Does Barbie Get Away With It?

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023)

The funniest anecdote to spill out of this week’s avalanche of reviews of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has to be the one Jordan Hoffman tells at the Messenger. He walked out of his screening “in a very upbeat mood,” and he happened to spot “the legendary critic, professor, curator, and downtown art figure Amy Taubin getting into the elevator. ‘Amy,’ I asked, ‘were you inspired?’ She looked back at me and spat, ‘It’s about a fucking doll!’”

Well, yes, it is. But does that necessarily make it any less worthy of critical consideration than movies about caped musclemen with superpowers, cuddly Japanese forest spirits, or for that matter, the walking and talking playthings of Pixar’s beloved Toy Story franchise? “The achievement of Greta Gerwig’s brainy, compassionate, often messy, always exuberant toy story,” finds Ty Burr, “is that it offers an incredibly dense field of inquiry—into gender roles, conformity, female anxiety and male rage (and male anxiety and female rage), consumerism, capitalism, body politics, existential angst, and much, much more—all while remaining a ridiculous amount of fun.”

To reference another blockbuster toy story, everything is awesome in Barbieland when Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie)—that’s her name; every woman in this matriarchal land has a role to play, including President Barbie (Issa Rae), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), and so on—wakes up, touches a cup of milk to her lips (she can’t actually drink it, of course), and floating on the invisible hand of the girl playing with her, joins the all-day, everyday party.

Out on the dance floor, she suddenly blurts with a searing smile, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” She’s whisked off to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who tells her she’ll have to venture to the real world to find out why she’s glitched. Ken—most critics agree that Ryan Gosling comes very, very close to stealing the movie—tags along. The two dolls discover that this world is run by men, and Ken takes to the idea immediately. “Gerwig smartly realizes that whereas a real-life Barbie would face only skepticism and critique, Ken is the ultimate empty vessel just waiting to be filled up with nonsense,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims.

Barbie is “an earnest feminist manifesto inside a barbed social satire inside an effervescent musical comedy, all designed in colors and textures so sumptuous they make 1950s Technicolor look desaturated,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens. As Alex Barasch explained in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, the film also launches what toy-making behemoth Mattel hopes will be a long line of movies based on its IP. J. J. Abrams is attached to a Hot Wheels project, Lena Dunham will direct a Polly Pocket movie, and Daniel Kaluuya is working on an “A24-type” Barney film.

How do you sell a product without selling out? “These movies can’t damage the goods,” notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “though I’m not sure most viewers would want that; our brands, ourselves, after all.” In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang sees Barbie as “a picture that both promotes and deconstructs its own brand. It doesn’t just mean to renew the endless ‘Barbie: good or bad?’ debate. It wants to enact that debate, to vigorously argue both positions for the better part of two fast-moving, furiously multitasking hours.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin has thoroughly enjoyed “the meta-spectacle of Gerwig, whose last film was the masterful 2019 adaptation of Little Women, springing herself and her stars from what initially looks like an inescapable corporate trap.” For Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Barbie “feels like the most subversive blockbuster of the twenty-first century to date.”

At the very least, Barbie is “a very self-conscious movie,” writes the Guardian’s Adrian Horton. “Its heroine gets a crash course in her fraught cultural legacy thanks to a real-life girl (the disaffected teenager Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt),” and the film “riffs on Barbie’s reputation as a hallmark of unrealistic, punitive beauty standards.” Horton senses “the familiar maw of what the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman termed the ‘reflexivity trap’—the idea, coined for a rash of intensely inward-facing literary fiction, that ‘professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance.’” Barbie “shares a self-protective streak common to many a woman online: anticipate any potential criticism, call it out first, fold it into your image.”

“Safe to say,” writes Vulture’s Alison Willmore, “that the film, which has an all-Ken fantasy dance number, an ad for a sweatpants-wearing Depression Barbie, and America Ferrera as a Mattel employee named Gloria delivering a variation of the ‘cool girl’ monologue from Gone Girl, is much weirder than you’d ever expect a Barbie motion picture to be. It’s just not enough. The impulse to grade Barbie on a curve because it’s based on a toy line, or to focus on what it was able to get away with under the auspices of a corporate brand, feels unfair to Gerwig, whose debut, Lady Bird, and ebullient take on Louisa May Alcott’s most famous work earned her a place as one of the country’s most compelling filmmakers.”

For Dana Stevens, the very idea “that an indie director like Gerwig chose, for her third film, to make a lavish blockbuster tied to a major studio’s IP has unsurprisingly caused some to dismiss her as a sellout. But watching her flex her filmmaking skills on this grand a scale, and succeed at creating a sparklingly original summer entertainment, has me excited to see whatever Gerwig does next, big or small.”

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