Warning: Minor Barbie spoilers ahead.
You had to figure that once Greta Gerwig, the writer-director behind sharp-witted, class and gender explorations like Frances Ha, Ladybird and Little Women was enlisted to direct Barbie (and co-write it with partner Noah Baumbach, no philistine himself as the filmmaker behind The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story, etc.), the social commentary would cut far deeper than the inevitable “Barbie dolls are bad for body image” critiques.
Warner Bros. and Mattel’s pink-plastered, star-studded, excessively buzzy $145M blockbuster, though, has been marketed heavily as a broad fish-out-of-water comedy — in this case Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) leave Barbie Land for the real world — a la Will Ferrell’s 2003 holiday favorite. (Ferrell costars in Barbie’s massive ensemble that also includes America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Simu Liu, Hari Nef, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Dua Lipa).
Therein lies the film’s Trojan Horse aspect. Or as Gerwig likens it to, a certain type of cocktail.
“It’s like when you order a regular margarita, and then you realize while you’re drinking it that it’s a spicy margarita,” Gerwig tells us during the film’s Los Angeles press day. “That was kind of the way I wanted it to be. But those are the movies I love so much. [The films of] Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Movies that are soufflés, but there’s a lot underneath them that’s deep, it’s just not presented that way.”
Make no mistake: Barbie is entertaining. And very funny at parts. But it’s also sociopolitical as hell, with the film’s second half (hardly of which any has been shown in the marketing) barreling into a battle of the sexes, pointed takedown of the patriarchy and refutation of gender norms. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Ferrera (as Mattel employee Gloria who follows Barbie back to her homeland) delivers a searing minutes-long monologue about the complexities, difficulties and double standards women are distinctly forced to face.
“I wasn't exactly sure what the tone of it would be or should be, but I trusted Greta 100 percent to know, in the editing room, what makes sense for the movie,” says Ferrera (Real Women Have Curves, Ugly Betty). “But she gave me so much permission to just play and moment to moment find what it meant for me and what it meant for Gloria. And there are so many versions of it, funny versions, tragic versions. And she picked what she picked.”
As for the Kens, who essentially rise up against the Barbies after Gosling’s dim-witted blond learns about real-life patriarchy, “I think they could easily have become just these walking critiques of like masculinity, in a really heavy handed and preachy way, which by the way, I think they are in some way,” says Liu (Shang-Chi). “But there's something about the Kens where they just don't know what they're doing. And not that that absolves them of responsibility for their actions, but I think it's ultimately a very hopeful place to say, look, the Kens are like children. They're just learning these behaviors because it's what they've been taught… They're not inherently evil. They're not out to get anyone. And it means that anything that can be learned can be unlearned or can be evolved.”
While the film’s feminist layers and gender commentary are likely to draw stronger or passionate reactions (the film is predictably already drawing the ire of conservative politicians for its “woke” messaging), it’s Barbie’s more universal themes that resonated most with the cast.
“You’re good, you are enough. You’re already doing it right,” says Robbie. “Literally, Barbie's mantra is, you can be anything. And Barbie is everything. And that's exhausting. Like, the idea that you can be anything and everything… I find that very overwhelming. So someone saying, ‘You're you and you is great’ is a really nice message, I think.”
“It kind of gives you a way to laugh at yourself, which helps to do that. And it does that in this very entertaining way,” says Gosling. “But somehow when it's over, you feel like something's kind of shifted.”
Adds SNL alum McKinnon, who plays “Weird Barbie,” or the doll that’s been drawn on, had her hair pulled out and has generally been mangled: “Just frickin' be chill, OK? Like, be yourself. Be your whole self. Bring your whole self. Rules be damned. That's the message. And what more poignant message could there be in the world? Come on.”
Barbie opens Friday, July 21.
Watch the trailer: