With the malaise of COVID melting away, the summer of 2023 was full of celebration and catharsis as many indulged in their first large-scale outings since the start of the pandemic.
Two leading American singers, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, swept through the country on record-breaking tours that cemented themselves in the modern zeitgeist. Mass transit lines of several cities made accommodations for the expected volume these two acts would bring.
Along with the icons of pop music, is another lady, whose magnetism broke through the screen and into the hearts of millions: Barbie.
$575 million at the domestic box office, according to studio estimates, made Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” the highest-grossing movie of the year so far. And with marketing so pervasive it nearly penetrated every facet of life, it was hard to miss.
The Barbie doll itself has a long history, one that is delicately woven into the film. In the simplest terms, Barbie can be anyone and everything: doctor, lawyer, writer, president and pilot are just a few of her titles. In the film, Barbies of all shapes and colors walk through a saccharine landscape of plastic dream houses and painted skies.
On one hand, Barbie was the first mainstream fashion doll to make waves in 1959. Her womanly body and made-up face were a radical departure from the baby dolls young girls were expected to play with. This history gets captured in the film’s opening through a recreation of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where a gigantic version of Margot Robbie’s Barbie stands overhead as little girls smash their porcelain dolls to the ground and into the air.
However, the doll’s history is far from strictly revolutionary. Part of Barbie’s appeal has always been the ability to collect. The constant release of new professions, clothes and houses has always resulted in the pressure to buy more. And because of Barbie’s one-size mass consumption, critics have pointed out how the doll’s ideal (namely her unrealistic proportions) perpetuates body image issues and narrow views of femininity.
With all this in mind, the film succeeds in acknowledging varying perspectives of Barbie’s history, while still being a fun, breezy time. Much of this is due, in large part, to the writing of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach.
And while Barbie has boded mostly well with critics and audiences alike, it’s worth mentioning that its girl-power messaging shouldn’t evade it from criticism.
In the last decade, studios have noticeably turned their attention to projects that guarantee fandom turnout: superheroes, remakes and biopics.
So yes, the big-budgeted “Barbie” did provide some relief from Marvel fatigue, but it also still plays in the realm of filmmaking surrounding intellectual property.
It would be foolish to assume that Mattel, Barbie’s owner, didn’t have their best interest in mind with a film that cost $145 million to make and reportedly another $150 million to market. With Barbie pink saturating consumer goods and a film that continues to spark discussion, it’s easy to see how Mattel’s bottom line is being served. It’s worth being skeptical of large corporations inserting themselves in the arts.
Ynon Kreiz, CEO of Mattel, spoke to Variety about the possibility of more films saying “successful movies lend themselves to more movies. Our ambition is to create film franchises.”
Is it possible to separate the people funding the work from the work itself? Because of Gerwig’s status as a darling filmmaker and Robbie’s as a grounded producer, is it possible to critique “Barbie” while still admiring its creators?
The proliferation of all things girly and pink may be a joy to some and nauseating to others, but broadening the acceptance of feminine interests can uplift men and women from a prevailing gender binary.
The double-feature phenomenon of “Barbenheimer” probably won’t be enough to save theaters, but it was certainly made for a good time. And who are we to deny people a good time? Choreographed dance numbers, voluminous hair and glittering pink Corvettes may be fun, but they aren’t enough to uproot the patriarchy nor any corporate monopoly.