arbie has had many names throughout the years. Twist and Turn Barbie tells what she’s capable of. Astronaut Barbie identifies what she does. Barbie by any other name might still be Barbie, but things are never so simple. And of course, labels, whatever their intent, cannot wholly define anything or anybody.
“Barbie” the movie and its enormous impact worldwide are likewise not easy to characterize. Impressions are registered on so many different levels. For some, it appeals to sentiment; for others, it appeals to the feminist movement, or to anti-male tropes, or leftist ideology. All that said, the film can also be considered just plain fun.
Nonetheless, it’s risky to casually assert that “Barbie” has enjoyed so much success because of the name it has in common with the popular doll. It’s tempting to think that. After all, Barbie, the world’s best selling doll, is itself a billion dollar a year industry. The staggering retail sales numbers are an indicator as to why the film has grossed more than $1.44 billion worldwide, second only to “Frozen 2,” which brought in 1.45 billion.
Without the Barbie moniker, it’s conceivable that these receipt totals would have been much lower. If you disregard the name for a moment, the timing of the Woke movement, and the search for meaning in a post Covid world during a geopolitically hostile time, you may be left with the feeling that the film cannot rely on its own merit.
Think again. It’s true the film contains the all too typical and formulaic charming wit, timely action, and soul searching. But Gerwig’s artistic approach to that is as far from typical as, say, Barbieland, where, with some exceptions, all the women are named Barbie and the men are called Ken.
Gerwig’s main character, who is of course Barbie herself, suddenly challenges her female dominated world without having experienced any apparent misfortune. She does this by courageously allowing herself to think lofty thoughts which disrupt the idealized Barbieland existence of its conditioned, callow citizens. She does this because she is she. Not only that she is “a” she, but that she is she. It is as though, somehow, she has become an individual, and finding that she is a person, she is compelled to move forwards.
Brand it coming of age? Hardly. The film, Gerwig tells “The Guardian,” is not about growing up. It reaches for something much, much deeper. Gerwig describes Barbieland as a place where “there really is no internal life, at all. Because there is just no need to have an internal life.” Barbie senses this as well, when early on, maybe wondering whether existence has meaning, she queries out of nowhere, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
Barbie starts with the potential for self-realization, but has for whatever reason chosen not to. Her perfect world requires that she and her peers just continue to behave according to custom. Then Barbie becomes valiant (may we call her Heroic Barbie?) not just because she finally considers redeeming herself, but because she, as an individual, is staunch in doing so.
Gerwig has shown courage as well, just like many of her female counterparts who have had to navigate their way through a profession dominated by males to procure their place in cinematic history. From early female film pioneers, like Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, to the more contemporary Mira Nair, Jane Campion, or Chloe Zhao, women have found ways to innovate, all the while challenging societal norms. And, of course, labels.
The industry’s ongoing gender debate over the use of the descriptor “female” before the word “director” is indicative of the issue. The great director Lina Wertmüller, faced criticism because she refused to call herself a female director. Kathleen Bigelow refused the qualifier, Oscar or no Oscar. Gerwig herself claims she will not let the debate distract her and is interested only in making good films.
Yet, others consider themselves female directors, and wear the label as a badge of honor which may help to raise consciousness in an inequitable industry. As they should. There’s nothing oppressive about people deciding what to call themselves.
Labels may be beneficial, most certainly in commerce. But unfortunately, they also control things, particularly when unwelcome. Because of this, the debate over using Female, or Gay, Muslim-American, or anything for that matter, as a qualifier before the word director (or poet, or writer) continues. Not unexpectedly in today’s climate.
But that might just be the point. Perhaps we’re entering a new, unnamed landscape where individual choice can be inspired rather than enforced.
Even if it takes a toy to do the inspiring.