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How ‘Authentic Artificiality’ and the Bimbo Saved Barbie

9 min read

Warner Bros

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

When the first teaser trailer for (2023) dropped online in December 2022, a clear statement was made – drop all preconceived notions of what a Barbie movie looks like, because this is not the film you thought it was going to be.

Audiences were treated to images of a rust-red sunset and sparse rocky terrain, where little girls in earth coloured smocks absent-mindedly played with their baby dolls. Accompanied by a familiar trembling score, it soon became clear that this trailer was a shot-for-shot parody of the famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Instead of primitive ape's being enthralled by a mysterious monolith however, we saw little girls encountering their first adult doll in the form of a gargantuan , wearing the outfit of the very first Barbie ever produced by Mattel.

With a script co-written by and Noah Baumbach, perhaps the idea of aligning Barbie with the work of should not have come as much of a surprise. Yet, even with Gerwig and Baumbach's equally esteemed film reputations, the pairing of one of the most revered and dissected films of all time and what many would consider the ultimate air-head material girl was, at the very least, unexpected.

Since her first outing in 1959, Barbie has taken on many different roles. In the eyes of Mattel, this list is proudly populated with professions such as Astronaut, Surgeon, Olympic Swimmer and Pilot, to name just a few. Within the cultural sphere however, Barbie's resume has been significantly less aspirational, having long held the symbolic positions of the archetypal ‘dumb blonde', the face of white beauty standards, and, in more general terms, the CEO of all that is to be derided about femininity.

Given this long-standing reputation, it has been interesting to see how little of the controversy associated with Barbie has followed her into her first theatrical release. Some might say it's simply the power of a huge conglomerate like Mattel, who maintain their ownership of Barbie as an IP. Although Mattel's influence is not irrelevant in Barbie's success, it would be remiss to not also acknowledge the creative forces behind the film, and the way in which they have approached their subject matter with just as much respect as one would a Stanley Kubrick film.

Since the marketing campaign began, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not the only unexpectedly high-brow reference that we have seen associated with the world of Barbie. From the red pill (Birkenstock), blue pill (high heel) nod to The Matrix (1999), to The Wizard of Oz (1939) cinema posters and pink brick road, to even Moby Dick (or ‘Moby Barbie' as it appears in the film), it's clear that Gerwig was not just looking to the Mattel archives for inspiration – in fact, Gerwig recently spoke to Letterboxd about all 33 highly acclaimed films that informed the making of Barbie.

What's particularly satisfying about the references we've seen so far is that rather than feeling like a limp appeal to those who would otherwise look down on Barbie, instead they have appeared as magical moments of intrigue, sending the internet spinning with delight. In any case, from what we already know about Barbie's fish-out-of-water, world-crossing plot, references to media like The Matrix and Moby Dick etc. are simply the product of an esteemed director showing her workings, that should really only feel misplaced to those who cannot see beyond the pink-surface level.

As implied in the teaser trailer, Barbie has been presented as a cultural monolith of femininity since her first debut. Considering this, what is perhaps most satisfying about Gerwig's seemingly slick see-sawing between the aforementioned ‘high-brow' references and the ‘low-brow' world of Barbie dolls is that many of these films have historically been gate-keeped within ‘film-bro' culture. As a general rule, it often seems the case that art that is considered cultured or intellectual is coded as masculine, whereas anything viewed as a ‘guilty pleasure' is coded feminine. One has only to look at the number of films written about or by women included on ‘best of all time' lists to see the real-world implications of this bias.

A film that has certainly never appeared in Sight and Sound's Greatest Films of All Time Critics Poll – but one that has definitely kept Barbie's seat at the cinema warm until now – is (2001). What this film undoubtedly does excel at however, is exploring the prejudice that the popular interests of women and young girls somehow act as a barometer for low value art and culture.

From her 4.0 GPA, to her 179 LSAT test score, to her incredible take-down of a shop assistant who, mistaking her for a ‘dumb blonde with Daddy's plastic', attempts to sell her a reduced dress for full price, it's clear from the moment we meet Elle Woods that she's an intelligent woman. Not only is she highly knowledgeable about the subjects she has studied, but she knows how to apply this knowledge to her advantage. The titular joke of the film then, that this ‘dumb blonde's transformation from sorority girl to professional lawyer is particularly radical, actually becomes less and less of a convincing hook as the film goes on. From the viewer's perspective, the only real difference between Elle's early battle with the shop assistant and the film's climactic court case is the type of verbal weapons she yields. It just so happens that her knowledge as a fashion student of ‘half loop stitch[es] on low-viscosity rayon' is considered substantially less impressive than the legal jargon of a law student, and, more crucially, that one of these subjects is considered ‘girly' and the other isn't.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Flash forward to the summer of 2023, and Barbie is having one of the most successful lead-ups to its release of any film in recent memory – and people are revelling in the girliness of it all. In many ways, this celebration speaks to the current resurgence of 2000s ‘bimbo' culture – the micro-mini, butterfly clipped girlish looks of Y2K have come back around in the cycle of fashion trends; both Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian have recreated scenes from Legally Blonde as part of their own respective brands; even Jennifer Coolidge is (finally) getting the recognition she deserves. There has also been a wave of women popular in the late nineties/early noughties (Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson etc.) who, after being set up to fail by the public's simultaneous desire for and rejection of femininity, are finally getting to re-write their narratives within public discourse.

