Will you still need me
The Beatles famously asked: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”
March 9, 1959 is Barbie’s official birthday which makes her 64 this year (or arguably 83, as she was ‘born’ as a 19-year-old).
Every studio hopes they’re going to have the next box office sensation. Often that leads to a production line of sequels (such as with Marvel or Transformers) where there is high degree of certainty in the return on a studio’s investment. Whilst there have been over 40 previous Barbie films, they have all been animated and this is the brand’s first live action movie.
Getting the movie made has proven to be quite a saga, with Amy Schumer rejecting the part as not “feminist and cool” enough, impassioned meetings about being ‘off-brand’ and Margot Robbie’s insistence on the diversification of the brand as a prerequisite for her involvement. Kudos to those that had the vision and determination see this through to release. There seems to have been enough collective will that this movie needed to be made.
Will you still feed me
The movie theatres certainly did need the massive audiences that Barbie have generated and it was easy to see the ‘trickle down’ effect at the nearby restaurants and retailers as so many families made a rare day out of it on the film’s release. The movie seems to have found universal appeal.
Whilst the movie introduces stereotypical Barbie, played magnificently by Margot Robbie, the point really is that diversity is as normalised within the Barbie world as it should be in the real world.
Where the audiences seem to largely be on board with this idea, it looks like not all critics are quite ready yet. The majority of Barbie reviews are positive (90% on the Tomatometer), but there are some notable outliers; for example, The Times’ Camilla Long rated it 2/5 and said “In trying to be comically ahead of the sexism curve, it’s ended up feeling sexist itself.”
Described by the Guardian as having the biggest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman, also kind of misses the wider point. The film is a success in its own right. The ‘most successful for a woman director’ tag is a good example of the difficulty many will have in understanding what they should think about the movie, so the movie also delivers significant food for thought.
The plot follows a three act format: in Barbie world, in the real world, and returning to Barbie world. In the interests of keeping the review spoiler-free that’s the extent of the plot detail that will be revealed here.
The director, Greta Gerwig, clearly had a vision to deliver Barbie-max. This is the all-singing, all dancing, sumptuous visuals, no-holds-barred Barbie experience. The hyper-saturated colours of the Barbie brand have been injected into every part of the movie.
The choices of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling for the lead parts could not have been bettered. Their commitment to the movie’s spirit is as apparent on the big screen as it is with the heavy schedule of personal appearances promoting the movie. They look and feel the part at every point.
Supporting roles, with standout performances from Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera and Will Ferrell, are all played flawlessly. America Ferrera’s incredibly powerful speech towards the end of the movie is worth the price of admission all by itself.
If asked to nominate a character from popular culture in the last hundred years, to be a vehicle to deliver contemporary messages on feminism, diversity and inclusivity, Barbie was unlikely to be at the top of many people’s lists. On the surface, what could be less representative of those values than a doll, pulled through time, from a less-enlightened period, a physical stereotype of privilege?
The reason the Barbie movie works though, is that it has its roots in how children have played with their own Barbies over the years. Every parent knows a child’s imagination can be unlimited in its embrace of diversity; children can set their own expectations of standards of behaviour and appearance at their make-believe tea party, where there is always room for difference and exception.
Mattel undoubtedly benefitted from a child’s desire to build a bigger Barbie world for themselves, but we should not be surprised then that children may perhaps be the most ready to see that stereotypical Barbie can easily represent any Barbie, or any Ken.
Closer to fine
Musicians also stand ready in setting standards and expectation for the rest of us and the Barbie soundtrack makes its message and values very clear in its choice of artists. As the opening track of the movie, the choice of Lizzo (a successful body positive artist) with her song Pink, demonstrated this story was not going to be restricted to a narrow interpretation of normal.
Closer to fine is played three times and nobody would ever accuse the Indigo Girls of conforming to expectations as female artists in the music industry. For the movie, Closer to fine was re-recorded by Brandi Carlile and her wife Catherine Carlile. You might like to listen to more than one version of Closer to fine to find the one you like most; it’s one of those tracks that is quite easy to become addicted to.
Barbie is a multi-layered work that is intended to appeal to many audiences. However, it would be a mistake to think the movie fails to deliver for an audience other than you. Will children fail to understand the depth of some of the message? Perhaps, but that doesn’t seem to have prevented them from embracing it.If our hearts are open, if we look to the children, there’s something in Barbie that we can all embrace. So, yes, we do still need Barbie in 2023, and we are closer to fine because of it.
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!