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Heart of plastic


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Greta Gerwig’s Barbie raises interesting questions about masculinity and femininity but fails to go deeper than pink existentialism

Warner Bros.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is July 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Pink is in!

Thanks to its ubiquitous marketing campaign and viral hashtags on social media Barbie has become the most talked about movie of the summer.

EICHER: But does it live up to the hype? Here’s World’s arts and culture editor Collin Garbarino.

COLLIN GARBARINO: I have three daughters, who own numerous Barbie dolls. I’ve seen more of those schmaltzy animated Barbie movies than I care to admit. And much to my wife’s embarrassment, I positively enjoy the quick-witted, satirical series Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse on Netflix.

For a middle-aged man, I’m something of a Barbie expert. And, in my expert opinion, you shouldn’t take your little girls to see writer/director Greta Gerwig’s new Barbie movie.

No matter what the marketing says, it’s not for kids. And despite some charming elements, it’s not very good either.

The movie begins with an homage to the monkey scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NARRATOR: Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls.

Kids aren’t going to get the reference to 2001—nor many of the other film references Gerwig includes. And the feminist message is pretty clear. Pretending to be a mother and playing with baby dolls is the kind of prehistoric mentality that the progressive Barbie doll supposedly freed little girls from.

After the bizarre intro, the movie cuts to Barbieland, where all the different versions of Barbie and Ken live in harmony. Mostly.

BARBIE: Hi, Barbie.

BARBIE: Hi, Barbie.

BARBIE: Hi, Barbie.

BARBIE: Hi, Barbie.

BARBIE: Hi, Barbie.

KEN: Hi, Barbie.

BARBIE: Hi, Ken.

KEN: Hi, Ken.

In Barbieland, the Barbies rule, and the Kens mostly preen. The Barbies congratulate themselves on being good role models to little girls and bringing female empowerment and equality to the real world. Barbies and Kens spend their days on the beach and their nights at dance parties. Barbieland is an idyllic paradise until the No. 1 Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, has a disturbing thought.

BARBIE: This is the best day ever.

BARBIE: This is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and everyday from now until forever. You guys ever think about dying?

Dark thoughts aren’t Barbie’s only problems. She also develops flat feet and a patch of cellulite. To fix things, Barbie travels to the real world. Beach Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, decides to tag along.

BARBIE: Ok. Did you bring your rollerblades?

KEN: I literally go nowhere without them.

When they get to the real world, Barbie and Ken are shocked to discover things aren’t what they expected. Barbie’s horrified women don’t enjoy the perfect lives of empowerment she expected. Ken’s excited when he discovers a new concept called patriarchy. He’s always been subservient to the Barbies, but in the real world he’s found a man’s world.

DOCTOR: I won’t let you do just one appendectomy.

KEN: But I’m a man.

DOCTOR: But not a doctor.

KEN: Can I talk to a doctor?

DOCTOR: You are talking to a doctor.

KEN: I need a clicky pen and a sharp thing. There he is! Doctor!

DOCTOR: Somebody get security.

Ken brings patriarchy back to Barbieland, which causes a huge mess. Barbie, and the other Barbies, with the help of a Mattel employee, must find a way to tear down Ken’s new world order.

The movie has plenty of style and silliness with choreographed dance scenes juxtaposed with philosophical discourse. The film showed some promise when Ken experiences existential dread because he can’t define himself apart from Barbie.

KEN: I just don’t know who I am without you.

BARBIE: You’re Ken.

KEN: But it’s Barbie and Ken. There is no just Ken.

The notion that marginalized Kens would assert their rights gave the film the appearance of heading to an interesting pay off, but it goes nowhere.

Instead of offering a reflection of what it means to be a human living alongside other humans, Gerwig falls into a cliched form of existentialism in which life is essentially meaningless, and it’s up to us to assert our own meaning. Barbie must begin her journey to the real world singing the Indigo Girls’ Closer to Fine which claims happiness comes from not thinking about who made you. Toward the end of the movie, Barbie meets her maker, who pretty much tells her the same thing.

The film is rated PG-13 for some suggestive references and a bleeped out foul word. One of the Barbies is played by a biological male pretending to be a woman. That struck me as some ironic patriarchy, but it fits with the movie’s theme. Ignore what you were made to be and create your own meaning. We also get multiple jokes about Barbie and Ken’s lack of anatomy.

KEN: I thought I might stay over tonight.


KEN: Because we’re girlfriend-boyfriend.

BARBIE: To do what?

KEN: I’m actually not sure.

The angry feminism gets pretty heavy handed in the second half of the film, with one character repeatedly delivering a rant about the double standards modern women are subjected to. Gerwig sort of has a point here. Many of these double standards are real. But as with most of the movie, Gerwig misses the point, too. She can’t see that many of these impossible standards weren’t imposed by the patriarchy, but by feminists who told women they had to have important careers, perfect families, and still have time for female activism.

Gerwig’s answer to the difficulties of womanhood is simply to go your own way and embrace the imperfections of life. But there’s a hollowness at the heart of this film. The kind of hollowness that can only be filled by seeking purpose in one’s creator, a notion this film sadly rejects.

I’m Collin Garbarino.

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