Barbie is an event in 2023, nobody can deny that. Too many pictures of friends and peers dressed in pink posing in life-size Barbie packaging boxes, usually outside cinema venues, have flooded social media. It is difficult to avoid Barbie and not see that a lot of people are happy that there is a visible trend for anything, let alone a movie – the socially scarce pandemic has made everyone hungry for events and common cultural experiences. This article is not so much about the events created by the film, but, if one calls filmmaking an artform, about the roots of art. Fine art is rooted in a market, also largely defining it, and so is making movies. Both engage for decades in co-branding and sponsoring – and both do not like to talk much about who is producing what kind of art or story for what purpose or gain. Barbie lends itself as an excellent example of selective attention and exposes very obvious goals – but it does it in an artistically interesting way and is often witty, joyful and very well produced.
It can be called an artform to make a movie about hyperfeminine feminism and mindless patriarchy without mentioning money or the market. The culturally hailed film based on the well-known Mattel doll, together with ‘Oppenheimer’ drove the 4th-biggest U.S. weekend ever. Oppenheimer sports the Atomic Bomb, Barbie sports males like horses who drink beer, drive big cars and have a sixpack as a stereotype. Women love pink, are constantly changing dresses and high heels and are slim as well as stereotypically beautiful. Both “cultures” or gender clichès get intermingled in a live-action cineastic form impersonated by stars like Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, and half the cast of the series “Sex Education”. Ironically nothing in Barbie is about sex. It is clean like a baby ad, but still exposes traits of toxic behaviour positively and negatively perceived as wokeness and celebrating liquid gender roles. The right wing audience seems to dislike that. The gay community loves it, the alt right is abhorred, a conservative US Sentor even proudly declared that he will NOT watch this movie, effectively canceling it. Peers celebrating the movie probably could not care less. If the right wing is canceling your project you have probably done something right. Barbie seems to excel in a rare artform: creating cognitive dissonance in a society based on patriarchy, but turning a blind eye to the ideas, means of production and resources giving rise to “Barbie” – capitalism, a power structure of very often white, male shareholders trying to maximise profit.
Here are 4 theses I will indulge to expand upon:
- Barbie may be a highly entertaining capriccio of a flick, a milestone in film history, but probably a funeral stone for Hollywood. Co-branding can`t be the salvation.
- Barbie fleshes out the emotional relationship spawned and induced by gendered toys surprisingly well and with reasonable depth, it can be called the „Citizen Kane“ of fantasies bringing your toys to life, haunting you like Frankenstein.
- Barbie totally blindsides and sidelines capitalism, money and power deriving from owning the means of production, investing in it and selling dreams (well, products which require other products) to children, making (mostly) white old men rich.
- Barbie offers some deconstruction of gender roles and relations, and puts satirical emphasis on feminism and patriarchy, but stays on the surface and has no solution to offer for men and women – other than realising that they have genitalia. It seems sort of stuck in being a teenager, without a job, no family but a lot of dream potential – being confused by a waking sexuality.
Disclaimer: Of course this text is more of a critical piece based on personal opinion and less about the pitfalls of product placements like Birkenstock sandals or using the colour palette of Wes Anderson movies. For a deeper dive into the colour pink I recommend reading this BBC article (“The colour pink and how the new Barbie film might subvert our expectations”, see LINK 1, below). I’d rather rant about the artform of avoiding certain themes in the film, the blind spots. To get the Birkenstock argument of product placement out of the way early on: it is unknown whether Birkenstock, like hundreds of other brands, has entered into a collaboration with the “Barbie” film or not. However, the viral shoe hit couldn’t come at a better time for the company. The German company is benefiting from the sandal hype with high sales figures. According to the internet platform Lyst, demand for the model that Barbie wears at the end of the film (Arizona in old pink) has increased by over 110 percent. The Swiss-German free magazine 20Minuten states (transl. by the author):”The sandal manufacturer is expected to go public this year. In spring 2021, financial investors L. Catterton and Financiére Agache bought the company from Alexander and Christian Birkenstock. At that time, according to media reports, the company was valued at 4.9 billion US dollars, i.e. 4.3 billion francs. In July, according to Bloomberg, the owners were already expecting up to six billion dollars. After the Barbie hype, there is talk of a value of over eight billion dollars, i.e. around seven billion francs. L. Catterton is backed by the French luxury group LVMH, which owns labels such as Dior and Louis Vuitton. Financiére Agache is the private investment company of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault (see LINK 2).
This nevertheless speaks for itself and why it may leave a strange, commercial and soulless taste in a clever movie with a social agenda, especially because the whole “Barbieverse” is aimed at children and teenagers.
