Barbie Film Review: Notes from Barbie on the ageing girlhood and the dread of being.

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With the release of Greta Gerwig’s most anticipated film of 2023, the world dreams sweet in cowboy hats and pink nostalgia as Barbie navigates the haunt of an imperfect girlhood.

A running theme across Greta’s filmography and her own characters in films such as Frances Ha and Mistress America, is their intimate exploration of the female experience that is a whirlwind of lightness and melancholy, and Barbie is no exception to this. Expect to be taken on a pink odyssey of coming into age accompanied by satire, laughs, a few tears, and a new meaning to being Girls.

What makes Greta the comfort filmmaker of our time is her brave storytelling, in that her characters mould the lengths of vulnerability into the female experience that is true and reminiscent of our world.

In Frances Ha, for example, Greta’s character is a 27-year-old dancer, where a girl is expected to be much more established. However, Frances teaches us there’s nothing wrong with simply dancing through the growing pains because opportunities will present themselves. What matters is that we come into age embracing the violets and the blues the way it was intended and not like it is a crime to feel. Like Frances Ha, Barbie presents a careful deconstruction of the ageing girl’s being and her confrontation with the world.

Barbieland is a candy-coated utopia of fairy flossed skies and airtight figures run by feminist porcelain dolls. Crossing the borders of Barbieland, the reality of a mirrored world under the Venice Beach sun comes in the shape of strict patriarchy, ageing faces, catcalling at lunchtime, and Barbie being ruthlessly bullied by a 15-year-old girl.

In the real-world, Barbie experiences emotions unknown to stereotypical Barbies, like humiliation and loss of purpose. Feelings of anxiety and questions of death threaten the consistency of perfection in Barbie, and it presents symptoms of cellulite, flat feet, and unbalanced coordination as she gracefully falls off the roof of her dreamhouse. 

The unpredictable jaggedness is sort of what it feels like to explore womanhood as each age shows face. Coming into age cannot always be so polite. The uncertainty is daunting as it threatens our comfortability, and like Barbie, we try to shield ourselves from the inevitable. After returning to Barbieland from the real world, she says, “I was perfect before, and now I am ugly; I want everything to just go back to the way it was”. Barbie’s reaction to change takes the impression of the wonderfully real and perplexing girlhood.

After a 2-hour viewing session, I am sitting next to my friend at a Starbucks, sipping on pink drinks and we discuss the day the world ran out of pink for Barbie. We speak of disappointments at 24, mothers’ sacrifices, ambition, and admit to secretly hiding tears during Barbie’s ending sequence. I asked her if she heard Ruth say, “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come”. In the theatres, I was immediately nostalgic of Greta’s previous indie hit film Ladybird and its precious mother-daughter dialogue across the golden sunset of Sacramento.

Gerwig’s Barbie extends on think pieces of mild feminism through body image expectations and a career hierarchy that is somewhat relatable to the modern world experience. However, it is no free-thinking Susan Sontag or Joan Didion. As an adult, I found the feminism aspect to be quite repetitive. However, for many young girls around the world, Barbie may just be the perfect enjoyable introduction to the concept.

Barbie’s more memorable impression on me was the ending dialogue between Barbie and Ruth Marianna Handler, the creator of Barbie in real-life and in the movie. She says, “Humans only have one ending, but ideas live forever”. Ruth then continues to say as Barbie’s maker, she has no control over her life any more than her own daughter, and there is no requirement for permission to live life freely. If there is one thing Greta’s filmmaking suggests, it’s this: Life will forever offer itself to those who wish to accept it, in a way that transcends the fear of death and change to become part of the greater imagination. 

Barbie is a delicate rollercoaster, and through cinema, Greta creates a celluloid string that binds the girlhood experience to something familiar. Perhaps, ‘girlhood’ is just that – a by-product of perfectionism and dread where a girl must leap from one existential tenure to another to seek out the next greater idea.

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