The problem, it turns out, was the fleeting image of a line on a map ostensibly supporting illegal Chinese claims in the South China Sea. It probably flashed past unnoticed by 99% of the audience and uncomprehended by the rest.
Much harder to miss, though, was the movie’s strong social statement, which could be interpreted in various ways. And that, frankly, is why it’s taken me so long to figure out just what to say.
The good news, I suppose, is that by now so many of you have already seen or read about the movie that the following spoilers won’t spoil anything at all. Nonetheless, I beg that you be firmly forewarned.
The film, as you probably know, begins in an idealized world controlled by women (the Barbies) in which men (the mindless Kens) serve entirely at their pleasure. Ah, but then something goes wrong; the star Barbie starts having irrepressibly dark thoughts about aging and death. And so she and her favorite Ken doll travel to the so-called “real world” where—horror of horrors—both are shocked to discover that men rule, and women serve.
Ken feels inspired enough to lead a patriarchal revolution upon his return to the fantastical Barbieland. But Barbie, well, not so much; she eventually oversees a counterrevolution, restoring feminist rule to the world of her creation.
On the level of sheer entertainment, it’s hard not to like this movie; it’s creative, imaginative, fancifully written, excellently choreographed, and beautifully portrayed. The takeaways, however, are far less clear. The movie seems to set up a fictional world based on exaggerated gender stereotypes long-since abandoned—if ever fully embraced—by most intelligent people. Then triumphantly destroys them in favor of their opposite extremes.
And, as if that weren’t confusing enough, conflicting reactions to the film by people I respect range from denouncing it as cheap feminist male-bashing trash, to hailing it as endearingly transcendent. And that’s when it dawned on me that the only way Barbie makes any sense at all is as a work of noble satire.
“What Barbie teaches us about the beauty of growing old,” reads the headline of a Los Angeles Times column. Recalling a scene in which Barbie tells a white-haired 91-year-old woman sitting on a park bench that “you’re so beautiful,” columnist Steve Lopez reports that, asked to remove the scene, director Greta Gerwig refused, calling it “the heart of the movie.”
“So, in addition to saying something about motherhood and feminism,” Lopez concludes, “it seems that Gerwig wanted to comment on our youth-obsessed culture.”
For me, though, the most conclusive evidence of the film’s worthy intentions is Barbie’s ultimate decision to return to the real world rather than remain in the ultra-feminized Barbieland of her own creation. In the final scene, fashionably dressed in business attire, she struts into an extensive building where, the audience believes, she is about to begin a high-powered career. But no, instead the famous former plastic doll proudly announces that she’s come to see her gynecologist.
The unavoidable conclusion: Barbie has become a real woman.
On the way home from the theater, I couldn’t resist making a quick stop to buy my three-year-old daughter her first Barbie doll. She truly adored it. Hopefully, though, she won’t need a doll to convince her that the choices she makes in life needn’t be governed by the exaggerated, outmoded, and rejected gender stereotypes most of us have come to abhor.
David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon and Lazada. An award-winning author, journalist, and radio broadcaster, he is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.