Watching Barbie wrong

By Alex Mazey

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The highly mythologised concept of platonic dualism was already floating around the collective cultural consciousness by the time ticketed attendees took their seats in the screening hall of a dying cinema. Sitting beside this aesthetician were hushed voices held in the stasis of movie trailers asking if there was time enough to pick up a saucy glizzy from the confectionery stand outside. Further away – but nevertheless ever-present in the screening hall – a pair of hands dug for what seemed like gold at the bottom of a large popcorn. Elsewhere in the near darkness, voices continued the debate from the lobby outside, a debate that centred around two important films that would, it was said, save Hollywood. From what I could discern, those two important films were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Meg 2: The Trench. I joke, of course, because everyone knew one of these films was a dark mediation on various philosophical concerns and the other film was Oppenheimer.  

Sure thing I’m going to see Barbie, replied Cillian Murphy to a film journalist, I vaguely remember, paraphrasing I suppose, since what was important in my mind at that point was the message that Murphy was trying to convey when he was asked about the adjacent scheduling of these two films. It was interesting to me how the competitive spirit of Hollywood had been replaced by the post-catastrophic attitude of letting both films wash over you. Watch both films, Murphy cordially seemed to suggest, and enjoy them both for what they are. I suppose Murphy’s comment on the market positionality of these two films was simple enough to digest; why choose when that choice is entirely unnecessary.

Back in the real world and it seems the only thing that limits our ability to enjoy both films are both time and the money in our pockets; and so, for many cinemagoers that great existential dilemma of the characters onscreen, Barbie and Oppenheimer, was in turn shared with the audience of the cinema screen who were also subjected to that agonising decision of choosing between Barbie or Oppenheimer. Perhaps Ryan Gosling sneaks in as the sigma male’s ‘literally me’ third option which is interesting considering the media’s mirroring of the memetic hyperfixation with the casting of this film. Nevertheless, I have found the most essential way to really enjoy any film in the cinema today consists of a concerted effort to avoid all promotional marketing for a thing you likely intended to watch anyway. The true masters of cinema know this which is precisely why every scrap of promotional material of Hayao Miyazaki’s next film consisted of telling media outlets that there was, in fact, no promotional material for this film. To say, the promotional marketing then consisted of telling audiences that there wasn’t any.  

In stark contrast to Miyazaki’s intentional lack of promotion, Greta Gerwig’s apparently endless promotional bombardment seemed to try its hardest to make anyone dislike Barbie before they’d even seen the film. This was, in many ways, the whole schtick of a marketing campaign that wanted audiences to talk passionately about a film they had not yet seen. And so, Barbie’s promotional effort was as much about making a box office success as it was making Barbie appear as a box office success; a success achieved through the make it and fake it hyperstitious manifestation of heated debate through the attentive handling of its profoundly net trafficked presentation. To say, months before the initial release and the marketing possessed the odd quality of a film that had constantly been and gone –both long ago and at the same time in some near-distant past, that in my pathetic lack of cultural capital, I had missed out on. In other words, Barbie was a spectacle that I suddenly and very desperately needed to watch; a spectacle I desperately needed to participate under. Was Barbie’s intersectional feminist woke-ism the death rattle of the West? Had Amy Schumer really turned down the chance to play Barbie? All these burning questions needed answers and it seemed like an entire world of good intentions was there to answer them.

The end result of this cacophony of reterritorializations was an audience that entered the screening hall with many preconceived ideas of what Gerwig’s film might look like. Add to this a trailer consisting of the shouty humour of Will Ferrell accompanied by the equally shitty casting of Will Ferrell and you have a marketing team seemingly attempting to gaslight audiences into passionately hating something they had not yet seen. Spoiler Alert: Will Ferrell was not as insufferable as first expected since I sat there chewing Haribo Tangfastics happily watching an actor attempting to channel the more subtle characteristics of the villainous Mugatu in Ferrell’s lesser commented upon role as Mattel’s CEO. I mention details of Ferrell’s character over the much commented upon casting of Barbie and Ken because it is not so much Margot Robbie or Ryan Gosling but the screened representation of this multinational toy manufacturer that provided the key to understanding how Gerwig’s Barbie should be read as a film. If the key to understanding Barbie also lies in the centred concept of mirroring worlds, both made separate but entirely dependent on one another, then Mattel is the key to understanding the separation of these worlds as nonsensical since we are always in the mixed reality of both. To say, one foot in ‘Barbie Land’ and one foot in ‘The Real World’, no longer able to distinguish between the two. This is, perhaps, the Baudrillardian reading.

