Skip to content

Updated: Drive in Saturday Tuesday (now Thursday) Movie Review: Barbie

9/19/23 Update:
It turns out that the Barbie movie has a Bowie connection after all. In a video extra connected to the home release of the summer’s top grossing movie, Margot Robbie explains that co-star Kate McKinnon’s character of “Weird Barbie” was partially inspired by Bowie. To read more, link to the story here, where you can also see a video clip of McKinnon talking about the role.

8/1/23 (see 8/8/23 update after the main commentary, below)

Before I get to the movie, which has nothing to do with Bowie, I’m going to explain the short video attached to this post: Mattel released two Bowie-inspired Barbie collectible dolls in recent years, one based on Ziggy Stardust and this one, based on Bowie’s appearance in the “Life on Mars” video. I was going to use stills of the dolls, but discovered that there are these videos about the dolls, like this one, that are either intended as advertisements or to highlight features of the dolls for collectors. Who knew?

Director Greta Gerwig, who previously tapped “Modern Love” for her earlier movie, Frances Ha (see my July 23rd post) missed the chance to work Bowie into Barbie, which we saw at the drive-in. This is too bad because, despite the movie’s enormous success, I think it needed a little more.

Take away that the entire movie is a giant advertisement for a toy and what it boils down to is a comedy with a social message aimed at the target audience of pre-teen girls with enough in it for broader appeal. There are gags and cultural references for the target audience’s parents— the entire opening sequence is a spoof of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (another missed opportunity to reference Bowie). I doubt many 11-year-old girls will have even heard of, let alone seen 2001. For my taste, there just weren’t enough of these, by which I mean things to make someone like me, a middle aged man, laugh.

I suppose normally, a middle aged man would not see a movie like Barbie without bringing along a young relative. For me specifically, I’ll see just about anything at the drive-in. The whole experience— on a warm night, we sit on folding chairs outside the car. I get an ice cream sundae from the concession stand. We lament that despite the (repeated) promise of “a couple of previews” we always only get one. The whole thing is one of my favorite activities. I’ll sit through worse movies than Barbie and come away happy as a clam.

There’s also some value in experiencing a cultural phenomenon first-hand. Barbie seems to be the runaway hit movie of the summer, if not the year. It has become a political hot-potato and will certainly spawn plenty of imitators and sequels. To not see Barbie is to miss out on understanding what everyone else is talking about.

On the political point— I kind of get the conservative critique of the movie. The social message largely has to do with patriarchy— a word that’s repeated over and over again in the movie. The conceit is that there’s two ways to look at the message Barbie dolls imbue upon young girls. One way is that the dolls represent consumerism and impossible standards of female beauty. Alternatively, because various editions of Barbies were assigned every imaginable job from astronaut to president, the dolls represent empowerment because the message is that girls can do anything. The Margot Robbie character— herself, a doll— of course thinks that she’s all about the latter, but finds her way into the “real world” only to discover that Barbie did not make life better for women.

From here, the movie takes the onus off Barbie. While the point about consumerism and impossible beauty standards is acknowledged, the movie never really confronts those aspects of the Barbie message or even really acknowledges that those ideas deal real damage to girls who play with Barbie dolls. Instead, the problem with reality is patriarchy, patriarchy and in case an 11-year old doesn’t quite catch the word— patriarchy. The movie is not subtle about this point. For me, the ham-fisted delivery of the concept that little girls are growing up in a male-dominated world was boring, but I can understand that from the perspective of a pro-patriarchy right winger that the message is actually offensive.

And to be clear— that this movie irks Ted Cruz is an enormous bonus.

That said, as if actual reality isn’t bad enough, the movie noticeably exaggerates. For instance, there’s one gag that strongly implies that there are no women on the United States Supreme Court.

Worse, the movie’s answer to the problem of men oppressing women is for women to band together to oppress men. Ken— all but one of the males from Barbie World is named Ken— serves no useful purpose. But upon fleeting exposure to “the real world” he’s inspired to return to Barbie World and is somehow able to conquer it, brainwash the Barbies into becoming subservient and replace little-girl iconography with little-boy iconography. Ken does all this off screen and apparently in less than 24 hours.

