On Barbie and Greta Gerwig’s Colorful, Complicated Portrait of Humanity

This Barbie review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, movies like this one would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work. This Barbie review also contains spoilers.

In Barbra Streisand’s rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting It Together,” the artist finds herself going back-and-forth with her producers about the work she’s put into her art. It comes at the top of The Broadway Album, something these faux producers argue is “just not commercial.” To that, she challenges: What is commercial?

This is the kind of question that has plagued any number of individuals when both creating and consuming art. What, exactly, defines a commercial product? Is simply being popular enough to categorize something as such? Does something have to be specifically designed as such to be void of artistry? Is the inclusion of a popular brand, regardless of any attempts at subversion within the art, enough to consider a work “commercial?” And what of artists who manage to straddle the line between “commercial” and “art”? If Twitter were to be believed, there would be absolutely no realm in which one could “sell out” and still create a great film.

In an era where most independent filmmakers are being hired to helm hack work at Disney or any given streamer — under the watchful eye of producers who have no interest in any distinct vision beyond their bottom line — the question of whether or not artistry can exist within a commercial art piece has become all the more pressing and understandable. An inherent wariness at the mere concept of engaging with an established brand is not unwarranted, but there’s worth in actually dissecting whether or not those works still work successfully as art in spite of their commercial success (or their ability to push a brand).

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is the latest to fall victim to the hyperbole of the internet’s fear at an artist selling out. Depending on who you ask, Barbie is either a testament to artistry and distinct vision surviving in spite of brand interference or a warning that even the most distinct artist will get lost under the weight of capitalism. The truth, in reality, is somewhere between these two opposing poles (and far closer to the former).

Gerwig’s film is, ultimately, about a doll. As one might imagine, this comes with all the benefits (its appealing color palette, an expansive cast of existing characters to play with in a sandbox) and drawbacks (an arguably incessant need to engage with the products it features, a devotion to an existing “brand”) of any work designed to promote a brand. But that delicate balance between the two is where Barbie flourishes as a work of art. It’s less an advertisement for a company than it is a surprisingly dense text about just what exactly Barbie means to multiple generations of women, mining the absurd history of Mattel and the Barbie brand to both winking and sincere effect.

As noted, Barbie is about a doll: Her name is Barbie. Or, more specifically, Stereotypical Barbie. She is, as narrator Helen Mirren notes, everything one imagines when they think about Barbie. She lives in Barbieland. She has a dream house. She is surrounded by other Barbies who are equally as talented and beautiful. She even has someone singing along to her every action. But, as with real life, Barbie’s world has been turned upside down by intrusive thoughts of death, her feet going flat, and discovering the girl who played with her in the real world seems to be Going Through It. The only way to fix this? Go to The Real World, find the girl, and fix things.

What begins as a delightful romp in the realm of Barbieland becomes a work interested in dissecting the ways that reality continues to be a far cry from the optimistic world of childhood fantasies (which themselves are manufactured by an organization that sells dreams). What initially comes across as something of an advertisement for Mattel, complete with the names of outfits popping up on screen at times, unravels further and further, with each new reference feeling more like a pointed reminder of how much of a fantasy we’ve all been sold. Life can’t be like Barbie, like our childhoods with all their frivolity and imagination, no matter how much we wish it was.

At first, one might balk at the dated feminist politics of it all, feeling like a remnant of the 2016 election that poisoned many a contemporary artist’s brain (including co-star Kate McKinnon, lest we forget that atrocious SNL performance of “Hallelujah”). After all, this is a film that — upon Ken discovering the word “patriarchy” and seeing visions of male supremacy throughout reality — decides to pit the Barbies against the Kens to ridiculous effect. In fact, a certain brand of gender essentialism is key to the film’s sense of humor, whether that’s involves its women (both real and doll) joking about men being obsessed with (and explaining everything from) The Godfather to Lou Reed, or delivering speeches that sound like they’re coming from someone who read the SCUM Manifesto for the first time. Even by the time the film ends, some might still be convinced that Gerwig and her co-writer (and, yes, husband) Noah Baumbach have fallen prey to the same trappings the film seemingly longs to critique.

But with each passing scene, Barbie reveals its endgame a little more; beneath all the laughs at the expense of men and women is the sad truth that this brand of essentialism itself, of separating Barbies from Kens, of emphasizing their differences, is the thing that damages us the most. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Gerwig is, rather radically, blaming the very company she is working for for enforcing and damning us to a life of this very essentialism. They’re the kind of people who will pivot to selling MRA Ken’s if that’s what they think will sell. They’re the kind of monsters who would even keep the creator of Barbie herself locked in a random room in the building, compartmentalizing the very woman who created the doll they seek to compartmentalize. The dolls that we once played with, that we once used as a form of escapism, were themselves trapped in the stifling gender roles used to exploit us.

