What can be said about the Barbie Movie that has not already been said?
The film comes to us in a tumultuous time, and journalists have used its expansive release to make a variety of geo-political and socio-economic commentaries.
Chinese imperialism was also addressed in the context of the 9-dash line controversy (source of maritime border conflicts), which saw Vietnam block Barbie’s release, and the Philippines request the line to be blurred.
I have limited opinions on the above, other than the obvious (doing Bad Things is Bad). What I do have qualms about is the movie being framed as anything other than a marketing ploy. In doing so, it tries to shed away the baggage the brand should still be very much atoning for.
If there is a kind of earnestness that once would have precluded a director from “selling out,” it is the same earnestness that now precludes them from thinking about that notion at all. […] The movie is a celebration of Barbie and a subterranean apologia for Barbie. It is a giant corporate undertaking and a strange, funny personal project. It is a jubilant, mercilessly effective polymer-and-pink extravaganza whose guiding star turns out to be Gerwig’s own sincerity. “Things can be both/and,” she said. “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
This paragraph makes no sense. Greta Gerwig is selling out. There is nothing wrong with that; she is a successful and thoughtful director, with a solid track record, looking to level up and make a name for herself.
But we cannot pretend that the purpose of a Mattel™ Licensed and Approved Barbie® Movie is not to sell more Barbie dolls. When Gerwig says “I’m doing the thing,” the thing she’s doing is marketing, and marketing is never more than itself.
“Subverting The Thing”, by definition, would mean making a movie that makes Barbies unappealing to the public, because The Thing is a toy that needs to sell to make Mattel shareholders money.
Anything else is still “Doing The Thing” : marketing a product with a new, empowered angle, to make it palatable again to parents who had fallen out of love with the doll. In fact, really Subverting The Thing would be Doing The Thing as it would have been 50 years ago, unappealing sexism and all. No one would want to buy a Barbie, then.
Willa Paskin (who wrote the piece quoted above) writes it best herself, but falls shy of making a direct connection : the film “speaks directly to women, mothers in particular, about the impossibility of perfection…” But why? “…so we can feel great about buying perfect Barbies for our babies.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Barbie movie is good. It has to be good, or it wouldn’t be successful marketing. Barbie profits from both the feel-good performance of embracing cellulite and wrinkles and the practical tools of erasing them.
And that’s the issue with the discourse around the Barbie Movie: this is still the same company that sold dolls with a book titled “how to lose weight”. The same company that made girls’ toys happily say “math is tough”. And that’s without going into the obvious “glammed-up, male-gaze ready, hot-to-trot, blond, thin, high-heeled woman” issues. You cannot subvert the politics of Barbie while preserving the beauty standards of Barbie. Hell, the day after the film’s trailer dropped, Google searches for blonde hair dye tripled.
Just like Pride Month became popular for corporations the second 51% of the population agreed gay rights were human rights, so is the feminism movement being grabbed by corporations. Should it become unprofitable to be empowering, directors like Gerwig will make movies promoting “Family Values” in the bat of an eye. And they will say “Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Barbie is a great movie. It’s fun. Just don’t try to pretend it’s anything other than an advert.