Everybody’s talking about Barbie these days. So many people I know loved it, including myself. Some people got their feefees hurt because Ken’s plotline revolves entirely around Barbie’s, and seeing a man in the role a woman usually plays is hurtful or something. Some people have actual valid critiques on the lines of gender or consumerism or beauty standards. I probably am not contributing anything that hasn’t been said better elsewhere, but I’m going to say stuff anyway because it’s my newsletter and I can do what I want.
MANDATORY SPOILER WARNING: BE YE CAUTIOUS, FOR I SHALL SPOIL
How do you make a movie about a toy?
Barbie is Barbie because she’s a blank slate. She’s a human form object with movable limbs, in the shape of an adult woman (more or less, we all know she’d fall over, etc), and kids play with her by dressing her up and acting out little scenarios. Some of us (me) were not scenario people and most enjoyed dressing Barbie and arranging static scenes. My entry to sewing was a Barbie sewing kit; the dolls were literally mannequins to me (fun fact: that’s a critical part of doll history, especially Barbie, that the movie didn’t touch on). Many kids did the acting out parts, like my sister, but how many variations on “how to play with Barbie” are there? As many as there have been Barbie owners, I am certain.
The basic outline Greta Gerwig went with was the hero’s journey. I don’t really want to go through the entire plot point by point, but our hero Barbie experiences a call (her feet go flat etc); she goes to a sage/wise woman (Kate McKinnon is perf at this); she turns down the call because it sounds hard; she is forced to leave home to solve the problem of her malfunctions; she has a bunch of challenges to overcome, and then she returns home to a world she no longer fits into (even after she successfully eradicates that pesky meninist utopia). She is transformed by the story, literally, and joins the human world.
One brief aside I would like to make: I definitely enjoyed the way the movie pulled a bit of a “Scouring of the Shire” in the way Barbie returns home to find that her world has been changing while she was away, and not for the better, so now she needs to find allies to rout the evil influences and bring Barbieland back to itself, albeit also transformed by its experience. I don’t know if it was meant to directly reference Tolkien, but I appreciated it.
However, my personal opinion was that the story was a fun good time that didn’t break any new ground.
I could easily go off on a gender tangent here. I have a hard time identifying as a feminist these days because in practical, tangible terms, I don’t see feminism moving beyond a constant reinforcement of patriarchy as the goal/the problem/the yin to the yang, etc. I see it reinforcing the binary over and over again, and when I consider the prevalence of anti-trans voices in feminist spaces and the ways whiteness is replicated in feminism, I want to move into a postfeminist worldview to allow gender to be expansive and inclusive of everybody. Barbie is basically starting from “what if everything was the same but run by women?” and then runs straight into “well, it makes Ken feel like he’s worthless without Barbie’s attention,” and the conclusion is a milquetoast “Barbie gets Barbieland back and makes space for Ken in unspecified ways” that hasn’t actually done any true liberation work.
This is reflected in the story structure. Barbie doesn’t deviate from the hero’s journey archetype for even a moment; the premise of the movie is basically “the woman is the hero and the man is the supporting character.” There’s no new ground broken, there’s only the narrow lens of “what if women held all the power?” And apparently women’s power is weak enough to be entirely eradicated overnight by one guy who huffed LA machismo for five minutes, so I can’t quite buy into the ra-ra-girl power of Barbieland, as fun and well-accessoried as it is.
But then, of course I, too, cannot escape writing a hero’s journey; it’s difficult to write a story that doesn’t hit those beats because that’s what people are used to so that’s what they buy. So I am speaking from a wobbly platform here. I am not finished my thoughts though.
The other movie that is held up in this space is the one I hold near and dear to my heart: Legally Blonde. Where Legally Blonde succeeds in a way that Barbie doesn’t achieve is the way Legally Blonde isn’t claiming to innovate. Elle is entering the most patriarchal of professions and the way she succeeds is by making use of the hyperfemininity that is her true self. Barbie is similarly hyperfeminine; the iconic shot of Barbie stepping out of her shoe with a perfectly formed foot in the midst of her GRWM (get ready with me) sequence struck me as a pastiche of the equally-memorable GRWM sequence in Legally Blonde, which includes stepping into a heeled slipper. Legally Blonde is “what if a girly girl succeeds in a man’s space?” and Barbie is “what if girly girls ran the world?” In Legally Blonde, the men who uphold Harvard Law’s status quo are humiliated (of course, this is a fantasy; if only it happened more often IRL), while in Barbie, the men who embrace the patriarchy are left to grapple with their existential crises after an admittedly excellent dance battle. Elle is transformed into a lawyer who uses her femininity to expand access to justice, while Barbie is transformed into a real woman to live for herself, rather than as a toy.
Elle’s story is more compelling because it’s grounded and specific, even though it’s fantasy. It inspired a lot of women to go into law, or go into professional fields in general. Barbie’s moment of contemplating her existence with Billie Eilish asking “what was I made for” in the background is beautifully poignant, but the everywoman is still too generic in a white, middle class, patriarchy-referencing way and I didn’t come out of the movie inspired. I just felt like I’d watched a fun movie.
In sum, after a few weeks of thought, Barbie the movie is the same as Barbie the doll. The costumes and set dressing are the best part, and the story was better in my head.
Books: I was on holiday last week and I read a few things. Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes was a great read with a sad ending, of course. I really enjoyed getting to learn about my favourite author. (I have a lot of favourite authors and he is one of the favourite favourites.) Thistlefoot by Gemma Nethercott was like Neil Gaiman meets The Night Circus and I really liked the way it brought the Baba Yaga into an urban fantasy with a cool twist. Now I’m reading A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – it’s a highly political space opera and I am absolutely gripped. It’s so good.
Music: I would be remiss if I didn’t link to the song I mentioned above, although you’ve probably heard it by now. What Was I Made For by Billie Eilish.
Food: My mom cooked for me all week and it was amazing. Now I have to deal with all my zucchinis. This zucchini bread is the business.