The voice-over narrator, played by Helen Mirren, announces it in a cheerful tone from the first minutes: “Thanks to Barbie, all issues of feminism and equal rights had been resolved! Or at least that’s what we thought at Barbieland. With this line, filmmakers Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach anticipate criticism: no, not all gender inequalities will be resolved today, and certainly not thanks to a doll, nor a mainstream film produced by a toymaker.
In the long-awaited Barbie, released in theaters on July 19, the iconic doll played by Margot Robbie discovers the nuances of the real world, the harmfulness of patriarchy, and the importance of self-acceptance. Like his suddenly sentient plastic toy, the film is a walking paradox.
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This $145 million project is produced by Mattel Studios, part of the company that markets Barbie dolls. But it was also directed by Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, lady bird, The Daughters of Doctor March), and co-written with his companion Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Marriage Story), both from ultra-indie American cinema. It’s a candy pink blockbuster driven by a singular creative vision, and a work with a feminist message that makes you want to buy Barbie dolls. Despite their many attempts, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach will never succeed in evacuating this thorny contradiction.
From female utopia to sexism
As mainstream as it is, the feminist scope of the film Barbie is however undeniable. Greta Gerwig presents Barbieland as a utopia where “all nights are girls night”where women occupy all positions of responsibility, never doubt their skills, and have no “no difficulty in showing emotion and logic at the same time”. The men, or rather the Kens, are totally incidental there.
But one day, the perfection of Barbieland goes haywire. Barbie begins to think about death. A few centimeters of cellulite appear on her thigh. And, in the height of horror, his perpetually bowed feet suddenly become flat (“I would never wear heels if my feet were this shape!”, she laments). Terrified at the idea of no longer being perfect, the blonde doll goes to seek the solution in the real world, ours, where she confronts a reality of which she was unaware: sexism.
While Ken marvels at this universe where men have all the power, Barbie discovers objectification, contempt and conflicting emotions. Worse, by exchanging with high school girls, she learns that in the real world, Barbie is not a symbol of emancipation, but of all the unbearable injunctions to which women are subjected.
Too “woke” for reactionaries, not enough for savvy feminists
In this scene, as in a handful of others, Greta Gerwig confronts directly the ambivalence of her role: how to remain faithful to her feminist ideals, while promoting a product constantly decried for its narrow and harmful representation of femininity?
Admittedly, the film multiplies the brilliantly specific references (from the appointment with the gynecologist to the excessive consumption of the BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice). Gloria, the human heroine of the film who works at Mattel, dreams of less smooth, even downright dark dolls: Barbie irrepressible morbid thoughts, Barbie cellulite or Barbie paralyzing shame (advice to Mattel executives: if you market those , I buy them for sure).
The filmmakers, who had complete freedom to write their screenplay, also make a few slight nods to the inevitable creative limits imposed by their contract –“Don’t blame me, blame Mattel, they make the rules”, recalls the bizarre Barbie. As for the management of Mattel, it is presented there as a boys’ club led by incompetent and robotic men. Despite these few biting touches, the simplistic message advocated by the film, which could be summed up by “difficult to be a woman” and “patriarchy is not top-top”, ends up curbing any possible radicalism.
The writing becomes more incisive when it emphasizes the injunctions made to men, as well as the comforts of masculinity (when Ken and Barbie are objectified in the street, Ken exclaims: “I too am stared at, but I feel valued and in no way in danger!”).
After discovering the real world, Ken lets the poison of the patriarchy go to his head and tries to replicate the same system of domination in Barbieland. In a tasty sequence, the Barbies then decide to distract the Kens one by one to regain power. Their method? Banking on the irresistible attraction of mansplaining: while one pretends not to know how to use Photoshop, the other asks his companion to explain The Godfather.
Through this comic observation of gender relations, we find the finesse of writing by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach – and we bet that these scenes, among the funniest in the film, are those which have earned him the qualification of some of“anti-men” or of “dangerous and perverse”. Yet when Barbie ends up spending her time and energy reassuring Ken of her importance, while Ken threatens to jump off the roof of the Dreamhouse, a sigh of frustration can’t be suppressed.
Too “woke” for the reactionaries, not enough for informed feminists: Greta Gerwig thus finds herself in the same position as her character, unable to meet all expectations. Except that his film, in addition to having captured almost all the cultural attention of recent months, has broken all records since its theatrical release.
Consensual does not mean bad
Impossible not to see Barbie a blunt demonstration of the talent of Greta Gerwig, yet adept at mixing proposals that are both mainstream and radical. Just compare the flatness of America Ferrera’s feminist monologue in Barbieto those, as complex as they are concise, of Saoirse Ronan or Florence Pugh in The Daughters of Doctor March. But should we really expect more from a film produced by Mattel?
Shortly after arriving in the real world, Barbie shares a tender moment with an elderly woman at a bus stop. The doll contemplates the wrinkled features of the latter, and exclaims: “You are beautiful!” “I know”, replies the old lady, with a big smile. The scene is touching, heartfelt, and like the rest of the film, relatively harmless. However, the director claims to have had to fight so that the studio does not cut her.
Faced with such a revelation, we say to ourselves that this Barbie absurd, intelligent and cheerful could hardly have been bolder. And we applaud the fact that a project mainstream which talks openly about patriarchy, depressive thoughts and visits to the gynecologist be such a hit at the box office.
As for the Dove advertising campaigns which advocated an unprecedented diversity of bodies twenty years ago, we can rejoice, and even be moved when major media productions move the lines – without forgetting the capitalist and opportunist nature of the project. .
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by Greta Gerwig
Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Issa Rae
Released July 19, 2023