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This Barbie is… Conflicted!

Nicola Biggerstaff

As I tend to do things at my own pace, I’m not one for following trends. Whatever hairstyle is trending, I probably won’t show any interest until its about three years out of fashion. I don’t tend to listen to radio chart music, I don’t have a sourdough starter, and I’ve never had my eyebrows threaded. When I was a child, and all my friends were off on their bikes, I was quite content with my razor scooter.

Which I why I surprised myself when I realised that not only did I want to go and see the newly released Barbie movie, but also, upon leaving the theatre, I realised I actually rather enjoyed it.

The Barbie movie has already propelled to new heights of cinematic notoriety. Director and writer Greta Gerwig has become the first solo female director to make a movie grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. No, not a virtuous achievement to us on the left, but we can at least acknowledge ground being broken, that it has taken a woman this long to reach the same level as some of history’s more prominent directors.

And while our Robin certainly has his opinions on the existence of the movie, and what it means in terms of the direction of our modern society – I wanted to take a slightly different perspective on the issue. While there are valid concerns out there regarding the continuous commodification of nostalgia, it is still nostalgia, and it does still have the potential to bring joy to people in this miserable world. Given the way things are at the moment, if I have to pay £7.99 plus the cost of a Tango Ice Blast for the pleasure, then so be it.

Speaking of misery, even the pandemic has had an influence on the movie’s creation, with Gerwig claiming that the script came about during a time where she wanted to write something “completely unhinged” as a celebration of the return to cinema, a return which seemed uncertain at the time, as we all lived “in our own little boxes, alone”.

The premise of the movie is quickly split into two main plot points: the story of a mother and daughter attempting to bond over their love for, or aversion to, Barbie dolls in the so-called ‘Real World’, and the impact of patriarchy on a previously naïve Ken, who discovers a love for male power, and horses, after witnessing both in the ‘Real World’. All this while being chased through the ‘Real World’ by the evil, suited executives at Mattel, begging them to get “back in the box”.

The plot really does feel like it was imagined by a child, and not dissimilar to the stories we would create when playing with our own dolls. This was a point which I found particularly endearing: it isn’t trying to be humorous by being silly, it is just silly. Every flip, fall, and chase makes me wonder if the actors are being controlled by a childlike puppet-master, moving their little plastic legs and cars through the Leavesden studio set. It’s ridiculous, but that’s part of its charm.

Contrasting the innocence of the plot devices with the hard-hitting messages behind it, there is a message there only for those who wish to take one from it.

Even our own team is divided on the issue. We’ve already mentioned Robin’s particular aversions, but my other colleagues all had something different to take away from the experience. For Rory, the movie “put into stark reality many of the challenges that women face, and many of the things that men take for granted”. However, Kaitlin takes the view that its attempts to convey a feminist message fall flat, saying “she isn’t here to close the gender pay gap, she’s here to sell pink crap”.

Much has also been said on how the whitewashed messaging and capitalist commentary has done more harm than good in the movie’s promotion. With the cast currently on strike for fairer pay and conditions, promotion has taken a cheap spiral into ‘what can we make pink next?’, with dire, hypocritical consequences. Many argue that, by commodifying a child’s toy, the sole aim of the movie is to sell more dolls. These people seem to have forgotten that this is not a kid’s movie per se. With a 12A rating and several innuendos that left me giggling, the movie has not been made with the easily influenced child in mind, but with almost everyone in mind. And I am certainly no more or less averse to buying any plastic dolls now than I was going in.

Capitalism is a system which we have found ourselves adapting to out of necessity – or at the very least, keep tabs on – lest we be left behind. The commodification of creativity is an inevitable by-product of this. Yes, most mainstream art either morphs into a product, or is created with the sole intention of being so. It is the modern world, appealing to the various algorithms of the internet in order to reach an increasingly disconnected audience on the other side of it.

No, it’s not a political masterpiece, but it never once claims to be. I would urge you to cut through the noise and draw your own conclusions. The movie is two hours of silly, camp, and very pink, fun. If you didn’t grow up with it, or have a particular aversion to whimsy, it probably isn’t the movie for you. If political messaging matters more to you than everything else in a piece of media, it probably isn’t the movie for you either. But if you’re ready to switch off and take a light-hearted, naïve look at the world, in a way that may be reminiscent of your own childhood, then this is absolutely the movie for you.

It also attempts to address the issue of what, if any, place Barbie has in a modern society. While she sent the message she needed to send when she was created by Ruth Handler in the 1950s, that women can be more than mothers, times under capitalism have undoubtedly changed.

The teenage character in the movie chastises Barbie for ‘making women feel bad about themselves for 50 years’, and ‘setting feminism back’. While there is some merit to those arguments, I honestly believe Barbie has evolved. The franchise’s emphasis on diversity may seem crass to progressives, but there are still people out there who believe it is still political correctness gone mad. Just like there are people out there who still believe women having lives outside the home is militant feminism.

If she is going to be sticking around, then we still need all incarnations of Barbie to remind us of just how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. And with this latest adaptation set to go down in history, I think it’s safe to say that, while life in plastic might not be all that fantastic, it can be a light relief when we need it.

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