Notes on Barbie, Oppenheimer, and The Bear
Barbie is a billion-dollar hit because it looks fantastic, it has a brilliant cast, and it’s very funny. I could just stop there, but of course I won’t.
I went to see Barbie weeks after it opened and months after the beginning of its ubiquitous, pinkly attritional promotional campaign. This was not ideal. I don’t like having a head full of opinions when I enter the cinema. I look for a few signals to tell me whether a film is worth seeing, then try and ignore everything people write or say about it.1 But the Barbie discourse was unavoidable. By the time I saw it I had already ingested, by osmosis, whole colloquia of learned opinions on whether it was feminist or anti-feminist, a critique of gender norms or an affirmation of them. After I’d seen it, all of this seemed gloriously irrelevant. Barbie is a determinedly unserious film which has been misread by some as a serious one.
The opening 2001-parody dramatises one of the few, maybe the only, earnestly made point in the movie, one which came as a genuine revelation to me: that Barbie was the first adult woman doll. Intellectuals tend to characterise consumerism as one-way traffic, as messages going into passive brains; if Barbie is stereotypically feminine, she must therefore “reinforce stereotypes”. But this is to under-estimate the agency and creativity of consumers. People use consumer goods to try out different guises, ideas and identities; as tools for self-improvisation. Barbie was never just Barbie. She was a means of exploring the weird world of adulthood.
I’ve already lapsed into (pseudo-)intellectual-talk, when the truth is that Barbie is best enjoyed with your left brain switched off. People are making a category error when they try to establish whether it has a feminist message or not. Barbie doesn’t make a coherent argument about feminism or capitalism and it’s not trying to. It’s aiming to feel modern, fresh, and above all, funny. Rather than advancing intellectual ideas, it uses intellectual-sounding talk as a colour in its tonal palette, a striking and funny contrast to the vacuity of its characters. Barbie tickles the frontal cortex, site of Deep Thoughts, but its purpose is to raid the hypothalamus, source of endorphins2.
Another director would have given Barbie a terribly earnest trauma backstory. Faux-profundity is one of the pitfalls Barbie dances around. It does touch on deep themes, including death and how we avoid thinking about it, but it addresses them indirectly. It teases them.
Barbie treats high-falutin ideas like toys, to be played with, bashed around, and tossed aside. Not even the famous speech about womanhood - electrically delivered by America Ferrera - is meant to be taken too seriously. Think hard about it and it dissolves into contradictions; let it enter you like the middle eight of a pop song, as a bracing shift in register, and it works just fine.
Because Barbie is fundamentally joyful and only superficially intellectual, it has driven intellectuals insane. For evidence, read any of the essays in this n+1 “symposium”, or this turgid polemic in the Guardian. One of the n+1 essayists describes Barbie as a fascist movie. Fascism has several attributes but a sense of humour about itself is quite a long way down the list. Another essayist describes it as “a mix of ambition and corporate control”, and says, “This is the only Barbie movie that could have been made, and though colourful that makes it a little bland and a little sad”. Argh no - this is so not the only Barbie that could have been made, and to think it is you have to wildly underestimate how hard it is to make a movie so consistently and successfully audacious: a movie which shows us kids smashing in the heads of baby dolls, whose main character is called “Stereotypical Barbie” (Mattel took a lot of persuading), which introduces DEATH in the first ten minutes; which has a soundtrack featuring The Indigo Girls. It’s very hard to create song-and-dance numbers as perfectly silly as Just Ken. Then there’s Weird Barbie, and everything that Will Ferrell’s eyebrows do. And the horses, the horses (“man-extenders”).
Yes, the film is one giant ad for a corporation, but if all ads were as creative and original as this one, the world would be a better place.
This may also be the only way modern Hollywood knows how to take a risk. Greta Gerwig’s agent, Jeremy Barber: “Is it a great thing that our great creative actors and filmmakers live in a world where you can only take giant swings around consumer content and mass-produced products? I don’t know. But it is the business. So, if that’s what people will consume, then let’s make it more interesting, more complicated.”
One of the film’s marketing slogans: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” Margot Robbie comments on how hard that was to pull off: “The dangerous thing about making something for everyone is that you ultimately make it for no one.” The way she and Gerwig pull it off is not to dilute the love and hate with each other, but to exaggerate and intensify both and smash them together.
Behold the faux-intellectual’s public intellectual. Isn’t it telling how afraid he was of enjoying it? And, conversely, how much gratification he takes in condemning it? Barbie’s way of confronting unmentionables - death, cellulite, patriarchy, and its own mixed motives - is to drag them out into the light and laugh at them. It invites us to lighten up, a terrifying prospect for puritans of all persuasions.
I always want to ask anyone who dismisses Barbie on political grounds: was there ever a moment when you felt bored? Did more than five minutes go by when you didn’t laugh, when you weren’t surprised by the inversion of a cliché? (One of my favourite bits is when everything is set up for the builders to be sexist and boorish and they just…aren’t). Have you considered how hard it is to make any one of the film’s thousand fizzing visual-verbal-musical jokes work? Did you not admire the physical genius of Margot Robbie’s performance - as when, seated on the ground, stiff legs in front of her, she topples over?
Comedies are consistently underrated. If a film makes you cry, it’s deep; if it makes you laugh, it’s throwaway. Comic actors rarely win Oscars. When clever people see funny films they tend to assume, even if they’re amused, that the laughter is just kind of happening, like weather. But comedy is complex and very hard to get right - harder than seriousness. It’s the most self-effacing of art forms. It pours effort and skill into making sure you don’t notice any effort or skill. Its art is to make the body do things without thinking. I didn’t leave Barbie chewing on its philosophical implications. I left it with an empty head and a grin on my face, thankful and a little awestruck.
Barbie is not so didactic as to have a moral, but if it did have one, it would be this: humans are flawed, ridiculous, tragically limited creatures, and isn’t it just wonderful be one?
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After the jump: thoughts on Oppenheimer (why it’s like Barbie) and The Bear. If you’re not already a paid subscriber to The Ruffian, please consider signing up today, it’s very straightforward.