Barbie Movie ABCs: Approval Addiction, Branding, Committees
And why we needed more Issa Rae.
As a fiction author, a teller of stories, a longtime lover of movies, and as someone who actually produced two films in my past life (under a different name), I feel compelled to comment on the Barbie movie.
On one hand, I loved the burst of color, the female energy, and the Kenergy. I love spectacles, costumes, and musicals. The soundtrack and aesthetics of the film were banging. I love that “The patriarchy” got discussed in a big-budget Hollywood film. But…
*My favorite fun jam from the soundtrack:
The movie was a commercial for multiple brands, and a work that felt created by a committee to please everyone. I would not call it a subversive or visionary film.
Then again, what was I expecting?
I was actually expecting something worse, something more Disney, something not about overthrowing the patriarchy. But was Barbie about overthrowing the patriarchy, as it suggests in several scenes? No. It was about Approval Addiction, Branding, Committees, and Sex—the ABCs of our current Hollywood system.
I’ll work in reverse order, starting with C to explain.
THE SPOILERS ARE ABOUT TO BEGIN. Stop here if you don’t want spoilers.
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The C in Barbie, plus a few more cons
One C in the Barbie movie stood for cellulite, the real enemy of Barbie according to the film. Did the writers really need to make this Barbie’s biggest fear? I personally hated this choice. Furthermore, it never resolves. Barbie never gets covered in cellulite, and hence, never overcomes the fear. Her real enemy in the movie, the Mattel Board, also remained unchanged and corporate America loomed throughout the film like an overprotective werewolf from Twilight.
The Barbie movie wasn’t about smashing the patriarchy or embracing diversity, it was about being beautiful and preventing cellulite, the enemy of youth and beauty, about having it all, owning it all, and leading in a world still dominated by men. So I guess you could say it was a representation of a modern American woman’s actual struggles.
Still, I would have liked more progress.
Also, so much for representation; Issa Rae, the only well-known Black actress with a “big part” in the film, despite being the token president, had very few lines. I was sorely disappointed by the lack of Issa Rae. She’s so funny; why waste her talent by giving her so few lines? Likewise, Raquel, a favorite mixed-race character from the Barbie TV show franchise, was totally omitted.
And speaking of characters and character arcs, in addition to Barbie’s arc, fan’s complained that Ken’s pivot from emo metrosexual to villain coup leader didn’t make sense, but to me, Ken’s arc worked. He saw the patriarchy, and he wanted a piece of it. The story showed his internal thoughts and motivations well.
What didn’t make sense was how easily the Kens brainwashed every other Barbie with no explanation. We never saw their subjugation, but all of a sudden our Doctor Barbie and President Barbie were slinging Bud Lights in bikinis and rubbing men’s feet instead of being themselves. They turned instantly from leaders to servant bimbos, with no persuading, insinuating that they weren’t smart to begin with.
Other things I found odd included an incredibly whack drawing of Africa on a map pictured several times. This map also contained a dotted line known as the nine-dash line, which is a contested line that China uses to piss off other countries. In fact, this line is so controversial that Vietnam banned the Barbie movie. Why did Mattel include this weirdo map? My guess is to make China happy, which leads me to the C besides Cellulite in the Barbie movie’s ABCs—and it’s not China or Characters—it’s Committee.
Creative Control by Committee
This movie was clearly the work of many, many a committee. Director Greta Gerwig even said so. In one interview, she discussed how they had endless committee meetings about shades of pink. Well, they must have also had meetings about pleasing China and probably tons and tons of focus groups on every element of potential audience offense.
Now, I get it, movies with big budgets are like big businesses, and they often invest way more in a single product than most businesses would. Movies cost A LOT, and when you spend $145 million dollars on something, you make sure it works.
To put this into context, the initial investment to begin Tesla was $4.5 million and it costs $700,000 on average to own a Mcdonald’s location. So, making Barbie was the equivalent of buying 207 Mcdonald’s; it had to guarantee an outstanding return. All risk needed to be mitigated.
And it was. The movie grossed the equivalent of buying 481 Mcdonald’s in the first weekend: $337 million.
The downside to this movie-by-committee is the loss of artistic vision. People love Quinten Tarantino, Wes Anderson, James Cameron, and Werner Herzog movies because they have recognizable, singular auteur visions; Barbie instead had branded scenes, which brings me to the B.
The B in Barbie.
For extra funding and stamps of approval, committees turn to brands, brands, brands. Yes, we expected this; Mattel is a brand, a toy company, but on top of Mattel, we got ads in the film from additional brands.
