The Barbenheimer phenomenon seems to have marked a pivot in the way that we think about gender – and it has been driven largely by Barbie. Once upon a time, Oppenheimer would have been received as an example of quality cinema per se, without any further qualification than that. While it has still been reviewed as such by the majority of publications, the Barbenheimer trend, and its proliferation on TikTok, suggests another possibility – that Oppenheimer is every bit as much men’s cinema as Barbie is women’s cinema. That’s certainly the case – none of the online review bombers who have lambasted Greta Gerwig’s supposed misdandry seem to have blinked an eye at the depiction of women in Nolan’s film (the first major female character takes her clothes off for no apparent reason, while the second, an accomplished scientist, immediately asks Oppenheimer to explain something to her). Yet the Barbenheimer meme doesn’t simply seek to relegate Barbie to women’s cinema, and Oppenheimer to men’s cinema, but to broker a comic and forgiving rapprochement between them. The message of Barbenheimer is that gender is probably here to stay, in one form or another, and that we should just enjoy the ludicrous affectations of both masculinity and femininity without placing all that much weight upon them – and without weaponising them.
It makes sense that Barbenheimer has largely been driven by the Barbie camp, since this forgiving, reparative and self-deprecating vision of gender is also that of Gerwig’s film. From the outset, Barbie plays as a parody of post-feminism – specifically post-feminism’s recurring suggestion that corporate culture has somehow freed us from the strictures, contingencies and absurdities of gender. In the opening montage sequence, the narrator, played by Helen Mirren, spins the Mattel line that “Barbie can be anything, women can be anything” before wryly noting in Barbieland, “the problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.” Before we arrive at Barbieland, Gerwig also treats us to a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a group of young girls use a monolith-like Barbie to smash their old dolls into fragments. Between the blithe post-feminism of Barbieland, and this comic riff on the pinnacle of maculine auteurism, Gerwig lays the platform for a movie that both calls out a certain strand of masculine artistry, and forgives it, so long as it calls itself by its true name.
Narratively, that plays out around a certain discomfort that settles on Barbieland when Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, starts to experience inexplicable feelings of shame, dread and fear – specifically, a fear of death. Since Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, seems unable to help her, she seeks the advice of Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon, who informs her that something must have gone wrong with her handler back in the real world. Barbie must then make the journey to this real world, and seek out her handler, who turns out to be a Mattel employee, Gloria, played by America Ferrera, who has been expressing her mid-life crisis by doodling images of a new line of Barbies, all based on the doll she had as a child. These alternative Barbies, which include Crushing Shame Barbie, and Irrepressible Fear of Death Barbie, have started to percolate into Barbie’s own consciousness, and so in an effort to restore Gloria’s wellbeing she brings her back to Barbieland. Meanwhile, Ken, who has come along for the ride, discovers that America is a patriarchal society, and seeks to import those values back to Barbieland, producing a comic showdown that ends with Barbie ceding her fantasy land to Ken, and making a name for herself as a single women in the real world.
This narrative setup could easily have been saccharine, or grovelling to Mattel, or indebted to Twitter snark, or just plain thin on tone, so it’s a testament to Gerwig’s direction that she manages to make the film as immersive, witty and profound as it ends up becoming. In part, that’s a product of Barbie’s loving attachment to an older era of material culture, and in particular its obsessive curation of Mattel marginalia. Most of the supporting cast are made up of the vast catalogue of discontinued Barbies, Kens and other minor figures (Michael Cera makes a memorable cameo as the perennially unpopular Alan, Ken’s friend), to the point where the absurd attachments of material culture itself become a driving preoccupation of the film. Likewise, while the film feels attuned to the entire history of the Barbieverse since its inception at the end of the 1950s, there is a particular affinity for its peak in the 80s and early 90s. This is when Andy Warhol painted Barbie, when the franchise became an exercise in lurid ultra-style, and when Barbie herself started to be somewhat eclipsed by the mise-en-scenes that fans could buy to house her, and by the 1990 Barbie Dream House in particular.