It goes without saying that what laid the groundwork for this important moment of restorative feminism was the #metoo and Times Up movement in Hollywood, that has likewise allowed more space for upcoming female directors and producers in Hollywood to make more female-centred cinema – enter Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie.

After the film rights to Barbie were acquired by Warner Brothers in 2018, Margot Robbie managed to broker a deal to make the film under her production company LuckyChap, with Gerwig and Baumbach signed on to co-write the script with complete creative control. This achievement is all the more impressive when looking back to 2014, when of quick-witted feminist hit Juno (2007) was recruited by Sony to try and make a Barbie film happen, with Amy Schumer signed on to play the eponymous doll. Talking about this experience with GQ, Cody explained she “didn't really have the freedom then to write something that was faithful to the iconography; they wanted a girl-boss feminist twist on Barbie, and I couldn't figure it out because that's not what Barbie is.”

As acknowledged by Cody, in 2014 the culture had not yet “embraced the femme or the bimbo as valid feminist archetypes yet” – still on the heels of Legally Blonde, the thoughts of finding something meaningful in the plastic fantastic was a struggle. Ironically, it has been the reverent attention to the surface-level nature of Barbie from both Gerwig and Robbie that seems to have supplied a film that is wholly dedicated to a deeper meaning. As stated by Gerwig in a profile with The Gentlewoman, “What we've come to with Barbie is that it is authentically artificial”.

This approach can be seen in the absolute commitment to the world-building of the film – be it in the now iconic shot of Robbie's feet stepping out of their heels and maintaining their arched form; the costumes that have been taken straight from real dolls in the Mattel archive; or the fact that any writing you see in Barbieland is going to be in scrawled gibberish because, at the end of the day, these are dolls that are being played with by children. But you can also see this ‘authentic artificiality' take on a deeper meaning in the film when hearing how Gerwig was convinced into taking on the project because she was interested in the philosophical implications of all the Barbie's having the same name. Similarly, when thinking about how to embody Barbie as a character, and in particular her sexuality, Robbie explained to Vogue that, given Barbie has no reproductive organs, she also wouldn't have any kind of sexual impulses or desires – “She is sexualized. But she should never be sexy. People can [only] project sex onto her.” These details that are crucial to Barbie's identity – both her homogeneity and her plastic, hollow body – are equally and unavoidably tied to the ways in which she is both ridiculed and abhorred as the face of femininity. Yet the ways in which Gerwig and Robbie have managed to turn these details into quite radically intelligent character interpretations – merely just by paying attention to them – says a lot about what this film might have to offer by way of its own restorative female narrative.

Part of the irony highlighted by Legally Blonde, both within its narrative and its position as a film trapped in the critical wasteland of the chick-flick genre, is the double-bind women often face when it comes to femininity and its stereotypes. Especially in 2001, the way in which the marketing of films like Legally Blonde were so heavily shoved down women's throats, it's unsurprising their unruly grouping developed a name like ‘chick-flick'. And yet, to any woman who admits to seeing any merit within a film like Legally Blonde, shame on her and her undeveloped taste. What feels exciting about Gerwig and Robbie's approach to Barbie is that it begs the question – why has it historically been those who are able to see the joy and meaning in what others deem superficial that are branded ‘dumb', and not those who fail to do so?

Warner Bros

Thankfully, one has only to look at the insatiable influx of ‘Barbenheimer' memes, which beautifully fuse both Barbie and Oppenheimer (2023) into a dissipation of the high-brow/low-brow binary and its gendered implications, to feel hopeful about a new cultural era. Although it's encouraging to see that Barbie is not being disparaged for its unabashed femininity, there are those who are criticising the film for being just another piece of capitalist marketing dressed as art, and – especially after the news that she has signed on to direct two Narnia films – accusing Gerwig for selling out. It's not that these criticisms do not hold any weight, just as the concerns about Barbie's perpetuation of white beauty standards are also important to consider, and yet disregarding the central subject matter entirely does not seem to be the answer either. Addressing the soured feminist reputation of Barbie in recent years, Gerwig told Rolling Stone that it was important to address this in the film, “not [to] give it short shrift, but give it real intellectual and emotional power. And Mattel was incredibly open to it. I said, “We have to explore it, because it's a lie any other way. And we can't make it a lie.”

From what we have seen so far, the real beauty to be found in Barbie seems to be the way in which the film doesn't hide from the truth of its titular doll, whether it's her rocky political past or her plastic frame. Concerns about where cinema's relationship with big brand IPs is going are certainly warranted, especially in light of the current WGA and SAG strikes, but given what feels to be their fairly unprecedented negotiations with Mattel, it feels hopeful to at least have players like Gerwig and Robbie in the game. Only time will tell if Barbie lives up to its incredible hype, but at the very least, having a laugh and a cry whilst watching the world through a rose-tinted screen seems like as good an idea as any.