By Laura Verdasco
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2866

Barbie is plastic—but the film has real heart

The Barbie movie is no revolutionary tale but it does offer important critique of being a woman under capitalism
Issue 2866

Margot Robbie stars in Barbie

I would never have expected to be writing a positive review on a film so blatantly attempting to sell you a product.  However, Barbie Movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, left me with positives. 

The film portrays a ­personal journey for the famous doll, who must ­grapple with the human world and the realities of sexism under capitalism. 

This journey is ­triggered when Barbie must leave Barbieland to find the reason why she is no longer the ­“stereotypical Barbie”. 

She leaves her perfect reality to find a world where gender roles are reversed and men rule over women.  In this new reality, for the first time, Barbie is forced to experience harassment, sexism and what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society. 

With the film being described by right wing thinktanks and commentators as “anti-men”, I knew I would enjoy it. However, what these right wing types miss is how the film ­presents multiple layers of the experience of women in the world. 

It shows how the burden that it is placed on them is to be perfect, never complain, and do as they were designed to do.  Nevertheless, I feared that Barbie would follow a corporate narrative advocating for more women to be elevated to the “boss.”

I worried it would be utterly uncritical of women’s role under capitalism. However, it portrayed a more nuanced ­understanding of sexism.  The film is a surprisingly self-aware and self-deprecating critique of consumer capitalism and of Barbie manufacturer Mattel as an organisation. 

The film portrays the ­company as a male-dominated capitalist ­enterprise that packages ­plastic ­women’s liberation if it makes them money.  Furthermore, multiple perspectives of Barbie are presented in a tongue-in-cheek way. 

This includes the ­liberal idea that Barbie represents how women can do everything.  It also presents a more ­critical perspective that the world has not been radically changed because a company produces dolls that include one with her as the US president. 

It also invites the audience to consider their relationship to a sexist society that forces people into boxes based on their gender. 

In a climate of transphobia, the casting of a trans Barbie, albeit in a small role, was welcome.  Finally, and although very much secondary, the role of Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, in the film was important. 

The character of Ken was used to portray multiple ­realities throughout.  Initially, he occupies the traditional role of women in mainstream cinema. He is merely an accessory to their love interest. 

But as the film ­progresses, we see how a directionless man can fall into the sexist pipeline of sexist ideas. 

Finally, he ends up ­representing a way forward for men not to be destructive towards women.  Both dismissing Barbie as a shallow product of consumer capitalism or a fake empowering corporate feminist narrative is doing the job of director Gerwig a disservice.

Although the film does not try to be a revolutionary narrative, one can forgive Barbie because of its well-landing jokes, emotive scenes, and, most of all, for upsetting all those right wingers once again.

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