On the heels of Barbie’s release on DVD – and an epic personal account by The Narrator (the beloved Soluter, not the Helen Mirren role in the movie reference below) – we present a discussion of the year’s runaway cultural moment. This has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Oliver: Everyone saw Barbie, more or less. My mom who never ever goes to movies saw Barbie. (Her favorite part was the Proust joke.) What can we say about Barbie? The movie itself was marketed as something for everyone, right? Tagline: “If you love Barbie; if you hate Barbie.” That’s broad! And kind of a forced dichotomy! Anyway, consider this a “Casa Mojo Dojo” safe space for your thoughts about the movie.
Personally, I thought it was Just Fine. Which is the least interesting take ever! The biggest laugh I heard from the crowd was when the Narrator said this part—
Barbie: I’m not stereotypical Barbie pretty!
Narrator: Note to the filmmakers — Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.
So there’s that! Which sort of points to a Big Thingy about Barbie. It’s about a doll that has made people feel bad. But it also was paid for by the people who made the doll that makes you feel bad to make fun of the fact that the dolls make you feel bad and so they hired a famous indie director and I can’t even finish typing this sentence, I’m exhausted already. That quote above is like, Hey, you can’t make fun of this movie, we’re doing it for ourselves already: nice, right? Anyway, there’s a lot going on here! It’s Barbies all the way down, yo. Anyway, bring it! What are your thoughts?
Also, kind of… The Simpsons did it already, right?
Bridgett: Well, I’ll start with the first thing, which is that I could absolutely give two shits about what The Simpsons did already. Oh, wow, there’s been one thoughtful critique of Barbie in popular media, everybody go home!
One of the reasons Gerwig and company were able to make a movie that embraced so many contradictions and ‘faces’ of Barbie is that Barbie is huge. She’s this absolutely ubiquitous toy; the dollar store sells knockoff versions of her, you can find half a dozen in any given thrift store, there are collectors’ editions that will absolutely break your budget. She is, as the kids say, the blueprint for an adult doll for girls to play with. While the 2001: A Space Odyssey knock off is exaggerated (and extremely funny), the truth is there: from pretty much the second sales took off, she’s been a part of our cultural conversation, and pretty much inescapable. Love Barbie, hate Barbie, have complicated feelings about Barbie–you almost certainly have an opinion. Why not talk about her more than once?
Anyway, because she is so ubiquitous and because she has inspired so many Big Feelings, I think the best way for a successful Barbie movie (which is not the same as a movie starring Barbies) was this. To lean into the contradictions; to recognize that Barbie was a way for a girl to dream about being a rock star, and that Barbie’s slim frame made her the perfect vehicle to portray a rock star’s struggle with anorexia nervosa. To recognize that many of the little girls who grew up with those plastic dolls in their hands, dreaming about their bright future, found themselves staring out an office window thinking about dying. The kind of full-on critique that would have made real life Mattel executives think about dying would be just as dishonest as a movie that only celebrated the bright side.
Which isn’t to say that there’s things to critique, much less talk about. What it is to say is that Mattel has made more than 1 billion Barbie dolls, and that means something, and I’m glad there’s a movie out there that decided to grapple with what, exactly, that means.
(And I loved the movie. Adored it. Looking forward to a rewatch at some point.)
Conor: One big question for Soluters: do you identify as any specific doll in Barbieland? I am probably closest in nature to Allan, but it’s all too easy to understand Ken’s codependency and childlike tendencies.
I saw Barbie twice in theaters, then took a screenwriting class on the script with Write or Die, and one thing which stuck out is how bad this movie could’ve been. The Gerwig film has flaws, sure, but the original Barbie developed by Diablo Cody and starring Amy Schumer, about a misfit Barbie banished from her hostile society, sounds mediocre at best, and at worst, obnoxious and self-serving.
Cody said she could never crack the script, whereas Gerwig pulls a really neat trick in getting an audience (who may not give a shit about a child’s doll) to like and identify with Stereotypical Barbie from the jump. One of the funniest parts of the movie is watching grown actors playing gloriously naive, child-like toys (“Ken’s not cool!” “He is to me…”), but Stereotypical Barbie’s journey into adulthood and humanity, giving up a perfect, immortal life because she sees something more beautiful and lasting in being human, in imperfection and pain and aging, is incredibly moving to me each time I see it.
What gives me pause of course is the corporate packaging and the Speech which made me really, really want to check my phone during the last theater viewing.