Everything about Gerwig’s imagining of Mattel in ‘The Real World’ that mirrors ‘Barbie Land’ is only a simulation of Mattel seen through the almost too perfectly calibrated lens of social constructivism, where this phallic skyrise designed to foster creativity is, in an all too obvious disclosure, a locus of creativities’ suppression, where a quiet moment of inventive daydreaming occurs only in the coffee breaks between mindless administrative work. The self-deprecatory representation of Mattel’s headquarters in the film comes as another platitudinal bromide that says nothing creative ever happens beneath the circular fluorescence that falls on penned office cubicles everywhere. It is an apologetic humour that exemplifies so much social criticism as performative in its bravery, a joke that features as another ‘ordained transgression’ – to use Slavoj Žižek’s words – against a system that tells the same joke forever only in order to sustain something of a mirror of itself forever. To say, the representation of Mattel in this film (as with so many of its representations) is also post-irony par excellence where, in the trustworthy words of Wikipedia, ‘earnest and ironic intents become muddled.’ And it is here where the film is best read in a cinematic current that commemorates post-ironic hyperstition which serves the subjectivities of those postmodern agents who choose to go and see it. In fewer words then, the message of this film is quite simple; you are to take from Barbie only what you already wanted to see in reality. It is this skilfully self-aware (self-)manipulation of the viewing audience – who bring their preconceived subjectivism to the screening hall – that makes Barbie a truly era-defining, postmodern classic.

In Barbie’s colourful world (and it is very colourful) the great lettering of the ‘Barbie Land’ sign is visible in the distance, but in ‘The Real World’, the Hollywood Sign is visible. More significantly, the Hollywood Sign is visible from the transparent window of the Mattel boardroom which is only a transparency to match the windowless and caricatured transparency of ‘Barbie Land’. There is perhaps no bigger nudge in the ribs that says we aren’t in ‘The Real World’ because ‘The Real World’ only exists in Hollywood. Both ‘Barbie Land’ and ‘The Real World’ are hyperrealities that inform the miscible outside we occupy – and, of course, the outside informs them too – but it is not coincidental that the lifeworld of both ‘Barbie Land’ and ‘The Real World’ it mirrors become explicitly interconnected in this film by another plane of transition we could even call The Desert of The Real. A presumptuous assessment if it wasn’t for Barbie’s brazen intertextuality that recalls the The Matrix. Except – as if to mock the Wachowskis’ optimism for The Real – there is in an interesting Baudrillardian reworking of The Matrix Pill Scene where Barbie – like so many of us happy to cling to our subjectivities – insists on taking the Blue Pill. Afterall, it seems like the abstract positionality of ‘Barbie Land’ is far easier to occupy than the outside consequence of ‘The Real World’. In the end, both ‘Barbie Land’ and The Barbie Realism it pertains to are both certainly easier to cling to than the material conditions of the screening hall, with all its complexities and ambiguities, where hands are left searching for gold at the bottom of a large popcorn.

Being fantasy and all that, Barbie finds gold, not with Ken, of course, nor in some contrived reconciliation with the real world, but in another utopian contrivance altogether, since Barbie makes contact with the holy spirit of her creator, Ruth Handler. As such, Barbie reaches a deeply theological conclusion. In the liminal brilliance of the white screen, two worlds never quite collide in this utopian (dare I say, conservative) synthesis of Barbie/Handler against the non-diegesis of Billie Eilish whose intense melancholia seems handmade for the seductive melancholy of the hyperreal outside designed to hear it. ‘Think I forgot how to be happy.’ Eilish sings with worldly anhedonia. ‘Something I’m not, but something I can be.’ Sore mouthed, I sang along, half-chewing the final Tangfastic before swallowing it down.