This piece contains spoilers for Barbie (2023).
Editor's note: Scalawag stands in solidarity with the writers, actors, and others of SAG-AFTRA and WGA striking for fair pay and against wage discrimination.
When the movie ended and I looked around, prepared to walk into the lobby and break down all my thoughts, I felt a pause, then got a little nervous—I didn't feel anything. I laughed so much (specifically from Ryan Gosling in himbo mode), but nothing was bursting to the top of my mind, nothing was fighting to get out and be unpacked. It was as if I had just seen nothing. I had simply experienced a hyperbolic void of chaos and color that I immediately forgot. Amnesia or literally waking up from a dream. What just happened?
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The first thing I was able to mutter (after some gleeful shrieking at how much fun I had) was "I just don't know what that meant." My friend Maxwell said something along the lines of, "I think it's just like telling you to breathe, stop for a minute, and know that you're okay. It's not that serious." (cue Indigo Girls "It's only life after all," one of the funniest song choices I've seen in a while.)
I liked this and agreed, but it made something tug at me even more. It couldn't have been so simple as to just beckon the audience to seek presence and relax, to see life like a child again, relishing in the joy and nonsense—there were too many layers and too much money packed into under (!!) two hours, swirling around impatiently in my brain.
As I slowly regained consciousness, the second thing I attempted to say was how the pump-up speech America Ferrera gave in an attempt to break the Barbies out of their Ken-washing made me physically uncomfortable. I couldn't get it out of my head. I thought, this can't be what famously off-kilter Gerwig envisioned as a catalyzing moment, a woman of color from the "real world" slapping stockpile first-wave-feminism-sentience onto a horde of patriarchy-ified Barbies? The writing was average, I'd heard it a million times from inspirational coffee mugs and presidential candidates. It felt randomly heightened among the 13 other plot lines and character arcs approaching but never meaningfully countering gender roles and realities. But then, to my absolute delight, it turned into a bit.
As Ferrara started spitting shorter, more rote cliff-note versions to all the Barbies one by one, the repetition and pacing of the montage began to carry this beautifully appropriate tiredness, utilitarianism, and repackage-ability that mirrors the ethos of Barbie™ itself. Her brilliant acting seamlessly carried this scene from stock footage to contemporary art. Rather than using Barbie lore to tackle questions of gender and feminism, the movie uses Barbie to talk about, well, Barbie. From Barbie's perspective. Whatever that means. At the very beginning of the movie, Helen Mirren slides in a comment about how Barbies think they solved all the problems of feminism, and suddenly we're all in on the plasticky reality of what these toys I suppose tried to represent.
The last thought I had during our sacred lobby-debrief-time was about how this was kind of like a documentary. Hear me out: if the Barbies and Kens had to go through a plot devised by Gerwig and Baumbauch, this is quite simply what would happen. It wouldn't really make sense because nothing in their world makes sense. It would be hysterically childish and naive, it would be darkly backwards and strange.
The natural next question might be, how do we even know what Barbies would act like? What research do you do to create their world? Isn't their life up to the owner, the person playing with them? To which the director said, yes and no. I will also remind you that this isn't an actually answerable question. There are no giant hands moving them around (as one Barbie comments, "No, what? That would be weird!"), the line between human world and doll world is gloriously and strangely vague, and ultimately we just don't really know how it works. Even Weird Barbie, the wisest and most exiled in Barbieland, has all the answers but no explanations. No one really asks, either, because it's make-believe. And isn't that kinda how it felt as a kid?
Growing up, I played with Barbies at friends' houses and always had a blast, imagining how they'd inhabit their dream house and creating dialogues that came directly from my own hopes and dreams. But they weren't really my world. What I specifically loved most were Polly Pockets and Beanie Babies, and if I'm being brutally honest, they were more like gateway drugs into making elaborate houses out of cardboard, shoeboxes, random trinkets, paper, whatever I could get my hands on (we didn't have cable TV). Sometimes I'd spend all day making a house and then declare playtime over, never even touching the talent.
Today, at 29, I'm a practicing artist, designer, and filmmaker, and I often think about how these hours and hours of literal and figurative world-building as a child has affected my career today. Sometimes, when I'm on set for a film in the art department, I can't believe there are so many adults taking this seriously—it fills me with joy and wonder and bafflement, but some days just as easily slides into a more sinister version of surrealism when the reality of how much labor, time, money, and resources are poured into a production come to light.
I admittedly didn't think of any of the ongoing strikes while watching Barbie. The movie makes it almost impossible to think about anything else—a hypnosis of capitalism, genuinely nostalgic yet totally jarring in its lifelessness. But in the days after, reality crept back in: the hypocritical inequities of the entertainment industry sit right under this near-perfect representation of a parallel universe. Though it's no secret to people in the film industry that make-believe is actually quite serious, a literal livelihood that pays the bills and suffers with the ebbs and flows of media trends just like any other industry. The strikes are bringing to light something that has long been underplayed: the irony of entertainment's astronomical public value compared to the vast undervaluing of its creators.
