In BARBIE (2023), mixed, heavy-handed messaging turns an otherwise vibrant production tedious, but it feels good for its intended market, with which the core messaging appears to be resonating. That’s wonderful, but aside from some bright moments, the movie wasn’t for me.
In this story, Barbie lives in her Barbie Dream House in Barbie Land, where the Barbies followed the evolution of the toy with great diversity among the Barbies and empowering professions. Everything is perfect, except one Barbie (Margot Robbie) is having troubling thoughts. For her, reality appears to be intruding. The only solution, she learns, is to go to the real world. Along the way, she learns about the wonders and challenges of a complicated real existence as a woman.
This comedy is certainly fun though not very funny, at least for me. Margot Robbie, an excellent actor, shines as Barbie. Ryan Gossling steals the show as Ken, especially during his dance number lamenting Ken’s #2 status in Barbie world, possibly the brightest point in the movie. The actor looks like he’s having the time of his life in the role.
There’s a lot of feminist messaging here, a great deal of which I already agreed with, though it’s laid on so thick and without wit that it comes across as smug and tedious, though again I’m not really the target market. The core message is that women face unique difficulties in a society in which a lot of progress has been made but in which there are still strong institutional hurdles against them succeeding. This comes to life in the film as the perfect life of Barbie, which morphed into an empowering image of womanhood over the years, is contrasted against real society and the challenges women face. Again, that’s a solid theme and relevant, but I don’t tend to enjoy being hit over the head with a theme but prefer to discover it on my own as a thinking adult.
Besides that, the messaging for me got muddied at the end. (Spoilers ahead.) Forget Mattel’s influence on and portrayal in the movie, which is itself problematic for a whole slew of reasons. Forget the abundance of low-hanging fruit of negative male stereotypes, where we’re told all men do this or that crappy thing. Where things got really muddy was the portrayal of the Kens, led of course by Ken (Ryan Gossling). Seeing the men in his world reduced to second class citizens with literally zero agency, jobs, power, or even a purpose other than to worship Barbie, he naively imports “patriarchy” to Barbie Land, resulting in a male-dominated revolution. What he really wants is basic respect, some agency, and a voice. This is great stuff. But instead of getting anything, instead of both Kens and Barbies learning anything, the Kens are smugly manipulated back into being subservient, and we find out Ken’s problem all along is he’s basically an incel. So, patriarchy bad, but matriarchy good? I thought the goal was equality?
Overall, it is what it is, making BARBIE fairly YMMV. I basically enjoyed it despite frequently finding it overwrought and tedious between the good bits, though I think THE POWER, the series based on Naomi Alderman’s fantastic novel THE POWER, handles these themes in a far more interesting way. Check it out yourself and make up your own mind if you’d like to see what all the fuss is about.