We know that the movie „Barbie“ from female director Greta Gerwig is hailed as a riotous, candy-coloured feminist fable. It is entertaining, yes, the audiences seem delighted to ecstatic, the gay communities embrace it with fervor and it may represent a camp romp of an attempted musical of a kind we have not seen since the days of Moulin Rouge (2001) or even Mary Poppins (1964). It feels like Wes Anderson has made a Wizard of Oz in the Barbie dreamhouse, re-envisioning it as an escape room for gender roles. All this comes wrapped up in pink and the trendy hashtag #barbenheimer. But, will even the clever co-branding with Oppenheimer (which marketing exec / intern came up with that? Even if it sort of feels organic, I am sure it isn`t…) – save the weakened, pandemic-shaken studio system and its distribution partners, or the cinemas worldwide from the streamers onslaught? Is co-branding and co-financing with established brands the creative way to show the muscles of a dream factory, generating also independent voices? Is it “art” to do so? Will the future Scorseses, Spielbergs, Kubricks, Coppolas, Lucas etc. let alone the new Waters, Cassavetes’, Lynches, Roegs, Gallos or Romeros come to life with a recipe for success like this? Find a brand, let them tell their story, throw some stars in, be a bit clever: is that enough? I highly doubt it. We know Barbie is a commercially available plastic toy and that is where the story starts. We are aware that selling products is the raison d’etre of any corporation, so why the hell are we forgiving a brand throwing a mud-brick like Barbie’s co-branding as the future of Hollywood into our faces?
The world is run by corporate money, but cultural agendas are not being „sold“ with that money, advertising a product as the core plot? Product placement as a narrative cornerstone – the Hail Mary to perform box-office miracles? For real? You will sink, Hollywood, if you dance down that road, your writers and actors already are on strike because of your greediness and lack of inspiration. Mattel with Mattel Films in the opening and end credits as producers of the movie, and Mattel products in the beginning and end including explanations of product lines, makes it is very difficult to not see the acclaimed „subversive“ movie supposedly saving Hollywood as what it is: an overrated clever infomercial (with some cultural agenda baked in).
IP-driven blockbusters can’t be the answer, but only a timid patch for the rupture that 90% of Hollywood’s output is now prequels or sequels or expanding in a well-established brand universe or well-known storyverse. No risk, no innovation, dwindling numbers, declining return of investments, unwillingness to finance risky movies, death of creativity. Emotions low, story so-lala, with below par, repetitive mediocrity there is no salvaging a sinking ship. Barbie is above par, certainly, but the dangerous interpretation to view its production and quality as “best practice” will be no blueprint for success, but rather Hollywood’s downfall. This year’s Gran Turismo by Neil Blomkamp (District9) is judged by IndieWIre as a new way of marketing video games and “a feature-length Sony commercial” and that does not bode well for the “creativity” of the industry. (see LINK 3)
2. Emotional relations
The story of the stereotypical doll searching the human who plays with it feels surprisingly solid and fleshed out, definitely showing depth and drama. The emotional ties with a beloved toy can be strong, and complicated. Barbie does not shy away from these possible complications. That is great. A movie about adults confronting their adult fears in analysing their use of toys could be great. Barbie does it, up to a certain point, Marvel and DC are still lightyears away from this kind of enlightenment. Pixar’s “Toy Story” (1995) was a fun step, but stayed mostly within the kids’ age, theme wise. The bond with toys usually fades with time – we grow up and we light-heartedly discard our beloved tools for projecting adult life, because we start to LIVE adult life. Being stuck in these kind of bonds with representations, symbols, or stand-ins can be called „unresolved“, „sentimental“, „regressive“ or „immature“ – but a lot of media depends on these type of dreams, this type of cognitive model. Any film hero can be called a tool for projection. Superheroes are mainstream adult fare now – but not all creators of these characters agree that this is a good thing and criticise “infantilisation”.
