Gather round, children, today’s word for today… is P for Patriarchy. While the Barbie movie offered another potential toy-brand synergy a la The Lego Movie or Super Mario Bros, bringing in top talent Greta Gerwig as writer and director ensured this blockbuster confection wouldn’t just be an extended promo for dolls. In a summer of aging yet juvenile male fantasy, expectations of a shocking pink summer blockbuster meant a full house for the afternoon showing I attended yesterday. It was packed with kids drawn by the ubiquitous advertising, brought by mothers drawn by the idea of a girlie film that might just dare to set a positive example, and both got what they wanted. Rising amounts of laughter and gasps indicated the kind of firm connection that movies used to offer more frequently; while awash with CGI, Gerwig’s Barbie doesn’t rely on pretty images to engage our minds.
Following on from a notable ‘kicking against the pricks’ performance in I Tonya, Margot Robbie plays Barbie, one of a number of Barbies in a Barbieland; her bestie, Ken (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t see much point in life without her, and when she travels on the mission to the real world, he stows away in her little pink car. Arriving in LA, Barbie discovers that her self-image is tarnished where little girls hate, deface or just prefer to forget about their once-beloved toy, largely due to their dissatisfaction with their own lives. Unable to rouse much support from her maker Mattel, Barbie identifies a specific source of the negativity, but by then Ken has discovered the joy of the patriarchy, and horses, and heads back to Barbie’s world to reconfigure one woman’s world with a more male imprint…
Co-writing with Noah Baumbach, whose Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted offered an educational narrative about self-development and not trying to be what you’re not, Gerwig crafts a very modern parable about women’s rights. Barbie makes a very sympathetic heroine as portrayed by Robbie; in a scene where Barbie bemoans not being pretty, Helen Mirren’s tart VO over correctly offers a note to the film-makers that the casting choice is problematic. But good looks aren’t everything, and existential Barbie’s search doesn’t begin or end with Ken; he’s the obstacle in her path. Played with the same comic lunk-head timing that featured in The Nice Guys, Gosling captures Ken’s imported brand of masculinity in a smart comic turn in a film packed with them; there’s also an instance of bleeped out swearing that raised a huge laugh. America Ferrara and Rhea Perlman’s scenes are stand-outs, but Barbie doesn’t rest her arched feet on music, gags or cameos, but is shot through with a well-articulated feminist polemic that audiences are likely to be discussing for a while to come.
In a society that has found it hard to identify or address the patriarchy that Gerwig effortlessly sketches, the movie’s smartest move is to invite us to share Barbie’s sheer horror when her ideal world is suddenly altered to a patriarchal one through Ken’s shallowness, a direct result of the hurtful rejection he feels because she doesn’t respond romantically to him. That Barbie resolves this, and in such a caring, imitable way, places this story on an eternal fault-line between men and women, including a great slam on how men talk about The Godfather. It would be utterly obtuse to take offence at how Barbie dismantles Ken’s idiotic world, but this playful tactic also allows Gerwig to rip deep into the ongoing social injustice the film confidently takes as read. Fun for kids, a mind-blower for thinking adults, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie deserves to be hailed as an innovation of today; as with Gerwig’s career generally to date, she wasn’t happy to be the idea, she wanted to HAVE the idea, and Barbie The Movie turns out to be an unexpectedly great idea for all concerned.