By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The lyrics of “Barbie Girl” by Aqua are probably sarcastic, but maybe fans of the song, and Barbie, like being on both sides of the fence—living in a “plastic world,” wearing pink and glitter, appealing to objectified fantasies, while equally advocating for “Not a Barbie Girl” by Ava Max, where the speaker protests she lives in her own world and won’t do whatever Ken wants. Where is the middle road?
In “Barbie,” the movie, released to general audiences July 21, Margot Robbie stars as “stereotypical Barbie,” you know, the blonde Malibu girl. She lives in “Barbieland,” a place of imagination, also a place where women are in control and “can do anything.” Ken…is “just Ken.” They all think—or at least the Barbies think, not sure if the Kens think at the beginning of the story—that their world has been reflected by reality, that thanks to Barbie, the doll, girls and women hold places of power and are empowered.
Then Robbie’s Barbie gets depressed. She wakes up one morning and her feet are flat. The horror. The other Barbies determine that she is “malfunctioning” and must visit “weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon, who brings the butch vibe). Weird Barbie tells Robbie’s Barbie (sorry but they’re all Barbie so this is how it’s going to go) she must visit “the real world” to repair a rift created because she has connected too closely to the girl who plays with her, who she heretofore never heard of (confusing “Toy Story” vibes).
Like the room of males in charge of Mattel in the movie ask their boss, played by Will Ferrell, “Is this an alternate reality or…?” “We have no idea,” he answers. Just go with it. It’s fun. I wish it were more fun.
There was an anticipation of all things Barbie, ironic or not, by those in the audience. Pink was everywhere. A young girl in a pink Barbie-esque suit, bling included. A young man in a pink-striped shirt. Taffetta skirts, pink berets, Barbie fans were out en masse. If Barbie, the doll, poses problems—the “professional bimbo who set feminism back,” as mentioned in the movie itself—what did everyone come out to theaters for? I think we hoped for the happy medium. The fun world of Barbie with a grown up self-aware sensibility. It didn’t quite get there, but I’ll give it credit. “Barbie” is a smart movie.
The Weekly spoke to a couple of AAPI teens in attendance (thanks Michelle and Catherine!) who acknowledged they had grown up with Barbie and that while yes, they sometimes felt, perhaps not explicitly, that the dolls promoted an unhealthy body image, their own families told them they were beautiful—and Barbie gave them a sense that no dream was impossible. In the movie, Barbie is president, Barbie is an astronaut, Barbie is doing every job that exists, while Ken’s job is “beach.” (Too soon, a hilarious play on “I will beach you off anytime” between Ryan Gosling’s blonde “stereotypical Ken” and Simu Liu’s “Asian Ken” is over, but illustrates the bro-therly love/hate dynamic among the Kens.).
I hoped for a tongue-in-cheek movie that tackled issues of sexism, diversity, impossible expectations for women, and relationships between men and women, while remaining light and bubbly. This is what we got for a good 50% of the movie, yet as so often happens, “Barbie,” the movie, stumbled in its purpose and in its hilarity as it headed towards a finish that was at once super obvious and extremely ambiguous. 1. It’s not a Barbie World. Me: But I don’t want it to be one. Not from the songs. Not from the movie. 2. Heavy Marvel and DC vibes, i.e. being human is messy and imperfect, but so worth it, isn’t that so awesome?
Me: This viewer is not convinced.
When Barbie visits “the real world,” Ken, in a great act of courage considering how long Barbie has been friend-zoning him and considering he has never been outside of Barbieland, stows away in her pink sports car. Barbie continues to blow him off. I get that she doesn’t “need” him, that she can “do everything herself,” that she earned her own dreamhouse, but isn’t calling him “superfluous” a bit much? So Ken wanders off and discovers—lo and behold!—that men are in charge here! He creates “Kenland,” where Barbies lose their self-worth and want nothing more than to look cute and serve the Kens “brewskies.”
That’s where the “Barbie Girl” song comes back: “I’m a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world/Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly… Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please…”
When the Kens take over, the mood is resentful, toxic masculinity. They invade the dreamhouses and transform Barbieland into a bro’s playground. It’s up to the Barbies to fix everything with a “Lysistrata” approach that puts women back on top. The movie goes on to suggest that jilted-ness is the cause of war, male rivalry, and male friendship—we were in “Troy” at this point—while never quite embracing homosexuality. The only thing I liked here was the dance routines by the Kens. I will take a spontaneous dance routine featuring Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu at any time, in any movie, thank you.
The imbalance between men and women needs to be redressed. I hoped the movie would more vigorously establish a middle ground, even imaginary. The alternatives given were all quite depressing for me.
I loved the first half of this movie. The recreation of “Barbieland” was dazzling and somehow so very satisfying, perhaps because it was a throwback to so many of our childhoods. Barbie takes showers with no water and drinks from empty milk cartons. She and Ken never actually kiss and have no idea what would happen if Ken stayed overnight. Of course, there are jokes about them not having genitals. When Barbie gets to LA, the switcheroo where she suddenly feels uncomfortable and Ken feels great is brilliant. “I feel admired but not ogled and there is no undertone of violence,” i.e. the opposite of how women feel.
Liu was fantastic as blonde Ken’s biggest rival. He had impressive comedic sense in scenes such as where the Kens’ impeccable abs are so supercharged, they produce sparkles. America Ferrera is great as the frustrated mother with a teenage daughter. I’m glad they included the creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman, but it turned too tribute-y and they bent over backwards telling us how Ruth’s original plan was for Barbie to evolve and be anything—not to be an impossible stereotype. That might be true, but it’s not what happened. Which I guess is what “Barbie,” the movie, is mostly trying to say. Sadly, they got their pink heels tangled up in the web of other issues that they only half tackled and so they did not come up with a “Barbie World,” a Kenland, or a real world that I want to live in.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.