Also Hari Nef who plays Dr. Barbie is from my home city of Philadelphia. Philllyyyyy! Thank you, that is all.
Oliver: Oh, right. This is an interesting point! There were so many prior ideas for a Barbie movie, and they were trying to make it forever. It seems like all of the ideas would have been so much worse than this one. I was trying to think of what to say about this movie this morning, and I was like, “Well, she could have changed this… or that.” But was Gerwig supposed to make a radical diatribe that would then also not get produced? Also, if someone offered me millions of dollars to make a Barbie movie, how quickly would I say yes? Very quickly.
It seems like she made the best Barbie movie that could have been made, under the circumstances. There’s your tagline: “The best Barbie movie that could have been made, under the circumstances [related to contemporary society].”
So I am not trying to give Gerwig a hard time. I’m just more interested in what the movie says about us, I guess. She had to walk a fine line as a director, right? And I feel like (suddenly talking in an important academic accent) the fine line she had to walk… in a way… holds up a mirror… to our contemporary society. (Shuffles papers behind my lectern.) Thank you, class.
Bridgett: I am still waiting for more people to get their initial thoughts out before I start really responding, but I feel like the right time to answer Conor’s question is now: When Robbie Barbie realizes that it’s not the daughter but the mother that she ‘belongs’ to, the flashbacks of Gloria playing Barbies with Sasha reduced me wholly to ugly tears. I saw myself in that mirror. Boy, did I.
Oliver: How weird is Barbie as a movie? I mean, the characters have no names, they’re clones of each other (sort of), you can shift through dimensions by doing a montage. It’s an odd movie, right? It is impressive that a movie this weird made a billion dollars and connected with so many people. Though it does have crowd-pleasing elements, of course: car chase, redemption arc, etc. But still, this is a pretty fucking weird movie. My favorite part was kind of the beginning, where Barbie is drinking milk without actually drinking milk, because no milk comes out of the container, and eating waffles without eating waffles, and that’s some surreal-ass shit.
I identify with zero Barbie characters! I’m a boy! I had Transformers! I don’t actually know that much about Barbie, though my best friend growing up was really rich and had the Dream House and essentially every Barbie toy, and so that always cracked me up, because they were still in her house when she was eighteen, and so I could tease her about that.
I guess I identify with Allan (sort of the audience stand-in or Mary Sue or what have you). But like Conor, I’m secretly more of a Ken. I define myself through relationships, and though I wouldn’t have briefly turned evil like he did (I don’t really crave power), I can see myself being codependent like that.
Allan gets one of the movie’s best lines though, when he points out that if the Kens ever figure out how to build a wall horizontally instead of vertically, they’ll really be in trouble.
The Ploughman: I cringed a bit at how often I recognized myself in the Kens, much as a I like to think of myself as the more enlightened man. But Gerwig’s jabs are pretty deep here. Yes, I once had the thought of starting a podcast based on my fascinating conversations with a friend. I caught myself re-enacting the “Ken explains The Godfather scene” right there in the theater with my daughter when I felt the need to embellish my explanation of the 2001 reference at the beginning. That’s an area where I think Gerwig really pulls off something unique. The aspects of manhood that are stereotyped and diminished by imbalanced social structures isn’t a wholly new thought, but it’s a somewhat less explored area than the thoughts for women. And she includes these without tipping the movie into “oh, those poor men!”
Oliver: I guess, as someone with body dysmorphia (which is a mental disorder that can oftentimes make you think you’re insanely ugly) and thus also a person with body image issues, maybe a thing about the movie is that, like, how well does it critique all of this stuff? Yes, it pokes fun at Barbie, but at the end of the day, the woman played by one of the best-looking actresses in the world is the hero, and so, I don’t know… I never did play with Barbies, but having a mental disorder that makes me think about appearances too much, it seems like the secret message of most movies is “Good-looking people are really great and interesting!”
Is there anything you can do about that, though? I dunno. One of the best movies I’ve seen in years is The Worst Person in the World, and I was struck by how the actors and the main actress looked… at least sort of normal? Like people who you might actually encounter in real life. That helped me be actually invested in the story, and I was also struck by how rare movies like are, movies that feature normal looking people who have normal-ish lives. I get that Barbie being flawlessly attractive is a part of the Barbie experience. But I don’t know how excited I could get in the end for a movie that was like, hey, if you’re pretty and you become a slightly decent person, you’re a hero!