Alan Moore, creator of “V For Vendetta” stated in IndieWire, “Hundreds of thousands of adults lining up to see characters and situations that had been created to entertain the 12-year-old boys — and it was always boys — of 50 years ago. I didn’t really think that superheroes were adult fare. I think that this was a misunderstanding born of what happened in the 1980s — to which I must put my hand up to a considerable share of the blame, though it was not intentional — when things like ‘Watchmen’ were first appearing. There were an awful lot of headlines saying ‘Comics Have Grown Up.’” (LINK 4)
Barbie surprisingly homes in on that in making an adult the protagonist who is still dealing with the ramifications and repercussions of being a fan of a toy. She can be called unresolved, sentimental, and “regressive” still playing with Barbie, but excused with the only acceptable reason in a corporate capitalistic world to do so: you work for the production company of that toy. You help making it better, more resonating with the audiences, you ultimately help selling it. But that is not us, the audience, we are not designers, we are consumers. Here is the blind spot – we influence Barbie creations, but we are not designing them. Gamers are not game designers, with rare exceptions. They play games, but they don’t own the IP. Gamers are sometimes called „regressive“, game designers „cool“. We consume Barbieworld and Barbie – but may overlook that the film is part of Barbieworld. We do not change it, we did not invent it, we do not share the revenue. What they did in the past was, that Mattel tries to mine our minds so that they produce fresh new products to keep the buzz up for the old ones. Barbie the Film is no exception. The co-branding idea aims at being attractive to audiences who are invested in Barbie because they played with it in their infancy – not really to teenagers who just stopped playing, or children, who still do. The demographic matches the narrative: a (single) mother in her 30s/40s with teenage daughter(s). They are the real buyers, because as parents their money is used to open the door to Barbieworld. One could twist it into a description of dependency: Stockholm syndrome with Barbie in the 70s snowballs into taking your children hostage and allowing Mattel to gain more profits with new purchases. The film homes in onto the vintage, nostalgic feeling and exploits the doubts of these mums like a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile. The confusing feelings while finding the right role in life seems to be the dramatic focus of Barbie and the grown-up mum. These feelings may change over time, and change is represented well and in interesting shades. The strength of the film seems to me to be an honest deconstruction of what it means to “fulfil a role” well, how to “function” in a society which is run by other agendas. Only capitalism and money, the cornerstones of adult life, are not mentioned or considered. That homage to “change” feels like the legacy of the project, and rings true for the teenage girl, the mother and Barbie – even for Ken. But embracing change is not all in life, you also choose and live the consequences of your choices in society. You have a career or descend into precarious living conditions, a challenge and gamble for young and the elderly. Bearing the contradictions in an idealised world made the plot move forward, snapping the heroes out of their brainwashed stupor – but do they own it? The impossibilities of „being a woman“ hit the impossibilities of being „a man“. What do the Barbies and Kens do with their freedom from each other? The movie sparked some real-life relationship endings, which seems an interesting point, making toxic relationships more aware for people of all types of the gender spectrum. Nevertheless, relationships do not get resolved in Barbie, and it does feel like burning a great idea cheaply to fuel the quick resolution of a complicated plot – in Fantasyland as well as in real life. Bearing contradictions gracefully is not for everyone, and many break, trying to make sense of clues or challenges in life which oppose each other. Many simply lack the money to go forward and take control of their lives, others find the roles society (or their partners) have to offer deeply unsatisfying. Overwriting the play with consumerism with a trip for gaining more self-awareness detached from simple market logic could be a liberating move but also deceiving, as the market is not going away and the wages do not get paid because you „found yourself“. Often we repeat our failures in choosing a certain type of partner and helping society in taking advantage of our work or time. Getting aware of these patterns is an important step, but I am missing a bit the “freedom for” after all the “freedom from”.
Barbie, the tale and the product, fits with rising American consumerism at the end of the 50s and beginning of 60s. It created the roots of certain cultural standards, female expectations in body type (blond, tall, slim, big boobs) and what to “have”: a car, a house, a trailer, a snowmobile, roller blades, dresses etc. all to be sold by Ruth Handler’s company Mattel. Who buys these things for Barbie? How does she (Barbie) get all these things? Barbieland has no money, no economy, only what you “rightfully” have. Provided by kids who play with it and the parents who pay for it. Barbie is a product of capitalism and Greta Gerwig’s movie turns a blind eye to that – which is quite obvious (pun intended). Corporate structures yes, all white men, yes, but who are the investors, who has the power to really steer Barbieland? The shareholders. None of that is to be seen or criticised in the movie. Capitalism and the profits of the company do not exist, sadly. A lost opportunity to reveal the real reason that the movie exists: profit.
This also would make the entry for the most important spin on Ken and his Kendom. No, it’s not as if only beer, horses and some bling bling, a fur coat and a big mouth equals dominant manhood and show the only tropes of masculinity available. If Barbie would want to be honest, it is the money of patriarchy and the “buddies with benefits” representing that system that would need a change – there the scales of power are most skewed, in financial resources. Ken without money should be powerless, no boots, no posters, no decorations, no golden buckles and pimped cars. Attitude and entitlement can only bring you so far. What moves the will of people is money, and the movie avoids the theme like the devil fears holy water. It fuels power and it makes powerless and poor men hungry for stories in which money does not play a role, or is acquired with ease and luck. Yes, also many men are pushed by a whole industry spewing and spawning heroes, superheroes and models for projection with special powers or special luck, for living a fantasy, consuming stories while the reality can be perceived as a grim dystopia.
