Postmodern ‘Barbie’: Grown-Ups Playing Badly With Kids’ Toys

FILM REVIEW: There are lots of pretty things to look at, but this movie is hobbled by its need to be liked.

Co-stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling attend the 'Barbie' World Premiere at the Shrine Auditorium on July 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Co-stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling attend the 'Barbie' World Premiere at the Shrine Auditorium on July 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, Calif. (photo: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)

From a film theory standpoint, a delineator of a postmodern movie is the exhuming of cherished icons from the past, usually reframing them through a cynical lens. 

Postmoderns do this trenchantly, which masks the thinly veiled despair that underlies the whole process of recycling and desacralizing. The societal ache of our world today is confusion. It’s agonizing because we are essentially rational beings. 

The zeitgeist of our time is that we can’t know who we are, what is true or what we’re made for, and the suspicion is that in the past they didn’t know either; they were just pretending. Barbie, which made nearly $1 billion in its first two weeks of release, is appealing to people in the masses. It is a thoroughly postmodern mess of a story that sneers to hide the shame of its confusion. And so it bears considering what Jesus called a “sign of the times.”

The movie makes the point early on that Barbie has always been more than just a doll. She was a movement to be joined but also to be opposed. Girls loved her because she was that pretty, popular girl who would always be your friend — not like the ones at school. Additionally, Barbie’s accessories present a fascinating array of all the best things unabashed materialism can offer. 

One of the jokes of the film is that there is no “Depressed Barbie” or “Sweatpants Barbie,” but only ever a beautiful, fresh and beaming one. The movie suggests that this is paradoxically the root of why girls also hated Barbie. She presents an impossible — almost obnoxious — standard of body image and carefree blond style that we just know is fundamentally silly. 

This is the kind of contradiction out of which a great film could be made. But Barbie isn’t a great film. Coming from Hollywood, the loudspeaker of the mainstream secular confusion, it can only caricature societal brokenness. It can’t — or won’t — take a side on solutions.

No one can fairly conclude that the extraordinary success of Barbie is an indicator that most people are aligned with its social agenda. The film has not become any kind of rallying point for grumbling third-wave feminists. No, what is driving the engine of Barbie at the box office is not what it is saying, but the emotional connection middle-aged and younger women have to their favorite childhood toy. The pre-release promotion pushed the stylish look of the thing and promised zany satire. 

The movie certainly does pay off in terms of the computer-generated arena and effects. All the famous Barbie play sets are here, and life-sized and gorgeously rendered, in the ultimate living out of what young girls have been imagining on bedroom floors for decades. The spectacle does keep the viewer looking compulsively at the screen for the next pink plastic feast. But the masses are walking in thinking that they’re going to get more than just cool visuals. They think that they’re going to get all the sly fun of The Brady Bunch Movie again, only with Barbie and Ken. They think they are going to be served a double-sized hot fudge sundae. But what they get, in terms of Barbie’s story, is a vanilla pickle. That is, desperately seeking a story, Barbie scrambles about waxing fretful over a mish-mash of social problems resulting in one very long, confusing, cinematic sermon.

Because of its assertive agenda, Barbie is being reviewed by both movie critics and political pundits. Depending on their biases, these are alternately attacking or praising the project as a celebration of sisterhood, a takedown of corporately driven materialism, a condemnation of patriarchy, a clarion call for female empowerment, an attack on motherhood, a searing satire of toxic masculinity, a vision of mother-daughter bonding, or a brutally unfair caricature of men. 

I agree, the movie is about a lot of things, but not in the good way that great art generally is. It is throwing all kinds of ideas on the theater screen, hoping people will conclude that the pastiche is brilliant. It’s not. And some of the ideas it hurls are pernicious, like the unrelenting sneering at men as being useless and selfish. But mostly it’s just floundering around having nothing developed to say about any of its many subjects. Barbie is basically a lovely mess.

But this seems appropriate in this cultural moment. A movie about the doll who is a symbol of American womanhood has to be as confused as American women are right now. The filmmakers aren’t doing this intentionally, but are simply people of our muddled time. No one can have a serious conversation about things like femininity and masculinity right now without being shouted down, defined and dismissed, and probably canceled. 

Barbie is rife with mixed messaging and from a filmmaking standpoint is reckoned a confusion in theme. For example, both men and women are shown to be bad at running the world, leaving the viewer wondering who exactly should be in charge. 