But never fear, Robbie’s Barbie returns, sets the Kens against each other, organizes the Barbies and returns Barbie World to a state of female domination and male subjugation. And…hmmm…is that right message? Did I read it wrong? No, no I don’t think so. Barbie is an 11-year old girl revenge fantasy. Its less Captain Marvel and more Inglorious Basterds.

But none of that bothered me too much. My biggest problem with Barbie is that it was teetering right on the edge of being really, really funny. It had enough moments to get me through, but overall it didn’t quite land for me. Then again, I go back to the fact that I was not the target audience.

Other than that, it was a warm summer night, I got to go to the drive-in with my best girl and I got a sundae out of the deal. What can be better than that?

Update: 8/8/2023

I mentioned above that the movie exaggerates the reality of patriarchy for instance by implying that the actual Supreme Court is composed exclusively of men. There are many other such examples in the movie, but one I didn’t pick up on is especially ironic. I recently read Bill Maher’s “Threads” about the movie. He’s harder on it than I am, but he points out that the movie’s version of the Mattel board of directors is composed entirely of white men, while the actual board is 7-5 male to female. Maher goes further than I do by calling Barbie’s message a “zombie lie,” meaning that it touts an idea that used to be true but now isn’t. Yet, inequity yet lives. The composition of the Supreme Court and Mattel board of directors is not 50/50. A quick check of the US Labor Department’s web page indicates that women in the U.S. earn on average 83.7% of what men make. That’s not equal. But it also isn’t nothing. Within the context of Barbie World, it seems like neither Barbies nor Kens work for money, but the Barbies have real jobs and real responsibilities whereas the Kens do nothing. One of the recurring jokes is that the Kens “beach” — “beach” as a verb. They can’t lifeguard. They can’t surf. They simply exist on a beach. So, the opposite of this arrangement does not exist in “the real world.”

When I read something like Bill Maher’s comments, I go back to something I wrote but haven’t read anywhere else (no, I’m not reading everything I can about Barbie)— the target audience is 11 -year old girls. Or 10 year olds, Or twelve year olds. But not me and Bill Maher. I’m guessing Greta Gerwig figured that children can’t really digest nuance, so she has to hit them in the face with one central, repeated and unavoidable message. And maybe she’s right. I don’t know too many people currently in that age range. I don’t know how most of them process social messages in movies.

But I also can’t help wonder if the movie is doing the children a disservice by mismeasuring the problem. I tend to think evidence of past progress is the best argument for pressing on for further progress. Why even bother with a truly intractable problem? Also, the zero-sum world is just not realistic. But then, that’s been the critique of Barbie (the doll, not the movie) all along— it just isn’t realistic. So I guess that’s in line.

OK, one more thing— of course the Barbie movie isn’t realistic! On its most basic level, it’s a movie about living dolls that travel back and forth across alternate realities. But, I have this idea that all great fantasy movies analogize issues that resonate with the audience. Anakin makes a corrupt bargain for what seemed to him like a noble goal at the time — that didn’t work out for him, and it wouldn’t work out for us. Peter Parker turned a blind eye to the crook that he could have stopped, only to discover the same crook went on to kill his uncle. That’s Spider Man’s way of making the point that the only way for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Seems to track. Everyone who possessed the Ring of Power was corrupted by it, because power corrupts. These are not precise lessons that can be measured in board members or justices, but they represent fairly common ideas about morality and how society functions when people take shortcuts, ignore evil and get too greedy.

But, as Bowie put it in Young Americans, it, or rather, that, ain’t no Barbie doll. Barbie’s message is a little too all or nothing: in the real, present world, men have everything, women have nothing and everything is a mess. In Barbie World, it’s all in reverse. To restore balance, women must band together and defeat the guys— put them in the place. The true role of men is subservience and the true role of women is to rule. Everyone will be happier as a result.

More equity is generally a good thing, but Barbie isn’t pro-equity. Plastic soul, indeed.

Back To Top