Gerwig’s beautiful vision of Barbieland (clad in so many shades of pink paint that supplier Rosco suffered a global shortage) radiates out from the Barbie Dream House, which recalls a certain kind of late 80s and 90s mise-en-scene that was so lush that it seemed to exceed the capabilities of film. These were the kinds of tableaux that you instead saw on video covers, on movie posters, in video games, in music video, at amusement parks, or in advertisements, such as the ultra-lush “Mac Tonight” images that dominated McDonalds media for a short time. These mise-en-scenes, which seem made for the toy-world, are lovingly etched by Gerwig – in the huge pool in the Barbie House, the open-plan design that allows Barbie to float from one floor to the next, and the perennially full moon that illuminates it all night long. Whenever we’re in the house for any length of time, it emanates the iconic riff from Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” but without ever spilling over into the actual song, as if the hyperstylised world of She’s So Unusual were absorbed directly into the mise-en-scene.
It feels right, then, that when Barbie and Ken emerge from Barbieland, they do so in Venice Beach. As a locus of ultra-style, Barbieland feels like an extrapolation of Los Angeles – or a convergence of Los Angeles into its most iconic theme park rides. Yet Barbieland both enhances and removes the sheen of Los Angeles, rendering the real world toy-like (especially in and around the Mattel offices, headed by an Elf-like Will Ferrell), but also capturing the ways in which the allure and glamour of LA has faded since Barbie’s heyday in the late 80s and early 90s. Ken tries to channel this back into his vision of patriarchy, which he initially confuses with a love for horses, and the ranch substrate of the metropolis, but eventually bases on the banality of Century City, which he greets with the same wonder that accrued around the postmodern austerity of the new Downtown district after it was refurbished. At stake in Barbie, then, is nostalgia for a hypermediated Los Angeles that played out through material culture – for Los Angeles itself as an apparently endless array of toys, tokens and trinkets that together made up a post-cinematic mise-en-scene, a tableau too big for cinema, that feels dramatically different from the more banal post-cinematic world we now inhabit.
Every bit as much as Oppenheimer, Barbie thus feels like a plea for the material intensity of the big screen, and it is against this backdrop of reparative cinematicity that Gerwig enacts her project of reparative gender. This manifests itself first and foremost as a gentle parody of gender sentimentality and of all the ways people attach to gender despite themselves. Barbie, after all, is how many young children learn what gender is, and in Barbieland everyone is either a Barbie or a Ken. Yet that binary system, so simple and elegant from a distance, quickly becomes confusing, since it means that there’s no real way to distinguish between first and third person address – if you’re a Ken, you’re always referring to yourself when you refer to other Kens, and the same holds for Barbie as well. Every act of gender ascription becomes an act of affirming one’s own gender, suggesting that to even talk about gender, or refer to gender, or think about gender, means that we are somehow invested in it. Yet when Barbie and Ken arrive at the real world, the first thing they tell people is that they don’t have genitals (or at least genitals that they are aware of). At the precise moment when gender is dissociated from biology, it turns out that we’re more invested in it than ever before, and the film takes place in that curious space, poking fun at both femininity and masculinity, and capturing everything ridiculous about both, while also conceding that we’re all entranced by both too.
To some extent, this speaks to a growing desire, across blockbusters, to re-embody cinema in the long trail of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and all its airless and arid efforts to reduce the human body to so many corporate acquisitions. Barbie does this twofold – first, through the stilted postures of Barbieland, and then in the awkwardness with which Barbie and Ken greet the real world. Bodies are never quite naturalised in Gerwig’s vision – they are always provisional, malleable, and a work in progress, even as the mannequinised 80s aesthetic resists the streamlined look of Marvel as well. The project of Barbie is not unlike that of Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, since both films respond to the strange spacelessness of Marvel by questioning what it might take to capture the feeling of bodies in space – the feeling of being embodied – once again. Where Mission Impossible literally plunges the bodies of its cast into ever more precarious aerial spaces, Barbie jettisons them in spaces that feel either too artificial or too naturalistic, and forces them to gradually acclimatise to this discomfort.
