Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls. But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls, until there was Barbie.
Ever since Barbies were invented, they have served as a way to allow children to express their imagination through the toy. Initially conceived for children to play dress-up, Barbies acted as a mirror to the fashion world for the growing children of the 50s and 60s. As fashion developed, so did the Barbies. The toys took on a newer meaning; their positive reflections of identity meant women could be anything and do anything: a Pulitzer winner, a President, a physicist. Barbie single-handedly acted as a beacon of feminism and became recognised as ending gender oppression.
At least, that’s what the Barbies living in Barbie Land believe.
With this meta satirical stance, writing partners Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach achieve something remarkable with Barbie. Under Gerwig’s direction, it utilises the familiarity of the toy’s identity and its history as a declining brand to fuel a more comprehensive systemic conversation about toxic masculinity and feminine identity. Barbie really can do anything.
However, despite living in an imaginary Barbie Land utopia, among other Barbies of all professions, a stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) – the one we think of when we think of a Barbie – experiences insuppressible thoughts of death, faulting the perfectly pink paradise of Barbies and Kens.
To surmise those who co-habit Barbie Land, in their simplicity, Kens have a good day if Barbie acknowledges them. There’s also Allan (Michael Cera). Allan is Ken’s buddy, and all of Ken’s clothes fit him. There’s Midge too, but she was discontinued.
Outside of Barbie Land is where the film, ironically, loses any sensibility. When Barbie comes to the real world in hopes of finding her owner to fix her crippling anxieties, she is hunted down by the President of Mattel (Will Ferrell) and his board directors in an attempt to put her back into a life-sized Barbie box.
The MacGuffin box supposedly returns her blissfully restored to Barbie Land. Except, in every scene he’s present, Will Ferrell is unbearably unfunny. Even as far as one point saying an ignorantly antisemitic comment. Yes, Barbie is that type of film.
Where it does manage to make most of its 12A certification, the film cleverly toys with the moving of childhood into adulthood. Barbie saying the words penis, vagina, and gynaecologist juxtaposes our understanding of the doll as a plaything free of sex. After all, Midge was discontinued after Mattel noticed people weren’t buying a pregnant Barbie. So it is most impressive that Robbie’s Barbie speaks so freely, unrestricted about sex, and sexual health, that it imparts a legacy for the doll to be used in conversations about sexual autonomy.
Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, is a triumph. Last Oscar-nominated for his appearance in La La Land, it would be a shock and a disappointment if Gosling were not recognised fully for his role as Ken. Naive and childlike, as if a gosling by nature, Ken introduces the patriarchy, horses, and what it means to be a man in the modern world to Barbie Land with the unwavering confidence and audacity that only a man has.
But what is a Ken without his Barbie. Margot Robbie is extraordinary as both performer and producer. Robbie’s influence over the casting is noticeable too, whether Chris Taylor (Ken) from her Love Island obsession or Rob Brydon (Sugar Daddy Ken) from Gavin and Stacey, Barbie is as much a labour of love from Robbie as from Greta Gerwig.
Even when dolled up, Robbie earnestly understands the weight of the character and the importance of dropping the façade. Realising that she needn’t keep up appearances for anyone’s sake other than her own, her make-up becomes imperfect until she is almost barefaced. Robbie transforming from the angelic floating Barbie, whose identity relies on others, in the opening, to the empowered, self-assured Barbie in the finale is poetic and a credit to her collaboration with Gerwig.
Barbie Land, by all extents, is as much an ode to the imaginative roots of the toy as it is an understanding of Mattel’s archive and the complicated history running the brand.
Coincidentally, it’s a history that the film embraces, as it acknowledges that the toy’s creator, Ruth Handler, was charged with fraud and false reporting in 1978. The broader company experienced financial losses year-on-year until 2017 due to conflicting brand messaging from the Barbie brand during a turning point of female empowerment.
The notion of Barbie being outdated and wrong has been a thorn in Mattel’s recent years. After their stock prices reached an all-time low in 2020, Mattel has fought to revitalise the dying doll. Sacrificing their failings for comedy may be enough to distract the general consumer from their troubled past.
Though, as Jamie Demetriou’s suited lackey reiterates: an existential crisis Barbie with cellulite and irrepressible thoughts of death may not have sold well before the Barbie movie, but if Mattel hurry they can churn out enough before Christmas.
Barbie is available to watch exclusively in cinemas from 21 July.
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