credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reflecting on Barbie (2023)

This is the second time I watched Barbie and I’m still trying to unpack why I feel such antipathy when it’s generally charming.

I hadn’t really wanted to watch it again, but my mommy hadn’t seen it yet, I had her captive at my house, and I wanted to be able to Discuss. This woman gave me most of my taste in media. I like watching things with her.

Since it’s been a minute since I wrote the first review (all of a month ago), I thought I might like Barbie better. Sometimes I have to get over the shock/disappointment/dismay/whatever-the-fuck-is-happening-inside-my-chaos-brain of seeing a movie for the first time, and realizing the values are so distant from mine. And then after that, it’s fine. I just anticipate the good parts and ignore the bad parts.

Although I found myself more capable of enjoying Ken now that I’m resigned to the movie being so Ken-focused, I found the last act to be as much a needle in the balloon of my enthusiasm as the first time. It’s just so bleak.

My original review doesn’t really change.

I wonder if I would like Barbie out of the context of its time, when I didn’t spend a year suffering under the oppressive Barbeinheimer marketing (I’m Very Online so I just saw tons of it), but I am inclined to think I would not. As I said before, there is a deep cynicism to Barbie that always makes me imagine Greta Gerwig frowning while she sips champagne in a fancy California rich-people winery or something, telling herself, “Ugh being a woman is so hard.”

Since I have fewer big-picture thoughts analyzing Barbie on second watch, I roll my eyes more at the amount of Manliness in this movie advertised to be about Womanity. Ken’s arc is more dynamic than Barbie’s, he has a better musical number, everyone praises Ryan Gosling while mentioning Margot Robbie mostly in passing. Sometimes it feels more like a Noah Baumbach movie that let Greta Gerwig vent her womanly feelings.

The generalizations about still gender don’t speak to me, beyond the fact I recognize some people recognize some qualities as belonging to some genders. Thinking about the whole guy playing guitar being sad when a girl deprives him of attention thing — it’s like the movie is complaining about a stereotype I’ve only ever seen as a stereotype? It feels like we’re meant to be like “lol yeah THAT GUY, guys do that ALL THE TIME lollll” and I’m just like, “…do they?”

Feminist struggles in this movie are mostly men not taking women seriously, which is toothless.

The executive dick-sucking on screen is exhausting. The obvious insecurity of IRL Mattel executives needing to be soothed is exhausting. Even a few jabs have to be softened and ultimately allowed to fizzle out.

It’s that latter point that makes me feel the real problem with Barbie is actually its budget, like most contemporary blockbusters. These movies are simply too expensive. That means they *must* be *so* many things to *so* many people, mostly executives, who get elbow-deep in something that is actually just an unreasonably huge investment into a project that would have been a satisfying mid-budget kids’ movie, smearing corporate neediness all over some imperfect artists who are telling an incredibly personal message that is not as generalized as the movie constantly states. By centering Barbie as some icon of gender, and putting so much money into it, vastly overstating the importance and universality of the messages therein was inevitable; execution is incapable of matching expectations.

Barbie shouts, “Feminism!” and the marketing is forced to say that’s revolutionary because it’s revolutionary to the c-suite dudes who allowed it. But outside that tiny slice of world, feminism is not nearly so narrow, and “acknowledging the cognitive dissonance” doesn’t *actually* take away the patriarchy’s power on the people it marginalizes, unless you have the privileges of Gerwig and Baumbach and Robbie and Gosling and–

So that’s where my glass onion feeling comes from: there are a lot of things to consider about Barbie, which has more elements and bigger statements than it really has the capacity for carrying. When you pick them all apart you find it’s really just a toy movie with a story only as universal as being wealthy white Americans who suffer catering to the c-suite to afford caviar.

As always: Massive kudos to the art team. This thing is visual candy. I wish I didn’t think so much, honestly, because I love the fashion, I love the colors, I love the idea of commuting between universes via a cute catalog of Barbie scenes. I want to walk around my neighborhood saying, “Hi Barbie!” There is a lot to like, but I would like it SO much more if Barbie had acknowledged the fact it mostly serves to empower the already rich and powerful Barbies and Kens of the real world. Or like. Not done that.

Also my kids found it wildly boring. So whatever it is, it’s not necessarily a kids’ movie. We remain a Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse family. (And my mother did not like Ken.)

(image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

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