “You destroy girls’ innate sense of worth and you are killing the planet with your glorification of rampant consumerism.”
Ken, on the other hand, is delighted to learn that in the real world men aren’t relegated to be women’s forever arm candy, but are powerful and get to use horses to conquer people and places. He brings the knowledge of the patriarchy back to Barbie Land, while Barbie avoids getting put back in her original packaging by the all-male executives at Mattel (flawlessly led by Will Ferrell).
There are more than a few cringey, overwrought moments in Barbie; many are already making headlines and positioning this movie as the latest in a long line of easy punching bags for the right: Target, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bud Light. At one point, Sasha’s character corrects herself for saying nutjob—“Sorry, reality-challenged women”—and accuses her white dad of cultural appropriation. Both land with a thud. A pitch to the Mattel CEO that they put out with an “Ordinary Barbie” (“She just has a flattering top, and she wants to get through the day feeling kind of good about herself”) feels random. You almost expect a chase scene with a bright blue 2024 Chevy Blazer EV SS to have an MSRP flash across the screen. Oh, and the Kens attempt a constitutional overhaul of Barbie Land. Seriously.
I know how this all sounds. I hate woke word salads, too, especially ones approved by corporations. But hey, it’s a two-hour brand activation about a kids’ toy, for adults in 2023. What did you expect?
Besides, Barbie isn’t really about who will win the Battle of the Sexes, or if Barbie was a net positive for little girls all over the country who could dream about having one of her many impressive jobs, but could never have her proportions. Like Greta Gerwig’s other films, Lady Bird and Little Women and Frances Ha, which she also co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach, Barbie is all about growing up.
For Barbie, that means feeling big feelings, like anxiety and embarrassment, for the first time. It means that her body is rebelling against her. It means she’s realizing that she will never go back to a time when everything was perfectly simple and simply perfect. For Ken, it means using machismo and bluster to cover up his deep insecurities about never being as good as or good enough for Barbie, or having any real sense of self at all.
Is the feminism of Barbie a little “Girlboss Goes to Bard?” Sure. But did I cry toward the end when Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, played by Rhea Perlman, tells Barbie, “You understand that humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever, humans not so much. You know that, right”? I did cry. And did I turn to a stranger in my row after the movie ended, tears streaming, and blurt out: “That was just awesome, right?” Yes. Am I also currently going through a breakup? That’s really none of your business.
Reviews for Barbie have been mixed and bipartisan: There are plenty that call out indie darling Greta Gerwig for selling out, or for trying to do too much: hawk the Barbie brand, tear down the ideal of Barbie, and constantly wink at the audience, all under the weight of a million different corporate sponsorships. There are legion meta-takes decrying the current moviemaking landscape, which manically seeks out existing IP and is algorithm-obsessed.
Many on the right are panning the movie for being too woke and too self-serious. (Matt Gaetz’s wife called Ken “Disappointingly Low T” after they saw it.) There were mind-numbing rounds on Twitter over whether Margot Robbie is hot (she is) and if it matters that Hari Nef, who is trans, plays a Barbie (it doesn’t.)
Here’s what I can tell you: The set was candy. The script was funny. There’s a big, choreographed dance number with all the Kens. There’s a commercial for a “Depression Barbie” who wears sweatpants all day and watches BBC’s Pride and Prejudice seven times. John Cena and Dua Lipa have cameos while dressed as mermaids. You can’t help but smile. You get your money’s worth.
Go see Barbie. Don’t be a hater like me. Don’t think about it too hard. Just have fun.
Suzy Weiss is a reporter and art director at The Free Press. Read all of her work here.
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