In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s summer event movie Barbie (2023) I couldn’t help but think about Small Soldiers (1998). Joe Dante’s satirical masterpiece was conceived for the sake of Burger King while Barbie was produced to bolster and celebrate toy sales. These two films are direct expressions of the capitalist systems that made them.
In Small Soldiers the Kirsten Dunst character collects Gwendy Dolls which are obviously designed as a parody of Barbie dolls. These Barbie-like dolls that represent traditionally patriarchal standards of beauty and the commodification of the female form are literally weaponized by the hyper-masculine Commando Elite in their war against the prepubescent allies of the Gorgonites. In Small Soldiers the anti-feminine aesthetics of Barbie as fabricated by American capitalism are transformed into killing machines whose objective is to eliminate their target demographic. This one brief scene encapsulates about a third of the thematic material present in Gerwig’s monster hit.
Barbie, the product of Mattel’s market research as much as it is of Gerwig’s and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s creative vision, is a film at odds with itself. Barbie is ostensibly an advertisement that is critical of the product being peddled. The paradox of Barbie’s physical appearance versus the social and political messaging of her professions and immeasurable abilities is at the center of the film conceptually. Gerwig sets out to reckon with a legacy of empowerment marred by unrealistic beauty standards. It’s a legacy that has, for most of its existence, been under the control of male corporate hot shots with little or no understanding of Barbie‘s target female demographic.
The film Barbie broadcasts its social and political views about as loudly as the titular character’s hot pink color palette. Barbie is anti-patriarchy, pro-inclusivity, and pro-feminist reform. Characters discuss these themes in broad strokes using a jargon of buzz words so that nothing could be misunderstood or lost in the explosive spectacle. Barbie is a film of progressive millennial ideologies that are fittingly played out by actors playing shiny, plastic toys. Gerwig and Mattel bludgeon the audience over the head throughout the third act of the film with their political agenda forsaking all thought as to how these drastic tonal and dramatic shifts fit into the arcs of the characters.
Gerwig’s humor and on-point lampooning of millennial culture is the highlight of Barbie to be sure. However, much of what works in the film is reliant upon a dense fabric of intertextuality with other films. Barbie’s adventures at the Mattel building recall Brazil (1985) visually and Giants & Toys (1958) thematically. Similarly the hilarious “depression Barbie” sequence owes more than a little to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988). As for the overall look of Barbieland, Gerwig mines films from The Ladies Man (1961), and Golden Eighties (1986), to the pinker than pink What A Way To Go! (1964) for pre-fab visuals. All of this together amounts to something akin to the soundstage of Zoobilee Zoo (1986).
Gerwig tours the history of cinema throughout the tenure of the dolls’ existence in the same way that she pilfered Mattel’s archives for forgotten gems of ideas. Barbie is a post-modernist exercise on par with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) whose sole aim is to locate where the idea and reality of female identity intersect within the network of our popular culture. The tracing of all of these intersecting aesthetic threads and cultural currents inevitably leads Gerwig to the aforementioned paradox that defines the Barbie brand: an empowering character whose form is the product of patriarchal oppression.
The madcap, high-camp, whirlwind journey through a pastel colored fantasia to this final reckoning is the best part of Barbie. Once Gerwig brings the viewer face to face with the disparities between the fantasy of Barbie and the reality of patriarchal American capitalist society all the film can do is belabor its points and quickly fabricate a resolution that is more of a one-off gag than the actual completion of the title character’s journey. Although packed with uncomfortable societal truths throughout, the disingenuous ending has the effect of rendering much of what preceded it as no more plastic and hollow as Barbie herself.
This doesn’t mean that most of Barbie doesn’t work. Margot Robbie is eerily perfect casting while Ryan Gosling and Kate McKinnon give two scene stealing performances of pure comedic brilliance. Yet, the heart of Barbie rests not with any of these actors playing Barbies or Kens but with the human character played by America Ferrera. Arguably Barbie would have been a much stronger feature had its narrative emphasis shifted from Robbie to Ferrera once the two meet.
Ferrera’s character Gloria is the audience surrogate. She’s a millennial with a daughter of her own whose personal experiences as a child then as a mother with the Barbie dolls was formative. Her regression to playing with the doll as an adult is a metaphor that captures the essence of millennial arrested development. When Gloria speaks about the tolls society has on women the film finds its voice and articulates its thesis brilliantly. After all, it is Gloria’s interfacing with Robbie’s Barbie that prompts the living doll’s existential crisis.
Since this relationship between Gloria and Barbie is gradually relegated to the background of the movie, so too is the heart of the narrative. If a horse is an extension of Ken’s masculine virility, Barbie is the physical extension of Gloria’s internal life. Barbie, a toy, is an adaptable object ready to suit the fantasies of whomever choses to engage her in play. The “games” Gloria plays with Barbie just happen to be those sacrifices and hardships that women face every day.