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Barbie: Unconventional by Design


It makes all the difference.

For many, we just want to eat a ready-made combo meal from the drive thru and move on. And considering the busy factor of most of our lifestyles, I suppose there's nothing wrong with that— in moderation. Sometimes, we need to shut our brains off a moment and unwind. This in mind, I'd contend the overall frequency with which we are in "ready-made" mode is trending upwards in recent times. Unfortunately, in the creative space, that sentiment seeps in more and more, severely impeding the growth of new voices as we acclimate to a generation of pointless TikToks offering us hours of mindless and unenriching entertainment. Over the course of the last decade, I'd argue that Tinseltown has mostly followed suit in its use of a predictable copy and paste three act structure piecemealed together with a list of uninventive and less than inspiring superhero flicks far inferior to their source material, leaving us with a bunch of handsome and pretty faces reading hollow lines with walls and walls of CGI and greenscreens surrounding.

Before you blow a gasket, rest assured, you’re welcome to take offense or step away from the write up that follows, I’m only one person with a set of lenses influenced by my upbringing, culture, and worldviews… as are you. Right?

If you're still here, let me take you down a different path. The path of a cinema snob… one that likes the arthouse films… one that adheres to traditional family values and even to many of the finer elements of conservatism. When I first saw the trailer for Warner Bros 2023 film, Barbie, I quickly dismissed it to be a woke, pink-hued cashgrab in a cesspool of comparable releases until the final credit showed Greta Gerwig’s name, and that's when I became intrigued.

I'm not an expert on the film's auteur, the history of Barbie, or Gerwig’s complete catalog of work, but what I can say for the films she's been involved with, Mistress America, Lady Bird, Little Women, and Wiener Dog, to name a few, there's a sort of mystique or allure to each of them. The characters have a depth and layer often untouched that's present but not always spoonfed to the audience one bite at a time. I like that. It forces us to think and peel back layers as we work to understand and piece things together by our own interpretation. With this rather verbose preface in mind, I think that's where we can jump into this summer’s smash hit. Cue the music for "Pretty in Pink!"

As for me, I didn’t have a particular expectation going in to see it, but my wife and daughter had gone and seemed to enjoy it, and naturally, the curiosity remained piqued. Maybe even more so after the negative press. I just had to see it for myself to come to my own conclusions.

Looking at a movie poster, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfectly cast as Stereotypical Barbie and Ken, respectively. Perhaps, casting's not a real challenge for a film like this, but instead, the decision of how to cook and prepare its content is where the struggle is. We’ve already seen a predictable ready-made film this year in Super Mario Bros. To be fair, it was enjoyable on the first watch, but it didn't leave the wheels in my mind turning after the fact. It was ready-made fast food. A tasty cheeseburger… but pulled from a freezer, nonetheless.

With Barbie, there's a layered element to the meal. Maybe it is still a cheeseburger, and perhaps, it’s not the most sophisticated of cheeseburgers, but it’s carefully crafted. And as a result, there's a period of digestion. Yes, that's the word. I'm still digesting Barbie.

Without reading other reviews, but skimming the headlines, it's safe to say many commentators and reviewers are quick to count the number of times something offensive happens in a certain amount of time, in a way much like weathermen or sports statisticians do, pointing out seemingly new trends and attributing their own interpretation of first impressions as the only way to look at something, mostly for shock factor or to pad their own revenue streams.

Thanks to the likes of cable news, apparently there's only two ways to look at things, red or blue. And in the case of fine artwork, we’re often forced into interpreting it with this commentary reeling in the back of our minds whether we want to or not. Does an artist have a red or blue worldview when they make something? Sometimes. And sometimes, that's their intent. But I'd venture to say in the case of Barbie, it's neither red, nor blue. It's all pink— by design. And that's the way it should be.

Hear me out.

I think the methodical and unconventional approach Greta Gerwig and spouse, Noah Baumbach, took in crafting Barbie challenges us to truly contemplate. A predictable three act Barbie film would not have been challenging, plus there's plenty of those out there in CGI format for children to enjoy already (My daughter has several of them, and they are indeed perfect for that audience).

This one is for the rest of us. With Barbie, we're in a totally different camp. Rather than sticking to tropes and the predictability of the mainstream, Gerwig and Baumbach return to their roots, the arthouse film. A genre that allows exploration and speaks to an audience in tune with openness to emotion and imagery. To see this kind of thing baked into a big budget mainstream release is rare, and henceforth, the reason why many may struggle to process or understand it holistically.

Don't get me wrong.

It’s not a perfect film. There are a few musical numbers and some shaky camera shots that hurt my eyes and ears at times, but the eye candy of the sets in "woman-dominated" Barbieland and the contrast of the "man-dominated" real-world and the associated characters make for an entertaining two hours. The beautiful irony here is that it’s not supposed to be perfect, hinting at an underlying subtext that it’s okay to be ordinary. One could say similar of Wes Anderson's recent, Asteroid City, a film of which many A-Listers are featured but most don't grasp its intent. As with Asteroid City, there’s a meta-level (self-referential) awareness that seems to creep into the film at times. We even see a self-loathing moment of emotion for Stereotypical Barbie, where narrator, Helen Mirren, chimes in and essentially jokes to filmmakers that Margot Robbie is not the ideal choice for ugly in a moment “such as this”. Offbeatness is common in arthouse films, and I like that it made Gerwig's final cut.

Is Barbie a completely modern film? Maybe not. It is sensitive, though. It checks off all the boxes, reflecting every diversity imaginable, and depicting a world cognizant of its current period, but still showing connections to its roots to decades long behind us— even challenging its viewer to embrace the positive elements of such periods while disassociating from the failures symbiotic to them.

