Life in Plastic — Barbie

William J Hammon
11 min readJul 26, 2023

There have been a lot of movies over the last decade based on consumer products. Most of them are thinly-veiled, feature-length commercials. But every once in a while, a film breaks through and becomes an essential part of our cultural conversation, like The Lego Movie. We can safely add Greta Gerwig’s to that short list because it succeeds in the same way the other actual cinematic achievements in this space have done: it uses the product as a framing device and metaphor to tackle much larger issues and tell compelling, human stories. Does this mean Barbie will become an all-time classic? Not necessarily. Hell, all cards on the table right now, I much preferred Oppenheimer in the admittedly cute “Barbenheimer” box office “battle.” That doesn’t stop it from being an absolute delight, however, and surprisingly resonant.

In a perfect example of no-brainer casting (which even the film itself, through narrator Helen Mirren, comments on for a decent joke), Margot Robbie shines as “Stereotypical Barbie,” an unofficial title meant to distinguish both her idealized figure when compared to the doll and the entire Barbieland community of other characters bearing the Mattel icon’s name (Issa Rae is “President Barbie” and Alexandra Shipp is “Writer Barbie,” for example). Beginning each and every day in a utopian world where Barbies rule everything, nothing ever goes wrong, and life is an endless party, Stereotypical Barbie is an exquisite rendering of what a little girl might imagine while playing with her. Every house is a “Dream House,” the world is awash in pink plastic excess, and the possibilities for adventure and vocation are limitless. It’s a hell of an establishment, aided expertly by Lizzo singing an all-too literal description of everything from offscreen (Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt create a fun, poppy score that includes a couple of these expositional comedic gems that feel straight out of an intentionally corny Broadway musical).

The one part of her life that isn’t completely, 100% exemplary is the affections of Ken, specifically, “Beach Ken,” so named because his job is “Beach.” He’s played by Ryan Gosling as the ultimate simp dude-bro. He literally defines his entire existence through Barbie’s gaze, feeling that he is nothing without her attention. Apart from his pining for Barbie, he has a longstanding rivalry with a different Ken played by Simu Liu (there’s also a large cadre of Kens, including Kingsley Ben-Adir, John Cena, and upcoming 15th Doctor Ncuti Gatwa), who constantly tries to one-up him in the “cool” department. Beach Ken is hopelessly devoted to Stereotypical Barbie — after all, “Barbie and Ken” is the default romance in this franchise — but as it turns out, Barbie just isn’t interested in him in that way. She’d rather every night be “Girls Night.” She’s happy to have him around as a friend, but that’s it.

One night, during a massive dance number, Barbie openly contemplates the idea of mortality, and suddenly everything changes. Her entire routine is thrown off, she can no longer float majestically from the top floor of her house to the street, and worst of all, her feet stand flat on the ground! Having seen this sort of behavior before, the rest of the Barbies send her to “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon). This version has awkwardly sheared and miscolored hair, a house made from randomly assembled parts (seriously, it looks like something out of Pee-wee’s Playhouse), and can only move in manners that leave her legs completely split due to some dislocation from rough play because McKinnon is an expert at all forms of comedy, including physical. She explains that S.B.’s existential crisis is caused by some form of emotional stress from the particular girl playing with her in the real world. As such, it’s up to her to travel from Barbieland to Los Angeles to track this child down and help her solve her problems. Desperate to win her approval, Beach Ken stows away in the back of Barbie’s car, and the two of them trek to our world.

All of this is spectacular. It’s bright, colorful, funny as all hell, and weirdly endearing. In essence, it’s Greta Gerwig all over. The costuming is insanely accurate to the litany of models and accessories that Barbie has accumulated over the last 60+ years. Introducing lesser-known and discontinued characters like Midge (Emerald Fennell) and Allan (Michael Cera) is an inspired touch. And of course, the production design is out of this world. I’m not just talking about the overwhelming usage of the color pink that caused a supply chain shortage, but the plastic aesthetic of all the set pieces, the flat layered landscapes, and the highly creative ways in which nearly everything is posable.

