The moment Greta Gerwig knew for certain that she could make a movie about Barbie, the most famous and controversial doll in history, she was thinking about death. She had been reading about Ruth Handler, the brash Jewish businesswoman who created the doll — and who, decades later, had two mastectomies. Handler birthed this toy with its infamous breasts, the figurine who became an enduring avatar of plastic perfection, while being stuck, like all of us, in a fragile and failing human body. This thought sparked something for Gerwig. She envisioned a sunny-minded Barbie stumbling upon a dying woman in her barbecue area. Then Gerwig kept going. It was the beginning of the pandemic. Maybe no one would ever go to the movies again. Maybe no one would ever see what she was working on. Why not go for broke?
Why couldn’t the movie begin with a methodologically faithful riff on the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with little girls bashing in their insipid baby dolls’ heads after beholding the revelation that is Barbie? Why couldn’t Barbieland be full of Barbies and Kens but free of wind, except when it made the dolls’ hair look good? Why couldn’t Barbie be overcome by irrepressible thoughts of death in the middle of a choreographed dance number? Why couldn’t there be a dream ballet inspired by 1950s musicals and a recurring joke about the lyrics of a Matchbox 20 song? Why couldn’t Gerwig love Barbie and criticize Barbie and try to make people feel something new about an object that has been making people feel things for nearly 65 years? Why couldn’t she make a movie that would delight Barbie’s protective corporate guardians at Mattel, the people at Warner Brothers who bankrolled the roughly $145 million production, the people who hate Barbie, the people who adore Barbie and also herself?
“There’s a point in the movie where the Kens are riding invisible horses from their beach battle to the Mojo Dojo Casa Houses,” Gerwig told me — a Mojo Dojo Casa House is like a Barbie Dreamhouse, but for Kens — “and I think to myself, every time: Why did they let us do this?” It was late May, less than two months until the movie’s theatrical release, and Gerwig was putting in long hours on finishing touches, shuttling between postproduction facilities in Manhattan. Still, the very fact of the movie’s existence continued to puzzle and delight her. Why did they let her do this?
The answer seems so obvious now. Mattel, Warner Brothers and the producers let Greta Gerwig make “Barbie” so that exactly what is currently happening would happen. So that the fizzy marriage of filmmaker and material would break though the cacophony of contemporary life and return a retirement-age hunk of plastic to the zeitgeist. So that Mattel, in particular, could rocket-launch its grand ambitions to become a proto-Disney and announce the activation of its entire intellectual-property back catalog with a fuchsia splash. So that Barbie stans and Barbie agnostics alike would find themselves bombarded by paparazzi snaps of Margot Robbie, as Barbie, and Ryan Gosling, as Ken, dressed in matching, radioactively vivid Rollerblading outfits — plus “Barbie” trailers, #Barbiecore TikToks and wall-to-wall Barbie tie-ins. They wanted Gerwig, with her indie bona fides, feminist credentials and multiple Oscar nominations, to use her credibility to make this multibillion-dollar platinum-blond I.P. newly relevant, delivering a very, very, very pink summer blockbuster that acknowledges Barbie’s baggage, unpacks that baggage and, also, sells that baggage. (The designer-luggage company Béis now offers a Barbie collection.) They wanted Gerwig to burnish Barbie. But why, exactly, did Gerwig want to do that?
Inquiries like this fluster Gerwig. She has been thinking about Barbie, nonstop, for years. But at the time, it had been a while since she’d talked it over with anyone who wasn’t already immersed in the project. Suddenly, at the end of a long day, she was being asked to justify the fascination that possessed her the moment Margot Robbie, also one of the movie’s producers, asked her about writing the script, which she would do with her partner, Noah Baumbach. “I kept thinking: Humans are the people that make dolls and then get mad at the dolls,” Gerwig explained. “We create them and then they create us and we recreate them and they recreate us. We’re in constant conversation with inanimate objects.”