Isn’t that what we always have to do in retrospect?

"Life's a beach," Ken might say— a journey of learning and difficult lessons. Stereotypical Barbie's exploring that as we're taken along for a literal ride to the real-world with Ken in tow. As both struggle to fathom the contrast of life outside of Barbieland, they begin to drift apart. With the two separated, Barbie is briefly kidnapped and returned to Mattel headquarters, where she’s presented to a panel of all male executives (led by Will Ferrell) and encouraged to go back in her box so she can return to Barbieland, unscathed, and ultimately, preventing the rest of the world from knowing she's real. She resists, escaping and crossing paths and bonding with her human owner (America Ferrera), a grown mother struggling to find her way at Mattel and in her relationship with her Barbie hating daughter. Ken, meanwhile, finds the concept of patriarchy fascinating along with horses, trucks, beer, and music (to name a few). Deciding to carry his new found knowledge back to Barbieland, the men in Barbieland begin to assimilate to a culture more parallel to Ken’s skewed interpretation of real-world and rebrand it, KenWorld (I see KenWorld as a sort of nod to the alternate 1985 in Back to the Future Part II after Biff gets the sports almanac).  Stereotypical Barbie ultimately helps to bring balance back to Barbieland with the help of her human owner, daughter, and the appropriately eccentric, Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon).

On the surface, it's easy for many to just step away and say, Barbie's yet another movie pushing girl-power or feminist agendas, but if that's your takeaway, you've missed the entire point. The push and pull of man and woman is a tale as old as time, and the fact that a husband and wife co-wrote this together, should only further preclude you from coming to such a conclusion. It's a tale of discovery, self-worth, and the path to finding balance and harmony in worlds we create for ourselves. The surface level packaging of the real-world being run by men and Barbieland being run by women is just that, packaging. It's clever marketing and if you buy into the lie that this is all this film is about, you're shortchanging the filmmakers’ intentions.

My advice as a grown man, a husband, and a father of two children: take off your typical day-to-day glasses, and imagine your way into the mind of a little girl that grew up in the 80s or 90s, the audience to which this film is oriented toward, not when they were little girls in that time, but as grown women thirty years later with children of their own, just trying to squeak by as parents in a time as foreign as ever to what they grew up accustomed to.

Flashing back to those times, voracious corporate consumerism ran rampant with bold marketing targeted at these girls through numerous commercial campaigns. Pink pastels and Barbie were once synonymous with one's girliness and social status, but with each passing year and the advent of emerging technology, the monopoly and stronghold Barbie once carried certainly indicates a steady decline from previous peak periods— maybe not in total sales, but in the hearts and minds of today's children forever distracted from worldbuilding in their own imaginations and with their own toys, and instead, merely piggybacking on the worlds of others. Like it or not, with these things, we have little control. The curious choice for the studio and film's creators to aim the movie not at children but to a different audience might actually make sense. 28-48 year old women have been due a movie for a good while.

Will children enjoy certain parts or laugh at times? Yes.

Are there moments baked in that are moderately offensive within the bounds of implicit PG-13 fare? Yes.

Will some parents be offended? Yes.

Where will you land? I can’t say. You’re empowered to make that choice.

Again, that's not the point. Let's revert back to the comment I made before about the film’s theme of finding balance and harmony. In our real world, as women continue to shatter glass ceilings and we enter a time of female CEOs, presidents, and beyond, one can only imagine we’re all working to find footing in a place constantly seeking to balance itself. Within the film, Barbie gets a taste of the real world with her adult-aged owner as her perfectly pointed toes go flat, she discovers cellulite, and contemplates death. Meanwhile, her side fixture, Ken, discovers the importance of patriarchy and works to share his knowledge of manliness as was popularized at the pinnacle of Barbie's success in the 1980s and 1990s with the two ultimately both looking to find harmony and an unspoken understanding that they're meant to remain sympatico, despite their new found knowledge. If Barbie going to the real world is equivalent to Eve's taking a bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we can only attribute her foreknowledge leading into it to her own experience which was to be a little girl's plaything. Of course, the little girl's world is ruled by women. Do you have a daughter? How about a son to follow? If so, you probably remember when you told her she was going to have a little brother and she cried about it demanding you to give her a girl instead. It's only human to have these kinds of feelings. The childlike innocence of Stereotypical Barbie and Ken’s awareness is limited to the environment that they grew up in. The real-world being portrayed as patriarchal as seen through their lenses makes a lot of sense because the dynamic contrast to what they know to be true in their own world is drastically different. Rather than make the assumption that this choice is the filmmaker’s depiction to hate on men, think more in terms of the innocence of a child seeking to find authority in their parents and learning each one's respective role, which certainly varies depending on family dynamics. There is a divine order after all. The idea of matriarchal order and patriarchy is innately programmed— hardcoded, in fact. Women bear children. Men do not. But together, the two create something beautiful and uniquely their own. Despite a drastic shift in today's cultural landscape and the perceptions associated with the above, the facts cannot be argued. There's importance to both roles and the way in which each household manages them is indeed, subjective to its incumbents.

And the key takeaway for me:

Barbie seeks to understand her feelings and Ken seeks to understand individuality in his manhood. At one point in the film, they even joke that they have no sexual organs, nor do they understand them. By the end, the two work to find a healthy balance, individually first, and ultimately together, in a way that brings a better balance to Barbieland and with their new lenses.

And I hope in this unconventional review, which mentions little of the movie, and a lot more commentary from a biased writer, you find solace in the fact that I'm merely encouraging you to widen your perspective before casting stones. That's the hope of the film's creator. And perhaps of our own Creator.

How's that for subtext?

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