How Barbie Misses the Mark on Patriarchal Critique | Review

Barbie fails to deliver a genuine challenge to patriarchal norms, lacking the radical edge of earlier works by John Waters and Ira Levin. Its polished, mainstream approach dilutes its message.
Barbie 2023 movie


Barbie (2023)
Directed by Greta Gerwig

di Pier Maria Bocchi

Living in Barbie Land means being perfect in a perfect place. Unless you’re experiencing an existential crisis. Or you’re a Ken.

In 1990, John Waters made rockabilly boys cry while proper teenage girls grew tired of their stereotypical ordinariness. The film was called Cry Baby. A couple of years earlier, Waters had exploited fatphobia while debunking its cliché image. That film was called Hairspray. Again, in 1977, Waters told the story of a group of men, all practically identical in their towering virility, serving a sadistic queen. The film was called Desperate Living.

When New Yorker Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives, it was 1972, and Barbie had been on the market for over ten years. Levin was likely, indeed certainly, aware of this: those pages also spoke about her. It’s no stretch and no surprise if we consider that the writer doubled down on the topic with The Boys from Brazil just a few years later: numerous perfect little men, clones of Hitler, to take over the world. Ken had been on sale for fifteen years by then.

John Waters and Ira Levin were clear: conformity, especially when stemming from a patriarchal viewpoint, creates monsters. Levin’s ideas have spawned countless cinematic pages: the most recent, and not particularly exciting, being Don’t Worry Darling. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the director and co-writers of Barbie, do not seem as clear. Do you think Barbie is clear in its resolute condemnation of patriarchy, as explicitly and repeatedly stated? Or in its anti-capitalist (neo)feminism? Or in its pursuit of gender freedom, which is, above all, an awareness of sexual autonomy and a rejection of the ideology of the couple as institutionalized harmony?

No, it is not clear. Because it does not believe enough in the struggle. The struggle from below, not from within; the poor, scrappy struggle, not high concept. Waters waged war with trash (in its original, untainted meaning), and both his clothes and those worn by the elite (of the entertainment world) remained dirty. Barbie preaches to the (already) converted. And it does so through the Mattel brand, which carries a heavier and more cumbersome significance than the Warner logo. Gerwig (who, now in the industry, built a career in indie films with roles that were often quirky and cranky, always with a disruptive energy—this is worth reflecting on) and Baumbach rely on the subversive character within a project born and distributed in a fully woke scenario, but it’s too easy to dig when the path is not obstructed. Try imagining Barbie during the Reaganomics era (and Ronald Reagan is predictably one of the images Ryan Gosling’s Ken revels in during his journey into reality). Imagine it with poorly set papier-mâché backdrops, B-grade costumes, imperfect choreography, and first-take shots. How much of an audience would it have attracted?

The problem is that Barbie already knows and includes its audience. Which is, indeed, an audience of converts, of all ages. This is not necessarily a flaw: many praise cinema that knows whom it is speaking to. But it’s a blunt weapon. In its meticulous aesthetic excess, its gift-wrap-like precision, Barbie risks being seen, processed, and memorized as a mainstream show of strength capable of articulating valuable themes for all tastes (i.e., for all palates, all views, all sensitivities). Flattening roughness. Smoothing bumps. Rounding corners. We know well what happened to camp once it was seized and employed by the hegemonic culture. Barbie ends up trying so hard to appeal to everyone that it, in fact, appeals to no one. Not a midcult, though: Barbie is an incongruous theme-park movie at the wrong time. The same would have been true for The Rocky Horror Picture Show if it had been conceived and made today. The real contemporary obstacle to overcome is also a condemnation: the battle for ideas is an aesthetic paradox, especially in Hollywood, which now loudly demands the eradication of any ideological nonconformity and the theoretical removal of all diversity. Not even a cult movie, nonetheless: because a cult does not arise by parthenogenesis, it is not predisposed, it is neither a project nor a program.

The result is inherently flattened. Without specificity. Without flaws. Like the doll who finally discovers, smiling and satisfied, her own sex. But it’s too late, everything has already been smoothed over. Ask Mario Mieli what he thought of the absorption of rebellion by dominant powers. Ask Bruce LaBruce what he thinks of today’s revolutions (and in the meantime, retrieve The Raspberry Reich, especially in its porn version titled The Revolution Is My Boyfriend).

In Barbie there is no pleasure. There is no enjoyment. The insurrection is an illustration. Rich, colorful, gaudy, with costumes, props, and permanent make-up, but never mischievous, never morbid, only bubblegum pink, otherwise not everyone would have liked it. That’s the point.

Cineforum, July 23, 2023


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