That wasn’t the intended message, of course. It never is. Goddard did say that one thing though, about how you couldn’t ever make an anti-war movie, because the camera glorifies everything it touches, even war, so you can’t help but make war look glamorous. I feel like that’s a trap that Barbie can never get out of. It can’t help glamourising everything it shows. In the end the moral sort of is, aren’t Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling hot and cool, right? (Despite him allegedly being a dork, Ken isn’t actually lame, we all know this for every second while watching the movie. He’s played by a gorgeous movie star who is poking fun at his own image.)
And so, what do we get out of the movie, then? It seems like Barbie does what it’s intended to do. It gives a fake sense of empowerment while actually sending the coded (and not necessarily intended) message that being really hot is awesome! Which isn’t that different from the message that dolls have always transmitted to young girls. (Even the “brooding” teeanger Sasha is actually very conventionally good-looking and popular and has no issues that can’t be solved with a thirty-second pep talk.) So is there… no moral to the movie? Am I asking too much from it? …Or am I way off-base here?
Miller: I had major issues with the “brooding” teenager Sasha, in that Gerwig (Gerbauch?) promises a teen absolutely tearing into Barbie and then produces some extremely mid and mostly socio-cultural insults. Teens are the most vicious people on the planet, their disses are ruthless! Hugely disappointing.
On a more substantive area, I think the movie engages with the hotness of its stars and product as much as it needs to, maybe overly so – Mirren’s line about Robbie not being a person who can portray being ugly quoted near the top here was a very eyerolling acknowledgement. Much better was Will Ferrell’s reaction to America Ferrera’s pitch for boring mom Barbie, because he’s right! It is a terrible idea! That terrible idea making money and therefore being good is one of the best cynical jokes in the film, which is otherwise pretty tame in its criticism (although I was not expecting otherwise). It’s fine to enjoy good-looking people in movies and art, which includes toys; I think the big problem has been who defines “good-looking” and how narrowly. But appearance is rightfully put aside to consider larger issues of perception.
I’m in the “America Ferrera’s big speech is not good” camp, but one line really struck me for what it almost said. “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us,” Ferrera says toward the end, and maybe she paused for a second but for some reason I thought she was going to stop with “I’m just so tired of watching myself.” Not just self-awareness but self-consciousness, keeping an eye on your behavior because other people are doing the same. This comes through earlier when Barbie and Ken first break through to LA, with Barbie clocking the reactions to her and what they could mean (quite possibly danger). In Barbieland everyone is an object but they are not objectified, they are what they are and that is what they are perceived as (and I think this has some problems, but that’s for another time). Self-awareness destroys that. And here is where the perspective of a 40-year-old white guy who waited for Barbie to come out on Redbox may be valuable, because while I have self-awareness I can also exist in the world without watching myself, at least constantly. I have the freedom to just bike down to the store and get some food and come back, which I did a half hour ago, while musing on what to write here instead of what the people around me are thinking of me. The women of Barbie (and the movie argues in general) do not have that, they can’t escape being perceived by people like me because people like me have built the world that way.
I think this is a very rich theme to dig into, and one of the things I mused on during that bike ride was how the end of the movie, with its trippy colors and transcendence of previous existence, riffs on 2001: A Space Odyssey just as hard as the beginning does. But while I thought the beginning was amusing, it didn’t really work for me. In the original, the apes fart around until a big object appears and then the things they have become objects. A bone becomes a tool (for smashing) – the first objectification? And this follows into the rest of the film. The girls in Barbie mope around until a big object appears and then the baby dolls they have become things to be smashed, this is potentially an inversion of 2001’s dynamic of “progress.” But the big object is just another doll, and the tossed baby doll, instead of being a rejection, becomes a replacement. I think both films use that beginning to show moments of self-awareness but the issues of perception in Barbie – which are extremely real – predate the doll and the movie saying the doll is both a help and hindrance in perception seems besides the point to me. But I think the movie’s ending is best read in an extremely individualistic way and can be seen as a rejection in that sense, what works for one person.
Unrelated (or is it???) question: How do Gerwig’s Millennial music choices date or drive the film? (And this has to be her, I think you would have to put a gun to Baumbach’s head to get him to throw on Matchbox 20.)
The Ploughman: To paraphrase another Gerwig creation, they’re the greatest hits, what’s wrong with that?
Bridgett: I don’t want to give the movie more credit than it deserves, but it’s very easy for teenagers to cut their parents to the bone with the mildest shit, so I’m not sure Sasha’s actually aiming to be particularly mean. (She clearly has some good memories of playing with her mom, just like Gloria does, and it occurs to me that the Bratz dolls, for whom Sasha is named, were set up as competition for Barbies but as far as I can tell just got integrated into play like the rest of the dolls.)
