Sunday, July 30, 2023


 Everyman, Bristol

And everywhere else in the entire universe.

"Ripley, she doesn't have bad dreams because she's only a piece of plastic." - Aliens

I am sorry. I understand that Tinkerbell is very, very poorly and I am probably going to consign her to an early grave by being the one kid who refuses to say that he believes in fairies. But I have seen Barbie, and I didn't think it was very good. 

Where to start? There are two co-terminal universes; an artificial, idyllic one, and the messy real world where we all live. A rift opens between them, and one of the denizens of the artificial Eden has to travel to our fallen world to set it right. A certain amount of misunderstanding ensues. One of the visitors returns to his prelapsarian world with his new knowledge and corrupts it; but the other visitor returns, with some real-world denizens in tow, and eventually manages to set things right. Everyone realises that a truly happy place would be a compromise between the two universes. 

And then the blue fairy, who is also, rather confusingly, Gepetto, turns the heroine into a real girl. 

From the purely visual standpoint, it's glorious. I imagine Uncle Walt is looking at the feasibility of constructing a real-life Barbie Land resort even as we speak: every little girl and very many grown-up boys, would love to go there. It is entirely constructed out of Barbie toys and entirely populated by Barbie dolls: but the dolls are all grow-up humans played by actors, while everything else is made of life-sized plastic. Each morning, Barbie stands under a shower, which doesn't actually dispense water and pours non-existent tea from toy pots into empty cups and then goes and hangs out on a beach surrounded by solid plastic waves. At one point a life-sized plastic dog dispenses life-sized plastic dog-muck on the carpet. When Ken needs to see a doctor, a pink ambulance unfolds into a diorama, exactly as toy buildings often do. I assume that the plastic pink capitol building is a figment of the movie's imagination, but the overwhelming majority of the toys and figures are genuinely based on Mattel's back catalogue. There really was a short-lived pregnant Barbie and a Barbie with expanding breasts. There really was a Sugar Daddy Ken, although he was a limited edition aimed at adult collectors.  

It's magnificent. But it's not a basis for a movie. 

Toy Story scored highly on the Rilstone Scale because it treated its fantasy premise with a degree of consistency. Toys are living beings with agency and personality, but pretend (due, I think, to a code of conduct) to be inanimate figures when humans are looking at them. It also gave the CGI characters personalities we could engage with -- we sympathised with Woody's jealousy and were affectionately annoyed by Buzz's arrogance. 

No, Andrew is not saying that all kids films have to be one half Frank Herbert and the other half Fyodor Dostoevsky. But he is saying that he admires movies that know exactly what they are trying to do and then do exactly that. Barbie feels like the collision of half a dozen incompatible ideas. 

Barbie lampshades the fact that it's central premise makes no goddamn sense (even within the terms of reference of a film about life-sized dolls visiting the real world). One character asks directly if Barbie Land is an alternate dimension, or a reality created by human imagination. He is told that it is "more like Sweden". The narrative presents it as a sort of Platonic realm of ideas. Barbie Land and the Real World are distorting mirror reflections of each other. 

All the Barbies and Kens who inhabit Barbie Land are reflections of Real World Dolls being played with by Real World Children (although there only seems to be a single instance of each figure in the Barbie line.) What children do with their dolls at some level affects their life-sized Barbie Land counterparts. Weird Barbie -- the Campbellian Mentor (Kate McKinnon) who sends our heroine off on her journey -- has cropped hair, biro marks on her face, and keeps doing the splits, because her human owner has played with her "too hard". The heroine, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) has been having inappropriate thoughts about death because some little girl has been playing with her in a morbid way. (This is what has opened the rift between the realities.) 

This idea is at odds with the visual joke. Margot Robbie is not a plastic assemblage, but a (very idealised) adult human figure -- because that is how the little girl playing with her imagines her. Part of the point of toys like Barbie, Ken, Action Man and GI Joe is that they are tabla-rasa onto which children project any characters they choose. Mattel reportedly resisted giving Barbie a more substantial role in Toy Story because they thought she would be spoiled as a plaything if she had too specific a personality. But if a child can imagine a crying, talking, sleeping, walking living Barbie, why can't they imagine water in the shower, surf in the sea and food and drink in the plates and cups? 

So: Stereotypical Barbie and Beach Ken (Ryan Gossling) go to the Real World to track down the damaged kid and heal the rift. And, of course, they comedically fail to appreciate the differences between fantasy and reality. Barbie expects the construction workers to be girl-power feminists and is surprised when they make suggestive remarks; Ken is surprised and fascinated that in this world, men, rather than women, are in charge. 

