This Barbie’s Not Buying It: On Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’

Fair warning: this is a critique of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Do you want to get swept up in the eye candy of pure-color sets and Chanel costumes, hypnotized by the scrumptious choreographed dances, moved to tears by Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) meaning-making? If so, you may want to come back and read this after you’ve watched the movie. That way you can laugh at all the absurd moments and cry at all the meaningful moments of the movie without the frustrating self-awareness that I had. “It doesn’t even believe itself!” I thought grumpily, removing my fogged glasses to wipe the tears from my cheeks while some stranger’s boyfriend snored in the seat next to mine.

What can I say better than Jessica Defino? Probably ill-advisedly, I read her Substack post, ‘Barbie Has Cellulite (But You Don’t Have To)’, before going to see the movie.

In her essay, Jessica points out that despite whatever message Barbie-the-movie has for us, Barbie-the-marketing-event has the exact opposite message. Despite Greta’s claim that she is both “doing the thing and subverting the thing,” the subversion is an aesthetic lure into the very thing it proclaims to subvert. By way of Barbie, Mattel has collaborated with hundreds of beauty brands to sell us things we need to meet the beauty standards Barbie claims to overcome.

But I’m not here to rewrite Jessica’s essay. (It’s worth reading, though, so I’ve linked to it below.) My FF2 editor knows my preference for sharing very chilled takes to hot ones; I tend not to write about a work until I’ve consumed it at least twice. When she asked if I was interested in covering Barbie, she added a caveat: “It’s a timely subject, so we’ll need a fairly quick turnaround.”

“No problem!” I said: “Movie theater vibes and first impressions.”

Movie Theater Vibes

We couldn’t get our schedules to align, so the ticket I bought for my friend, after exchanging it twice for different showtimes at different theaters, went unused. Instead, I exchanged the tickets once more and got a matinee: 4:30 pm on Friday, at the movie theater in the mall.

Because it was in the mall, I got to stop by Sephora first, and drop $74.04 on hair oil and pimple patches. This felt thematically appropriate, and also outrageous. Because I went alone, I didn’t have anyone to photograph me in front of the installation that featured a pink neon sign: Come on Barbie, let’s go party! Instead, I watched the parade of Barbie-wear pose. Pink cow print, pink knee highs, pink—honestly, I was so overwhelmed by it all, I forget.

Inside the theater, I stood in a quarter-mile long line for concessions because I had forgotten to pack a water bottle and snacks. Eventually I realized I could use my phone to order a $7.50 bottle of Dasani and pick it up right before the movie started, without having to wait in line.

I wandered into a bathroom that smelled like weed, where I reapplied lip gloss while waiting for my Dasani to be ready. Two stoned teenagers hurtled insults at each other, then tried to decide what to do next. “We should go on more adventures,” one of them said. I wanted to ask what movie they’d seen, but they terrified me. They could have been there to see Barbie or to see Oppenheimer, and I wouldn’t have been surprised either way.

Despite my frustrations with patriarchal beauty standards, a fresh cut and balayage the day after seeing Barbie elevates my mood. Click on image to enlarge.

First Impressions

The first thing I noticed were the trailers for upcoming movies. Two biopics, one about a tennis-centric love triangle and one about gamers-turned-race-car-drivers. The tennis one is probably out for an Oscar. Then I finally got to see the trailer for Wonka (which is as bad as everyone on my Instagram feed says it is). Disney is remaking Haunted Mansion, a movie that came out back when I was going to the theater with my friends every weekend… Was that really 20 years ago? Of course, there’s a superhero movie in the mix. The last trailer was for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which won’t sell as many cosmetics as Barbie will, but will definitely sell toys!

Barbie hadn’t even started and I was already disappointed. I haven’t been to the movies much lately, but I remember it being so much more exciting than this. These movies, mostly remakes and callbacks, seem bent on either winning awards or selling something. But I guess this is what I get for going to the movie theater in the mall.

Okay, I know I’m leaving you a little high and dry on the Barbie front. But maybe that’s because I’m feeling, lately, like less of a Barbie every day. Since I moved to California four years ago, my body has changed significantly, in ways I should have expected but never believed would happen to me.

Almost worse than the feelings of shock and dismay upon seeing myself photographed in profile or finding what could be a grey hair in my temple, are the feelings about the feelings of shock and dismay. Me? Caring about the patriarchy’s unachievable, youth-driven, “buy more to fix yourself!” beauty standards? But I don’t shave my legs or pits! I only wear makeup when I feel like it! How could I care about this?

I’m not just ashamed of my body. I’m ashamed of my shame about my body! The patriarchy is, I’m sure, delighted.

Late in the movie, Gloria (America Ferrera) —a human from the human world, not a doll from Barbieland—captures the attention of Mattel’s executive team. “What about Ordinary Barbie?” she suggests, describing a doll who wears a “flattering top” and is just trying to make it through the day. To see America Ferrera, with her perfect figure and perfect eyebrows and perfect skin, presented as the ordinary woman on whom Ordinary Barbie could be based was kind of devastating.

My Haircut

Today, I went to the salon, a task I delight in but for financial reasons have put off for the last six months. “My power is in my hair,” I tell myself to justify the money I spend on it. “Besides, Eden is a talented artist, and she deserves what I pay her.” Certainly, the latter is true. The former is, too, in the sense that my hair—when I give money to Eden so she’ll work her magic on it—achieves the unnatural standards that the patriarchy sets for it, thus giving me the social power that patriarchy allows.

But when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror after arriving home, I laughed with relief. “There I am!” I thought. “This Barbie’s back!”

© Hannah Lamb-Vines (7/25/23) Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE / DO MORE

Read Jessica Defino’s take on Barbie brand collaborations. (Seriously! Read it! It’s so good!)

Here’s an excerpt to whet your palette:

“[Y]ou cannot subvert the politics of Barbie while preserving the beauty standards of Barbie. The beauty standards are the politics, or at least part of them. (And yes, sure, Gerwig’s cast is diverse — but it’s diverse in the seemingly expansive but ultimately narrow way of modern industry marketing, which embraces every body as a means to position every body as needing correction: white skin and brown skin, but always clear skin; cis bodies and trans bodies, but always hairless bodies; red lips and bare lips, but always full lips — parting to reveal perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth; younger actresses and older actresses, but always eerily ageless actresses.)”

Read more about Mattel and the history of Barbie dolls here.

Learn more about Margot Robbie in our SWAN of the Day celebration here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: America Ferrera at the London Photo Call. Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Middle Photo: Author Hannah Lamb-Vines with her new Barbie haircut. Photo courtesy of Hannah.

Bottom Photo: MARGOT ROBBIE as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BARBIE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tags: America Ferrera, Barbenheimer, Barbie, Greta Gerwig, Hannah Lamb-Vines, Jessica Defino, Margot Robbie, Mattel, Oppenheimer

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Hannah Lamb-Vines is a writer, editor, and library worker in the Bay area. She received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in 2021. Her poetry has been published in or is forthcoming from Columbia Journal, HAD, Black Telephone Magazine, Shit Wonder, and Bennington Review, among others. She is an interviews editor for Full Stop magazine.
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