I think Barbie’s GenX-to-Millennial music choices are the first signal that she’s Gloria’s Barbie.
Gloria’s speech is the movie’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness, because so much of it is so obvious but oh, fuck, we’re all so tired of it. I’m just so tired of watching myself. Maybe it’s just nice to have someone say the fucking most obvious shit once in a while, because you all know it’s there, but no one will just fucking say it. You’re standing there at the fucking soccer game and one of the women is talking about what her current diet plan is and you want to scream, ‘aren’t you tired of this?’ but no one says it because no, you just want to lose weight for your self or your health and sure, maybe, but you can never escape watching yourself all the time, just waiting to put a foot wrong, and, fuck, now I sound just like Gloria. I told you I was the Barbie Who Thought About Dying.
Related but unrelated, I love that opening sequence with Barbie drinking milk that’s not really there, and the production design that mimics every Barbie Dream House and playset ever, with a weird combination of real stuff and painted-on fake stuff. It was almost a sense memory, seeing Barbie pick up some of that stuff.
Miller: Oh, you just reminded me! The Dream House design is of course great but the Not Brooding And Mean Enough For My Tastes Dammit daughter had a great not-quite-throwaway line as she saw them for the first time, I will biff this one too but it was about how you could see inside the houses/see the people in them and it was clearly said with enjoyment – that this would be a cool way to live. I think that goes back to the perception aspect of the movie; Barbieland is a panopticon in this sense and that is generally presented as pretty bad, that everyone can see everyone else at all times. But if there’s nothing to hide and nothing to be worried about – maybe more to the point, nothing to fear about what you’re showing versus how you feel versus how someone might take what you’re showing for themselves – then who cares? This is one of the times the movie being very specifically about Barbie and the universe of stuff tied to the toy worked very well for me.
The speech didn’t work for me but oh well, speeches often don’t. What I thought didn’t work in a larger sense, in the movie itself, was how the speech/distilled aspects of it was a magic deprogramming agent, I will just keep plowing ahead and biffing lines but one of the team said something about how making people aware of the patriarchy was how to fight back against it and that is not remotely true, is it? This is coupled with the newly-deprogrammed Barbies undermining the Kens’ plans by emotionally manipulating them – you can argue very convincingly the Kens are being caught up in their own patriarchal problems if they can be manipulated thusly but it’s still smacking extremely hard of gender, this is sitcom material.
The whole “we need to save Barbieland” aspect of the film largely fell flat for me, because of this resolution but also because Barbieland doesn’t seem worth saving to me. This surely has to do with my lack of connection to the product in the first place but the conceit feels very weird (on the other hand, I greatly enjoyed the corporate goons’ annoyance at questions about how one gets from Barbieland to the Real World, who cares just roll with it you dingus. Not The Point!). Who does Nobel Prize Author Barbie beat out to win the Nobel Prize? Who does President Barbie run against? The flip side of being objects with a clear purpose is that is the only purpose and generally only one Barbie for it. Although we do see multiple Trash Pickup Barbies – have they unionized? There’s a line about how KenWorld has sown the seeds for its own destruction but considering how easily Barbieland fell in the first place, you could say the same about its organization. (And the colonialism/smallpox metaphor is wildly misplaced, if only because Barbie and Ken are the colonizers – they even go to Davy Crockett New Frontier high school! – returning home with agents of destruction.) Robie Barbie leaving all of this behind at the end makes more and more sense.
Oliver: Definitely Barbie instantly saying that she felt an undercurrent of violence around her when she entered the real world was a line that hit pretty hard. I am also biffing all the lines of this movie, but it was a funny line that also had a real core of truth to it. Ken says something like… I feel like everyone is staring at me and that’s awesome, but Barbie is like, “I feel the same thing, but with undertones of violence.” That got a laugh from the crowd. And that’s skillful writing, to have a joke that also makes you think. Gerwig pulled a lot of stuff like that off very well, and that’s impressive.
John: Having recently seen Killers of the Flower Moon (spoilers, sort of, ahead), it is interesting to compare it to Barbie. Killers ends where Barbie begins: in a self-reflexive representation of the real world. That is, Killers ends in a radio-play version of the cinematic historical narrative, whereas Barbie starts with leaving a similar fantasy world – and, believe me, Killers pulls no punches in pointing out just how much of a fantasy the radio play is, and how destructive it is.
