Barbie Greta Gerwig (2023; USA;) Margot Robbie; Ryan Gosling
viewed Tyneside Cinema 7 Aug 2023; ticket: £6
Barbie is the most successful film release this year, grossing $1B+, and as Siegried Kracauer notes: ‘… success like this is a sign of a successful sociological experiment, showing that its constituent elements have been blended in such a way as to correspond to the needs of a mass audience.’
I have never owned a Barbie, but I have seen them displayed in toyshop windows, and wondered at these dolls in their pertly dressed outfits and pinched in bodies. Greta Gerwig’s script which plays out as one long spoof, kicks off with a cod ‘2001’ derivative sequence showing little girls located in a primal landscape playing with trad baby dollies, before the trumpets of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra sound out announcing the new age of Barbie.
From this section it’s observable that there are differences in the types of play mediated by these two types of toy dolls. The little girls engage with their trad dollies in a number of ways, as well as dressing and tending to them, children cuddle embrace protect hold them close to their bodies: the little baby dollies invite touch invoking a physical relationship. These baby dolls trigger the impulse to ‘care for’, to ‘look after’. The Barbies are to some extent coat-hangars: model doll-women who can be affectively dressed in all manner of different costumes and mantels. They don’t invite physical engagement or intimacy, they exist as types to be transformed by their apparel into different exemplary models that exist for displaying what they are.
My feeling is that contrary to the notion peddled by Gerwig’s script that Barbie dolls are enablers, helping little girls to achieve the lives of their dreams, rather Barbies invoke the idea of life as ‘display’. Barbie dolls are accurate representations of a culture of ‘display’ and Gerwig’s scenario mainlines straight into veins of a culture of spectacle.
The transition from baby dolls to Barbie dolls is in some respects witness to a system moving from trust to control. The transition from baby dolls to Barbie dolls is one marker of the social movement from a collective culture to an individualist display culture based on the currency of attention.
A few days after seeing the movie, travelling on the Metro in Newcastle, the carriage doors swished open and a large group of young 14-15 years old girls bundled in jiving laughing decked out in full display kit. All wore high cut leisure shorts and sleeveless tops; they all had nail extensions protruding at least 2cm beyond the finger tip, and their eyes were dramatised by long thick up-curled black false eyelashes. They looked like real life Barbies. The costume and prosthetic effects on display were statements, the look as a projection of social values as refined by 10 years of iphones and social media. The young girls were presenting as spectacles, exo-shows designed to be looked at displayed appraised by their peers. The image machine at work and at play.
Barbie is a drama played out by actors but in effect it’s an animation with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Gerwig’s ‘toons’. Nevertheless like the girls on the Metro, display image and control are central to the film’s pretension and its claim on the mass market. The Barbie’s LA based cool street look (face – body – wrap) is designed for exhibition and exhibition value depends on beautiful looks or a contrived representation of ‘look’, a sort of commodified identity signing off on both the components parts and the whole statement of who you want to be. Like an advert for ‘Coke’ or a two hour movie about Barbie Dolls, ‘being’ becomes display. Consumer societies have developed as societies of spectacle, where the desired effect is ‘attention’, for which read: competition for attention. Given the imperative of the exhibition ethos everyone wants to be in the picture and with the ubiquity of the smart phone everyone’s on display everyone’s in the photo. Gerwig understands that in the transposed nature of capitalist consumer ethos the underlying driver motivating social interactions is: ‘attention’ – that’s the pay off. Social competition is for attention rather than power (Which is not to say they are not linked). The mass appeal of ‘Barbie’ is built firmly on the psychological foundation of this social fact.
The other characterising element of Gerwig’s script is confusion. Gerwig has produced her own alt Marxist dialectic that reads: thesis; antithesis; confusion. Confusion replacing synthesis may actually be a better outcome predictor of change than Marx’ socio-historical take on Hegel. Confusion and diffusion as the basis of the narrative for mass entertainment has the huge advantage of being a mish mash of oppositions that cannot possibly offend anyone. With it’s Disneyfied logic Gerwig’s scenario sets up all manner of oppositions: male/female; capitalist/ communal; real world/unreal world; life /death. Her oppositions are all resolved by way of unclear or even incomprehensible compromises as the script opts for philosophical fudge and sludge. Which of course is exactly as it should be in a film catering for the needs of a mass audience where it is better that embarrassing questions sink into the abyss of confusion, leaving the audience gaze firmly fixed on the surface.