If you are a prisoner to your phone and to social media, as I apparently am (this has to change asap), you have been receiving notifications, memes, publicity videos, trailers and nonstop marketing buzz about two films premiering this summer: Barbie, produced and starring Margot Robbie’s feet, and Oppenheimer, the new film by Christopher Nolan. Turn on the radio to get away from the phone? Everyone's talking about Barbie...
I am tired of all of this marketing, aren’t you? Enough is enough. Although it is clear that almost everyone in the United States (and US sphere of influence) will watch one of these two films this summer (and if studios have it their way, both!), it is such a drag that these are films we are “supposed” or “expected” to see. Option 1: a pseudo-feminist take on a doll that commodifies being a woman; Option 2: what will most likely be an apologist take on the creators behind the atomic bomb (let's face it, in the title role Cillian Murphy will make you like him no matter what).
Both films will exploit a “controversial” topic (a doll or the bomb) and sugar-coat this exploitation with false criticality. What I mean is that once everyone has seen these films, we can expect that it will be said that Barbie is a feminist film and that Oppenheimer is what, an anti-war film? But the films in themselves will be far from this. After watching Barbie, many will feel the need to buy something (pink), be it shoes, clothes, lipstick, or hair accessories. After watching Oppenheimer... well, many might feel the need to justify current atrocities in the name of "saving the world from evil". My point is that the films will do both, they will be pseudo-critical of something that they will then promote. After all, this is what Hollywood is great at: pretending to criticize something while at the same time exploiting it for both narrative and commerical ends.
As a woman and “beneficiary" of the algorithm (they’re making things easier for us, remember?), I have seen far more publicity for Barbie than for Oppenheimer. I have seen Margot Robbie in her various pink outfits (and one black dress that she wore breaking the code, oh my!), I have seen her read the news supposedly “as a Barbie” (no difference with how she would read it as herself), I have seen the cast get together and talk about having a Barbie slumber party, and being made to answer ridiculous questions which only Issa Rae can answer intelligently (Robbie immediately answers every question as an opportunity to promote herself and her company). Many of us have also seen the confusing meme campaign (see image above), where anyone can upload their image with the Barbie logo –I did not get these, why would you want to be a Barbie? So, that campaign did not work on me, but getting to the point of the matter… I believe that there is an internal contradiction in this film that even the film’s creators haven’t sorted out.
In promotional interviews, Margot Robbie appears to have never left the character, she is living her moment of glory and completely milking it for everything she can (who can blame her after having had to promote and stand by an unpromotable film like Babylon). In the same interviews, Gerwig, playing the role of a director, speaks about how wonderful the actors are and how great it was to work with everyone. At one moment, however, Robbie tells the story that a man at the airport said to his daughter "Look, that's Barbie!" pointing at her. Gerwig makes a face that is difficult to interpret (see below) but in any case she doesn't find it funny or cute (more likely finds it sad). Robbie, however, shared this story as an example of the wonderful impact the film has had.
But really, just looking at them, one woman next to the other, you can quickly see that there is something slightly at odds here (and who knows, it might as well all be part of the marketing). This is not to say that they are different only because of how they present themselves to the world but it is evident there is some kind of contradiction at work. To put it stupidly, we could say that the director looks and presents herself as “a real woman” while the actress looks and presents herself as “the dream woman”, the woman “all” women want to be. Where do these two women meet? Can an essentially sexist thing like a Barbie doll be reimagined by a feminist? (Is Greta Gerwig a feminist? Does she have to be?) The movie’s challenge appears to be to see if this feminist revision of Barbie and Barbie land can somehow keep old Barbie fans happy (“I was a feminist all along and didn’t even know it!”), break the box office, and reignite an entire merchandising campaign around the Mattel brand and everything that rises to the occasion (I can imagine a "Next in Fashion" episode dedicated to making a “new” Barbie outfit, just to name an example). I am sure the film will succeed and this makes me feel even ickier about it...
And yet, despite the fact that Mattel has been trying to revise Barbie's image for new generations of little women and for mothers who want to give their daughter dolls guilt-free (as this article in the Guardian from 2015 demonstrates), a couple of media articles have mentioned a disagreement between the filmmakers and Mattel in the marketing of the Barbie film. Several articles (for example, this one) suggests that Mattel execs are NOT on board with the idea that Barbie is a feminist, while Gerwig seems totally convinced that she is (this is convenient as the guilt-free director of the film). Perhaps it is neither one or the other, but both. Gerwig's campy interpretation of Barbie can transform her into a capitalist feminist, while Mattel can continue to profit, big-time. Meanwhile, Barbie remains in a sort of limbo, as women's politics continue to be used to push whatever agenda is trending today.
Yesterday as I walked down the street I saw a woman dressed in a pink baby doll dress and high heels walking down the street. Next to her was her teenage daughter, gothed-out in all black. The mother was living her Barbie dream, while her daughter was doing her own thing. Will the daughter want to see Barbie? Probably not. Who is the movie for? For women of Margot Robbie’s generation, hung up on a dream. Perhaps that is precisely why this film could become, as they like to say, an “instant classic”: because it will speak to this dream, in all of its artificial glory, just at the moment that it disappears.
Ava Max - Not Your Barbie Girl