Our first encounter with Barbieworld shows a totally female-run near-paradise. There are a couple of inconsistencies, but the place is basically presented as idyllic. What actually comes across, however, is a world driven by female vanity superficially focused on looking perfect. It reeks of meaningless and seems just silly. When the Ken dolls take it over, they turn it into a tasteless semi-barnyard where stupidity and a crass kind of pretention rule. No one wants to live in either of those worlds. But the movie never really gets to the idea that maybe the right thing to do would be for the sexes to complement each other in holding power, because it’s a progressive precept that men are irredeemably bad.

Another contradiction in the movie is that even as it asserts that women can be just as good as men at every profession, it then shows men basically being bad at everything. I’m amazed that Mattel consented to have its entire corporate board portrayed as shallow, sexist idiots. And I really wondered why the movie suggests women should want the power that would render us like those guys.

Finally, in a brutally gross parody of the opening of the science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbie asserts from its very first frames that little girls need to be freed from the idea that motherhood is where their fulfillment lies. But then the story devolves into being about achieving a reconciliation between Barbie’s now-grown-up “owner,” Gloria, played by America Ferrera, and her insufferably progressive teenage daughter. The clear message is that Gloria can’t be happy until she can get her family act together. It’s a goal that really undermines the whole “motherhood isn’t all that” theme.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig is a much better filmmaker than this movie demonstrates. She has to be embarrassed by it, even as it will make her very rich. One of the most talented directors of either sex making movies today, she just couldn’t be content making yet another mindless movie derived from a toy or game. Her instincts were to try and elevate the material, but the genre of silly toy satire and the Decretum of the progressive left are fighting her. 

The movie should have been hilarious, clever and wryly truthful, but it ends up being weird more than funny and, in several places, that worst of all movie flaws, painfully earnest. The long speeches that pepper the mid-point and last act of the piece are transparently trying to bring the movie together into some kind of theme. But they are much more suited to a 12-Step meeting than a comedy built around a protagonist’s quest to cure her suddenly flat feet. 

A couple of people have told me they laughed a lot at the movie. No one was laughing in the screening I went to. They were watching all the CGI gimmicks go by with a growing gut realization that the movie wasn’t making sense. It was visually stimulating for a while, but it just wasn’t nearly as fun as playing with Barbie dolls had been.

The main point to be made about Barbie is that it has achieved blockbuster status without actually having a main point. I challenged a series of filmmakers to identify a unifying theme in the movie. Everyone frowned, and thought, and then shrugged, with most saying, “I can’t say.” 

If only the movie just humbly sought to make people laugh. But no, Barbie is determined to be politically “brave” in that condescending Hollywood way that nearly assures a project these days of getting an Oscar nomination. That is the huge irony of Barbie. Even as the movie lightly goads at female vanity, the project itself is almost sickeningly self-conscious. 

Written, directed and largely produced by women, Barbie really, really wants everybody who is, you know, anybody, to like it. It wants to be reckoned smart and clever and cool, but because it comes out of a climate of so much fear, it ends up being just a silly pink pile of nonsense that can’t withstand serious scrutiny.

So where does Barbie leave us as a “sign of the times”? There’s lots of material here to engage with nonbelievers over. It’s a movie that wants to create sisterhood for girls and women but is thwarted by the fear of asserting that being male or female is actually a thing. The movie wants to be wise but can’t accept objective truth. The movie wants to say being pretty isn’t important, but then casts gorgeous Margot Robbie as the protagonist. The movie wants men and women to coexist, but is also certain that men are not to be trusted. In short, Barbie is a mirror of the irrationality that happens when people have lost God. 

As Christians, we shouldn’t absorb culture as fans, but we must certainly be aware of it as grounds for evangelization in the way Jesus meant when he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.” The extraordinary success of the mess that is Barbie should fill us not with smugness or disgust but with compassion that the postmoderns all around us are basically trapped in hellish confusion.

Advertising for the Warner Bros. Pictures Barbie film appears in Times Square in New York.

WYD Pilgrims Takeaways, and Barbie Makes You Think (Aug. 12)

World Youth Day surpassed expectations last week with 1.5 million pilgrims joining Pope Francis for the closing Mass Aug. 6 in Lisbon. Blogger and WYD pilgrim Kevin McCartney and Father Sean Conroy join us now to talk about their experience. Then we turn to another summer blockbuster — ‘Barbie,’ which made history as the first film solely directed by a woman to surpass $1 billion in global box office sales. Register writer Meghan Schultz offers her take on the film.