It all combines to make a setting that is completely artificial, but because it knows it’s fake, it ironically feels more real and lived-in. Being based in the fantasies of children, there doesn’t have to be any rules or logic. All you have to do is what feels the most right and fun in a given moment, and that translates effortlessly to the audience, all of whom were laughing, cheering, and dancing in their seats at the sold-out showing I went to.

It’s when we get to the real world that things start to go a bit too far off the rails. Barbie and Ken show up in Venice Beach, where they’re instantly recognized and mocked for their appearance (and Barbie gets cat-called by construction workers, because some of the jokes apparently were also created in the 1950s). They get arrested multiple times, but they suffer no real consequences for their actions, for instance getting to keep the cowboy outfits they steal from a shop on the boardwalk. Then then find themselves at Griffith Observatory, where Barbie tries to form a mental link with the girl who owns her in doll form while Ken goes to Century City and learns what patriarchy is, becoming absolutely floored and filled with purpose when he learns that there exists a place where men are in charge.

The duo eventually makes it to a nearby middle school where Barbie finds her girl, the rebellious Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who hates everything she stands for. Sasha brings Barbie to tears when confronted with the issues of body image and a lack of opportunity for women in society, as she blames the doll for representing an unrealistic vision of feminism and femininity, and hasn’t played with the figures in years. It turns out that Barbie’s depression comes from Sasha’s mom, Gloria (America Ferrera), an employee at Mattel who clings to the fading ideal of Barbie as a means to hold onto nostalgic memories of when she and Sasha were the best of friends. Speaking of the corporate overlords, the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell, at times bringing President Business to life in a weird form of toy-based entertainment synergy) is made aware of the situation, which has apparently happened before (one of the film’s better gags), and is committed to sending Barbie home and getting everything back to normal.

If all of this was happening solely in Barbieland, I’d say it was brilliant, because there are no rules there. But once you transition to what is designated as reality, you have to ground yourself just a bit. I can even suspend my disbelief to think of Mattel headquarters as a sort of waypoint between the two worlds, so that you can bend things to a certain degree. For example, I can totally get on board with the ghost of Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) occupying an entire floor of the building. Why not? It’s silly and fun and keeps the plot moving, and you can reasonably picture the company as a place where the laws of both worlds exist at the same time.

But as an L.A. resident, do you honestly expect me to buy that Barbie and Ken can go from Venice Beach to Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills to Century City and back, ON FOOT, in one day? Get the fuck out of here! Normally I wouldn’t bother with such a nitpick, but since the movie went out of its way to separate fantasy from reality, right down to the nonsense map of the world in Weird Barbie’s house (which somehow caused controversy and got the film banned in Vietnam and the Philippines), I say it’s fair game to note when you don’t follow your own guidelines. The same can be said for Barbie and Ken’s aforementioned run-ins with police; or the fact that the two, as adults, effortlessly trespass on a school campus without checking in with any administrative or security personnel; or that Ken simply steals library books without incident.

It all feels like filler material meant to hand-wave the more poignant questions the first half of the film daringly asks in favor of a third act heel turn where Ken, now awakened to the power that men have in the real world, makes a beeline back to Barbieland and proceeds to enact a hostile patriarchal takeover. He turns all the Barbies into brainwashed submissives through “mansplaining,” converts all the “Dream Houses” into “Mojo Dojo Casa Houses” filled with horses, and his character model essentially becomes Billy Zabka in The Karate Kid. From this point on, it’s up to Barbie, Sasha, and Gloria to take Barbieland back and defeat Ken’s plan to enshrine male rule upon the entire realm.

Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad idea. I do not for one second want to even make the faintest appearance of giving oxygen to dickless nimrods like Ben Shapiro (you’d think he’d be happy to finally see his kind featured prominently on screen) who only want to slam the film as “woke” while continuing to parade misogyny. My main issues are that this whole situation raises a lot of questions that I don’t think Gerwig and partner/co-writer Noah Baumbach have answers to, and that it feels like the plot to a completely separate movie.