Arguably, Asteroid City also toggles between layers of representation/reality, but Anderson’s showiness makes it much less graceful.
But I do have a problem with the ending of Barbie: a reification of gender essentialism that makes the film feel more conservative (see any anti-trans discourse) than it probably means to be. Especially because, as it was brought up, the film critically evaluates how women must negotiate the self-conscious feeling of being watched/seen. What the film does not/cannot show, however, is how women become less visible as they get older.
Oliver: I have not seen Killers of the Flower Moon, but definitely, I felt the sense at the end of Barbie that we were exactly where we started out. There’s a punchline, “I’m here to see my gynecologist,” got it, and that was funny. But… and is this too dark for me to say… as a movie, it seemed like Gerwig wasn’t taking us anywhere new. Maybe I did want a dark deconstruction of Barbie. Honestly, wasn’t The Lego Movie more subversive than this? And I will happily defend The Lego Movie.
Even the 2001 joke in the beginning, I felt like that wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. (Hey, we’re making one of the most obvious movie references of all time! Aren’t you clever for getting the reference!) That joke foregrounds Barbie as being as important as the Monolith. But at the end of the movie, where have we gone from that? Barbie is still the same, she just learned to be a little more self-aware? But Gerwig is smarter than that, and I guess that’s what at times frustrated me about the movie.
You’ve got this brilliant director-slash-writer, working in service of… what? In the end, for all the winking-in-jokes, it still seems like a movie meant to sell us the same toys. Like, it ends where it started, but with a vagina joke, so people can write New Yorker style thought-pieces about it. I dunno. I guess this is why I couldn’t get excited about the whole thing. Is that too bummer-ish of me? It just seemed like a lot of effort from smart people while giving a wink-wink to the crowd that this is all cute, and then people buy the same toys at the end. And in fact buy more of the same toys, now that Gerwig has given the brand hipster-shielded cultural cred. Is selling harmful toys okay as long as you’re self-referential enough about it and drop enough winking nods to the process?
Where does plastic for the dolls come from? …Well, it’s made from oil, that’s not great. Who makes the toys and are they paid a living wage to do it? …Don’t worry about that, Barbie says, because we are not even raising these questions for one second! These questions do not even exist within the world of the film, so I feel like it’s all capitalism with a smiley face. I know that Gerwig is smart enough to know all this stuff, so it feels like she’s ignoring it on purpose. That’s kind of frustrating for a movie that was so proud to wear a “This movie is so self-aware!” sticker on its sleeve.
Is selling harmful toys okay as long as you’re self-referential enough about it and drop enough winking nods during the process? It felt to me like Barbie’s answer to that was “yes.” And it feels like that was the actual message of the film. So maybe I do have strong feelings about Barbie after all, because that annoys me.
I guess what does kind of annoy me is that Barbie brings up big questions, and then is like “It’s all fine!” at the end. It really is trying to have it both ways. If it was a just a silly movie and that was the goal, that’s fine. I like silly movies! But Barbie seems to constantly want to bring up huge ideas and then be like, “But whatever! Here’s a car chase! And here’s a pat monologue!” Sorry. Am I being too harsh?
Bridgett: Well, I do feel like you’re falling a little far into the Barbie hater trap. I think there’s a certain tension between ‘yes, this is a corporate product made out of oil’ and ‘this is a doll that enabled girls to think of themselves as more than Future Mothers,’ and a lot of the movie’s greatest strengths are navigating that. I’m not sure there can be a message with the clarity you want unless it falls on one side of the line or the other. Because the thing about Barbie is that it’s not just the corporate product; the owner of the doll makes it her (his, their) own: Weird Barbie is the most obvious of these, but Robbie’s character is getting changed by her own owner, too, and one of my Facebook friends noted that Ken gets really into horses because he’s still a ‘girly’ creation–he sees a cop on a horse, but it’s the horse he gravitates to. It’s why I think you’re right that the LEGO Movie is the nearest equivalent; I think that’s a stronger movie, too, but it has almost nothing to say about LEGO as a corporate project, and the plot is literally limited by a child’s imagination. But no film can do everything. I think because LEGO and Barbie loom so large in their minds we sometimes want them to do more than they really can or maybe even should do. These are family movies, and while I will go to the mat saying that children’s and family movies can and should aim high, they can only go so high. But I never finished my feature on Nimona, where someday, perhaps, I’ll get deeper into that.