She wanted in on that conversation. Yes, Barbie is a polarizing toy and a juicy hunk of I.P., but Gerwig leaped right to what else Barbie is: a potent, complicated, contradictory symbol that stands near the center of a decades-long and still-running argument about how to be a woman. If there is a kind of earnestness that once would have precluded a director from “selling out,” it is the same earnestness that now precludes them from thinking about that notion at all. (What is Barbie but a superhero in heels, older than Spider-Man and Iron Man?) Instead of aiming for a product you might grade on a curve as “relatively thoughtful, for a Barbie movie,” Gerwig devoted herself to threading a needle slimmer than the eyelashes painted on the doll’s face. The movie is a celebration of Barbie and a subterranean apologia for Barbie. It is a giant corporate undertaking and a strange, funny personal project. It is a jubilant, mercilessly effective polymer-and-pink extravaganza whose guiding star turns out to be Gerwig’s own sincerity. “Things can be both/and,” she said. “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Gerwig, who turns 40 this summer, loved playing with dolls so much that she did it until she was about 14. In hindsight, this seems like the behavior of a future director, but at the time she felt it was “too late — people were already drinking at parties.” Some of her dolls were Barbies. She can remember, as a little girl, standing in a Toys “R” Us, gazing upon a display of Barbies in their really big boxes, wearing their really big dresses, their really big hair fanned out for maximal glamour, and she has tried to hold onto her feeling of never having seen anything more beautiful. While preparing the movie, her creative team considered hundreds of shades of pink, but Gerwig arrived one day convinced that they had let their adult sensibilities lead them astray: The pink had gotten too tasteful. They needed something supersaturated, bold and bright — not salmon. Nothing about the movie should feel “like an adult telling a little kid: ‘Don’t talk too loud. Don’t chew with your mouth open.’ You wanted it to be that exuberance of using the brightest color in the box.”
But it is not just a child’s sensibility at play in “Barbie.” Gerwig’s mother was not wild about the dolls, so they mostly trickled into the house as hand-me-downs. Even as she was gathering the intimate Barbie experience that’s all over this film — one character is constantly doing splits, as if enacting a sense memory of how ably the dolls hit 180-degree leg extension — she was also imbibing the critique. “The one that always felt the most pointed to me was that if she was a human being, she wouldn’t be able to hold her head up,” she recalls; Barbie’s neck is, by most estimations, too thin to support her cranium. (The one that always stuck with me was the legend that if Barbie were real, she would have to crawl on all fours, weighed down by her massive mammaries.) “If you’re walking around,” Gerwig says, “congratulations, you don’t look like Barbie.”
Gerwig understands both the love and the loathing for Barbie, but for many others, the doll remains an either/or proposition: Either she’s feminist or she’s really, really not. Arguments that she is feminist include the fact that she has had her own Dreamhouse since 1962, when women were routinely denied mortgages and credit cards. She went to the moon years before Neil Armstrong, and unlike any real-life American woman, she has been president. But a couple of years after becoming a homeowner, a Slumber Party Barbie came with a scale locked at 110 pounds and a “How to Lose Weight” manual, with the directions “Don’t Eat.” (Perhaps the most famous Barbie movie before this one was Todd Haynes’s breakout short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which used dolls to stage a biopic about the singer, who died in 1983 of complications from anorexia.) Over the decades, there has been a persistent release of other Yikes Barbies, like the memorable Teen Talk Barbie that was programmed to say, “Math class is tough!”
‘I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.’
More holistically, Barbie was abhorred by second-wave feminists as an inescapable, white, blond, impossibly thin, impossibly stacked, glammed-up personification of the male gaze being pushed on generations of girls as the woman they should aspire to be. Gloria Steinem has said Barbie “was pretty much everything the feminist movement was trying to escape from.” A chant rang out at a women’s-equality march in 1970: “I am not a Barbie doll.”
When Robbie approached Gerwig about writing the film, the parameters were extremely broad: She could do anything she wanted. (One thing she really wanted to do was work with Robbie, who, she says, finishes meetings by asking, “ ‘Does anyone have anything that they just really hate or want to bring up right now that’s really bothering them?’ She just, like, runs at danger.” When Gerwig is quoting Robbie, she puts on an Australian accent, which she is good at.) But even though Mattel was involved, the film couldn’t just be Barbie propaganda. It would have to deal with the whole scope of the conversation. “People say, ‘Well, what’s the story of Barbie?’” Gerwig recalls. “The story of Barbie is the fight that’s been going on about Barbie.”
As the movie begins, Robbie’s Barbie wakes in her Dreamhouse and cheerfully waves to all the other Barbies in their Dreamhouses, which she can do because none of the Dreamhouses have walls. (Barbies have nothing to hide, and nowhere to hide it if they did.) Barbieland is a multicultural Barbiarchy: The president is a Barbie and so are the Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners, pilots, doctors and construction crews. The Kens, in contrast, have one job, the frustratingly ill-defined “Beach,” where they cheerlead and jockey in hopes of being noticed. The Barbies know that they are dolls — that Mattel created them, that there is a real world where little girls play with them — but they are otherwise blithely incurious. In Barbieland, every day is a good day, and every night is a girls’ night. They imagine that the real world is just like Barbieland and that they have helped us solve all our “problems of equal rights and feminism.”
Then come those pesky intimations of mortality. Later, a patch of cellulite appears on Barbie’s thigh. Her naturally high-heel-ready feet fall flat. These “malfunctions,” Barbie is told, are probably a result of someone in the real world playing with her too hard — and though she does not want to leave Barbieland to investigate, she really does not want cellulite. So with Ken and his Rollerblades in the back seat, and the radio blaring the Indigo Girls’ 1989 acoustic anthem “Closer to Fine” (a song Gerwig has loved since growing up among “hippie Christians” in a Unitarian church), she drives her pink convertible toward reality, expecting a hug and a thank you from the women of America. Instead, a haughty teenager serves her the whole brutal read: Barbie, the plastic personification of “unrealistic physical ideals, sexualized capitalism and rampant consumerism,” has been making women feel bad about themselves since she was invented.
“I really thought of it like a spiritual journey,” Gerwig says. The Barbies live in a world that has “the comfort of fundamentalism”; there is no death, aging or shame, and “you never have to wonder what you’re meant to do.” Then cellulite slithers into paradise. The idea that “you’re not going to follow a path that’s been laid out for you,” Gerwig says, “comes with a fair amount of terror.” The resonances aren’t just religious: This is, as in much Gerwig material, the arc of growing up.
Gerwig brims with references and influences, many of which she marshaled to make the movie “authentically artificial,” with everything “fake, but really fake” — make-believe and yet tangible, tactile, like playing with an actual toy. She called Peter Weir, the director of “The Truman Show,” to ask how to “execute something that’s both artificial and emotional at the same time.” She tried to channel musicals like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” which she says do the same. Many of the special effects were based on the analog techniques of 1959, a year chosen because that’s when Barbie debuted. The mermaid Barbies we see splish-splashing behind Jeff Koons-esque plastic waves are being hoisted by a rig like a seesaw. The blue expanse hovering over Barbieland is not green screen; it’s a vast backdrop of painted sky.
“Barbie” has a bigger scope, budget and potential audience than any of Gerwig’s previous work. This was part of its appeal: Gerwig has been scaling up, intentionally. And yet she remains focused on characters’ baby-stepping into adulthood. (Her next project is a Netflix adaptation of the Narnia universe.) The protagonists she played in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” — collaborations with Baumbach — would probably make arch remarks about a Barbie I.P. blockbuster, but they, too, were figuring out who they were. So were the heroines of Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” loosely inspired by her own Sacramento childhood, and her follow-up, “Little Women,” based on her favorite childhood book.
“Barbie,” too, is a coming-of-age story; the figure coming of age just happens to be a full-grown piece of plastic. “Little Women” would have been a fine alternate title for it. Same with “Mothers & Daughters,” a working title for “Lady Bird.” For Barbie, as in both those other films, growing up is a matriarchal affair. It is something you do with your mother, your sisters, your aunties. Or, in Barbie’s case, with the women threaded through your product history.
In the beginning, there was Ruth Handler, eavesdropping on her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls. As little Barbie Handler and a friend dressed the cutouts in different outfits, they imagined their careers and personalities. Her mother’s quite feminist-sounding insight was that there were no three-dimensional dolls that let girls explore being grown women, only baby dolls that encouraged them to practice motherhood.
Handler and her husband, Elliot, were already running Mattel, a toy company they founded in their California garage in 1945. She ran the business, and he came up with the toys. Her proposal for a non-baby doll stalled until, traveling in Switzerland, she came upon a potential prototype. The Bild Lilli was a novelty toy, modeled on a blond vixen from a West German comic strip, that could be used to accessorize a grown man’s car, like Playboy-silhouette mud flaps. Handler brought some home as proof of concept. Manufacturers, retailers and even Mattel weren’t sure mothers would buy their daughters a toy with such a va-va-voom figure, but the company was advised by a famous Freudian marketing consultant that moms could be neutralized if they thought Barbie was teaching proper comportment. They might not like her sexual precocity, but they would put up with it to have her model mainstream femininity.
In 1959, Barbie, a “Teenage Fashion Doll” for 8- to 12-year-old girls, debuted in a black-and-white bathing suit. Soon she would be a fashion editor, nurse, flight attendant, “executive career girl” and astronaut, each in an exactingly crafted outfit, down to miniature zippers. Customers wanted her to have a boyfriend, and in 1961, Ken was introduced, named after the Handlers’ son. (Wedding dresses had been on sale since 1959.) Now customers wanted Barbie to have a baby.
Little girls can make Barbies play mothers quite seamlessly; almost any toy will do, including Mattel’s own Skipper, even though she’s supposed to be Barbie’s little sister. In all the hundreds of Barbie play sets that have been made, would one with her own child really have upended the fantasy? But Handler was a businesswoman with a complicated relationship to being a housewife — “Oh, [expletive], it was awful!” is a direct quote — and with what seems like the insistence of someone intimate with the stultification of child-rearing, she put her foot down. In 1963, the same year “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Mattel released a “Barbie Babysits!” play set instead. That Barbie has never had a child remains one of the most radical things about her.
Mattel had its troubles over the years — Ruth Handler resigned after financial improprieties that would lead to charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission (she had a second act manufacturing breast prostheses for cancer survivors), and in the 1980s the company took a cash infusion from the junk-bond king Michael Milken — but it was in the new millennium that Barbie faced existential threats. Namely, mothers began to defect. First a genuine competitor emerged: Bratz dolls dressed provocatively, mostly cared about shopping and had their own bizarre proportions, but they were sassy, fun and multiethnic. (Barbie had introduced Black, Hispanic and “Oriental” Barbies by 1981, but these remained secondary to the blond “close your eyes and picture a Barbie” Barbie.) By some estimates, Bratz took about a third of Barbie’s market share before being hamstrung by Mattel’s litigation.
By 2015, after years of declining figures, Barbie hit its lowest sales volume in a quarter century. A psychological study found that after playing with Barbies, girls thought themselves less capable of various careers than they did after playing with a control Mrs. Potato Head. Mattel’s own findings were dire: Customers thought the doll was shallow, materialistic, too perfect and not reflective of the world around her. Mothers didn’t feel comfortable giving Barbie as a gift at a birthday party. There had never been such fear, among the people who safeguard her, that Barbie might be staring down irrelevance.
So Mattel did something it had never needed to: It changed. In 2015, it began rolling out 100 different skin tones, hair textures, face shapes and eye colors, and four different body types for the flagship doll, which now comes in original, curvy, petite and tall. There has since been the introduction of a Barbie with vitiligo, a Barbie with Down syndrome, a bald Barbie and many others, plus a series modeled on inspiring women like Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and Billie Jean King.
As Mattel changed, it became clear that the world around Barbie had changed, too. Years of corporate feminism, girl bosses and girl power had defanged the second-wave critique; now feminists could look like anything, and some chose to look like Barbie. The classic blond doll remains a megaseller, but once she was inclusive and aspirational, appearing in animated shorts to tell young girls that overapologizing “is a learned reflex, and every time we do it, we take away from our self-confidence,” the whole high-femme thing wasn’t such a problem. Mothers started returning to the fold.
‘The story of Barbie is the fight that’s been going on about Barbie.’
When Gerwig visited Mattel’s very pink headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., in October 2019 for “brand immersion,” she learned about these changes for the first time. She also learned that, unlike when she was a child, there were no longer friend characters in the Barbie Universe. “All of these women are Barbie, and Barbie is all of these women,” she remembers the executives telling her. The same went for Ken. “But this is extraordinary!” Gerwig remembers thinking. “This is a very high spiritual work that they’ve done! You can sort of stumble into poetry, that selfhood is contained amongst all these people.”
She laughed when she told me this, but she was not laughing at it, which is precisely the tone of “Barbie.” When working on the sequence in which Barbie’s high-heeled foot falls flat, Robbie asked Gerwig how to play that moment: Is it a jolt? Is it painful? Gerwig told her: “You know that feeling where you’re like, ‘Huh, did I just get my period?’ Make that face.” Robbie, like everything else in the movie, is perfectly artificial and thoroughly genuine at the same time, flabbergasted by her misbehaving body and the gnarly emotions that come with it. When she shows her feet to her friends, one bellows, “Flat feet!” like a panicked bullfrog, and the Barbies all begin to operatically dry heave, with intense, hilariously over-the-top disgust. (The only reason they aren’t spewing vomit is that Gerwig and her colleagues decided there are no liquids in Barbieland.) “If we made fun of it, it falls apart,” Gerwig says. “We have to be totally sincere.”
Someone more cynical than Gerwig might have been less moved by Mattel’s corporate epiphany, 60 years into existence, that Barbie could sustain being a size 6, but cynicism is clearly not Gerwig’s way. After watching “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie,” the 2018 documentary chronicling Barbie’s transformation from the inside of Mattel, she was taken by how anxious the female employees were in the run-up to the public reveal of the doll’s updates. “It’s so amazing that they made these strides and yet there’s just this impossible gantlet of contradictions you have to be walking all the time,” she says. “Did they change it in the right way? Did they do it right? Was it good enough?” She wanted to home in on this feeling — that modern womanhood is the perpetual experience of not meeting someone’s standards, including your own — and flip it. “If Barbie has been a symbol of all the ways we’re not enough, the only thing that made sense to me to tackle in the movie was: How could we turn it to be enough?”
After Barbie is eviscerated by that real-world teenager, she’s way more distressed than when she left Barbieland. She thought she was adored, but in fact she is disdained, objectified, powerless. This is a lot for a doll, but the movie’s gambit is to point out that it is table stakes for a woman. The movie sidesteps whatever role Barbie might play in perpetuating a narrow, idealized femininity; instead it gives this particular Barbie a crash course in modern misogyny. After decades of fretting about girls’ wanting to be as perfect as Barbie, Gerwig serves up a Barbie struggling to be as resilient as us. This is the movie’s brazen magic trick. Barbie is no longer an avatar of women’s insufficiency, a projection of all we’re not; instead, she becomes a reflection of how hard — but worth it — it is to be all that we are.
Helping Barbie navigate her topsy-turvy new existence are other women. Some are already embedded in her history: Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman); a mother who used to play with Barbie (America Ferrera); the daughter those Barbies were passed on to (Ariana Greenblatt). But one is a stranger, a woman she notices while she sits on a bench, gathering herself. It’s a type of woman she has never seen before, because there are no old women in Barbieland. This woman is played by the 91-year-old, Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, a friend of Gerwig’s. (“Do you have many friends who are, like, 90? I do, weirdly. I have three real friends, not pretend friends, who are now 91, 90 and 91.”) When Barbie looks at her, she finds her beautiful and tells her so. The woman already knows. Suddenly Barbie, the fraught aspirational figure, has beheld someone she might aspire to be, and it is a radiantly content nonagenarian, reading a newspaper on a Los Angeles bench, who knows what she’s worth.
“The idea of a loving God who’s a mother, a grandmother — who looks at you and says, ‘Honey, you’re doing OK’ — is something I feel like I need and I wanted to give to other people,” Gerwig says. When it was suggested that this scene, which Gerwig calls a “transaction of grace,” might be cut for time, she remembers thinking: “If I cut that scene, I don’t know why I’m making this movie. If I don’t have that scene, I don’t know what it is or what I’ve done.”
Midway through “Barbie,” a Mattel employee receives a phone call from the F.B.I.: A Barbie is on the loose. One thing leads to another, and Barbie finds herself racing, action-comedy style, through Mattel headquarters, with the company’s entire executive corps in hot pursuit, eager to stuff her back into a life-size version of the pink box new Barbies come in.
As much as this set-piece owes to Gerwig and Baumbach’s sly imaginations, it owes something to Mattel too. This is a corporation that has historically been so protective of Barbie that it sued the band Aqua over the pop smash “Barbie Girl.” Now there is a Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice collaboration that samples “Barbie World” on the “Barbie” soundtrack. How does a company go from dispensing cease-and-desist letters to gamely lampooning itself?
As with the great Barbie makeover of 2015, the answer has to do with survival. After Barbie’s pivot, the brand was on better footing, but its parent company was not. In 2018, Mattel lost $533 million. Revenue had plunged $2 billion in five years, and the company had churned through three chief executives. The fourth was Ynon Kreiz, an Israeli-born businessman with a gleaming white smile, total message discipline and a history working in entertainment, not toys. Kreiz had a vision for a turnaround: Mattel would restructure, cut costs and stop being a toy company. “We used to think of ourselves and present ourselves as a manufacturing company,” he told me. “The specialty was: We make items. Now we are an I.P. company that is managing franchises.”
If these are business-speak talking points, they are also the reason “Barbie” exists. Mattel has previously made the kind of predictable entertainments a toy company makes — straightforward pro-Barbie material like successful animated shows for kids. But when Kreiz took charge, that kind of propaganda was not working broadly enough. He and his colleagues now say the same things over and over. That Barbie is not a toy; she is a pop-culture icon. That she does not have customers; she has fans. If you take that seriously, it outlines how to proceed. An icon who wants to stay at the center of the culture can’t keep putting out the same old thing and suing anyone who riffs on it. She has to stay current.
So, six weeks into the job, Kreiz met with Margot Robbie, who had been keeping an eye on the Barbie rights and whose production company had a relationship with Warner Brothers. He also hired a veteran film producer, Robbie Brenner, who had made movies like “Dallas Buyers Club,” to head up Mattel films. Brenner has since assembled a master list of 45 Mattel properties that could be adapted, including Hot Wheels, He-Man, Polly Pocket and Uno; a number are currently in development, with talent including Tom Hanks, Daniel Kaluuya and Lena Dunham.
As Kreiz is quick to point out, using I.P. to drive a business is not an original strategy. Look at Disney, an I.P. company that sells loads of toys. (Mattel, despite no longer thinking of itself as a “manufacturing company,” has the contract to produce Disney Princess toys.) Look at the closest thing “Barbie” has to a blueprint: “The Lego Movie,” which has grossed $468 million. (It, too, features toys reckoning with the ways in which they’re being played.) Look at Hasbro and the “Transformers” franchise (while averting your eyes from “Battleship”). Look, even, at Mattel, back before Kreiz came aboard. A Barbie movie had been in development, with Universal and then Sony, since 2009, around the time Mattel allowed Barbie to appear in Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.” But the project always fell through, even with talent like Anne Hathaway and Amy Schumer attached. In Schumer’s script, Barbie was an inventor kicked out of Barbieland for not being perfect enough. Schumer has said she knew the Sony project wouldn’t work after she got a note suggesting that the invention that gets Barbie exiled ought to be Jell-O high heels.
Despite Mattel’s attempt to adopt a cucumber-cool corporate attitude for Gerwig’s “Barbie,” it still did plenty of internal white-knuckling. There was consternation over the innuendos about Ken’s sexual orientation, and it’s not as if they didn’t notice the film joking about the company’s male leadership. (Will Ferrell, playing the chief executive, defends himself as “the nephew of a female aunt.”) “Oh, my God, did I have anxiety,” says Richard Dickson, the president and chief operating officer, who has been at the company for almost 20 years. When he read the part of the script where the teenager eviscerates Barbie, he says, he was sure it needed to be different. They had done so much work to put this critique behind them; why bring it up? After weeks of discussion, he reached out to Gerwig. He and a group of executives flew to London, where the movie was being filmed. His attitude on arriving, he says, was, “like: ‘This page is changing! We can rewrite it right here!’” But after watching Gerwig and Robbie read the scene, he says, “I was so embarrassed.” Acknowledging the critique and co-signing the critique, he saw, were not the same. It’s one thing to insult a plastic doll sold by a giant corporation, but it’s quite another to throw those words into Margot Robbie’s wide-eyed face. Gerwig has, literally, humanized Barbie. And Barbie, the big-hearted naïf, is brought to tears by all the unexpectedly harsh things humans think about her.
Everyone at Mattel adores the movie. They are using it to slather Barbie — the icon, not just the product — across the globe. This movie is full of lovingly showcased dolls, accessories, outfits, speedboats and tandem bicycles; there is a parade of short-lived dolls from Barbie history, like Earring Magic Ken, and the Barbie with a TV embedded in her back, and the Skipper whose breasts grew when you moved her arms. Yet many of these items are not available anywhere but eBay. The movie is dream product placement, but you cannot buy many of the products it places. It is Barbie the concept that is inescapable: Barbie pink, “Barbie” merch, Barbie tie-ins, Barbie licensing partnerships for rugs, candles, nail polish, frozen yogurt, pool floats, insurance and video-game consoles.
This is the bet: that a good movie will drive near-infinite brand synergies. It will make other talent keen to work in the Mattel Cinematic Universe. It will expand Barbie’s demographic appeal. It will launder the doll and her content universe for naysayers and those still on the fence. It will make Barbie so omnipresent that children will turn to the adults in their life and say, “I want a Barbie doll,” and the adults will not wince. Kreiz is very clear on this: If the movie works, it will sell toys. That just couldn’t be the starting point. People would see through it. So Mattel let Gerwig toy with its crown property, teasing the corporate mothership and winking at Ken’s sexual orientation, and in exchange it got a movie that should serve its purposes better than any advertisement ever could.
We have come this far without attending to Ken, which is the predicament of Ken. While I was working on this article, I had Barbie books scattered around the house, and whenever my 6-year-old daughter saw a picture of Ken, she would push the book away in disgust and say, “EWWWWW, KEN!” When Gerwig first spoke with Ryan Gosling about playing the role, he told her that his daughters had a Ken and that he once found it beneath a rotting lemon. Both of these things are very Ken.
In the funhouse-mirror world that is Barbieland, Barbies have all the power, and the Kens are their accessories. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Kens are the women of Barbieland. It’s just that no one is objectifying them, because no one has the genitalia to make lust a thing. Ken would like a chaste good-night kiss anyway, but Barbie would prefer he leave, so he always does. When Ken hitches a ride into the real world, his experience is as eye-opening as Barbie’s. She learns how difficult it is to be a woman. He learns how great it is to be a man. Ken gets red-pilled on patriarchy.
Gosling spent a year demurring about the role. “There were times where I was sure I wasn’t doing the film,” he recalls. “I would call my agent and ask who was playing Ken. And they would say, ‘Greta says you are.’” Eventually he committed: “She was just, in the end, more confident that I should play him than I was that I shouldn’t.” During that year of talking and the preparation that followed, it became clear that Ken needed an additional beat, some catharsis that wasn’t in the script. If you are making a movie that is trying to take the contradictions of modern womanhood seriously and you have a character in your movie who cannot define himself or understand his own worth — a character who kicks sand all day hoping just to be looked at by someone with power — you have to take that plight seriously, even if the character is male. You don’t have to do this because Mattel or Warner Brothers is insisting. You have to do this because the movie is insisting.
So it became clear: Ken needed a dream dance number. (Gerwig shrugs: “I like dream ballets, and I like mothers.”) She has a habit of referring to “Barbie” as a musical, and that’s not wildly inaccurate: It has a soundtrack, overseen by Mark Ronson, of original pop songs, and another big choreographed dance number besides Ken’s. Gerwig screened musicals for the entire cast, and she thinks of the Mattel executives in the movie as being something like tuxedo-clad 1930s tap dancers. But there is only one character who breaks out into a power ballad, and it is Ken. “I’m just Ken/Anywhere else I’d be a 10,” Gosling wails as he heads to a Ken-on-Ken beach battle that leads to a Ken-and-Ken dream ballet that ultimately allows Ken to realize that he is “Kenough.”
It is not a coincidence that the moment Gerwig singled out as always surprising her — the one that makes her think, “why did they let us do this?” — is the one that involves the Kens riding their invisible horses to their Mojo Dojo Casa Houses, after the dream ballet, after they have stormed the Barbieland beach and fought with lacrosse sticks and suction-cup arrows. It is in those moments that the movie has most completely slipped the bounds of anything a Barbie movie needed to do, shooting past the critique, and the subversion of the critique, and the upending, sidestepping, teasing and embracing of the critique, to go off into its own orbit. Liftoff has been achieved. Ken has momentarily run away with the picture.
“Barbie” is a gigantic endeavor with hundreds of stakeholders and thousands of details, every single one of which has been obsessed over. (I haven’t even told you about Barbieland’s seven suns, so no one is ever in shadow, or Ken’s black leather fringe vest and fanny pack with “Ken” emblazoned on it in the Metallica font!) This movie is a big, honking summer tent pole that has been finessed into a gulp of delectable entertainment that hits every single one of its marks. But the surprising thing about “Barbie” is not that it pulls off the difficult task of doing everything it needed to do; it’s that it does something it didn’t need to at all: It feels as if it was made by an actual person.
Yes, that person has her cake and eats it, too, dozens of times over, in this film. It’s in how “Barbie” name-checks “rampant consumerism” as a sin and then makes every piece of plastic gleam so gorgeously that it feels as if the Pacific Garbage Patch might be worth it. It’s in how Barbieland is full of insidious flaws — it’s literally a panopticon — and yet it’s going to sell a billion Dreamhouses. It’s in how the movie insists that everyone is beautiful but contains no one even slightly plain. It’s in how the movie speaks directly to women, mothers in particular, about the impossibility of perfection, so we can feel great about buying perfect Barbies for our babies. But maybe the most unexpected is that at the end of this movie, which will most likely glorify this doll for generations to come, Barbie finds herself echoing with her critics. Like those 1970s feminists, she does not want to be a perfect, plastic doll, however difficult it may be to live outside a box.
Gerwig loves Barbie, but she knows Barbie has made people feel bad, as if they don’t measure up. And so she has made this 113-minute love letter to Barbie that is also an earnest attempt to make amends. This is the most subversive thing about the movie, this extratextual notion that Barbie might have things to make amends for. There is no reason Gerwig in particular should be the one trying to make those amends, except that she wanted to — to take an immense, divisive toy brand and bend it to the heartfelt and counterintuitive purpose of making women feel good.
It’s a testament to Gerwig’s singular earnestness — a level of sincerity unavailable to many of us — that using Barbie to affirm the worth of ordinary women feels, to her, quasi religious. She told me that when she was growing up, her Christian family’s closest friends were observant Jews; they vacationed together and constantly tore around each other’s homes. She would also eat with them on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner, where blessings were sung in Hebrew, including over the children at the table. May God bless you and protect you. May God show you favor and be gracious to you. May God show you kindness and grant you peace. Every Friday the family’s father would rest his hand on Gerwig’s head, just as he did on his own children’s, and bless her too.
“I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that,’” Gerwig told me. “ ‘You are a child of God. I put my hand over you, and I bless you as a child of God at this table. And that’s your value.’ I remember feeling so safe in that and feeling so, like, enough.” She imagines people going to the temple of the movies to see “Barbie” on a hot summer day, sitting in the air-conditioned dark, feeling transported, laughing, maybe crying, and then coming out into the bright heat. “I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner,” she said. “I want them to get blessed.”
Stylist: Valentina Collado; prop stylist: Ariana Salvato; hair: Rutger; makeup: Francelle Daly; clothing: Isabel Marant, the Row, Proenza Schouler.
Willa Paskin is a writer and the host of the Slate podcast “Decoder Ring,” a narrative series about cracking cultural mysteries. Inez and Vinoodh are art and fashion photographers who have been working together for 37 years.