That was always what a movie based on 1950s girls' action figures was going to be about: naive Barbie and Ken misunderstanding the workings of the grown up wing of the multiverse. It the same kind of thing as the Brady Bunch and Pleasantville. And to a lessor extent, the Truman Show and Don't Worry Darling. And, come to that, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I suppose that makes it part of a genre, as opposed to merely derivative. The slight wrinkle is that Ken travels back to the Barbieverse to spread his newly discovered patriarchal gospel; and that Barbie follows him back with Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the mother and daughter who caused all the trouble to start with.  

Inevitably, Ken tells some of the humans that he doesn't have a penis. Well, of course he doesn't. He's a clothed plastic figurine: he doesn't have a brain or a pancreas either. I believe the doll was originally thought a little risque because it did have an adult male crotch; in the same way that Barbie had an adult female breast. But why doesn't the idea-of-Ken made flesh have a penis, when he has fully functioning fingers and actual (as opposed to moulded on) hair? Because he is a little girl's idea of an adult male? But in that case, why does he know that he doesn't, or think it worth mentioning? The logical joke; if you insist on making it; would have been to put him in a real world lad's locker room, and to be shocked/embarrassed/curious that the other guys are made differently from him. Or else for him to be perfectly aware of what male bodies looked like, but entirely naive about sexuality. Which would, I grant, not really work in what is nominally a kids film. But then neither does the very mild dick-joke we actually get.

Given that it's a punch-line that dolls don't have genitals, it does occur to us to ask whether gender in the Barbieverse is purely presentational. Is Barbie a girl because she likes dresses and pink things? Or is it rather to do with the configuration of her plastic brain? Or is it coming from the brains of the children who play with her? The one thing the movie never says is that it would be perfectly fine for Ken to wear frocks and Barbie to play with guns because gender is a social construct.

Some of the culture clash gags are fairly amusing. Barbie's introduction to her sassy, cynical, teenaged "owner": in the school refectory works nicely; and Ken's assumption that he can do any job (doctor, banker, life-guard) without qualifications because he's a boy made me smile. But that side of the film runs out of steam fairly rapidly. I would have expected to see relentlessly sunny Barbie interacting with a relentlessly grim reality. But in fact "the Real World" keeps slipping into Barbie Land logic. Mattel headquarters is a sort of anti-Wonka-Chocolate factory, run by one dimensional suits who keep tripping over their own feet, with an elevator button that says "All The Way To The Top". There is an extended sequence in which the men-in-black try to put life-sized Barbie in a life-sized-Barbie box, for reasons which are not explicated. Barbie flees down a secret corridor which leads to a 1950s cottage kitchen where [VERY MILD SPOILER] lives.

I don't know what it was that made some right wing pundits denounce Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny as "woke" -- I suppose they objected to the way it presented Nazis as bad-guys. I really don't know what was going on in the mind of the man who destroyed hundreds of Star Wars action figures because Daisy Ridley is not a boy. There are some very silly people on the Internet. But I can't deny that the third act of Barbie becomes overtly political; and political in a very uninteresting way. 

Barbie Land has a woman president and an all female supreme court. It isn't quite clear what the supreme court passes judgement over: are there pastel pink electric chairs and pastel pink abortion clinics? On his return to Barbie Land, Ken plans to enact laws that will place the men in charge. Within five minutes of his return, Barbie's pink dream house has become a ranch house where men lounge around in unfortunate jackets and drink beer from mini ice-boxes. It isn't clear if it's toy beer or actual beer they are drinking. The Barbies positively like being their servants. I am not sure how much the message that "men are idiots" (as opposed to "men have an unfair structural advantage") contributes to the film's thesis. 

Gloria (the Real World mother), delivers a five minute screed-to-camera about feminism. The gist of it is that while Barbie (the toy) is superficially empowering -- Barbie can be a surgeon and an astronaut as well as a fashion model -- it's actually a tool of patriarchal oppression, because it encodes the message that women are expected to be beautiful. The rant goes on indefinitely, making a lot of perfectly good points that most of the audience will have heard before. Men want women to be like their mums, but complain about women who are too much like their mums. (Thanks, Sigmund.) They're expected to enjoy being mothers, but not to talk about their kids all the time. They're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that they tempt them too much. We make them paint their face and dance. This speech snaps the Barbies out of their brainwashing (they actually call it brainwashing) and they hatch a scheme to deprogram all the other dolls.

Again, there is a pretty decent stream of quite funny gags. The scheme involves distracting the Kens for long enough that the team can deprogram their Barbies. One Barbie pretends not to understand Photoshop (it's a functioning computer, apparently, not a toy one) because men love explaining things. One of the Kens is watching the Godfather, so Barbie pretends not to have seen it, and says "Could you go back to the beginning and talk all the way through it?" Another offers to "play his guitar at her". It's just a bit laboured. The scene in which the Kens are manipulated into having a fight, which turns into a dance off, while the Barbies vote women back into the supreme court, seems to go on forever. I read that some audiences applauded Gloria's speech; but I felt it was the very definition of preaching to the choir. 

