Exit the Void
By Gabrielle Marceau
Dir. Greta Gerwig, U.S., Warner Bros.
What do women want? Judging by the numbers, they want Barbie. A relentless marketing campaign established Barbie as a highly desired product—glossy, beautiful, fun—but like an ad for moisturizer or a vacuum cleaner, it also creates desire through lack: it’s not only amazing, it’s what you’ve been missing. And Barbie does fill a void in the filmgoing landscape: when was the last time a film release was compelling enough to draw adult women en masse to the movie theater? But a film for women today can’t just be fun, it also has to be sufficiently feminist. And Barbie knows exactly what questions a feminist might have about the project: Hasn’t feminism been co-opted by corporations? Aren’t Barbie’s unrealistic beauty standards damaging? Aren’t all symbols of womanhood, no matter how progressive, a zero-sum game that sets real women up to fail? Don’t worry, Barbie addresses it.
Gerwig’s Barbie is a living doll who resides in a perfect feminist utopia where she and the other Barbies run all aspects of public life, and her days progress with a predictable, frictionless pleasure. But Barbie starts to experience feelings of doubt and sadness which manifest in unpretty ways, like cellulite on her thigh and morning breath. It seems the real girl who owns her—a receptionist at Mattel headquarters named Gloria (America Ferrera)—is going through an existential crisis, and Barbie has to travel to the real world to help her. It turns out that the real world is full of friction and malaise, and that young girls no longer want Barbie and her perfect, pretty vision of womanhood.
This impossible image of grown-up girldom is the foundation of Barbie’s multigenerational appeal. In the first Barbie ad, a singing voice-over praises the doll’s petite frame, her social skills, and her extensive closet before a melancholy ending: “Someday, I’m gonna be exactly like you, ’til then I know just what I’ll do: I’ll make believe that I am you.” Barbie is often touted as a doll for the modern era, when little girls no longer dreamed of simply being mothers but independent women with careers, their own apartments and a rich social life. Did Barbie play on this desire latent in little girls, or did she create it?
Gerwig’s film suggests that she did create it (or at least, created a social context for the desire to exist.) She has described Barbie as a version of Genesis, which makes the doll into a kind of postmodern Eve. When Barbie first appears on screen, she is already in her fully realized, astounding form, towering over the desert landscape like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey which signaled the dawn of humanity. Little girls gaze up at her, and awakening to their personhood, smash their old baby dolls to bits. The scene is funny, gorgeous, self-aware, and symbolically potent. To Gerwig, Barbie, in all her plastic fantasticness, is a conduit for the raising consciousness of modern girls, a kind of revolutionary object. The crux of her film is in bridging the gap between the (literally) hollow symbol and the real girls who played with her.
When we see Barbie next she’s scaled down to human size, and spending her days in Barbie Land, a utopia on a soundstage of painted desert backgrounds and plastic palm trees. She takes a waterless shower, drinks from an empty cup, and floats down from her roof into her pink convertible. This set is a fantastic creation, inspired by the impeccable craft and lack of restraint of 1950s Hollywood musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952) or Oklahoma! (1955). Although Barbie Land is self-consciously artificial, in an era of overreliance on digital animation the set’s tactility (many of the props are handmade) makes it feel more like a “real” movie than most big-budget studio films. Gerwig and Robbie, who initiated the project and served as a producer, along with production designer Sarah Greenwood create a world so desirable that even if the viewer has no interest in Hollywood history or any stake in the fate of the theatrical experience, the film provides old-fashioned cinematic pleasures: bright colors, snappy dialogue, song and dance, and a tight narrative structure.
Long before Barbie’s successful opening weekend, there was a sense that the team behind the film knew exactly what they were doing by playing on two nostalgic desires: for both a childhood toy and the endangered cinematic event itself. But the masterful rollout of Barbie also signals one of its problems: despite all the craft on display, the film feels careful. Late in the film, after Barbie has lost her mojo and is devastated that she is now imperfect and ugly, the voice-over interjects with a “note to the creators” to not give these self-deprecating lines to the gorgeous Margot Robbie (who is repeatedly described in the press as “impossibly beautiful”). It got a big laugh, but it felt like an instance in which the film was trying to deflect potential criticism.
Many have questioned whether a film about a commercial product, made by a big studio handling a corporation’s IPand promoted with brand sponsorships, can be subversive at all. The problem may be that there are no subversive ideas in Barbie, and its feminist and anti-capitalist sentiments aren’t potent enough to raise any but the most opportunistic right-wing pundit’s eyebrows. Just like Barbie, who has no interiority, Barbie has no subtext, everything is spelled out: when we are introduced to Midge (Emerald Fennel), a doll with a big baby bump, the narrator (Helen Mirren) is quick to point out that a pregnant Barbie is weird. Once Barbie returns to Barbie Land, she discovers that the Kens, who are about as essential to the Barbies as a handbag or pet dog, have taken over her world and brainwashed the dolls into submissive, unambitious hangers-on. The one thing that snaps the dolls out of their stupor is Gloria’s righteous rantings about the contradictions of contemporary womanhood: that you have to be pretty but not too desirable, a boss but not intimidating, love being a mother but not talk about your kids too much…Such gripes evoke the “Cool Girl” monologue in Gone Girl (2014), but nearly ten years later and with far less acidity (compare the former to: “... I wax-stripped my pussy raw… I blew him semi-regularly”).
The speech may be true, but it’s a tired critique delivered humorlessly, and it deflates the film. It’s also a critique that doesn’t need to be spelled out: the Barbie doll itself implicitly communicates the paradox of womanhood. Think of the mothers who bought their daughters dolls that promised adulthood would be effortless and beautiful, when they knew that womanhood often meant disappointment, loneliness, and above all, effort. When I think back to the Barbie I had as a kid, what I remember now isn’t their beauty or fantasy, but watching my mom, bent over her sewing machine, making my doll a tiny gold and black cocktail dress. In Barbie, the doll gets dressed by opening a giant plastic box where the outfit and accessories are laid out and pressed and appear magically on her body. Gerwig appears to have great reverence for her own childhood love of Barbie, to which the handcrafted care of her life-size Barbie's world attests. Girls implicitly know to use this machine-made product; it’s adults, anxious to imbue her with the correct meaning, who want to put her back in the box. The actual fun of being a feminist filmgoer is digging beneath the surface text for its hidden meanings, but Barbie does all of the work for you.