The Barbie Movie Will Mess With Your Head

After a ton of buildup and anticipation the Barbie movie is finally out. How does it stack up to expectations, and who is its true audience?
Barbie Movie feature

The Barbie movie is out. Man, is it ever! It’s the candy-colored visual feast we were promised. But no doubt it will mess with your head.

What to think of it? Anything you want. Really!

Barbie-garbed little girls in the theater where I saw the movie seemed delighted to see their plastic playthings brought to life by actor Margot Robbie and cast (many, many Barbies, so many Barbies—“Hi, Barbie!” “Oh, hi, Barbie!”). They oohed, they gasped, they cheered their little plastic friends.

The government of Vietnam is not quite as enamored. It has banned the film’s release because it shows a map that apparently depicts China’s claim to hegemony over the South China Sea. (I say “apparently” because I don’t even remember a map—sorry!) Texas senator Ted Cruz has sided with Vietnam, saying the movie is Chinese propaganda. (The 8-year-old sitting next to me didn’t understand what “propaganda” meant, and she didn’t remember the map either.) *

Barbie map
Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures

LGBTQ+ audiences are disappointed “Barbie” isn’t “gayer.” After months of trailers that teased winks and nods that apparently energized gay fans and the doll collectors among them, the movie turns out to be, as one says nowadays, heteronormative, in spades. Bummer.

Well, “heteronormativity,” if that’s a word, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. While Christian family movie review site Movieguide hadn’t posted an official review as of Monday, it warned that the new movie “has a clear agenda which shows that studios continue to neglect the safety of young children and disregard the biggest audience in cinema, families.”

It cited the movie’s “clear, gross agenda . . . to push sexuality onto children.” (Um, Barbie’s perky boobs haven’t been doing that since 1959?)

Furthermore, Movieguide continued the movie was “poorly made with multiple premises.” It’s hard to argue with that last point. 

Barbie, indeed has many messages. One is Down With the Patriarchy. Men are okay as long as they hover in the background and don’t get too pushy. In a kind of role reversal, it’s actor Ryan Gosling’s Ken who wants love and a live-in relationship with Robbie’s Barbie, and she who can’t be bothered.

Barbie and Ken
Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures

The action kicks off when Margot Robbie Barbie drives her Dream Car out into the real world (in part to find out what has happened to her stiletto-appropriate feet, which have “fallen,” and to discover why she’s suddenly having “irrepressible thoughts of death”—yikes!). While she’s out there in Mattel Land, the Kens of Barbieland take over all the Barbie Dreamhouses, turning them into messy frat houses and converting the Doctor Barbies and Astronaut Barbies and Presidential Candidate Barbies into basic “girlfriend” Barbies cooking and serving drinks.

Chris Suellentrop, the politics opinion editor at the Washington Post, took his 13-year-old daughter and her friends to see the movie on Friday, the day it opened. He was happy to celebrate “Barbenheimer,” the opening weekend for both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” the story of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” But he also sees Barbie as something more than a puddle of pink; he sees her and “Oppenheimer” as symbols of Earth in the Anthropocene Era. (It has to do with isotopes, and the plastics Barbie is made of, and the radioactive “plastic rocks” scientists have begun finding in remote places on Earth. Anthropocene means something caused by human activity; some are suggesting a better term for our evolving era is Plasticine.)

See? All sorts of messages in a pastel paradise. And those messages aside, the big one was bucks. Big bucks. As of Sunday, Warner Bros.’s “Barbie” raked in a record $155 million over the weekend, plus $182 million abroad. The serious half of the “Barbenheimer” weekend, Universal’s “Oppenheimer,” made $174 million overseas and domestic together.

All the barbies
Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s fitting to give “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig the final word on what the message of the movie is. She told Deadline, a Hollywood industry site, that there was some pressure to cut one scene from the movie. It takes place when Barbie, in the real world, sees an old woman sitting at a bus shelter. As the camera lingers on the old woman’s wrinkled cheeks and mischievous smile, Barbie seems to witness the beauty of being human, of growing old, of not being trapped in the eternal loop that is Forever Barbie. The doll tells the old woman that she’s beautiful.

“There’s the more outrageous elements in the movie that people say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe Mattel let you do this,’ or ‘I can’t believe Warner Bros. let you do this,’ ” Gerwig told Deadline. “But to me, the part that I can’t believe that is still in the movie is this little cul-de-sac that doesn’t lead anywhere—except for it’s the heart of the movie.” The message: The old woman, veteran costume designer Ann Roth, 91, is beautiful, and by extension, the rest of us are too.

I think that’s a message we can all live with.

*This is not quite as outlandish as it may first appear. Movie studios and tech companies alike have been more than happy to cater to Chinese government sensibilities, given the enormous market the country controls.

Featured photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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