This article appeared in the July 27, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023)
By the time you read these words, the detonation of Barbie discourse will likely have faded to its most tedious aftereffect: commentary on the mountain of gold it accumulated on opening weekend and What This Means for the Movies (and for Women). You have surely endured, and perhaps contributed to, one of the half-dozen meme cycles the film has engendered since it broke the internet. You will have followed the factions of the Barbie vs. Oppenheimer contretemps as they reached the cringe détente known as Barbenheimer. Now that every corner of the cultural commentariat has weighed in, you may have read that Barbie is an exuberant girlboss fantasia, that it is yasss and slay, that it has its cake and eats it too. Alternatively, you may have been informed that just as there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is no feminist anti-capitalist critique immanent to a cinematic production beholden to Mattel, Inc. Alas, you might even have heard the bobbleheads on Fox News denounce the film as “anti-man” and accuse it of promoting “trans grooming,” a phrase that can only be taken seriously when applied to transgender employees at a dog spa.
Perhaps you have opinions on Greta Gerwig leaving Indiewood behind to go full Hollywood, and have judged her a sellout, or hailed her as Powerful Woman Who Can Do What She Wants. Or perhaps you simply find yourself grateful that it was she who thus declared her career ambitions rather than her partner and co-writer Noah Baumbach—who, of the two halves of this cinematic power couple, is decidedly not the one you would wish to see direct a Thor movie. You may have read an article in The New Yorker detailing Mattel’s plans to launch an entire slate of movies based on their trinkets and cursed your existence in our world, the worst of all possible multiverses.
After a screening of Barbie in Manhattan, an attendee sharing an elevator with the legendary critic Amy Taubin asked if she was “inspired” by the film, to which she retorted, “It’s about a fucking doll.” Barbie is indeed a movie about a fucking doll, and if we posit that it is stupid to make a movie about PVC thingamajigs, it seems only fair to counter that Gerwig is not a stupid filmmaker. Once we accept the fact that Barbie is about a fucking doll, we must then come to terms with how it is a movie about a fucking doll. Gerwig has given this problem considerable thought, and if, like the oversized discourse it provoked, Barbie is a text of maximalist contradictions, that may well have been the best possible outcome. It does not seem unwarranted, in a movie that references Proust, Marx, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), to cite a remark by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “cinema is always as perfect as it can be, taking into account the images and signs which it invents and which it has at its disposal at a given moment.” That our moment is dominated by world-devouring corporate IP is at once the subject, object, and symptom that Gerwig confronts in her madcap extravaganza of commodity auteurism.
The plot is blatantly metaphysical. Afloat in bubblegum-pink Barbieland, where a vibrant array of diverse Barbies rule the world and Ken is just… Ken, our plastic protagonist, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), brings her metaverse to a screeching halt by asking her fellow Barbies if they ever think about death. This glitch in the Mattel Matrix is prompted by the sad feels of whoever in the real world is playing with Stereotypical Barbie. As explained by Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon)—a doll who was played with “too hard,” and now has spiky hair and ultra-flexible limbs—the only way to restore order is for Barbie to make the journey to the mirror realm of Los Angeles, locate her puppetmaster, and restore cheerful, smooth-brained vibes.
Gerwig is shrewd enough to reject a facile dichotomy between the imaginary and the real worlds from which her characters, human and otherwise, pass back and forth. The “real” Los Angeles on display feels no less artificial than Barbieland, and if that comes with predictable jokes about the phoniness of Hollywood, the more striking consequence for the viewer is to be placed in a position from which, narratively speaking, there is no reality at stake. Which is to say that Barbie is less convincing as a pop feminist manifesto than as a treatise on representation. In one sense of this term, the movie deals in problems of moral representation. The film’s racial and physical spectrum of Barbies would satisfy the Chief Diversity Officer of Mattel, even as it insistently lampoons the harmful effects of the doll on women’s self-image. But to take the gendered politics of the movie seriously—indeed, to locate any coherent politics at work—is to miss another, richer question of representation at the level of form and aesthetics that the movie explores.
Barbie is singularly engaged with the fact that cinema consists of images in relation to each other and nothing else; whatever links we forge between a movie and our lived reality or history are entirely phantasmic. This may seem obvious to the point of banality, but the phenomenon by which we invest cinema with our beliefs, values, identifications, and desires is a deeply mysterious process that film theory—notably feminist film theory—has grappled with since its inception. Cinema is the ideological cultural form par excellence because it so vividly embodies the definition of ideology proffered by the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser: ideology is the image we maintain of our relation to the real world. Barbie is a sustained enactment of ideological logic in this sense. The entire movie is a blitz of images that survey various relations we presume to maintain with the world while effectively leaving “reality” out of the picture.
Many of the film’s best jokes exemplify this idea. Having tagged along with Stereotypical Barbie on her voyage to Los Angeles, where she is flustered to encounter the novel phenomenon of misogyny, the film’s primary Ken (Ryan Gosling) wanders off and discovers the even more astonishing notion of “patriarchy.” His inauguration into the reality of male power is hilariously evoked in a psychic montage of American presidents, CrossFit himbos, and macho cultural iconography—most seductively, in his thermoplastic cortex, men on horses, lots and lots of horses. Returning to Barbieland thus reprogrammed, Ken proceeds to give his reality a cartoonish überdude makeover. Confronting a motherland suddenly run amok with Kenergy, the Barbies plot to undermine the new paradigm by exploiting the fact that “Ken contains the seeds of his own destruction.”
Hence one Barbie bamboozles her Ken by feigning ignorance of how money works, others ask for help in understanding how to do sports, and another—in a pièce de résistance squarely aimed at the kind of film bro who thinks Christopher Nolan is a genius—hoodwinks a Movie Ken by faking ignorance of The Godfather (1972) so he can mansplain cinema. Throughout these scenes and dozens of others, Barbie perpetually foregrounds its groundlessness. The movie is pure simulacrum—a copy with no model. Its true sisterhood is the company of films like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), Southland Tales (2006), and Speed Racer (2008), whose ruling principles are flamboyant pastiche and self-devouring reflexivity.
Curiously enough, this is where Barbie does exert a political effect. Chief among the objects dissolved in its postmodern exuberance is the idea of “woman” itself. To whatever extent Barbie is read as empowering or cynical, a satire or a sellout, the text of the film insists on the constructed nature of its fantasy and throws into doubt any correlation to the real world we might hazard. And that’s the barb that Barbie hangs us on. In a world that is patriarchal, in a movie that does exist to glorify dumb IP, “woman” can only be a mirage and a question to be posed. The triumph of Barbie is to affirm that we are all plastic fantastic, and no one gets to determine what being a woman means—not Greta Gerwig, not Mattel, and certainly not a fucking doll.
Nathan Lee is an assistant professor of film at Hollins University and a longtime contributor to Film Comment.