Up until this point, we had a wonderful exploration of how the fantasy of Barbie is reconciled with the realities of life. There’s a sweet darkness to it all, filled to the brim with good humor, and the territory was ripe for a deep dive into what she is versus what she represents, all set against the backdrop of corporate control and the relationship between a mother and daughter. There’s a genuine, enduring message throughout this whole thread about how Barbie’s story can go anywhere that a child’s mind takes it, and the aspiration it inspires is an inherent positive, even when life in flesh and blood is less fantastic than it is in plastic.

The problem is that all of this is abandoned for the Ken plot, which has its own merits that get funnier and more relevant the more you think about it. His campaign is both shallow and petty, but it’s based on legitimate pain and feelings of disrespect. For instance, Barbie doesn’t want a relationship, but she never tells him that, and she inadvertently turns him into an incel. There’s a nuanced irony in the fact that the Barbies are domesticated en masse due to patronizing displays of toxic masculinity but they also get their agency back from a boilerplate speech from Gloria about the cognitive dissonance that comes with being a woman, and just as easily as the men manipulated them, so too do the Barbies key in the Kens’ basic need to peacock as a means to trick them into giving everything up.

This is solid stuff, but it’s all out of left field, and it has no real setup that makes sense within the context of what’s been established. We learn that Barbie’s crisis is because Gloria is feeling self-doubt and becoming distant from Sasha, and thus plays with Barbie (and designs version of her) in such a sad manner. So… who’s playing with Ken in such a way to make him like this? There’s a brief reverse joke about the Ken houses selling well with Mattel, but that’s a punchline without a premise. Similarly, all the stuff with Gloria and Sasha’s relationship gets completely placed on the backburner as if it never happened. Once Barbie takes them to Barbieland, unaware of the damage Ken has already caused, all the angst is gone, without any of Sasha’s problems being addressed. She’s just suddenly completely on board and wearing pink instead of black.

I think it boils down to the idea that the film needed a villain — or at the very least an antagonist — and it couldn’t be Will Ferrell. While he’s a funny obstacle for a couple of scenes and is initially presented as an agent of male dominance (there’s notably not a single woman on the entire Mattel executive board), he does still represent the corporate powers that approved the license and participated in the production, so he can’t be the actual bad guy. Heaven forbid we actually ask the money men to take a good-natured ribbing. As such, when Ferrell (he’s simply identified as the CEO without a name) leads the other execs to Barbieland on a comically long tandem bike (the entire sequence of going between worlds is fucking gold!), he’s taken completely out of the story until it’s time to have the happy ending.

All of this leads to a somewhat jarring feeling that the film is trying to do too much, and that the story lines for two separate projects got intertwined. You could easily have just made this movie about Barbie entering the real world, learning to see things beyond the literal rose-colored, and coming to grips with a nuanced life, in essence making Barbieland even more of a perfect place for young women to grow and dream, and saved Ken’s Uprising for a sequel where we highlight the simplistic nature of their conflict as a microcosm of gender disparity. And if you don’t think this is getting a sequel, $155 million on the opening weekend laughs at you.

But to be clear, the decisions here don’t kill the enjoyment of what is one of the most fun films of the year. The performances are so lovingly absurd that you can’t help but go along with it, even in the moments that don’t follow the movie’s internal logic or that betray the established characterization. A lot of the commentary is heavy-handed and kind of reductive, but it all feels intentional, as if highlighting just how dumb it is to define ourselves in such binary terms when it comes to societal norms and power structures. And not for nothing, in a movie based on a doll that somehow has two overt Stanley Kubrick references, are we really supposed to take any of this seriously? I say no. So unlike Stereotypical Barbie, there are flaws to be had, but the larger point seems to be to just have fun and do something goofy, because sometimes the best way to cope is to play together, which is what Gerwig et al have emphasized from the word, “go.” As the marketing itself states, you’ll love this whether you love or hate Barbie herself, because it’s all about the shared experience of just diving into your toy chest and letting your imagination run wild.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What world did you create in your mind for your own toys? Why did the soundtrack go for Indigo Girls when P!nk was right there? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on July 26, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com