Lisa Skinner found much to like in this blockbuster movie, but there was too much that didn’t work for her to recommend it
The film: Barbie
Running time: 1h 54m
Overview: Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month the release of the highly anticipated Barbie Movie will not have escaped your notice but did the film live up to all the hype?
If you don’t want spoilers – fast forward to ‘what you liked..!’
This is a tale about ‘stereotypical Barbie’ played by Margot Robbie. Barbie enjoys the ‘perfect’ life in Barbieland, living in her Dreamhouse, surrounded by her girlfriends, enjoying the beach by day, and dancing the night away. Until that is, her life starts to unravel, as heralded by thoughts of death, flat feet, and the appearance of cellulite. It soon becomes apparent that Barbie’s existential crisis is inextricably linked to the identity crisis that her owner is experiencing. Barbie has no choice but to travel to the real world, reluctantly with Ken in tow, to restore all hope and happiness to the child playing with her. While searching for the child in question, Barbie and Ken, faced with a new reality in the real world, start to question their own identity. Ken returns to Barbieland to implement the patriarchy he has observed and having persuaded the other Kens of its merits they relegate the Barbies to lesser roles than they previously held. On returning to Barbieland with her owner Gloria and her daughter Sasha, Barbie finds the matriarchy overthrown and becomes disillusioned and depressed. With the help of weird Barbie and her new friends, Barbie exploits the insecurities of the Kens to reinstate power and prevent a change in the constitution to enshrine male superiority. However, this time the Barbies are open to allowing the Kens and the outcast dolls to play more of a role in their society, though they stop short of allowing Kens on to the Supreme Court. In the end Ken becomes aware of his worth outside of Barbie and she becomes aware of who she is outside of Barbieland.
What you liked: There is much to like about this movie, I for one very much enjoyed the nostalgia that the movie invokes. Playing with Barbies is somewhat of a rite of passage for young girls so the familiar outfits, camper vans and and Dreamhouses of Barbies past conjure up memories of a simpler time in a woman’s life.
I was grateful that the writers did not skim over the unrealistic expectations that have projected onto girls by Barbie in the past, but we also witness Barbies of varying sizes, ethnicity and profession in the movie.
The casting is superb with Ryan Gosling stealing the show with a brilliant and ironic portrayal of Ken. The iconic wardrobe, set design, soundtrack and characters are all equally dazzling but sadly the story was lacking for me. The script writers attempt to tackle some big themes in this movie but possibly bite off more than they can chew. A feminist agenda is very much at the centre of it all with little room for equality.
There is an interesting reversal of the creation narrative - Ruth Handler created Barbie first and then Ken, who is created for her. Indeed, there is even a nod to Michaelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in a scene between Ruth and Barbie. However, in Genesis we read that after creating Adam, God said that it was not good for the man to be alone, finding no suitable mate for him, God created a helper/counterpart who was just right, in the form of a woman called Eve (Genesis 2:18-23). Together they were to exercise dominion over creation. Unfortunately, there is no sense of man and woman being better together in this film. Instead, man and woman are continually pitched against one another. Either the men are superior, or the women are, there is no thought of ruling together.
Barbie’s owner Gloria gives an empowering speech about her experience of male suppression in her world, which granted has been the experience of many, not least women working in Hollywood and the women of the 1950s, the era that Barbie was born. This revolution certainly feeds into the cultural zeitgeist of our day but the matriarchy of Barbieland was no better in the opposite direction.
What you didn’t like: This movie is a 12A and as such there are things in it that are not appropriate for younger children. There is some inuendo, reference to male and female genitalia and at one point President Barbie says an expletive which is bleeped out, none of these added anything to the movie. In any case I suspect a lot of the jokes will go over the heads of younger viewers, unfortunately so will the many pop cultural references in the movie.
Thoughts for parents: I came away from this movie feeling somewhat uncomfortable about how men were depicted throughout. At one point Barbie refers to Ken as ‘superfluous’ and that’s what the movie communicated about men in general. Are there some positive messages in it? Of course. I am a mother of three girls, do I want them to feel empowered? Yes. Do I want them to know that they can be anything? Yes. Do I want them to believe all this has to be to the detriment of men? No.
If you take it at face value, this is a quirky movie with some great slapstick humour and a lot of outfit inspo but the crescendo of excitement around seeing Barbie fell flat and I came away feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. A lot of big questions were raised in the movie about identity and purpose but not many of these were answered and the conclusion lacked any balance, hope or resolution.