I had expected a vapid tale with fun flourishes. The story certainly delivered on both of those but with a lot more I hadn’t anticipated. From where I was sitting (popcorn in hand, legs stretched out into the aisle), it was a satirical story of feminism, patriarchy and the joy and anguish of fully embracing life on life’s terms. If you saw that coming, you probably have the gift of the prophetic, because it was certainly not on my radar.
If you don’t think too much about the plot, the film is easy to enjoy. Helen Mirren offers a witty commentary which is like someone handing you a cup of tea with two sugars when you usually just take milk. It was a welcome surprise that you wouldn’t have asked for but were delighted to discover. It was a visual feast for the eyes with everything – especially the inhabitants of Barbieland – looking perfectly polished. There are also a number of very funny jokes – albeit with adult undertones.
All good so far, but now let’s suppose that you, like me, will think about the plot. When the word is defined correctly, I am delighted to identify as a feminist. That does not mean that I support every feminism-associated declaration of the last 100 years, but it does mean that I passionately champion women and the correcting of previous (and some current) oppressions. This would make me a prime candidate for loving the Barbie movie. Finally, my arch nemesis is on the right side of history, right? I’m not sure that’s the case. Sometimes, in an attempt to show willing, we can allow the pendulum to swing a little too far in the wrong direction.
Mattel’s campaign to rebrand Barbie from a ditsy blonde to an empowered achiever has been well documented. People didn’t want the lack of ambition that came with “shopping mall Barbie” or “beach Barbie” and they certainly didn’t want to have to live up to her unrealistic beauty standards. Apparently if a Barbie doll was to scale, she’d be 5ft 9 with size three feet, and only enough space in her waist for half a liver.
Rather than continuing along these lines, portraying the company as inspiring for girls and women, they take the mick out of it. They highlight that Barbie has been a part of the problem. But in making their point, they outrageously infantilise men. Of course, this is satire, and comedy allows space for exaggeration, but it still didn’t quite sit right for me. Not one man offered a positive portrayal of masculinity (although Michael Cera’s Allan is a joy to watch). On the whole, men were either oblivious, obsessed with their own success, or childish and sometimes sit in board meetings wishing they could just tickle each other.
The very brief summary – without revealing too much of the plot – is that Barbie is very happy in Barbieland, a perfect paradise where women do the lion share of the work and take all the leadership roles. But something starts to change, and the real world begins to seep in. After “causing a rupture” between the real world and Barbieland, “the patriarchy” is introduced into this female-led eutopia and the Barbies must banish it in order to restore the sorority-dominated lifestyle they previously enjoyed. Not a problem – when Ken found out patriarchy wasn’t about horses he lost interest anyway.