The biggest and most talked about film of the summer of 2023 has been Barbie, the live action adaptation of the Mattel toy line. The film has outgrossed competitors such as the latest entries in the Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, Transformers, and Fast and Furious franchises but beyond that Barbie has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.
The film’s box office success is an interesting anomaly that doesn’t fit neatly into preconceived narratives. For years now, the entertainment press has talked of franchise fatigue and the lackluster box office of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Fast X would seem to bear that out. Yet, Barbie is a franchise title. It’s partly a toy commercial as certainly as the Lego movies and the Transformers films were and Barbie exists, at least at one level, to drive up the popularity of the brand. But 2023’s Barbie is also the first live action film of this particular toy line and so it possesses a freshness that’s lacking in so many of the other franchise titles released this summer.
Barbie’s success is also interesting because it violates the corporate assumption that viewers don’t want politics in their entertainment. The mindless phrase “Go woke, go broke” has been a lazy way of trying to explain the failure of some movies but Barbie proves that this just isn’t true. Barbie’s up-front politics, box office success, and cultural cachet were paralleled by the release of Sound of Freedom which was attended enthusiastically by conservative viewers and also outgrossed many of this summer’s tentpole releases. Politics is not an aside to Barbie or Sound of Freedom. It is central to each film and drove their appeal and their box office.
The politics of Barbie deserve a close look. This film has clearly struck a chord with the audience and it’s worth considering what the film actually says and how well it does that.
As I indicated in my review, Barbie is best understood as a deconstruction of the toy and what it represents. The doll has a complicated history. It has been rightly criticized for representing unrealistic conceptions of women’s bodies and idealizing materialism but the toy line has also imagined women in all sorts of professional and occupational contexts which, in the act of play, opens up possibilities for children. All of this is evident in the opening of the film in which Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) goes through her day in an idealized but plastic existence. Her fellow Barbies have prestigious roles in their community but they don’t actually do anything. The story of Stereotypical Barbie is a realization of the emptiness of plastic perfection. In the end she accepts a finite and imperfect fleshly existence because it is the pathway to a meaningful life.
The deconstruction of the toy is brilliantly done. However, Barbie expands its cultural critique in ways that misunderstand and undermine the film’s core idea. Barbie’s examination of the limits of consumer lifestyles runs up against superficial mainstream feminism embodied by popular tomes that advise women to “lean in” and “have it all.” This corporately adjusted sort of feminism strikes a revolutionary pose but ultimately complements existing power structures.
Barbie’s shallow feminism and half-baked politics are embodied by two elements. This first is the Mattel board. Led by a CEO played by Will Ferrell, the toy company’s executive board is entirely composed of men. When Barbie escapes from Barbieland to the real world of flesh and blood people, the Mattel board attempts to put her back in a box and ship her home. But then, in a narratively nonsensical move, Barbie returns home on her own and the executive board follow her for no reason. There’s no reporting yet on the creative negotiations that may have occurred behind the scenes between the filmmakers and the toy company but it is quite clear that the Mattel board were intended to be the villains or at least secondary antagonists and they were softened to such a degree that the Mattel executives serve no point in the story at all. They are there but they don’t do much and ultimately take the side of Barbieland’s matriarchal leadership and claim they are interested in the well-being and uplift of women and girls. The film culminates in an apology for corporate power.
It’s a strange move. On the one hand, Barbie interrogates the superficiality of a plastic and consumerist existence while at the same time denying the influence of corporate power that is the architect of that existence.
The second element embodying Barbie’s politics is the “It’s impossible to be a woman” speech delivered by America Ferrera’s character. The speech is presented as a takedown of patriarchy. This sequence has become one of the movie’s most viral moments and clearly this speech has resonated with a lot of female viewers. It apparently speaks to something true about many women’s experiences and that shouldn’t be discounted. The problem with this speech is twofold. First, it is utterly generic. The speech consists of a series of cliches about the contradictory demands put on women. Nothing in it is interesting or revelatory. Artificial intelligence could have written this monologue. Secondly, the speech has almost no relevance to the story. It certainly has no relation to Ferrera or Robbie’s characters. We don’t get enough about Ferrera’s character to understand what’s bothering her and how that relates to patriarchy. (If anything, the film suggests she feels bad about herself because her daughter is an adolescent killjoy.) The problems of Robbie’s character—the yearning for an authentic existence—are also unrelated to the anti-patriarchy screed. The film could have made that connection if the Mattel board were allowed to be villainous and Barbie escaped a life as a commoditized and sexualized object. But by separating corporate power from patriarchy the filmmakers gut the integrity of what is supposed to be the picture’s most revolutionary moment.
The “It’s impossible to be a woman” monologue is reminiscent of a similar speech in another film, one that makes a fascinating if unlikely double feature with Barbie: 1999’s Fight Club. In that film, middle class men are bored of their perfectly curated apartments and anesthetizing corporate jobs and they start an underground boxing club which eventually becomes a domestic terrorist group. At one point, Brad Pitt’s character expounds on being “the middle children of history” who are “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
The Fight Club speech is the masculine equivalent of the Barbie monologue but with one caveat: the Fight Club speech vocalizes the conflicts and themes dramatized in the film. The Barbie speech is an add-on to a movie whose politics are almost incoherent.
The Fight Club comparison is especially interesting in regard to Ken’s story in the Barbie movie. The irony of Barbie is that it is less about the titular character and much more about Ken. He is a much more interesting character and goes through a much more dramatic character arc. In Barbieland’s initial idealized state, Ken is unable to have a full and meaningful existence. As stated in the voiceover, his only purpose in life is as an accessory to Barbie. This is a clever setup as it reflects and reverses the way women are so often portrayed in Hollywood films.
But there is another relevant aspect to Ken and his story. Barbie has been released at a time when men, and especially young men, are in crisis. Much like Ken in Barbie (and the characters of Fight Club) there are a lot of men who lack direction or a sense of purpose. For men in this state, regressive social movements and pseudointellectual commentators become attractive. Ken brings patriarchy to Barbieland, mobilizing the other alienated men and somehow enslaving the women (who were previously politicians and scientists) literally overnight.
Unfortunately the filmmakers of Barbie aren’t really interested in Ken’s story. They fall back on the simplistic pablum of how it is “Impossible to be a woman,” a list of grievances that has little to do with patriarchy and more to do with the anxieties of being human and living in a capitalist and consumerist society inundated with corporate backed messaging of perfection exemplified by the Barbie doll. In a populist-friendly but stupid conclusion, the Ken insurrection is defeated and the Barbies reassume power. Ken’s problems are never really solved.
The messiness of Barbie’s politics exemplifies the way themes and messaging are tied to character and plot. More disciplined storytelling would find a resolution to the movie’s conflicts that was relevant to both the individual problems of the characters and the macro problems facing this imaginary world. The “Impossible to be a woman” speech is a simplistic and even demagogic solution to a complex problem.
The Barbie movie is in many respects a mess but it is an interesting mess and its ambition to be more than a toy commercial elevates it above so many mediocre blockbuster films. Furthermore, that messiness is part of what makes Barbie interesting and its simplicity is directly related to its financial success. The film is a crowd pleaser and it has clearly succeeded in doing that. But it must be said that Barbie is about as thoughtful in discussing gender politics as Rambo: First Blood Part II was in explaining the Vietnam War or The Help and Green Book were in explaining racism. The simplicity of this approach – one that offers an easy adversary and doesn’t challenge real world power structures or the nuances of human experiences – is exactly why Barbie has been so popular. It’s also what holds it back from being a truly subversive work of art.