July 21, 2023

Film

Life in plastic: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’

By Brodie Lancaster
Margot Robbie as Barbie. She is smiling in the centre of the frame, dressed in a pink checkered dress, with matching earrings and a necklace made of white daisies, and surrounded by an array of pink items, including a mirror and hairbrush. In the background can be seen palm trees, mountains and a perfect blue sky.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie © 2023 Warner Bros.

Margot Robbie is exceptional as the classic doll brought to life, but the film’s feminism is entry-level

The eyes of a Barbie doll don’t close. She doesn’t blink, sleep or cry. She’s always smiling wide, always gazing sunnily somewhere into the middle distance, her expression never cracking or falling. But, in director Greta Gerwig’s hands, Barbie doesn’t just come to life; she wakes up.

Australian actress Margot Robbie stars in Barbie as Barbie. Specifically, she’s Stereotypical Barbie (this is not a dig; she declares herself as the thing you picture when someone says “Barbie”). Robbie is also a producer on the film, having treasured the project since 2018 when she approached Mattel with her plans for the IP. But outside of an idea, an image and a tiny moulded plastic figure onto which little girls have projected themselves since she first arrived on shelves in 1959, who is Barbie? Turns out: she’s everything. She’s jobs (the president! a doctor!) and hobbies (rollerskating! disco!). She’s outfits (pyjama party!) and costumes (cowgirl!). She’s both no one and everyone.

In the mid 1990s, a public health campaign in Queensland tried to empower young girls by distributing stickers that said “Girls can do anything!” This was in the years before the Spice Girls high-kicked the message into us, and in the wake of Reviving Ophelia, the landmark book by Mary Pipher, which tracked the effects of a patriarchal world on adolescent girls. So, for 33-year-old Robbie, who grew up on the Gold Coast and would likely have been exposed to the stickers as a child, it feels like coming full circle for her to step into the stilettos of a character who represented potential and imagination for girls in the years before they got knocked around by reality. When being anything seemed not just possible but obvious.

This is the space that Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, her partner in life and screenwriting, have explored in Barbie. In Barbieland, they’ve created a utopia where a woman can win the Nobel Peace Prize and honestly say she deserved to. Imposter syndrome doesn’t exist when women live in Dream Houses and men (Kens, plural) dwell on the peripheries. Barbies are bosses and friends, their faces are carved on Mount Rushmore and, every day, their lives are perfect.

A fan of classic Hollywood soundstage musicals, Gerwig backdrops Barbieland with matte paintings of gradient sunsets and endless mountain ranges. She describes the film’s visual style as “authentically artificial” – a guiding direction for the practical sets and effects that call back to the worlds constructed by filmmakers including Jacques Tati, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and Powell and Pressburger.

When the empty space inside Stereotypical Barbie’s head is suddenly invaded with thoughts of dying, and cellulite begins creeping up her thigh, she and her Ken (played by perma-hunk Ryan Gosling, who chews the painted scenery throughout) journey into the Real World to find the girl who’s playing with the toy version of her, projecting all those fears and complexes onto Barbie.

The technicolour sets fall away as Barbie and Ken find themselves in a world of concrete and men with unearned power and status. As Ken discovers his new obsession (the patriarchy), Barbie gets to know Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a teenager who resents the impossible standards Barbie erected for her, and Sasha’s mother Gloria (America Ferrera), the Mattel employee who’s really been playing with Stereotypical Barbie’s plastic proxy.

The feminist lessons the film offers up as Barbie, Gloria and Sasha return to a decidedly different Barbieland, one where the Kens have taken over, feel a little entry-level. They lean on pseudo-empowering aphorisms that would feel at home on an Instagram tile. The fact that Barbie’s opportunity for growth is visualised with a choice between her fun pink pumps and the Birkenstocks that will send her headfirst into a first-year women’s college education feels a little second-wavey. But in its attempts to “give voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy”, Barbie is cleverer, funnier and more thoughtful than such a film ever needed to be.

Robbie is exceptional as both the Barbie without a care in the world, and the version whose hair goes as flat as her feet when she begins to absorb the criticisms of the world. In one particularly affecting moment, she squints into the sun and feels the wind on her face. As a tear rolls down her cheek, she spots an elderly woman sitting at a bus stop.

“You’re beautiful,” Barbie tells her.

“I know it!” the woman replies.

Barbie has known a lovely life, but in this moment her eyes open to what it is to live.

If there’s a single thread running through Gerwig’s work as a director, it’s the loneliness of ambition. Her version of Jo Marsh in 2019’s Little Women didn’t want to be married, but she didn’t want to have to choose between companionship and literary success. Lady Bird’s titular character, another Gerwig heroine played by Saoirse Ronan, bristles against everything she saw as normal and average in her hometown, and felt that getting more was her birthright.

“More” is the core of what Barbie wants: the life and mindset she had in Barbieland was nice and all, but once her eyes opened to the real world – even with all of its very messy ideas about womanhood – she couldn’t forget about the potential it dangled in front of her. Maybe she could go from being anything to being someone.

Brodie Lancaster

Brodie Lancaster is a writer and co-host of the podcast See Also.

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