Bryan Zepp Jamieson
September 4th 2023
They’ve been making movies that are created for the sole purpose of flogging toys to kids for years, of course, and even if you don’t find the manipulation and exploitation of kids and their parents vulgar, most of them were pretty dire, since the budget went for special effects, and not for acting or writing.
And the last thing I wanted to see was a movie about fricken’ Barbie. As a retired male, I’m not exactly Mattel’s target demographic. Honest, I stopped playing with dolls when I was 55 as part of my probation. And I’m allergic to pink.
But the inevitable howls from the usual suspects on the right wing were, as usual, amusing. This crowd leads their mindless followers from one contrived social crisis to the next, whether it’s a black cartoon mermaid, litter boxes in school bathrooms, a President eating Grey Poupon mustard, or Bugs Bunny in drag. These ‘crises’ are usually stupid, pointless, and brainless, but then, they have a specific target audience.
But I noticed a more frantic tone this time. It wasn’t the usual crap about “plus size” Barbie, or gay Ken, or any of the other tired social tropes/bogeymen that the fascist right use to keep their herd frightened and docile. Ben Stein was so far over the top in his raving condemnation of the movie that I wondered if Barbie was the only girl who let him pull down her pants in high school and he still felt betrayed.
And it went on well beyond the usual puppet show shelf-life. The Barbie howls even drowned out the National Labor Relations Board ruling that any company caught interfering in any way with attempts to organize a union would automatically become a union shop immediately, no election needed. Yes, that was a landmark decision that will change the face of working conditions in America.
That should have sent them into paroxysms of red-baiting, but they were too busy pink-baiting (yes, that sounded pretty awful in my head as I wrote it, too) to notice.
Obviously, I was going to have to watch this movie to see what the fuss was about. Something was going on here.
My wife and I watched it. I never had a sister so I never experienced the joy of blowing up one of the dolls with firecrackers or feeding one to the dog. But my wife did, and I figured that as a long-time Barbie saboteur, she could lend moral support.
Barbieville is filled with hundreds of Barbies, who all live in a perfect matriarchy where everything is pink and life is perfect, and nobody ever cries or feels hurt or angry. There are hundreds of Kens, as well, and they are there to admire the Barbies. It’s a bit like the town in The Truman Show.
But one day, the lead character, Stereotypical Barbie, starts encountering problems. For one thing, her heels, which are always four inches higher than her toes, drop to the same level. Frightened, she consults with Weird Barbie, who tells her someone is playing too hard with her in Reality (our world) and she will have to go there and solve the problem.
Ken stows away in her convertible to reality, and in the course of trying to find the problem, Ken is contaminated with toxic masculinity. (The scene in which this first happens is when Barbie is at Santa Monica beach, and rebuffs a construction worker trying to hit on her by giving him a level stare and saying, “I don’t have a vagina.” That was a genuinely jaw-dropping moment.
They return to Barbieville unaware that they’ve been contaminated. Ken had stolen some books from the library in Santa Monica, and soon starts preaching a “Yo Bro” philosophy. He feels that he has a place at the table and should be respected. However, this leads to male bonding stuff ranging from bullying and abuse to giant trucks and for some reason, horses. Soon, the Kens plot to overthrow the Barbies.
The Barbies are confused and malleable at first, but a couple of Earthers, a tweener and her mum, start teaching the Barbies about empowerment and individual autonomy. Slowly, they learn to resist.
We watched this with growing amazement, and about an hour in, my wife said, “You know, this reminds me a lot of Pleasantville.”
Pleasantville was written, co-produced, and directed by Gary Ross. It stared Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, and Reese Witherspoon, with Don Knotts, Paul Walker, Marley Shelton and Jane Kaczmarek in supporting roles.
In that movie, a couple of 1990s teens, brother and sister, are sent to a world based on a 1950s sitcom called Pleasantville. It’s the idyllic suburban life that TV liked to portray in such shows as Dobie Gillis, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, or Leave it to Beaver. All the lawns were perfect and had white picket fences, the school teams never lost (indeed, the basketball team never missed a shot), and the wives were always immaculately coiffed and dressed and served breakfasts of sausage, pancakes, eggs, and ham that amounted to about 4,000 calories a plate, a cardiovascular feast of doom. Except nobody ever got sick in Pleasantville. The high school boys dreamed of going steady with “the right girl” and their highest ambition was to “pin” a girl and allow her to wear their letterman jackets. And the girls wanted to be pinned and wear the jackets.
Being a 1950s sitcom world, everything is in black and white, what we call greyscale now. There was no color.
Our 1990s sister noticed the boys right away, with avid interest. But she wasn’t interested in lapels or silly coats: she just wanted to get the boys into the back seat of their convertibles and bang the hell out of them. Despite the alarmed protest of her bother about the effect this might have on the inhabitants, she does so.
And something does happen to the boys: they start seeing in color, and become colored themselves. The girl tells her sitcom mother about masturbation, and the next day, Mom shows up with pink cheeks.
The colorization spreads, and the town authorities finally notice and Take Action, at which point the movie takes a very dark turn.
At that point, Pleasantville becomes a thing of beauty, a fantastic and marvelous film that packs a huge emotional wallop and is deeply inspiring. It truly is one of the finest movies ever made.
Barbie doesn’t have the multilayered nuance and complexity of Pleasantville, and nor does it build to as stunning a climax. But it will inspire millions of people who watch it, because it carries the same profound truths about personal awareness and autonomy, awareness of beauty, of others, of life, and the same drive toward individual freedom and liberty. It is a resounding shout in the blanket of a rise in fascism.
It is, in a word, “woke.”
Thus, the screams from the right. And thus the cheers, and hope, it gives millions who watch it.
Don’t dismiss it as a movie about little girls’ dolls. It’s much, much more than that.
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Written by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach
Based on Barbie by Mattel
Produced by David Heyman, Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Robbie Brenner
Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell
Cinematography Rodrigo Prieto
Edited by Nick Houy
Music by Mark Ronson & Andrew Wyatt
Production companies Heyday Films, LuckyChap Entertainment, NB/GG Pictures, Mattel Films
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures