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Film Review: Barbie

Greta, I think I forgive you. Not sure yet. You had an opportunity to change the more -than-sixty-year course of Barbie's destruction of the American girl's sense of self. And, you have the depth to do the job. I think maybe you phoned it in.

I have a lot to say about this movie. But we can’t approach the film without talking about its context. We have to go back to the beginning. Barbie first came to stores on March 9, 1959. For $3, you could get a blonde or brunette. As the story goes, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, had been traveling through Europe with her children, Barbara and Kenneth, and found a doll in Germany that inspired her. It was an adult-figured, fashion-focused doll called Bild Lilli, and it wasn’t marketed to children. Ruth had already been envisioning an alternative to the baby-type dolls that were common at the time, and this German doll struck a chord with her. So she bought three of them, brought them home, and the rest is toy history. Should I bother to mention it was a sex doll for adults? Naw, I will leave that part alone.

Today, more than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold. It is the company's most profitable line. One billion. Take a moment.

Batman is another Mattel doll. Know how many Batman movies there are? And do you know how many Batman action figures (the ‘boy version’ of a doll) have been sold? Not a billion, I promise you. Take Superman—care to guess how many movies he’s been in? And how many of his action figures have been sold? I assume you see where I’m going with this.

The Barbie movie is the first-ever live-action film to feature the character. A billion dolls sold. Her first major theatrical release. First we have to ask why it's the first film with Barbie as the star? Might it be because men determine what gender super heroes are, and they don't see women as super-heroes?

What an opportunity this could have been. What could have been done here? What should have been done here? And what did Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach do? They made a silly, supposed-to-be-clever film about a stupid Barbie going through her life like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Now, The Truman Show is a great movie and a good one to pull from, but with all of Barbie’s historical context, this film had a responsibility to do justice to greater issues and give us something more than a frivolous comedy full of pink, flashing moments and dumb Ken dolls. The ‘tension’ rises when she suddenly becomes flat-footed (horrors!) and has to go to the ‘real world’ to find out how to fix it, eventually ending up in the testosterone-filled Mattel boardroom where she realizes that the whole premise of her life—that women can do anything, and that boys are just toys on the side—was a lie. But as she sets out to right that wrong, it becomes clear that the film can’t right its own wrongs, and is ultimately more damaging than helpful to the cause of body image adjustment in young girls.

Let’s start with that premise of the film. Barbies can do anything. They can be astronauts. They can be doctors. They are proficient in riding snowmobiles. So why haven’t we ever seen Barbie actually be a doctor on the screen? We’ve dressed her up in the clothing and accessories—but in media, she’s still a ditzy princess. We don’t have movies with Barbie doing any of the things we dressed her up as. More than a billion sold, and not one of the men in charge of developing franchise action-figure films (imagine Barbie as an action figure film franchise) thought she was worthy of a film in which she gets to live out an ambitious, fulfilled life that the accessories sold with her suggest is possible. Shocking.

I got my first Barbie when they first came out. I was six years old. I dressed her up in the fabulous, life-like, expensive grown-up clothes that my mother didn’t wear. My friends and I exchanged clothes and accessorized together. For hours. Some of those items have become extremely sought after. One of the most valuable is the ‘real’ mink stole that came out in 1964. It was only sold at Sears for about $8 to $10; if you find one in your basement, you can sell it on eBay today for thousands of dollars.

It was never her body that I focused on. It was always about her clothes. And her house. And her car. It gave me a glimpse into the life of the rich, and I couldn’t have cared less about the deformed body that no one actually had. No one. Or so I thought when I looked back at my history.

Statistics say I'm wrong. Girls develop their sense of body image between the ages of six and eleven, which is Barbie time. Those who play with Barbies have a substantially lower sense of personal body image and spend the rest of their lives focused on a body for themselves that was never meant to be. The damage? Unmeasurable.

Historical groundwork laid. Back to the movie.

Barbie, the film, moves fast, in quick flashes, which suits the modern attention span. It has cool music mixed with colorful vignettes, like when stupid Ken tries to go surfing and the wave, which is really a solid prop, sends him flying back to the set, landing on his ass. It has girls today filled with disdain for what Barbie represented, and how she has manipulated girls for the past sixty years. It has a male-ridden board room of idiots, and it has Barbie fighting to make her belief that she rules the world into a reality. It’s also boring and predictable. But most important is the fact that it does nothing to expose the true damage done to girls by this toy. It's a waste of your time and if you take a young tween to it, you risk cementing the Barbie image as her potential forevermore.

Barbie is not worthy of what Team Greta is capable of creating. Her nuanced version of Little Women is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of that book ever made. I loved how she updated the story to bring new texture to Louisa May Alcott’s ideas, which have taught girls like me lifelong lessons of service, family, and waiting for the right love. And, how she helped me see more deeply into the girl's characters was close to genius. God, it was great. She has the capacity to deep sea dive and do it while telling a story, which is the best way to learn, or to expose wrongs and challenges.

What could she have done instead, you ask?

How about a Barbie who goes to ‘reality’ after five minutes, not after one long, dizzying hour of la-la land with one large girl in a sea of 'perfect' Barbies, which is what we got. How about she can’t find anyone who is a mirror of herself, but realizes that she, as a leader of a billion girls who have gone before her, who have bought into and looked up to her, can be a mirror to others. She embarks on a march around the world to make Mattel re-make her in the image of girls everywhere. And they do—and the world is a better place. That would have been worthy of my time.

I could come up with other plots, but I’m too busy trying to undo the damage that the Mattels of the world have done, and are doing still to my self image, and those of the girls I love who have come after me.

Do not take your children to this movie. Do not watch this movie. Do not give Mattel (the company is a co-producer) one more dollar than they have already made off this ridiculous doll. The fact that Mattel isn’t worried in the least about how they appear in this film, which they are raking in money from, reveals their certainty that we billion Barbie buyers are as dumb as she was at the beginning of the movie. The fact that it's an infomercial for the brand makes me sick.

Lastly, I can’t write this without mentioning what was, for me, the movie’s most disturbing moment. At one point, Barbie is talking about how she doesn’t feel pretty or worthy, and Helen Mirren, the film’s narrator, says, “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” Really? Greta, not your finest moment. Margot Robbie’s value is in her looks? Margot should have insisted they remove this. She is not a Barbie doll, only valued for her body. She is an actor, a fine one, who played the role they wrote for her brilliantly, although I wish she had chosen to walk away realizing it was only meant to magnify the Barbie cycle of false expectation and psychological damage.

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