It seemed like an impossible task: In a time of growing anti-consumerism and the increasing irrelevance of gender, Greta Gerwig signed up to spin a feature-length film out of what many see as a shallow and retrograde, if not downright sexist, consumer product. Could our patron saint of modern cinematic womanhood pull off this high-wire act?
Barbie is well aware of these critiques—and it makes hay of them, especially in its snappy first act. The jokes and cameos come fast and furious, tongue hard in cheek and winks aplenty. “What started as a lady in a bathing suit turned into the idea that women can be anything,” narrator Helen Mirren intones in the film’s Kubrick-inspired prologue, the camera surveying Barbies of different professions and colours over the decades. “Because of Barbie, all the problems of feminism have been solved!”
The rosy splendor of the eternally upbeat Barbie Land, where the film begins, is a joy to behold, from the cul-de-sac of Barbie dream houses to Ken (Ryan Gosling, never funnier) and Stereotypical Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) matching costumes. But all is not well in the land of pink. Thoughts of mortality suddenly creep into Barbie’s mind. Her perpetually arched feet fall flat, and a sprinkling of cellulite surfaces on her thighs. Wild-haired, legs-akimbo Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) breaks the news: There’s a fissure between the Barbie World and the Real World, and Barbie must journey to the latter to fix it. (Yes, Barbie is yet another alternate-realities blockbuster.)
The rest is, for the most part, as smooth and pleasant as a ride in Barbie’s engineless convertible. Yet a handful of moments exhaust with gratuitous zaniness, and unnecessary plots and gags eventually bog down the buzz. The cast is also perhaps too chock full, giving some characters dismaying short shrift (more Jamie Demetriou, please).
The biggest shock—and spoiler—is perhaps the reveal that Barbie is actually a treatise on gender inequality. It’s mostly of the second-wave-feminism variety, however (Barbie is a boomer, after all, first hitting shelves in 1959), with sweeping ideas about women gaining power in public and private within existing systems, occasionally at the total exclusion of men. (Sorry Kens, no men allowed at the nightly girls night in Barbie Land—or on the Barbie Supreme Court.) America Ferrera, a harried but loving mother in the Real World who ends up communing with the dolls, is tasked with a rousing but somewhat generic speech enumerating the intractable binds women face in today’s society, just in case you missed the message. A spoonful of Barbie makes the feminism go down.
Setting aside the question of whether an air-conditioned multiplex in peak summer is the best setting to ponder feminism, however, Barbiemakes an admirable effort to introduce the concept to wide swaths of audiences the world over. Still, presenting a satisfying vision of it remains a tricky endeavor, as we’ve painfully come to realise in real life. And as the film progresses, the many threads of plots and ideas get tangled like so many Barbies in a toy box, the jokes turning sour and stinging. “I’m a man with no power—does that make me a woman?” a male character asks, a quip that elicited groans in the screening I attended.
But Barbie tells you what it is from the jump, with the massive Mattel logo jolting you into the picture. The movie is unabashedly yet another product of corporate America (spot the Warner Bros Discovery logo elsewhere in the film), designed to reinforce the brand as a fun, constantly evolving totem of womanhood and perhaps convince a new generation of Barbie fans of the toy’s continued relevance—even if that means dealing in broad stereotypes, simple binaries, and outdated-on-arrival jokes about genitalia.
Making a movie about feminism when your corporate overlords can’t bring themselves to say the word seems like an impossible task—as is one doll brand reflecting all women, or one toy appealing to all girls, or one movie speaking to the multiplicities of contemporary gender identity, or indeed writing critically about a bubbly summer film that scores of viewers are bound to enjoy without hesitation.
To be sure it feels like a wet blanket to criticise perhaps the most breathlessly anticipated movie of the summer, especially the rare one directed by and starring women and not geared toward rock-em-sock-em-loving boys and men. People who watch Barbie seeking mindless-entertainment refuge will enjoy that there’s more depth here than the typical summer pap. But those looking for a lucid perspective of progress to cheer are sure to leave unsatisfied. I hoped that the final message would at least nod to dismantling gender norms or point to their increasing obsolescence—maybe too much to ask of a summer blockbuster. But I suspect Barbie will end up like Barbie the doll—great fun for a short time, with a legacy that seems likely to change in the years to come.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.