Barbie is unquestionably iconic -- although I am not sure she is quite the myth-figure the film makes her out to be. And there is unquestionably tension between the idea of female empowerment -- Barbie can be anything she wants to be -- and the relentless pinkification of femininity. (I think there is also a tension between the Barbiecore branding -- all pink, pretty flowers, and the toys themselves, which tend to present a rather staid picture of post war domesticity.) The film is presented as a component of the Barbie franchise and (inexplicably) endorsed by Mattel. It has a big fluffy pink logo and a fluffy bubble gum sound track and the cinema was selling pink cocktails with pink cotton candy in them. Me and Sofa Buddy entirely failed to see it on the opening night because every single showing was fully booked: and the cinema was full of kids and grown-ups of all ages and genders wearing fabulous pink costumes. I thought that kind of thing only happened for midnight Star Wars launches and Rocky Horror. It's a safe-bet that the target audience didn't come expecting a deconstruction of the toy's imagery. It would be rather like booking for the first night of Transformers and finding yourself watching a J.G Ballard exploration of the sexual fetishisation of automobiles and the ethics of self-driving cars. (Which might be awesome, of course.)

I was thirty-something when the Matrix came out. I had already read Phillip K Dick and studied Descartes. The idea that reality might be an illusion was not new and mind-boggling to me. If I had first seen it age sixteen, I might have been experiencing those ideas for the first time. I might have perceived it as a life-changing, mind-expanding experience, as opposed to a fairly good film with some nice leather coats. And that's okay: everyone experiences something for the first time. It may be that some little girls come to see Barbie for the pink cars and dream houses and come out with the new, to them, idea that women are too much defined by male expectation. If that is what the movie does, very good luck to it. It certainly gives us something to talk about and think about, which is more than you might expect from an extended advert for a dress up dollie. 

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Anonymous said...

Barbie & Ken (and Barbieland as a whole) are naive and superficial because their understanding of the real world does not venture beyond the comprehension of the six-year-old girls who play with them. That might be the reason Barbie is not in love with Ken. It simply doesn't occur to the six-year-old as an interesting scenario to explore in play. (This all breaks down once we realize that Stereotypical Barbie belongs to an adult woman, but let's forget that for a moment.) This is also the reason that Ken's coup works so well. The stereotypical gender roles are easy act out in play. The Barbies go along with it because it's just a new game to them. Men being idiots is not the point. The point is how easy the gender roles are copied. I thought that was clever.

Clarrie said...

Wot anonymous said re: the Kens. The fact that the Kens enact a six year old's idea of male power was an aspect of the film I really, really, enjoyed. Both for cheap daftness (a small child's view of the hyper masculine usually does read as such high camp as to bleed back into femme) and because I thought the film managed to pull off rendering 'Barbie Land' as an entirely childlike space incredibly well (with one exception*). Ken retains some sympathy at the end because they’ve been presented as child analogues throughout. He doesn’t understand the adult world, has caused harm as a result, and he doesn’t want to understand the adult world. In an adult man that would be repellant. In a child it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to draw back from participating in the adult world before you’re ready.

Think the highly artificial nature helped the more 'actorly' bits to work in a way they wouldn't otherwise too (margot robbie telling the old woman she was beautiful and the Big Angry Lady Speeches likely would have had me rolling my eyes in a different film). Thought the literal creator figure bits worked less well but that the film was pretty on top of cutting through the saccharine of it.

>>It's a safe-bet that the target audience didn't come expecting a deconstruction of the toy's imagery.

I don't think that's actually true. I think it made it very clear that it was going to be something along those lines (among other things it's a PG13), that the target audience was adult women who would identify with America Ferrera rather than younger children and that they knew broadly what was on the cards. Certainly when I went (Monday, 5pm-ish) the audience was about half composed of what I took to be mother and teen daughter pairs, then adult women groups or pairs, a small scattering of teen girls and a very few male/female pairs. No small children at all.

I’m quite surprised by your take on the film, TBH. In a way that I struggle to articulate without sounding dismissive. It feels like you experienced it as being a bad version of a much blander, more straight forward, film. Rather than as something playing with mainstream tools in an interesting way.

*Theoretically I fully admit the gags in the distraction barbie sequences should jar with this. In real life I'd be lying if I claimed I actually felt that jar, the gags being cheap but so gut level relatable. I laughed so hard and so sincerely at the 'talk over the godfather' line that I felt a flash of guilt, which, well...