Lifestyle & Culture

The Barbie Movie Will Mess With Your Head

July 30, 2023

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By Nancy McKeon

IN CASE YOU haven’t heard, the Barbie movie is out. Man, is it ever! It’s the candy-colored visual feast we were promised. But no doubt it will mess with your head.

What to think of it? Anything you want. Really!

Barbie-garbed little girls in the theater where I saw the movie seemed delighted to see their plastic playthings brought to life by actor Margot Robbie and cast (many, many Barbies, so many Barbies—“Hi, Barbie!” “Oh, hi, Barbie!”). They oohed, they gasped, they cheered their little plastic friends.

The government of Vietnam is not quite as enamored. It has banned the film’s release because it shows a map that apparently depicts China’s claim to hegemony over the South China Sea. (I say “apparently” because I don’t even remember a map—sorry!) Texas senator Ted Cruz has sided with Vietnam, saying the movie is Chinese propaganda. (The 8-year-old sitting next to me didn’t understand what “propaganda” meant, and she didn’t remember the map either.) *

Barbie map

This is the Barbie map I missed, though I still can’t figure it out. / Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures.

LGBTQ+ audiences are disappointed “Barbie” isn’t “gayer.” After months of trailers that teased winks and nods that apparently energized gay fans and the doll collectors among them, the movie turns out to be, as one says nowadays, heteronormative, in spades. Bummer.

Well, “heteronormativity,” if that’s a word, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. While Christian family movie review site Movieguide hadn’t posted an official review as of Monday, it warned that the new movie “has a clear agenda which shows that studios continue to neglect the safety of young children and disregard the biggest audience in cinema, families.”

It cited the movie’s “clear, gross agenda . . . to push sexuality onto children.” (Um, Barbie’s perky boobs haven’t been doing that since 1959?)

Furthermore, Movieguide continued the movie was “poorly made with multiple premises.” It’s hard to argue with that last point.

Barbie, indeed has many messages. One is Down With the Patriarchy. Men are okay as long as they hover in the background and don’t get too pushy. In a kind of role reversal, it’s actor Ryan Gosling’s Ken who wants love and a live-in relationship with Robbie’s Barbie, and she who can’t be bothered.

Barbie and Ken

Ken stows away on Barbie’s Dream Car. / Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The action kicks off when Margot Robbie Barbie drives her Dream Car out into the real world (in part to find out what has happened to her stiletto-appropriate feet, which have “fallen,” and to discover why she’s suddenly having “irrepressible thoughts of death”—yikes!). While she’s out there in Mattel Land, the Kens of Barbieland take over all the Barbie Dreamhouses, turning them into messy frat houses and converting the Doctor Barbies and Astronaut Barbies and Presidential Candidate Barbies into basic “girlfriend” Barbies cooking and serving drinks.

Chris Suellentrop, the politics opinion editor at the Washington Post, took his 13-year-old daughter and her friends to see the movie on Friday, the day it opened. He was happy to celebrate “Barbenheimer,” the opening weekend for both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” the story of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” But he also sees Barbie as something more than a puddle of pink; he sees her and “Oppenheimer” as symbols of Earth in the Anthropocene Era. (It has to do with isotopes, and the plastics Barbie is made of, and the radioactive “plastic rocks” scientists have begun finding in remote places on Earth. Anthropocene means something caused by human activity; some are suggesting a better term for our evolving era is Plasticine.)

See? All sorts of messages in a pastel paradise. And those messages aside, the big one was bucks. Big bucks. As of Sunday, Warner Bros.’s “Barbie” raked in a record $155 million over the weekend, plus $182 million abroad. The serious half of the “Barbenheimer” weekend, Universal’s “Oppenheimer,” made $174 million overseas and domestic together.

All the barbies

Barbie shows the Barbies (it gets confusing) how her feet have suddenly “collapsed.” / Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s fitting to give “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig the final word on what the message of the movie is. She told Deadline, a Hollywood industry site, that there was some pressure to cut one scene from the movie. It takes place when Barbie, in the real world, sees an old woman sitting at a bus shelter. As the camera lingers on the old woman’s wrinkled cheeks and mischievous smile, Barbie seems to witness the beauty of being human, of growing old, of not being trapped in the eternal loop that is Forever Barbie. The doll tells the old woman that she’s beautiful.

“There’s the more outrageous elements in the movie that people say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe Mattel let you do this,’ or ‘I can’t believe Warner Bros. let you do this,’ ” Gerwig told Deadline. “But to me, the part that I can’t believe that is still in the movie is this little cul-de-sac that doesn’t lead anywhere—except for it’s the heart of the movie.” The message: The old woman, veteran costume designer Ann Roth, 91, is beautiful, and by extension, the rest of us are too.

I think that’s a message we can all live with.

* This is not quite as outlandish as it may first appear. Movie studios and tech companies alike have been more than happy to cater to Chinese government sensibilities, given the enormous market the country controls.

4 thoughts on “The Barbie Movie Will Mess With Your Head

  1. cynthia tilson says:

    How? I watched it twice, and enjoyed the metaphorical messages, but I’ve lived that reality for 68 years.
    I’ll check out that Elle link you posted.

  2. Nancy McKeon says:

    Pat Weiss, an astute former magazine colleague, points out to me that the America Ferrera monologue has been transcribed and written about elsewhere. It’s an amazing and damning message about what it means to be a woman. It’s not necessarily the message Barbie gets: She’s too busy absorbing the notion that it’s a good thing just to be a live woman and not a doll!

    Here’s a link to Elle’s story, which explains how the monologue–or manifesto, as I think of it–evolved:

  3. cynthia tilson says:

    Nancy…fun synopsis aside, the Barbie movie has its head on straight. It’s the mixed societal messages and constraints we women have had to grow up in that will mess with your mind.

    As for Ken, he represents the angst of perpetual adolescent-like males with no outlet for their aggressive tendencies in peaceful Barbieland.

    Two scenes are worth the $8 I paid to see the movie – the first is the guitar-strumming Kens on the beach, serenading the Barbies with the ironic song Push. The Barbies learn how to drive the Ken’s mad with jealousy, thereby turning them on one another.

    The other is this brilliant monologue that sums up what it is to be a woman in our society. It’s delivered by America Ferrara’s character…

    “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

    You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

    But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.

    It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

    I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.“

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      The America Ferrera “manifesto” was amazing! But HOW DID YOU DO THAT???? I mean, get it all down like that!?

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