Conor: Ironically, I saw The LEGO Movie again right after Barbie and think its not only not nearly as good on rewatch, in fact it’s much more insidious – the final message is, ultimately, about products and how to (or not to) play with them, and I ended up feeling pretty indifferent to Emmett and the Special and Elizabeth Banks playing a parody of Trinity that ends up just being Trinity. It’s all just layers of parody, irony, and corporate nihilism in the end, right? Only two or three degrees away from Family Guy if it wasn’t for the great animation.
There is no sense in my mind that the filmmakers are grappling with something deeper or more difficult, whereas Gerwig writing both Lady Bird and Barbie is wrestling with a love-hate relationship: Sacramento and her family with the former, Barbie – and maybe even gender expression itself – in the second.
The emotional arc of Barbie meanwhile is, even if packaged by Mattel, universal and achingly beautiful. I’ve come to recognize this year that I’m battling high-functioning depression a lot, and Barbie’s story here isn’t just Pinnochio or the Buddha myth, it’s a person waking up to the finite beauty of the (real) world, and wanting to be a part of that even if it can hurt or won’t last. That’s something I know I keep inching toward, bit by bit. (I also relate to Ken’s codependency, god knows. My friend texted me saying “I only exist in the warmth of your gaze” almost cut too deep for him.)
On a less positive note, I’d, uh, also like to express my particular disdain for that speech! I just don’t like speeches in stories the older I get. I also cringed at the “smallpox/blankets” line. Absolutely should’ve been cut from the first or second draft and it’s obviously a very tight script.
Favorite jokes? The sheer silliness of the Kens sincerely repeating their name over and over is incredible. “Looks like that was a little too much beach for you, Ken!” “Hold my ice cream, Ken…Alright, Ken you’re on!”
The Ploughman: Real quick note that taking my 11-year-old daughter to the film definitely made me see it in a couple ways at the same time and appreciate the contradictions Bridgett describes and that the movie owns. Yes, it’s making Mattel a quick buck and arguably propping up at least a portion of the system it criticizes. But my daughter got a whole primer on feminism (and not the most shallow one she could get exposed to) and the chance to ask what a gynecologist does. The Paw Patrol movie presumably does not afford this opportunity.
Favorite joke: Ken’s “When I found out the patriarchy wasn’t actually about horses, I lost interest.” Bridgett’s right again, Ken’s obsession with horses is just funny on the surface and another playful bat at gender norms.
Miller: That man never listened to a speech in his life! But I do think you’re onto something with the love/hate aspect of the movie, which is also in Little Women – the idea of being torn between worlds that you want and don’t want. Sacramento and the wider world/adulthood, family/New England vs. rewarding professional life/NYC. Barbie is torn here and like the other Gerwig Women (wondering would would happen if they met Mann Men) she is trying to figure things out, wanting to know what she wants. I think that makes the ending not universal but very personal – as Greta’s magnificent essay describes – and through that uniqueness finds its way into others.
But I want to get back to wanting for a minute, because this gets back to one of the larger faults in the movie for me – the idea of Barbieland. The first ten minutes or so are extremely funny and gorgeous to look at and, presumably purposefully, reflective of playing with dolls as action. Each character is what they are and acts accordingly. Drunk Napoleon gets into how depicting Ken becomes an endorsement of him in a sense, but I think the real reason he stands out from the start is that he is the only person who wants something (to be with Barbie) and who will do things to get it, at least for that opening. As a dude I am primed to identify with him in the first place but this is basic empathetic stuff that has a deep pull. And it extends through the movie, even though Barbie’s desires surface and have meaning they are still inchoate (purposefully!) while Ken acquires and acts.
Now, this is its own type of storytelling cliche, just because it’s a powerful one doesn’t make it the only one. It made me think of Ursula K. LeGuin and her attempts to find alternate storytelling modes and revise existing patriarchal narratives, she does this most concisely and brilliantly here. But generally she proceeds from her anthropological background, really figuring out the structure of the society she’s writing about, and this is where the surface-level Barbieland fails for me, there’s nothing really interesting or well-thought-out there (the whole insistence on voting their way into and out of trouble is nonsensical). It succeeds as a place to be torn from mostly because the other place to go – the real world – is so crappy in so many ways. But go Barbie does, and Conor’s point about accepting the finite is a great one. Maybe Barbie the movie is pro-plastic toy (and I’m with Bridgett in not really caring about the oil aspect, lots of stuff is made out of oil and if I don’t bash that I can’t bash the doll) but Gerwig and Robie embrace the flesh.