Movie Review: Barbie (Greta Gerwig; 2023)

Being Human

You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.     [Walker Percy]

Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) awakens in her dream house in Barbie Land with every hair in place and not a single smudge in her flawless makeup. She showers without water—no dirt on our Barbie—and pantomimes breakfast. She doesn’t need food. She is, after all, perfect. Then she floats off her balcony into her pink Corvette and heads to the beach, where she is met by other Barbies: President B, Writer B, Physicist B, Dr. B, Lawyer B, Judge B, Journalist B, and Mermaid B, just to name a few. Throw in a diverse crowd of Kens and you get the picture. All enjoy the glory of the moment until Barbie (the stereotypical one from now on unless otherwise specified) asks a most unsettling question.

“You guys ever think about dying?”

The result is Genesis 3 all over again. Eve ate the apple, Barbie asked the question, and nothing is ever the same, at least not for her. Now she wakes up disheveled, her imaginary breakfast milk sour, her waterless shower cold, and worst of all her designed-for-high-heels feet are flat. The question Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach play with in the rest of their film is Why? In pursuit of an answer, they offer us the rarest of media trifectas: a film that is at the same time funny, creative, and thought-provoking.

According to The New York Times, Barbie is about feminism and, to be sure, feminism of a sort shines in Barbie Land. Imagine it as a kind of antithesis of the TV version of 1950s America and you’ll have it. Instead of a male-run paradise in black and white it’s a female fantasy in pink. Women run Barbie Land, but they are all, well, nonetheless Barbies: beautiful dolls, caricatures, not real women, and Barbie’s question threatens their very being. So, they send her to Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who explains to Barbie the nature of her existential crisis: asking the question opened a portal between Barbie Land and the real world, so she must go there and find the girl who played with her doll-self lest she become uglier and weirder.

Enter Ken (Ryan Gosling). Of course, all the men in Barbie Land are Kens (except for one, Allan), all of them suffer from relational insecurity, and all of them do nothing but vie for Barbie’s affection. (When asked what his job is, Ken replies, “It’s just beach.”) Barbie is the center of his universe. He lives for her notice, her affirmation, her smile. Time’sBarbie review suggests its major theme is “male fragility” and in an Oscar-nominated performance, Gosling embodies it brilliantly. He begs his way into Barbie’s real-world foray, then wanders off on his own and discovers something that moves him deeply: patriarchy.

At first, he’s confused by it. “It’s where men and horses run everything?” But he’s a quick learner. Horses are only the symbol of male power. Running the show is where it’s at. He takes this insight back to Barbie Land and reshapes it as a frat boy’s fantasy. Barbie’s dream house becomes Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House. No horses but lots of brewskis and rock music. Men take over everything and Barbie Land’s Barbies become bimbos.

Meanwhile Barbie is introduced to real world feminism. Her target audience—young girls—vilify her as fascist (“But I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce!”), or a symbol who makes them feel inadequate, one who has set the feminist movement back 50 years. Even Gloria (America Ferrara), who played with her doll-self as a child, who works for Mattel and still loves Barbie can’t quite forgive her for pretending the impossible. Her monologue is a bit long, but worth every word.

            It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.
            You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people.
            You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.
            But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So, find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.
            You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.
            I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.

Together Barbie and Gloria storm the Mattel castle, confront CEO Will Ferrell and his evil band of male chauvinist board members—just why did Mattel sign off on this movie anyway?—and flee for their lives when the board insists that Barbie literally get back into her box and become a doll again. They return to Barbie Land, and while they don’t exactly restore the status quo, they do set things right a bit.

Then Barbie meets her maker.

Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) invented Barbie in 1959 after founding Mattel in 1945. Their conversation—in my humble opinion—is what the film is really about.

Ruth: “Being human can be pretty uncomfortable at times… They mess things up…Then they die.”
Barbie: “I don’t know what I was made for.”

Barbie’s dilemma is pandemic today at the beginning of the 21st century. Who in the heck are we anyway? Why are we here? Why do we, as Barbie complains, “don’t know what to feel?” The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer, an old friend of mine, diagnosed our disease like this. “Man, made in the image of God, has a purpose—to be in relationship to God, who is there. Man forgets his purpose and thus he forgets who he is and what life means.”

It’s a grand idea, if a bit abstract, and the Barbies of the world want more than just an idea. They need a living, breathing, in-the-world-but-not-of-it example of what enjoying God and being truly human can look like. By the way, Greta Gerwig’s next film project is an adaptation for Netflix of a couple of her “favorite books”: C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps she’ll give us a taste of what we need.

Good luck, Greta, and thanks for the show.


Copyright (c) 2024 R. Greg Grooms

Bio: For 28 years Greg Grooms and his wife Mary Jane were directors of Hill House , a Christian study center serving students at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to this they worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and the United States for 16 years . They retired in the summer of 2022 and are actively discovering new opportunities for service in the mountains of Colorado.

Photo credit: Movie poster online.