BARBIE Review: Gender equality has never been so funny, moving, and pink

by Charles Gerian

“You have to figure out who you are without me.”

Greta Gerwig’s hot pink gender equality manifesto, BARBIE, became a bonafide cultural phenomenon over the weekend when it opened to $162 million dollars on the high-heels of general audience anticipation as well as the internet meme-machine’s “Barbenheimer” trend which celebrated the film’s hilariously contrasting opening with Christopher Nolan’s brooding historical drama OPPENHEIMER.

Going into a packed lobby and seeing HUNDREDS of people dressed in Barbie shirts or similarly fitting pink wardrobes was reminiscent of a bygone era when fans would rush to their local theaters on opening night in the t-shirts and costumes of their favorite superheroes.

The end result, however, was far from another 2-hour CGI slugfest with capes and team-ups.

In BARBIE we are introduced to “Stereotypical Barbie” Margot Robbie (The Suicide Squad, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) a blonde and wide-eyed woman living in Barbieland, a dazzling utopia where Barbies of all ethnicities, shapes, and sizes go about their days in their pink playset world doing a wide-range of jobs including doctors, vets, construction workers, mail-carriers, all the way up to an all-Barbie congress and even the Barbie President herself played by “Insecure” and “Rap Sh!t” star Issa Rae.

Margot’s Barbie is chiefly seen with other Barbies including the aforementioned Rae as well as Alexandra Shipp (Storm in the X-Men reboots), Emma Mackey (Sex Education), Sharon Rooney (Disney’s DUMBO remake), and Hari Nef (HBO’s The Idol).

Alongside the Barbies live Kens, of course, who spend their time … looking good.

The narrator, Meryl Streep, sums it up perfectly:

“Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.”

A platinum blonde Ryan Gosling portrays the “stereotypical Ken” here with support from Simu Liu (Marvel’s Shang-Chi), Scott Evans (One Life to Live), and Kingsley Ben-Adir (Peaky Blinders).

All is well in Barbieland until Barbie has thoughts about death, develops a patch of cellulite, and begins to feel her whimsical world escaping her. It is here she finds herself seeking out “Weird Barbie” (a hysterical Kate McKinnon) an eccentric Barbie with wild hair, erratic make-up, mismatched leggings, and a torn dress who explains to Barbie that when Barbies feel sad, it is because the girl in the real world playing with them is also sad or suffering.

For instance, Weird Barbie is what happens when the dolls are played with “too hard”.

Weird Barbie tells Barbie she must go to the real world, find her owner, and make things right.

Barbie and her friends, of course, are eager to see the real world and to be thanked for the generations of service they’ve done women, empowering a female-run world where girls run the show.

Along for the ride is Gosling’s Ken who sees this adventure as a chance to make Barbie fall in love with him, and to prove to the other Kens that he’s cool.

In the real world, Barbie seeks out her “owner”, a depressed mother named Gloria (America Ferrera) who works at the Mattel toy company, using her old Barbie doll in an attempt to reconnect with her angsty teen daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt).

In the real world, Ken discovers that it is not the Barbie utopia he’s used to- men run the world, and are given the respect and power they don’t possess in Barbieland.

Meanwhile, the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell) is made aware that Barbie has gotten loose in the real world, and makes it his mission to get her back to Barbieland before the universe seemingly collapses.

The great chase is on as Barbie, Gloria, and Sasha are pursued by the Mattel CEO and his board all while our blonde hero must return to Barbieland and undo the damage that a Ken-dominated patriarchy has done to her home.

It came as a surprise to many, myself included, when indie-darling Greta Gerwig and her husband Noah Baumbach, himself an Indie icon, were picked to direct and write…a film about the Barbie doll.

Both of them have cut their teeth on a wide-range of films including 2019’s “Little Women” adaptation, “Lady Bird”, “Marriage Story”, and “Frances Ha”.

Not exactly the kind of pedigree you’d expect to headline the space of “toy-to-film” adaptations that have seen names like Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers, Peter Berg, and Mike Flanagan headline them in the past.

But, again, this isn’t the film you’d expect. At all.

This 2-hour adventure has side-splitting comedy that all ages can enjoy, but the older ones in attendance will get a much bigger kick out of some of the gags and the film’s overall narrative.

It has a dazzling beach brawl between the two warring factions of Kens complete with stick toy horses and suction cup arrows that plays like the kind of performance comedy Buster Keaton would be proud of.

It has toe-tapping dance numbers with the kind of choreography that would make the musicals of the 50’s and 70’s blush.

It has truly Oscar-worthy performances from Gosling and Robbie that are so perfectly cast it is, itself, the cinematic achievement most casting directors strive for their entire careers.

Above all that, however, it has tear-jerking moments that play so well in service of the film’s messages and themes.

