There are few people better to watch the new Barbie movie with than your wife: you get the benefit of enjoying the meta commentary and Margot Robbie’s standup performance while your wife gets to enjoy watching… Ken (er, Ryan Gosling).
Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach, the Barbie movie is packed with witty, subversive subtext, like an atomic bomb filled with pink cotton candy. The difficult road for Gerwig to tread—being handed the big-budget keys to this film basically about an iconic girl’s toy—was to present both sides of the Barbie debate: does she represent empowered women to young girls, or does she enslave them?
As Barbie (irrepressibly perky and happy, until thoughts of death start to cloud her pink-hued days) starts on her own journey to find and reconnect with the girl who first owned her (a long story involving Kate McKinnon and some kind of ESP “shining”), that young girl has grown up to be mom Gloria (America Ferrera), a Mattel company employee whose own young daughter is seriously woke and wants nothing to do with oppressive Barbie dolls.
In Barbieland, it’s literally the dream Barbie has always grown up believing: a place where women run the government and the supreme court, even all the construction sites, and men (all “Ken”) basically hang around at the beach. Doing… we don’t know what, exactly, except trying to impress Margot Barbie and all the other Barbies (including Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Alexandra Shipp, etc.).
We both enjoyed the flip here, but things got weird when Ryan Ken stows himself along with Barbie’s Dreamcar as they head to The Real World. There, things are… very much the way they currently are in the real world. Patriarchy rules, in the boardroom of Mattel where CEO Will Ferrell tries to understand what little girls want, but fails.
Barbie and Ken split up somewhere in Venice Beach, CA, where even by modern standards their pink attire is eye-catching. Barbie tries to learn why she’s having thoughts of mortality (and developing cellulite), while Ken basically becomes a bro, decides to head back to Barbieland and explain bro-dom to the rest of the Kens, who turn it into Kendom.
As far as managing to deliver some heavy social commentary, Barbie succeeds in entertaining while informing. Basically, Ferrera’s speech to the Barbies about the “cognitive dissonance” of trying to please everybody as a woman hits the hardest and sums up the situation best.
Robbie is perfect for this role, down to her ability to summon a single tear on command as well as her physical resemblance to the Mattel figurine. (‘‘Who knew Barbie would cry so much?’’ my wife Therese quipped.)
Ken, meanwhile, in the game hands of Gosling, manages to be sympathetic and ridiculously over the top at the same time, which is a gift, really. Watching him strut around Kendom in his white mink coat and headband is hugely funny, and Gosling can do funny.
What’s interesting is what the movie says about men, who are at a precarious moment in history. It is true that many women are becoming breadwinners while some men opt to houseband; but it’s also true that incomes still favor men by a lot. Some are decrying the “loss” of masculinity—with a male generation lost to anger, gaming, and porn viewing. But the decline of masculinity has been a frequent battle cry down through history, dating back way before Teddy Roosevelt’s insistence on “exercise” to cure American men of their European sensibilities, and up to today’s culture wars. In short, macho has always been in question. What Barbie says is that Kens are not quite complete either seeking the adoring gaze of Barbie, or “pushing around” Barbie in a Ken-operated world. So there has to be a third option.
Gerwig has said the secret plan—the Mattel Manhattan Project, if you will—behind Barbie was to give audiences “the thing you didn’t know you wanted.” Barbie (the toy) emerges from this explosion of smashed-together pink energy intact, if at least marginally redefined, somewhat subverted, and ready for whatever dream adventure she’s up for.