Stories like that can be great entertainment, but usually the relationship between a superhero and its manifestations in a comic magazine or as action figurines are not part of these stories. Breaking the fourth wall of being aware to play a part in a story in a TV show or film does happen sometimes like in She Hulk – Attorney at Law, but „bleeding“ out of a fantasy world into the real power structure of the production company is a rare thing. The escapism of perfect role-models with superpowers can be called deceiving when in real life most people lack the agency and self-efficacy, or the sheer financial resources, to change their fate big time, like their heroes do. Turning a blind eye on that is almost symptomatic of our society and a big minus in the perceived wokeness of an “iconic movie, representing our times”. As opportunities dwindle and inflation is having a tight grip on rising prices, the middle class which can still afford a Barbie dreamhouse but no real dreamhouse for raising a family is left behind with doubts. Play like the rich, do not ask where the money come from. Do not ask for a raise, do not ask who owns certain IP and who may profit from its use. Watch, consume, work a much as you can, go on with your life. Don‘t complain.
4. Gender roles
The allure to a certain demographic which played with / consumed Barbieland historically includes people strongly aware of feminism. These mums grew up with free love and the talk of empowerment. The roots of Barbie are rightfully in anti-patriarchy and female empowerment – but this was based on life in the 50s. To not being forced to follow the path of a mum and housewife but to become anything you want was a big step and infusing this into a line of toys for girls is almost a stroke of genius. Only that – the world run by men never really wanted that, so selling toys does not equal granting the same rights or same jobs or equal wages. No, you can’t just become a Nobel prize winner, astronaut or Olympic skier or be top of your game in 200 other jobs – very few men or women can choose that or become a successful tennis star as a choice.
It still was important to plant that possibility in the girls’ minds – but nobody asked how to get there, eventually. How long does it take to become a nurse, a fashion model or a veterinarian Barbie for real? How to become a CEO or a president, when most women crash into the glass ceiling when even Hillary Clinton did not make it to become president. We all know what came instead of Hillary. The hard truth is that women are still often not treated equal, not equally empowered and still have to endure a wage gap and limited opportunities. Is this somehow reflected in the tale? Well, yes, and no. Neither the mum, nor our Barbie protagonist, becomes the new CEO of Mattel, or gets a pay raise, or a different job offer (elevator for other ladies, anyone?). That is sad and a lost opportunity for female empowerment. The mum helps to empower Barbie (and the daughter strolls along, first reluctantly), but all these critical speeches, all this anger and resentment against patriarchy, becomes more of a caricature when it only empowers the female stereotypical symbols to seed war between the Kens.
This is what white men did for centuries, control with “divide et impera” (divide and rule of the Romans e.g.) and to rig the democratic elections excluding the Kens. Forcefully changing the Kendom back to Barbieland is quite an anti-democratic move. Sorry, that is giving a bad example and perpetrates an anti-institutional stance which has led to disregard elections and storm the Capital not long ago. The new reality could have been just called “Land”, they could have stopped underlining gender identity and tried to live together, farming the land together, with no labels and takeover fantasies. So, patriarchy is turned back to a matriarchy in an undemocratic solution – only (almost) none of them is a mother or a father – except Midge and her husband Allen, a discontinued pregnant Barbie from the early 2000s.
So from what does their claim for matriarchal power derive from? Motherhood? Experience? Being more “reasonable” and keeping Kens like pets? Or a “It was always like this” – so,…habit? Worst argument of patriarchy. Doll play is often family play, even with Barbie, as most kids grow up in a family. That very strong reality in real life seems be totally excluded in Barbieland, even though the mother and kid in the film represent that somehow. Sexuality is excluded like capitalism – so the practical consequence of becoming human is the end of a journey denying that there are romantic relationships (Ken being in love with her) – and all she gains is the gift of physical frailty and visiting the doctor. Thank you, Greta Gerwig.
The movie, stylistically on the shoulders of The Wizard of Oz and statistically a big hit, is citing boldly Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 already in the opening scene. Smashing dolls and traditional family values is the beginning – but can it offer also a new horizon, a construct for our contemporary times? Is Barbie an original take on feminism and female education of values, or is it stuck in citing, referencing – in other words, has it developed it‘s own voice? Visually, maybe yes. And without Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling’s presence it might be a lot worse, as they lend some gravitas and verve to the often witty, sometimes brilliant, sometimes dull script, which still stays below its potential.
One would wonder what heavyweights of feminist writing, pirate queens of literature Kathy Acker, Simone de Beauvoir, Rigoberta Menchú Tum or Susan Sontag would have to say about the depth and diversity exposed by the movie…I guess they would celebrate parts, and be disgusted by others. Like the end joke, which certainly is the low point of the exercise to make Barbie feel alive: it takes more to be a woman than to have a female body. That struck me as unnecessary reductionism. Coming of age, yes, but facing her empowerment and saying yes to ageing after 2h of narrative, why end there? Everything problematic like sex and a job pushed into Barbie 2? Even if there would be a Barbie 2 – all the efforts and possible intentions notwithstanding, enlightenment is not be expected…