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Corporations Can't Write Anti-Corporate Media
But Margot Robbie makes a very good Barbie
It’s the biggest grossing movie a female director has ever made - Greta Gerwig is the first to bank over a billion in ticket sales - and a feminist message about a doll that’s about as all-American as Mattel Corporation hopes we all believe it is.
It’s also a summer blockbuster where most of the humor is self-referential and the facile strawmen abound. We run from the pink plasticly perfect world of Barbie to the “real world,” as represented by Venice Beach and Century City, which is every bit as cartoony as the fake one: Corporate offices look like they came lifted entirely from the set of Brazil, purportedly human people talk like the supporting cast from Annie Hall, and there are no lasting repercussions for anything that actually happens.
Alright, so the real world isn’t quite real - we can chalk that up to satirical shorthand -- so who is the antagonist? Presumably it’s the patriarchy, as embodied in the Mattel CEO as played by Will Ferrell (backed by an all-male corporate leadership, of course) but the movie seems to focus primarily on Ryan Gosling’s Ken. It’s Ken, the plastic figurine with no genitals (and no idea what he would even do with a woman he pines for), that spends the most time being attacked for systemic patriarchy, a concept he only learned about an hour into the film and has no hand in. Meanwhile the CEO literally jokes in the end how all the antics of the two hours of film doesn’t in any way change the real power he has.
So this is feminism by Mattel Films.
Margot Robbie makes for a very believable Barbie, but since the movie is produced by the makers of Barbie, Margot can’t do anything with Barbie. Barbie can’t make mistakes, Barbie can’t say anything controversial and therefore Barbie can’t grow. Barbie is, oddly, caged in a movie that’s all about female empowerment, because Barbie is the principle IP of a billion dollar industry. Nobody cares about Ken, a fact lampshaded repeatedly in the movie, so he ironically has the freedom to learn.
Maybe the real message is that Barbie is an imperfect arbiter of feminist liberation - indeed, she’s read for filth in one scene by Ariana Greenblatt’s Sasha, a teenage girl who has given up playing with Barbies and decried them as fascist (leading to one of the best lines in the movie). Of course, Sasha caves on her whole philosophy about five minutes after she verbally machine-guns Barbie down and just rides along with the insanity that follows, so who knows?
Having had time to digest the admittedly very well-done cinematics and choreography of the film, I’m reminded most of all of Fight Club, an anti-corporate movie sponsored by Starbucks. Where Brad Pitt lectured Edward Norton on the evils of consumerism in locales that were literally straight out of Ikea catalogs, so too does America Ferrera’s Gloria give Barbie a quick run-down on sexist double-binds in a scene bookended with accessorizing. I’m not sure what it says about misogyny in the world today, but it will most certainly sell a lot of dolls.