Dear Baby Boy,
Carrying you unborn into the cinema to watch Barbie, I was captured by the atmosphere of anticipation and adoration in the audience. Knowing nothing about the film, I imagined I was there to be entertained, take the weight off my pregnant feet, and leave behind reality for an afternoon. How naïve I was, thinking I could neutralise my scepticism towards a historic example of identity-confused marketing.
Needless to say, the film’s stunted efforts to push the boundaries of gender inequality were underwhelming.
Somehow, the outrageous, fantastical costumes, sets and music act as a decoy for what is, in fact, a reductive and stale idea (let’s not even call it feminism). In many ways, it does what Mattel has done with its career Barbies – Barbie Marine Biologist, Barbie Astronaut, Barbie Doctor, etc. It lures us in with the false impression of progress, bombastic modernity, and have-it-all emancipation; it pretends to be cutting edge and self-references its own flaws, purely to make us feel better for liking these flaws. We are trapped in a cycle of self-conscious nostalgia, bittersweet and not quite what we wanted… but it’s so attractive!
In five- or six-years’ time, you will know Barbie and we can assume that this film won’t have changed any age-old, time-worn stereotypes about her. Will you jettison Barbie because she’s for girls? It is a premise that the film doesn’t even deal with (where are the little boys playing with Barbie??). I hope you and your sister fight over the Barbies, or prefer Lego, or like Ken more, or make your own dolls. I just hope you both play how you want to play, because despite the film’s overworked cliché of imagination (sometimes Barbies get vandalised), there is no sense that freedom governs Barbie’s success. It is the financiers that decide how she is enjoyed.
Gender preconceptions can’t change if the only driver of change is market forces, capital gain and corporate profit – and this connection is one of the core principles of the film’s plot. ‘Ordinary Barbie,’ a sales pitch from Gloria (doll company employee and Sasha’s mum), at the climax of the film, is only accepted – or made acceptable – by the board of the Barbie company because they realise that though she sounds benign and ugly, ordinary will sell. Thus, even the notion that this film supports and recognises ‘ordinary’ girls and women is a sham; they are only valuable in their profit-making appeal. What does this say about gender relations in contemporary society?
Indeed the characters on the board brought to mind 1990s stock market yuppies: all loud-mouthed machismo power suits, champagne magnums, penis-prop outsized cell phones, strippers and business deals over boozy beluga caviar lunches. These male characters, aside from Sasha’s lacklustre dad, are the only ‘real world’ men on display, and they are dated by over thirty years. As are Ken’s role model, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, and his newfound love affair with Appalachian horses. Poor Allan, the most nuanced character of the lot, is a camp parody who saves the day with his martial arts skills. But even this fight scene is retrograde – oh look, a man who doesn’t conform to normative masculine standards can stand up for himself and protect other people and thus be reinvested with our trust!
I was bemused when a right-wing storm started accusing the Barbie movie of wokeness, because from where I was sitting there was much fodder in the film for the traditionalists, the incels, the women-haters. The system, the society, the worlds constructed for the Barbies and Kens offer no flexibility, no fluidity in terms of role or reason; the expectations of both parties are over-defined, prescribed, binary – not a drop of woke morality to be seen…
Herein are the pillars of Barbie’s world and our own sorry confusion of culture wars and gender
hysteria: a preoccupation with labels, frameworks, and structures. Barbie does nothing in this film to divest Ken of his misconceptions or radicalise the Barbies; they compromise on the old world order. I hope your generation sees this for what it is, because the fogeys marketing the dolls, writing the scripts, and producing the films seem to be winning still.