If you think Barbie was well done, you and I have a different idea about what a well done movie does.
My reaction in this case was not “Well done, thanks, I hate it.” That’s more or less how I felt about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), which I wouldn’t have watched if I had known it was horror sci-fi and not sci-fi. That’s on me.
Nor am I objecting to the fantasy premise, which is that someone in the real world is adversely influencing a Barbie in Barbieland, thus that Barbie has to go to the real world and do something to fix the situation.
Nor is my negative reaction rooted in culture politics. By all means, be overtly didactic and feminist or whatever, but for the love of cheesecake, have a coherent, positive message.
Much like Frozen, Barbie was immensely entertaining, but the longer I thought (and thought and thought) about it, the less the characters, plot, and theme made sense.
Barbie reminded me of other movies besides Frozen and the ones the filmmaker was intentionally alluding or explicitly referring to (2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturday Night Fever, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Wizard of Oz, Rocky, The Godfather, Grease, Singing in the Rain).
- Barbieland reminded me of the dome world in The Truman Show (1998) because of the relentless tidy happy fakeness of everything, plus intrusive product placement. But the Truman show is at least 1000% better.
- Because it’s a movie about a toy, and Will Ferrell is a kind of corporate antagonist, I thought of The Lego Movie (2014), a much better movie (series of movies!) based on the same premise: that the real world holds the solution to a problem in the toy world that came from the real world.
- The painful but meaningful transformation of a next-door fantasy utopia into chaos reminded me of Pleasantville (1998), although that utopia was a conservative parody and became liberal, and Barbieland was liberal and became a conservative parody… before becoming liberal again.
- The idea of a person being in actuality the plaything of someone else’s imagination is the premise of Stranger than Fiction (2006), again featuring Will Ferrell.
- Barbie’s Birkenstock sandal vs. high heel choice was just an example of the go/stay dilemma at the beginning of any hero’s journey; it didn’t evoke The Matrix for me. The allusion to the red pill vs. blue pill choice was quite clear in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), a superb example of a movie that dances on the line between hilariously funny and deeply meaningful.
- Barbie’s transformation into a real human with a human body echoes Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) and my all-time favorite, The Little Mermaid (1989). But becoming human was never Barbie’s goal, so her transformation felt unearned.
As I was preparing to publish the blog post, WordPress suggested a link to my post on the novel The Stepford Wives. Yeah, okay, that is related. It’s a kind of dystopia about the patriarchy in Connecticut. And I guess I should also mention another dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Barbie: Plot Summary
Structured using the Blake Snyder “save the cat” beat sheet.
A parody of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of a monolith gifting some apes the power to use tools, it’s a giant woman doll (the original Barbie in the original swimsuit) gifting little girls playing with baby dolls the power to pretend to be something other than mothers to infants.
Possibly an aerial shot of Barbieland and the real world? I don’t remember.
Stereotypical Barbie’s day is awesome and Barbieland is awesome because a Barbie can be anything she wants, and as a result, women in the real world can be, too. Or at least that’s what the Barbies believe. Meanwhile, Ken (in particular, Beach Ken) is nothing. Barbie has a good day every day, “Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.” She tends not to. In fact, she rejects him outright.
Barbie has irrepressible thoughts of death during the middle of her dance party. She wakes up the next day and somehow manages to have a bad morning. Her feet become flat. “I’d never wear heels if my feet were shaped like this normally.” She confesses to some other Barbies and they tell her she’s malfunctioning and needs to visit Weird Barbie.
Weird Barbie says the human girl who is playing with her is suffering, and she needs to go help. Barbie doesn’t want to go, but reluctantly agrees because apparently that’s the only way things will go back to normal.
Break Into Two
Barbie drives her car down a pink brick road, belatedly discovering Ken in the back seat. She lets him come along.
Fun and Games / B Story
The real world isn’t the feminist utopia Barbie expected to find. Men are leering at her, partly because she’s wearing a neon skin-tight rollerblading outfit. People are looking at Ken too, but he’s happy about it. Still, they decide to change clothes. They put on flashy cowboy/cowgirl outfits in a costume shop. They run away when asked for payment.
Barbie sits down to meditate on where she might find the girl she’s looking for. Waking from a trance in which she sees her, Barbie compliments an old woman, the first one she’s ever met.
Meanwhile, Ken has been walking around by himself. He notices that he and other men are considered important. He decides he likes horses. Upon his return, he and Barbie visit a middle school. Ken goes to the library, where he learns about the patriarchy (the system that keeps men in charge of the real world). Barbie meets Sasha, the teen girl in her vision. Sasha tells Barbie she thinks Barbies are unfeminist and uncool. Barbie cries and runs away.