Take a key scene with Barbie in Mattel’s headquarters, where Will Ferrell’s CEO attempts to coax the doll back into the box she would typically be sold in. Her box shouts her name to the world: Stereotypical Barbie! But the moment she steps in, she is flooded with a sense of unease. By allowing herself to be packaged into a neat category, she plays into the hand of everyone who has tried to place her into some kind of box. In this case, it’s Mattel, but elsewhere, she has a young woman accusing her of being a bimbo and of setting feminism back. There’s no winning for her if she allows herself to be labeled because those labels are exactly what are keeping her, and us, down.

Here is where Barbie begins its steps to becoming about how humanity — and more specifically, the companies that have spent decades exploiting us — has boxed us into inane roles that are more damaging than helpful. It’s a direct statement against the way we’ve been conditioned to believe there are and should be “boys toys” and “girls toys”, even if it frequently uses those very assignments as a means of comedy. It does this by emphasizing that, much like our real patriarchal society causes irreparable damage to men and women (but especially women, as America Ferrera’s impassioned speeches about feminism clearly note), the matriarchal society that is Barbieland itself is far from a utopian society (and that is, in fact, only a fantasy).

Barbie, being a film made with Mattel’s approval and rather exhaustingly marketed to audiences who will most definitely buy their products, is undoubtedly a commercial work. But it isn’t without subversion. This can manifest in a number of ways, not just in an active revolt against the machine, and that’s something that seems all too precious in this age where everything feels designed to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. Where most blockbuster pictures have their edges shaved off in fear of isolating anyone, there’s something all the more satisfying and charming about a film that’s as shameless and indulgent and smart as Barbie. It feels like it’s speaking directly to a generation that feels as lost as Frances and Lady Bird both did, and that’s because Gerwig is speaking to her peers without an ounce of condescension.

To dismiss Barbie as a children’s movie, or even something vapid for selling toys, is a disservice to what she’s done here. Yes, Mattel may be making bank by selling Margot Robbie-themed Barbie toys at theaters themselves (my AMC was fully stocked), but Greta Gerwig has created a genuinely fun film that can also spark some worthwhile conversations that continue to build upon the discourses her past works have already sparked. The fraught relationship between mother and child that was core to Lady Bird and the push-pull of art versus reality (and success versus failure) that plagued Jo March in Little Women are both present in Barbie, and continue to speak to individuals (like myself) who find themselves plagued by what Barbie, and the human who once played with her, now is.

It’s why, when the film cuts back to a girl playing with her Weird Barbie (that she lit on fire, colored, and kicked around), the film is playing Spice Girls. The same kind of girl who, today, would be exhausted and unfulfilled from her day job and trying to figure out how to find time for everything she needs to do, wondering where all the beauty and creativity and imagination that once filled her heart has now faded away to. The same kind of girl who would, in fact, be watching the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice on repeat or be tweeting the same kind of idiotic jokes about men or women having it harder that 30 Rock once did so exquisitely.

Mattel may try to box that up and sell that (and the film certainly jokes they would try to get Depressed Barbie out on the market), but the truth is, well, reality is impossible to package. What a brand thinks is best to exploit isn’t always something that’s going to end up working out for them, and any attempt at doing so may result in failure (doubly emphasized by all the discontinued Barbies meant to offer “alternate” or “more appealing” or “more real” versions of a doll that was never meant to be more than a doll). And though many will find things to identify with within Barbie, each generation of individual that has played with these dolls likely getting a little kick out of it, it’s hard not to see that it’s made for people who are navigating the same rocky emotional terrain as Gerwig herself.

The nuances and complications of humanity — the fact that we can be both frivolous and complicated, or pink and black, or high heel and Birkenstock, or whatever other nonsensical dichotomy, like “commercial” and “art”, one might pick — are impossible to box up. Gerwig understands that and understands there are no easy answers to the questions she’s been asking throughout her career. But that’s alright. Much like the Indigo Girls sing on Barbie’s radio, “There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line. And the less I seek my source for some definitive: closer I am to fine.” Barbie may not provide any answers, nor will it spark the same feeling of recognition in everyone who watches it, but it may very well help someone forget how suffocating the world’s problems and its unreasonable expectations are, if only for a couple of hours. And isn’t that enough?

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Juan Barquin

Juan Barquin is a queer Miami-based writer and programmer who aspires to be Bridget Jones.

Juan has written 5 articles for us.


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