I never paid a whole lot of attention to Barbie. I didn’t dislike her, she just never particularly captured my attention. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Barbie has played an important role in the lives of many individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. And now the new movie “Barbie,” seems to be doing the same.
I’ve had a handful of friends that were collectors of Barbie. Most of them tended to lean towards collecting the earlier versions because of their retro sensibilities, and then there is Glenn Mandeville, the author of an endless list of books published about Barbie and probably the foremost authority on Barbie in the world.
I tried reaching out to him for comment on the film, but we lost touch a few years back (boyfriend of a friendly acquaintance, they broke up, you get the picture). Reportedly, he still lives right here in the Charlotte Metro area and just recently celebrated his 76th birthday with friends and family in Belmont.
Given his scholarly viewpoints on Barbie, I doubt very seriously the new movie would be his cup of tea. Still, I wonder what his thoughts on the movie might be, as opposed to mine. His would be coming from a substantial portion of lifetime lovingly devoted to the doll. Mine are coming from a writer, pop culture observer and film as art devotee who feels mostly indifferent about Barbie.
Director Greta Gerwig had a specific goal in mind when she took on direction of the film. As an individual, her pleasantly twisted sense of humor and progressive outlook shines through in the production. While the movie consistently pokes fun at American pop culture and politics, it also examines some of the more disturbing aspects of our world.
To be honest, I was surprised the movie actually made me laugh. A couple of times it made me sad and, more often than not, it reminded me of how screwed up our country and the world at large has become, both culturally and politically.
The story is a bit on the surreal side. But, it is after all about a doll, so that gives the filmmakers some leeway to do what they see fit with the story line, which focuses on human-like Barbies (Stereotypical Barbie is played by Margo Robbie) and Kens (Ryan Gosling is the lead role Ken) and various spin-off products (also human-like) living their gentrified lives in an asexual and fantastical alternate universe where they populate a plastic world full of Barbie houses and drive around in Barbie cars.
Director Gerwig does right by society at large and incorporates all sorts of Barbies from across the strata of humanity: physically challenged Barbie in a wheelchair, a Barbie of size, Barbies of multiple ethnicities and even a Barbie that was no doubt intended to give a nod to the trans community (you’ll recognize her the moment you hear her voice).
The endless litany of Kens is more or less the same, with a few slight touches of male homoculture thrown in for good measure.
All is going well in Barbieland until a human in a parallel universe has particularly strong emotions attached to her counterpart doll-version of Barbie. Those emotions begin to wreak havoc in Barbie World and force the film’s heroine to seek help from the counter-culture intellectual “Weird Barbie,” played by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon – who steals the film in my opinion – and is depicted as a Barbie apparently played with and modified by a child during the punk rock era.
In short, Weird Barbie advises regular Barbie that she has to cross the barrier between universes, connect with the individual who is experiencing distress and set things right. Seems uncomplicated enough, right? Wrong: Ken sneaks a ride along to “the real world” and beats it back to Barbieland after he gets a taste of how much he enjoys a male-dominated society. Call it what you will, but in true sci-fi fashion, human culture contaminates Barbieland, quickly turning it into Kenland, with all the various Barbies brainwashed like Stepford Wives and tickled pink to see to their man’s every need.
After finding the individual who had connected with plastic Barbie, she returns to Barbieland, only to find the Kens in charge and everything in disarray. Once again, Barbie turns to Weird Barbie for advice as they fight to return their community to a better place than it was before
Despite what I’m sure was Warner Brothers attempt at trying to make the movie palatable for all audiences, this is definitely Barbie aimed at adults of a certain political and cultural sensibility.
It’s not hard to see why right wingers are protesting and Middle Eastern countries are banning the film altogether: it comedically points out the flaws in today’s world created by theology and conservative oppression.
Despite complaints from those quarters, the film is doing quite well and – as of this issue – has already raked in an estimated $128 billion dollars.
Pertinent points to watch out for:
Pay close attention to the “Barbie” soundtrack: it includes music by Pink, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and Dua Lipa, who also appear in the film as Mermaid Barbies. Lipa’s “Dance the Night” was the first release, and accompanies multiple scenes throughout the film.
The Barbieland Disco party scene is likely one of the film’s funniest. It demonstrates a fun-filled life of parties, laughter, music and dance. Until Barbie brings everything to a screeching halt by abruptly asking her pals, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
A particularly heartfelt moment shows up in the film when Stereotypical Barbie has her first encounter with an elderly woman (Ann Roth). Gerwig explains it really has nothing to do with the film’s plot, but describes it as the “heart of the movie” when a tearful Barbie tells the senior woman she’s beautiful. She replies, “I know it!
An angry young school student – the daughter of the human Barbie is attempting to find in the real world – calls Barbie a fascist, accuses her of setting the feminist movement back 50 years and leaves Barbie in tears. It’s important because it addresses issues of concern that have encircled the Barbie franchise for decades: self worth, self esteem, unattainable body images, skin color and even hair texture. Mattel attempted to force this scene on to the cutting room floor, but they were eventually convinced of its worth by the production team.
Rhea Pearlman – perhaps best known for her role in “Taxi,” – shows up twice in the role of the ghost of Ruth Handler, one of the original founders of Mattel and the creator of Barbie. It’s unexpected – and eventually leads Barbie to take the leap from doll to human.
Those Closing Credits —If you’re over 40 you’ll no doubt remember Mattel sued the group Aqua over their song “Barbie Girl” for copyright infringement. Mattel lost, and the song was actually used in the closing credits of the movie. Given that previous action and Mattel’s general protective possessiveness of everything Barbie, it came as a pleasant surprise: Mattel seems to have grown up a little.
Biggest laugh of the movie:
“Depressed Barbie” commercial.
If you haven’t seen “Barbie,” I say go before it leaves theaters. There’s nothing like comfy stadium seating and the smell of buttered popcorn to enhance a movie presentation on a big screen.