Ken isn’t having a lot of luck in the real world either. He tries to get a cushy job, only to be told he doesn’t have any qualifications, even on the beach where he theoretically belongs.
Meanwhile, Aaron, a dude in a cubicle at Mattel, gets word that Stereotypical Barbie has appeared in the real world. This is bad because it can cause strange things to happen. He pushes past a secretary drawing pictures of “irrepressible thoughts of death Barbie” and reports the situation to the CEO on the top floor. The secretary, who is Sasha’s mom, Gloria, overhears.
Gloria and some menacing SUVs from Mattel arrive at Sasha’s school at about the same time. Sasha sees Barbie getting into an SUV and mentions that she’s some crazy woman who thinks she’s Barbie. Gloria realizes it *is* Barbie and follows the SUVs back to Mattel, where the CEO almost convinces Barbie to get into a vaguely threatening box.
Barbie runs away, encounters the inventor of Barbie, who encourages her, and exits out the front of the building, where Gloria pulls up and offers her a ride. A wild car chase ensues. Barbie realizes Gloria is the one who caused the irrepressible thoughts of death. Sasha and Gloria go with Barbie back to Barbieland. The Mattel people, still worried about weird stuff happening, even though it hasn’t, embark on a journey to Barbieland too.
Instead of getting to show Sasha and Gloria how wonderful and feminist Barbieland is, Barbie is confronted with the spectacle of Barbieland under the patriarchy. Ken has already arrived, bringing the highly infectious idea of male dominance along with him. The Barbies have become subservient to the Kens overnight.
Bad Guys Close In
Ken, wearing a Rocky outfit, has taken over Barbie’s Dreamhouse and is calling it Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House. (Toy models of the Mojo Dojo Casa House are selling like hotcakes in the real world.) Also, after his encounter with Barbie, who refuses to accept the role he suggests for her in the patriarchy he has established, he sings a song about his unrequited love for her. Apparently, being powerful and macho doesn’t get you the girl any more than being weak and whiny does.
All Is Lost
The constitution will be changed the next day to enshrine the patriarchy in Barbieland forever.
Dark Night of the Soul
Barbie lies down on the ground and waits for someone else to solve the problem for her. “This is the lowest I’ve ever been, mentally and physically.” Gloria and Sasha, who have become closer to each other during their strange adventure, abandon her and start to take the car back to the real world. (The real world starts marketing depressed Barbies who do nothing but eat, wear sweatpants, scroll Instagram, and repeatedly watch the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries.)
Break Into Three
Gloria and Sasha encounter Allan, a unique non-Ken male. He wants to go to the real world because he doesn’t like what the Kens have done. Gloria and Sasha change their minds about leaving and go back to help Barbie. They all go to Weird Barbie’s house and meet other unusual Barbies. Gloria describes what it’s like being a woman in the real world. It’s impossible, basically. Gloria’s rant somehow ends Stereotypical Barbie’s enervating depression. She and her friends hatch a plan to take back Barbieland.
Stereotypical Barbie and her friends distract the Kens one by one and wake up the other Barbies by telling them truths about the patriarchy. Then they all get together to trick the Kens into fighting each other so that they can mess up the Kens’ plan to change the constitution. The trick is that they pretend to be interested in the Kens as if they are still subservient, then while being serenaded on the beach, each Barbie pretends to get a flirty text and gets up and go and talk to a rival Ken. The plan works; the jealous Kens divide into two groups and launch a “war” on each other at the beach. It’s another song, really. But it keeps them busy while the women vote the constitution back in or something. When the Kens realize they’ve been tricked, it’s too late.
Everybody meets up at Barbie’s reclaimed Dreamhouse. Barbie tells Ken to just be himself, whatever that means. The Barbies apologize to Weird Barbie for calling her weird and the president offers her a job. The Barbies promise to be a little nicer to the Kens. Gloria suggests to the CEO of Mattel that they start selling a relatable “Ordinary Barbie”. Ruth, the inventor of Barbie, beckons to Barbie and the two women go off together, while everyone else waves goodbye. Ruth offers Barbie the chance to become human and shows her some human memories so that she can make an informed decision. Barbie accepts.
Epilogue (Final Image?)
Gloria and Sasha are driving Barbie somewhere in the real world and wishing her luck. It’s a visit to the gynecologist. Also, she’s wearing Birkenstocks.
What’s wrong with this movie?
Not the costumes or the surreal Barbieland sets… But I think the characters, plot, and theme—by any standard, components more important than costumes and sets—were poorly imagined. Stories are supposed to be icebergs. This is ice on a raft. There’s nothing underneath, everything’s just floating on the surface, shining in the sun and throwing off sparkles. Don’t be fooled.