Above and beyond this general fascination with embodied cinema, the most remarkable feature of Barbie may be the way in which it speaks to a new resilience amongst men in the face of feminist discourse. Without ever descending into mere Twitter snark, the perkiness of the film reflects a new social media universe where men have grown used to digesting concepts like patriarchy, feminism and gender equity as a matter of course, and as a banal part of their everyday cultural landscape, rather than as fringe beliefs or extreme positions. Barbie also reflects a world in which men, especially younger men, have become increasingly comfortable with acknowledging that certain canons of taste are distinctively male, rather than universal – and, perhaps just as profoundly, with remaining attached to them in full awareness of that fact, relinquishing any claims to universal taste-making in the process. In one of the most memorable sequences of the film, a core of feminist Barbies deprogram the Barbies who have given way to Ken’s patriarchal scheme, by forcing them to over-identify with it. As a host of Barbies speak approvingly to the Kens about the Snyder Cut, Stephen Malkmus, Lou Reed, and The Godfather, a canon of male taste is skewered, but skewered affectionately, culminating with all the Kens singing Matchbox 20’s “Push” to all the Barbies on the beach. Rather than dismiss male taste as male, Barbie encourages men to see their taste as every bit as reparative, messy, contingent, fortuitous and inexplicable as all tastes.
In other words, Barbie remains hopeful that men can continue to enjoy the spectacle, the sublimity and the silliness of masculinity without having to harm anyone. Of course, that optimism in the resilience of a new generation of men makes the rearguard all the more ludicrous too, and part of the genius of the film is the way that its very generosity, its inclusive assumption that taste is always somewhat ridiculous, simply absorbs the criticisms of a Ben Shapiro or a Piers Morgan into its own absurd and picaresque scheme. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final showdown between the Kens, a beach-off that starts out in the postures of TikTok sigma culture, but quickly deflates into squabbling with rafts, frisbees and tennis rackets. Rather than simply undercut masculine posturing, however, Gerwig reintegrates the fight into a full-on musical number, introducing one wave of male auteurism after another, from Busby Berkeley-esque aerial shots, to hair metal guitar stylings, to affirm that the taste of men can and must still endure, but only if we lean into the absurdity that governs all taste. Along the way, Ken and his nemesis briefly kiss, and Ken himself sings about the pleasure of holding manly hands, but these moments are fleeting enough to hold back from a snarky reduction of all male bonding to homoeroticism as well. Instead, Gerwig seems to suggest that some straight men will attach to gay taste, some gay men will attach to straight taste, and that a whole lot will exist somewhere in between, so mutable and mercurial is taste itself.
To criticise Barbie for not being sufficiently feminist, or for being too corporate, therefore seems to be beside the point. If anything, Gerwig’s film feels like a riposte to an era where online discourse has raised both the stakes and the standards for almost any utterance to a superhuman level. At times, Barbie almost seems to wrly suggest that the people who police gender binaries the most vigorously – whether to affirm them or to dismantle them – are those who are most invested in them, which isn’t to say that the film is anti-trans either, but that it seeks to afford trans people the same messy, absurd, hilarious, sublime and incoherent investments in gender that cis people often seem to have arrogated as their own in mainstream cinema. It’s above all a forgiving film, a reparative reflection on this strange thing called gender that seems to affect us whether we like it or not, producing an openness, almost a sense of incompletion, that I found remarkably refreshing. Rather than ending with a definite statement, Barbie’s final note is provisional, piecemeal, low modal. “Maybe it’s time to discover who Ken is,” “Maybe all the things that you thought made you you, aren’t you,” “Maybe it’s Barbie and it’s Ken, rather than Barbie and Ken,” “Maybe we were only fighting because we didn’t know who we were” – all these ruminations make Barbie just want to “be part of the people that make meaning” even or especially as “I don’t think I have an ending.”