The commercials I noticed: Chevy, Chanel, and Birkenstock. There was basically a full Chevy car commercial embedded in the film. I find it hard to believe that it was part of the director’s “vision.” That was a cash grab.
If Issa Rae had written, directed, and produced this film, would she have included car and shoe ads? We will never know.
Yes, the marketing was great, and yes, they did such creative things to promote the movie and the brands involved, but the ad spots were distracting. There was also a Google cell phone commercial that ran before the film.
Pop stars, music videos, and dance sequences featured prominently in the movie, representing brand deals with record companies. All the songs were catchy, but the interspersed music videos and dances were too long. It was like they didn’t have enough script or enough jokes, so they used music and dances as filler.
I also kept wondering why Ken had multiple songs and Barbie had no songs. I guess because Margot Robbie can’t sing? WELL, then they should have cast Issa Rae…. And as I watch this montage from Issa Rae’s show Insecure, I realize the Barbie movie also showed no female anger, none. We got sad, moody, insecure, anxious, and happy, but no mad. Why?
NSFW video with Issa Rae singing and rapping:
The song that landed the best was Gosling’s version of the domestic violence anthem “Push” by Matchbox Twenty. That part of the film was truly hilarious and the appropriate length.
The A in Barbie
Finally, we arrive at what the film was really about: Approval Addiction.
Approval Addiction is Cancel Culture’s bestie, its driving force. It is the societal equivalent of people pleasing, the desperate need to delight every demographic to get every dollar. Approval addiction adds hours to every committee’s deliberation and it waters down every artist’s vision.
Approval Addiction is what caused all the trailers before Barbie to be remakes of old popular films like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Indiana Jones. It’s what causes Hollywood to take no risks, to rarely invest in original scripts, or new IP.
But it’s not just the dream of being well-liked. Approval Addiction doesn’t run on dreams; it runs on fear, and anything that runs on fear cannot possibly be bold or groundbreaking, or innovative. Fear-based work is almost always derivative. What worked in the past? What do all people love? What won’t offend anyone? Approval addiction makes movies into dad jokes.
Until Hollywood seeks help and recovery from this addiction, all the movies will keep being low-risk products designed for mass appeal like Mcdonald’s Hamburger Happy Meals.
Barbie didn’t criticize the patriarchy to dismantle it, but rather to make it money. Purple-washing, “smashing the patriarchy,” and girl power currently sell, and they sell because they’re fun and funny and because they’re comedic material, not reality.
The C also stands for Cash and the S at the end of the ABCs stands for SEX and sequels.
Next, we’ll get a Barbie Two and a Polly Pocket movie, but I doubt Polly Pocket will be such a hit because another reason people love Barbie is that men and boys want to sleep with Barbie. Many males would prefer for every woman to be perfectly proportioned like a plastic doll, with breasts they can play with and legs they can make split.
Barbie in any form enforces the desire for women to be sexy, adult playthings because Barbie is the shape of a sexy adult, and a doll is a plaything. How many cast members were surgically altered to meet Barbie beauty standards? Barbie can’t escape her form. This is why Margot Robbie played Barbie and Issa Rae or Sharon Rooney (the plus-sized Barbie) didn’t.
Perhaps this is also why the movie tried so hard near the end in a totally bizarre found footage montage to show regular women doing domestic things like mothering and being at home with their families. Oh look, Barbie is a mom too! Society’s other favorite role for women! But nope, after the montage, we cut back to Margot Robbie in all her late-stage girl boss, Chanel bag, blepharoplasty glory and she’s caught again in capitalism’s self-optimization circle jerk, hunting for her true self.
Then there is another fleeting moment of hope. We think Barbie is about to join the Mattel board of directors. She’s penetrated the patriarchy! She’s in an office in the real world. But nope again! She’s actually at the gynecologist. Once more, she’s reduced to her sex, to her vagina. The End.
And actually, maybe it’s a good thing that Issa Rae didn’t play Barbie because we don’t want to force her into that role.
All this being said… I liked the movie. I like wearing pink. I like dressing up with my gal pals, and I like my cellulite.
Did you watch Barbie? What did you think?
Are you sick of this?
What’s the best take you’ve heard on the film?
If you decided not to watch it, why?
Who are your favorite female filmmakers?
Are you a fan of the TV show Insecure?
*If you saw any errors, please let me know. I try my best, but I’m a one-woman show.