Pastel! Pink! Plastic! , still plastic. Barbie
Illustration by ; Kat Brooks /Mattel) Washington Post
The excitement I had about watching Barbie had me giggling like a little girl too. An excellent, star studded cast of course but I was especially excited because of the director. Greta Gerwig quickly became one of my favourite directors after watching ‘Lady Bird’, a coming of age film finally from the perspective of a woman, voiced by a woman. Suffice it to say, I was not wary going into the film.
Barbie is also a kind of coming of age film. The film follows our protagonist’s journey from her idyllic Barbieland into reality, facing the disappointments of a man‘s world and still rising up to the challenge of becoming a person, a woman. Despite what the Mattel executives are trying to avoid, it is a feminist film. The film’s satire is outstanding, and it’s my article so it gets a special mention.
The Barbie movie is a feminist film, truly, a feminist film of its time. The most telling parts of the movie, however, have little to do with feminist issues. The first is when Barbie finds the teenage girl she assumes is playing with her. Barbie is confronted with the reality of her existence; the consequence that the doll has had but through an opinionated, juvenile kid. Barbie then goes on to convince us, unconvincingly, that it was never her intention. It really is stereotypical Barbie saying this. The movie asks us to extend empathy to a corporation, empathy we (should) have for fellow humans. It is a blatant attempt to personify a cold and calculating, for-profit corporation. The film shows that it is self aware in the second most telling scene- when a joke is made out of the ‘Normal Barbie’ pitch. The idea for ‘Normal Barbie’ is only greenlit when it shows a possibility of profit, the issues it addresses and the ideal it represents are reduced to a product for mass consumption.
The Barbie movie is a feminist film of its time. It touches on diversity, ageism, body issues, representation, patriarchy and toxic masculinity and of course, follows the story of a white protagonist. In the case of Barbie, I’d argue only “pretty” protagonist might’ve been unavoidable. Clever circumventing of the white saviour trope, though. The film does not take its time to meditate on these issues, it does not have a perspective on them. It simply reflects these ideas as they are present in contemporary discussions about feminism, largely which have been on social media platforms. The decision to not explore the journeys of Gloria, the mother and Sasha, the daughter illustrates quite plainly that their role and experiences are just a stand-in rather than a perspective that deserves to be fleshed out and portrayed to an audience capable of both critique and empathy. By establishing a base of relatability, it convinces us of its authenticity. The shallow depictions of incredibly important issues are reminiscent of our ephemeral, hedonistic consumption culture. As such, the film *cough cough* capitalises on the relatability of the film to invite a huge, untapped demographic into the marketplace.
The film’s existentialist themes are present in the protagonist’s journey, the satire and even the construction of the film, down to its ending. The concept of alterity; otherness, is a concept beautifully executed in the Kens. The Kens are neglected and their existence is reduced to be defined only in relation to the Barbies. They are othered. The import of patriarchy from the real world raises questions about the origin of patriarchy and simultaneously raises the issue of a lack of female history and culture. The origin of patriarchy is a question sorely lacking in pop cultural discussions, the absence of which has consequences ranging from gender roles to personal and political accountability. History and development of culture are important tools to help us narrativize agency, to recognise individuality and freedom. For an era still largely characterised by progress, history might not play such a large role in culture. Rather, the influence might be dominated by forms of media; which great capitalism equivalent to nature. The philosophical concepts of the film are rooted in the seminal work of Simone de Beauvoir, an existentialist and a feminist. The film only tiptoes around other important existential ideas of authenticity, personal responsibility and bad faith, ideas with more content than their literal meanings. Similarly, the “existential crisis” of Barbie is not an anxiety from the freedom of essence; the untethered-ness of (Sartre’s words not mine-) being for itself. Rather it is the opposite, a crisis of the imposition of essence, a struggle of individuality and responsibility. The cherry-picking and misappropriation of intellectual concepts, philosophical or scientific, is basically a feature of social media. Since this film doesn’t shy away from catering to pop culture, it does not do its homework beyond a history of Barbie and excellent filmmaking.
Barbie is a film that deserves much of the appreciation and acclaim that it has gotten. Female voices in such a large Hollywood commercial film is something to be celebrated. Given, the climax (not the ending) is a surprising one. For a commercial film, the climax is the most impactful sequence, probably only because it is the most recent. Likely, it portrayed the dissatisfactory progress of the “second sex”. The film, despite taking a moral stance, chooses not to enlighten us on a perspective on possible future action or at least expose the ambiguity of ethical decision making, lest it be a film with something to say and content to be critiqued. The climax could have posited the revolution unto a shared space but maybe that would open up another can of worms. For example- shared space between whom? Male and Female? Or whether to deconstruct such ideas. The film dares not have something to say that which has not already been said. I, however, do. In an era where political solidarity has become less of a tool and more a product to be consumed in exchange for our attention, empathy is the way to introduce critical thought into our collective consciousness. Divisive institutional polity and partisan individual advocacy has been mirrored onto our economic sphere and the only way to combat it is through ideas of empathy and reconciliation, that which Barbie has not expressed.