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Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) travel from pink and plastic Barbieworld to the real world after starting to question their perfect surroundings.


Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie film provided me with a lot of joy in the run-up to its release. The trailer, poster, and clips that the tireless marketing team strategically placed on social media for months spread candy-bright cheerfulness and became viral hits in the middle of the post-pandemic and pre-fascism. Women finally had the upper hand in encyclopedic nerd knowledge in the accompanying debates. Not just those who played with Barbies – also those whose families frowned upon the blonde career doll with the anorexic hourglass figure as an evil capitalist symbol were welcome in the conversation. This ambivalence was also addressed by Gerwig, who shot the film for the toy company Mattel: If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is also for you.“, the clever slogan promises.

So the expectation was high. Whether all of it can be fulfilled might not be as important in a good-natured girlboss feminism film that primarily works as an event and as a night out filled with joyful anticipation, film watching, and a detailed debrief session. BARBIE is filled with lovingly playful details and jokes that primarily toy with the logic of the Barbie doll world. The backdrop of Barbieland is painted. When Barbie drinks, no liquid pours out of the cup, and Barbie‘s speedy convertible drives at a snail‘s pace, as if it was pushed by an invisible child‘s hand. Except for our hero “stereotypical Barbie“ (incredibly perfect: Margot Robbie), all Barbies have jobs, from trash collector to president, while the Kens are “just Kens“. “Beach Ken“ (Ryan Gosling in his best role) explains that his job is “Beach.“ The Barbies have the say in Barbieland, they live in the dream houses, and at night after the party the Kens have to go because “every night is girls‘ night.“

There‘s a tear in the idyll when in the middle of the dance routine Barbie blurts out “do you ever think about death?“ The next day, things aren‘t as perfect: the shower is cold, the toast is burnt, and her high heel adjusted feet are FLAT!!! In oder to fix the malfunction, Barbie has to travel to the real world that is different than she imagined. Instead of being empowered by Barbie feminism and Barbie being celebrated as a hero, women are still struggling for equality, some even hate Barbie. Ken, however, is enthused about the newly discovered “Patriarchy“ which he summarizes as “ Patriarchy is when men and horses run everything.“ When the Mattel corporation finds out that a Barbie has come to the real world, the entirely male board of directors go on a slapstick chase to get the doll back in the box.

BARBIE‘s plot is anything but stringent. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach‘s screenplay, which celebrates Barbie as a feminist role model (Barbie dolls were astronauts before female astronauts existed in the US), teased as an unattainable female ideal (the biggest fear of human existence is cellulite) while ironically celebrating the Barbie product world gets bogged down in contradictory ideas. It‘s especially clear with regards to Ken, which Ryan Gosling plays with a lot of charm, comedy, and a devoted puppy dog look, when his attempt to emancipate himself from his job as a companion becomes one of the film‘s main concerns. The Barbieland dream of a completely female-dominated world doesn‘t allow for a happy end for Ken.

What‘s more unsettling is the tricky juxtaposition of BARBIE as an auteur film and BARBIE as product marketing. In an increasingly precarious film market, production companies are more and more focused on adapting IP (Intellectual Property), the adaptation of content that the audience already knows from other contexts, whether it‘s books, films, songs, or toys. BARBIE is the first film production of toy company Mattel who want to spread a gigantic marketing offensive for over 40 toys in collaboration with different film studios in the coming years and is securing reputable talent for them too. Daniel Kaluuya is working on a film version of Barney the dinosaur, Lena Dunham is going to direct a Polly Pocket film, and there‘s even a script for the card game UNO. (You can find out more about this in this excellent article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/07/10/after-barbie-mattel-is-raiding-its-entire-toybox)

With all of its friendly irony and ambiguity, Barbie is also a film with the central aim of selling products (the Barbie sales for single adults have risen, and the marketing includes 100 collaborations from pink colored Zara clothes to scented candles) and who can‘t afford real transgression or criticism. In interviews, Gerwig and the Mattel company emphasize that there was great creative freedom which Gerwig insisted on in the screenplay and casting, but there were at least a few perplexing moments, a montage filled with laughing women and girls at the end of the film that feels incomplete, too solely positive, which made me question how much Mattel was involved after all. The integration of the Mattel team to the plot reminded me of cringe moments in Netflix series when the company is mentioned, or Böhmermann when he complains about ZDF on air.

BARBIE tackles the origin story with openness and confidence, and maybe it‘s the contradictions that make the film not only entertaining, but also a very interesting cultural product. Whether this will be the case for the many other Mattel productions is doubtful.


Translation: Elinor Lewy


USA 2023
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: Greta Gerwig
Author: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
DOP: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Margot Robbie, Will Ferrell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Mackey, Michael Cera, Rhea Perlman, Ariana Greenblatt, Issa Rae
Release: 20.07.2023



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