I have seen stirrings on the internet decrying the film for being an “anti-male woke propaganda piece”, and that criticism is lost upon anyone who has anything above a room-temperature IQ that has actually seen it.

“Barbie” as we’re told, is every girl, and every girl is Barbie. Every boy, likewise, is Ken. And Ken is every boy.

We see gender desparity in our real world, of course, but the film asks: what if the roles were reversed? What if men felt in a woman-run world how women felt in a male-run one?

When Ken comes to the real world he discovers the concept of the patriarchy- albeit in his own hilariously misconstrued way- and returns to Barbieland like a plague. Soon all the Kens are dressed like cowboys, partying and drinking beer, living in the Barbie dream houses (now called Mojo Dojo Casa Houses) and the Barbies are all more or less subservient to them, forsaking their careers to be hot eye-candy for the Kens.

The Kens have lived their entire existence as eye-candy to the Barbies, making their admiration their entire existence. They have no houses of their own, no cars, no control of the music, no input in the design or color of the world they inhabit…so why shouldn’t they be entitled to the same thrill of Barbieland as their female counterparts?

All the while our Barbie, Margot Robbie, is disillusioned by her role even in Barbieland as just being…sterotypical Barbie. It is not until she’s in “our world” that she discovers the pain and wonder of humanity such as sharing a life with someone, having children, being a woman, having the ability to choose her career and life trajectory, and aging.

You might ask, reading this, doesn’t Barbie’s wants go against the empowerment angle?

No. They don’t.

BARBIE is all about the duality of womanhood, as hammered home by America Ferrera’s Gloria in a soon-to-be viral and award-winning monologue about that very thing.

Women have to be pretty but not too pretty, nice but not too nice, they have to be mothers but not make that their entire identity, and so on. It is this speech that snaps our Barbie out of her depression upon entering Ken’s patriarchal utopia (Kenland) and, in effect, drives her to forsake Barbieland all together to pursue what she really wants: a life where she can be her own person.

No two women and no two men want the same thing. And Barbie is as “equal rights” a picture if ever there was one.

Ken’s ‘Kendom’ falls apart, and he admits to Barbie that his entire life is lived in the service of her. He didn’t enjoy the patriarchy he brought with him, and only wanted to live, essentially, as her’s.

Barbie tells him, tearfully, that he needs to discover a life without her, and that it isn’t “Barbie and Ken” anymore, it should be “Barbie…and, also, Ken”

The Kens develop a stronger bond with eachother, no longer rivals fighting for the Barbies’ love but as equals, even being allowed by President Barbie to enter the legal system as representatives for themselves.

There is an incredible scene at the end of the film where Robbie’s Barbie, still seeking her purpose, visits with the “ghost” of the real-life Barbie maker herself, Ruth Handler (played with gravitas by Rhea Perlman of “Cheers” fame).

Barbie asks Ruth if she is “allowed” to become human, afraid that forsaking the gift of life as Barbie will upset her.

An understanding Ruth tells Barbie that being a human means, above all else, that she will age and die.

“Humans only have one ending,” she says to Barbie, “but ideas are forever.”

Ruth tells Barbie that the doll was made to live forever- and that Barbie’s future is ever-changing and ever-evolving, just as womens’ are.

Finally, Ruth leaves Barbie with a moving vision of the “real world” set to Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” showing home-video footage of several girls and their mothers, living life.

The film’s ending, a hilarious but important mic-drop joke before the credits, shows that Barbie’s desire to forge her own life as an autonomous woman has come true.

BARBIE is a sublime work of art that looks, legitimately, like a little girl’s play room come to life.

This, of course, is thanks to the sets, all toy-accurate, brought to jaw-dropping life by designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer who have worked together on lavish historical pieces such as ATONEMENT, CYRANO, BEAUTY & THE BEAST, and the two Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES pictures.

The costumes here are immaculate, mirroring their toy counterparts effortlessly, as to be expected from two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran who dressed such hits as Gerwig’s own LITTLE WOMEN as well as ANNA KARENINA.

The cinematography here, bringing everything to life, is handled by 3-time Oscar-nominee Rodrigo Prieto who acted as Director of Photography on a slew of Taylor Swift music videos as well as cinematic landmarks such as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, BABEL, FRIDA, and this year’s KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON.

Everything infront of and behind the camera swirls into a wondrous glittery pink treat of perfection.

I don’t think I can sing the praises for this cast any higher than I have, but this is legitimately Ocar-contending work by Robbie and Gosling. Ferrera, long overdue her laurels, will be a shoe-in for supporting actress. I’d place money on it.

There is not enough to be said of this film other than that it is not just funny, moving, and dazzling… it is important.

Walking out of the theater after seeing it for the first time, a feeling washed over me that has rarely happened in all my years of trips to the cinema.

The feeling that I had just seen a film that will live forever.