To be fair, my judgment of the quality of the movie is probably at least partly a reflection of my negative emotional reaction to the (too long, too frequent) thematic speeches. The movie made me relive all the negative thoughts and feelings I had about myself during my failed relationship with my ex-husband. That was not the kind of Saturday night I was planning on having when I went to the theater with my boyfriend, thank you very much. In a world where Facebook posts and university lectures have trigger warnings, I seriously don’t understand why this movie didn’t have one. According to noted female author Maya Angelou, people don’t remember what you say or do; they remember how you make them feel. Whatever details I forget—or have already forgotten—about Barbie, chances are I’ll remember it for a long time.
What’s wrong with the theme?
You’d think that someone who can empathize strongly with characters portrayed as victims of the patriarchy would be on the filmmaker’s side. But I’m not. The movie isn’t offering solutions. It’s “raising awareness” (i.e., assigning blame). The happy ending Barbie gets, a magically fresh start, isn’t exactly a practical blueprint. To me the movie seemed to offer no explicit constructive advice, not even bad advice, like “don’t get mad, get even.”
If the movie has a message, perhaps the message is that the ends justify the means, especially in politics (?!?!). Ken brought the patriarchy to Barbieland because he felt underappreciated and hurt, even though Barbie wasn’t being intentionally cruel. So what does Barbie do after she’s become enlightened by Gloria? She lies to Ken and hurts him on purpose. Wow, Barbie, very mature. Congratulations, you’ve demonstrated that manipulating people is okay as long as the woman is the one doing it. Way to combat negative female stereotypes.
There’s no real emotional encouragement to be found in the movie. As best I recall, the encouragement Gloria offers Barbie consists of unsupported assertions, a la Norman Vincent Peale. Gloria says, “You’re so smart.” When did she see Stereotypical Barbie do something smart??? The only smart thing Barbie did was refuse to get in the box. And actually, she did get in it, then changed her mind.
What’s wrong with the character Barbie?
Apart from managing to decide at the last possible moment that she doesn’t want to be restrained inside a box that is giving off strong coffin vibes, Barbie is a passive protagonist. The eponymous character of The Truman Show starts off just as blissfully ignorant as Barbie, but then he starts noticing things that don’t add up. In the end, he wins his freedom, rather than having it handed to him on a platter by his creator: He faces his entirely justifiable fear of water to sail to the horizon and nearly dies rescuing himself. Where’s Barbie’s agency? Not only is Barbie oblivious, she constantly tries to hand agency to someone else. Gloria rescues Barbie twice. I mean, Gloria kinda has to be the hero of the movie, otherwise what you have, as pointed out in the movie itself, is a politically incorrect movie about White Savior Barbie. And yet, the movie isn’t called Gloria. Maybe it would have been a good idea to have the titular heroine achieve something herself.
What’s wrong with the plot?
The Little Mermaid has long been called unfeminist, but I can’t fathom why. Ariel knows what she wants, says what she wants, goes after it, and gets it. I’d be hard-pressed to name another movie character as cheerful, curious, and brave as this stick of a teenage girl. What she mainly wants is not a husband: she wants to be part of the human world, thus it’s no surprise when she gives up her voice to go there. She’s obviously been curious about humans her whole life. When she gets a human body at the end of the movie, it’s utterly clear that not only was it her true heart’s desire, she jolly well earned it.
In contrast, to the extent that she wants anything as a character, Barbie wants to return to her simple, perfect life. Halfway through the movie, her goal arguably changes to “save Barbieland” (so that she can return to her simple, perfect life), but almost as soon as she forms this goal, she gives up. Others pursue this goal on her behalf. Her goal doesn’t shift to “transform into a human” until the very end of the movie, when it becomes clear that she’s unfit for Barbieland because she’s seen and felt too much. Like Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, she has to sail away to some other place. Her world is saved—improved, even—but she doesn’t get to live there. She gets to live in LA, where the patriarchy is alive and well. Weird payoff.
And how do she and her enlightened friends go about saving Barbieland? I know it’s “just a movie,” but even so, I’m really not clear how distracting the Kens—by any means, to say nothing of by inciting a war—-is a legit way to control a vote on the constitution. Leaving aside the questionable ethics of preventing citizens from voting (?!), you need a certain number of people, a quorum, or the vote doesn’t count. And if the Barbies do constitute a quorum, which seems likely, they could just outvote the Kens even if they all showed up.
The underlying conflict seems to hinge on the fact that Barbie is somehow not in a relationship with her boyfriend, Ken. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of this.
What’s wrong with the character Ken?
Is Beach Ken officially matched with Stereotypical Barbie, as I suppose I would assume, or do the Kens and Barbies get to choose who they date the same way people in the real world do? If Mattel made him Barbie’s boyfriend the same way Mattel made a Barbie president and a Barbie Nobel-prize winner, how is it acceptable—or even possible—for Stereotypical Barbie to reject Ken’s role as someone who spends time with her in the capacity of a boyfriend? Are we meant to believe the Barbies and Kens are fated to have their personal and professional roles or that they choose them? It’s not at all clear, and it seems like an important piece of world-building to get straight.
Barbie apologizes to Ken for “taking him for granted,” but Barbie’s apology only makes sense if they’re in a relationship that she agreed to. When she dismisses him after her dance party at the beginning of the movie, and at the end of the movie, she seems pretty unwilling to be in a relationship with him at all. So to me it looks like Ken is just a stubborn lovesick “young” person (played by a 42-year-old actor) who can’t read the writing on the wall.
I’d heard that Ken’s song had been streamed millions of times, so I was expecting it to be powerful, personal, and positive, like Frozen‘s “Let it Go” or “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. It wasn’t. A more relevant benchmark, given the subject matter and wistful/silly tone, is a song I quite like from Frozen II: “Lost in the Woods,” sung by a capable and independent man who nonetheless feels bereft when his partner’s attention is engaged elsewhere. Dear heavens, the lyrics “anywhere else I’d be a 10” seem just shoehorned in for the sake of the rhyme—and on the subject of rhymes, “friend” doesn’t. Anyway, Ken has only been to one other “anywhere”, and that place is Los Angeles, which has notoriously high beauty standards. Why does he think other places would be different? More importantly, even though Barbie never told him she was rejecting him on the basis of personal appearance, Ken’s song implies that if he’d been more attractive, he would have been successful—as if looks are the only thing that matter! Oh wait, I forgot, the song also said he’s “great at doing stuff.” That’s even less convincing than Gloria insisting that Barbie is smart. I mean, maybe the point of the song is that this attitude is stereotypically male and wrongheaded, but then why is a song with such a cringey attitude so popular? Why celebrate misguided delusion?
What is Ken even there for? I mean I know he’s responsible for importing patriarchy into Barbieland, and bemoaning the patriarchy is clearly the point of the movie. But Ken fits into the movie a lot less well than female leads in action movies starring men. While he’s not a love interest (even though he thinks he is), he’s not exactly a villain, either. This weirdness where characters don’t really fit into the plot or sensibly relate to other characters is exactly the problem with Frozen. (The Mattel people fit into Barbie about as well as the rock trolls fit into Frozen. They’re not only not necessary, they get in the way.) But Frozen has the excuse that it was chaotically rewritten late in the game because what was supposed to be a villain song turned out to be an empowering showstopper. What’s Barbie’s excuse for making no sense?
From the online buzz about the movie, I thought Ken was supposed to be an underdog: an admirable person crushed by an uncaring, unfair, unbalanced system. In other words, a relatable victim who could make men feel, by analogy, what it’s like to be powerless. I felt bad for Ken when Barbie behaved dismissively towards him, but it’s too big a leap from pity to admiration. There’s nothing about Ken I can admire. He’s useless. Like the movie itself, I don’t blame Barbie very much for dismissing him, I mostly blame him for pining helplessly in the face of obvious rejection. I can’t even admire him for managing to overthrow Barbieland, which must have required charisma; he only did it because he wanted to get the ungettable girl, and when his big ploy failed he went right back to being wistful and purposeless. Leave her alone, you oblivious wad of chewing gum. I can’t stand spineless characters.
If the point of the movie was supposed to be that all men, without the patriarchy and/or because of the patriarchy, are spineless weaklings—well, that’s malicious and clearly not true. Presumably one of the things about this move that’s got anti-Barbie conservative men up in arms is that it seems to imply that all men (except Allan) are as fragile and useless as Ken. Otherwise what are all the other Kens there for? Maybe Beach Ken was especially pitiful, but I get the sense he was supposed to be representative of their shared experience as unfulfilled beings.
The “resolution” of Ken’s character arc is, Barbie tells him to be himself—to stop defining himself as her boyfriend, or as his job. But he has no self. As far as Mattel is concerned, his reason for being is and should be Barbie (and the beach). And from what we see of the character, there is no personal skill, talent, or interest he cultivates or cares about. He seems to like horses, but this isn’t particularly well emphasized in the scene where he’s supposed to be discovering himself; horses seem inextricably tied to the disgraced notion of patriarchy, like minifridges. What’s left, then? Nothing, apart from raw Kenergy, whatever that means. The self, in the absence of any particular identity or goal, is not meaningful; the absence of a sense of self is misery, not freedom. At the very least, upon losing his reason for being, Ken should immediately latch on to something with which to fill the void, and he just… doesn’t. This is not how you end a character arc.
But this is how I end a blog post. Enough is enough.