Making art under capitalism is a challenge that's almost insurmountable for this reason. For many, you either make it big enough to be at the top of the dog pile (which the Barbie production designers have arguably done), or you struggle forever and get great at readjusting. Other options include overwork, never sleeping, and credit card debt. I enjoy all three.
And still, sitting in that theater, I was transported. Visually, Barbie gives us this amazing opportunity to hang out in some of the most fabulously bizarre details I've ever seen. The slow motion wild horses on LED screens floating around in every room of Ken's Mojo Dojo Casa House, all the Kens perfectly pantomiming Matchbox 20 in a perfectly blue-hued plastic bonfire circle, the infamous first time Barbie takes off her shoes. If anything, the attention to detail and the willingness to embrace absurdity is what made the movie worthwhile, an extremely realistic reproduction of the adorable insanity that inhabits a child's mind.
But, it's still Barbie. In almost direct contrast to this bold and effervescent testament to imagination, the other thing that felt so concrete in the director's world-building was the decision that Barbies and Barbie World are just kinda dumb. Or maybe the word is naive—which feels way more eerie than "dumb," because it's a complex emotion, one held by humans. The fact that this seems like an obvious choice when characterizing Barbie is interesting. What does it mean that our immediate response to a line of toys that tried to represent women as powerful is "that's dumb"? Is that more telling of us as a society, how we see children and toys in general, or Mattel as a corporation? Probably all of the above.
In the movie, the Barbies are smarter and generally better than the Kens, which feels fun and true to the brand, but then we quickly see the boardroom of idiotic men who created them for sort of indiscernible reasons (read, money). One of the strongest moments in which we see the director's voice is when, in the end, Will Ferrell and his cronies don't actually totally control Barbie. Or, well, they don't control one specific Barbie. Let's not get confused: they still hold most of the power.
Another comment my friend Hannah made stuck with me: why does the movie have to have a point? She had just seen Asteroid City the week before and was freshly loaded with bright-eyed clarity about how we simply let that man (Wes Anderson) do whatever he wants. We suddenly understand that art doesn't have to have a point if it's a white man prancing around making weird allusions to other cultures. I think there's a lot of richness to Barbie, intentional or not. But also, it's just kind of like swimming around in batshit land while giving the art department the challenge of a lifetime in under (!!!!) two hours. And I loved that.
What Barbie does get right about oppression brought on by patriarchal violence and gender inequities is that it's something that was created—and therefore, can be destroyed. "As an abolitionist today, imagination is fuel."
Of course, the writers could have made this a movie explicitly about childhood and imagination, weaving an emotional tale about growing up, ignoring the negative effects of her reign, but they decided to make it about the product, not the humans who loved it. This is what made it unique in my mind—deciding the movie would be for Barbie, from Barbie, to Barbie is objectively pretty hilarious, especially when the genuine think pieces about its humanness start rolling in. Writing a movie like this is quite a feat. Kens turning into evil hyper-masc assholes? Not a biting, "gotcha" commentary on society as much as it is something that I guess Ken would probably do if given the chance. Which, of course, still becomes a commentary on the society that created Ken, because Ken is not sentient. But the circuitousness it takes to get there is delightful, a dadaist move to confront the genuine horrors of our world with intense absurdity.
This is not a sweeping biopic of a beloved figure, but it's clear that we want it to be. So many articles following its release seem upset that we didn't get some life lesson or awe-inspiring commentary on the human experience. Even the ones that go the other direction and praise the movie for marking the rise of "bimbo-feminism" or encouraging a more laissez-faire approach to what being a woman should "mean" feel like they're missing the point—Barbie is (obviously) still a hyper-skinny, cis, white woman with unbelievably damaging beauty standards (as was incredibly played out by her first interaction with Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). A slightly diversified cast of friends won't change that.
Something else that felt wholly undeniable about the movie was its whiteness. And not just in a make-Issa-Rae-president-but-only-give-her-two-lines kind of way, but in a more horrifying way, as if we were witnessing Ken himself as the origin story of our patriarchal white supremacist society while laughing along. And that actually was his arc—plus some pretty funny half-assed redemption attempts at the end. We laughed because it was openly foolish, because when we see our lives acted out by toys with limited vocabulary and reason, we can't make up excuses for the core of our evil.
What would it feel like to suddenly have Barbie be a genuine champion of equality in any sense? (see: gaslighting, Hamilton) Why would Baumbach and Gerwig rewrite the story of Mattel's impact for free? (or for money…) The final scene was brilliant—everything is back to normal in both worlds, and Barbie is just excited about something new about herself. And some new friends. Yay!
There are a million things to say about what we ruthlessly demand from our content and its creators, but at the end of the day, the Barbie movie is a giddy and harsh reminder of what this monolith of a brand really did—a lot of bullshit, nothing real, and yes, of course, lots of genuine happiness and wonder.