[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie opens with an extended montage depicting an average day in the glamorous life of Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie. She awakens in her pink plastic Dream House, dresses herself in one of her many fabulous outfits, cruises down the street in her pink plastic convertible—greeting Mail Carrier Barbie, Construction Worker Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and President Barbie along the way—relaxes at the beach (where the surf is eternally gnarly, the “water” permanently frozen in a six-foot wave of molded plastic), and finally returns home to enjoy a night of partying, complete with elaborately choreographed dance routines. In Barbie Land, women can do and be whatever their hearts desire. It is, in other words, a feminist paradise—the exact sort of setting you would expect to be inhabited by the revolutionary doll that taught little girls everywhere that playtime isn’t just preparation for future domestic responsibilities.
That’s what the omniscient narrator (voiced by Dame Helen Mirren, of all people) repeatedly insists, at least; in truth, this “utopia” is as empty, illusory, and insubstantial as Barbie’s morning glass of imaginary orange juice. While Ryan Gosling’s delightfully demented Stereotypical Ken technically introduces the concept of “patriarchy” (albeit a comically juvenile facsimile thereof; his “Kendom” revolves around such shallow masculine signifiers as mini fridges, acoustic guitars, pickup trucks, pickup artistry, and frat boy posturing) to Barbie Land, the infrastructure of inequality was already firmly established. The Kens are essentially second-class citizens: whereas Barbies are allowed to be doctors, award-winning journalists, and heads of state, the subordinate Kens are seemingly forbidden from pursuing careers; they are glorified accessories, their worth defined solely by their relationships with their female counterparts. The Barbies likewise own all property; Stereotypical Barbie outright admits that she has no idea where the Kens actually live.
The Kens are not the only victims of this subjugation, either. Michael Cera’s Allan is frequently ignored and taken for granted—and despite his generally laid-back attitude, this casual disrespect clearly upsets him. And Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie is ostracized due to her failure to conform to her society’s beauty standards—a trait that she explicitly cannot control (her disheveled physical appearance is the result of being loved too dearly—and played with too roughly—by a previous owner).
This surprisingly nuanced meditation on the nature of power dynamics is further reinforced by the characters that our protagonist encounters in the Real World. The Mattel CEO portrayed by Will Ferrell, for example, is not actively malicious; indeed, he genuinely believes in the toys that his company manufactures, regurgitating the corporate mission statement of “inspiring children to dream” with absolute sincerity. His good intentions, however, do not absolve him of his complicity in a system that routinely marginalizes women; as evidenced by the fact that his board of directors is a veritable sausage fest, he still benefits from and perpetuates institutionalized misogyny. And rather than engaging in healthy self-reflection when confronted with incontrovertible proof his “invisible” privilege, he instead becomes uncomfortably defensive, his feeble justifications rapidly deteriorating into incoherent babbling: “I’m the son of a mother and the nephew of a female aunt! Some of my best friends are Jewish!”
Featuring stellar performances, spectacularly beautiful production design, and a gloriously irreverent tone, Barbie is an endearingly cute, fun, charming cinematic experience. To those viewers already converted to the cause that it champions, its central theme may come off as obnoxiously didactic and heavy-handed… but the alt-right’s ineffectually venomous reaction to the film makes it abundantly obvious that even a literal Deus Ex Machina is too subtle for certain audiences.