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Defector At The Movies

‘Barbie’ Was Born Out Of The Anxiety Of Modern Filmmaking

1:08 PM EDT on July 21, 2023

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in the film Barbie
Warner Bros.

Movie studios favoring familiarity and profitability over artistry is nothing new or particularly innovative. At the moment, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) are on strike against Hollywood's profit-driven and margin-squeezing madness, throwing the craven greed of the executive class into even sharper relief. What better time for the biggest release of the summer to be about the world’s most famous plastic doll?

In this context, Barbie, co-written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is an unsurprisingly self-conscious movie. The argument could be made that it couldn’t be anything else, given how quickly and forcefully accusations of selling out were leveled at Gerwig for agreeing to make a big-budget movie on behalf of the Mattel corporation. It may be less surprising that the likes of Michael Bay, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller jumped at the prospect of turning action figures into screen-worthy characters, but, to my knowledge, neither party was taken to task for shilling on behalf of Big Toy. Similar cases can be made with various superhero films, though even I’m willing to concede some (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) are more mercenary than others (Spider-Man 2). Each of these instances are what David Fincher, describing his decision to direct the American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, plainly called a “commercial endeavor.” That is to say, whether or not the project at hand was bound to have any artistic merit was always secondary to, or at least necessarily tangled up with, the fact that what was being made was made to be sold. 

This cuts both ways. One can be disappointed at an artist’s decision to take the corporate ticket, but everyone involved knows (or should) what they’re getting into. The artist who acknowledges this is not ennobled, merely aware. Those yelling at Gerwig for selling out come off as belligerent in this context, not because they’re wrong, but because they (and this is a generalized statement) infantilize a filmmaker who has made similar, if smaller-scale, decisions before. Meanwhile, Gerwig’s attempts to inject Barbie—which Vulture's Allison Willmore describes as a “pop-culture icon and an emblem for the inconsistent impulses stuffed into the concept of female empowerment, but more than anything else, a story about money”—with academic sophistication reflect an anxiety specific to a diminished cinematic landscape, one rife with the type of IP-driven, quality-second film that she has just released. Fitting then that this anxiety, which must have been present when Gerwig inked her deal in 2021, and has only ramped up before the film’s release, makes its way into the finished product. 

Barbie is a film seemingly written to address an imaginary, bad-faith audience. Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach, under the watchful eye of Mattel, craft a sexless movie supposedly for adults that pays lip service to the complicated history of the doll through embarrassing contortions. It is a film aware of race, sexuality, ability, and beauty only as facets of aesthetic difference—it views representation as accessory, itself an interesting idea that Gerwig and Baumbach are too hemmed in or merely unimaginative to do anything with. In this vein, much of the film has the tenor and humor of a long, celebrity-filled episode of Last Week Tonight. Patriarchy, gender, existentialism—the film’s observations on these are at first humorous, then obvious, then repetitive, and finally only glancingly correct or interesting. Jokes strain for laughs, while a level of didacticism in its dialogue feels targeted toward a disagreeing audience that would never find itself in this particular theater in the first place, or a sympathetic one that is poised to agree with what it already knows. The film’s sets are pleasingly tactile and expansive, there are some dynamic group sequences (dances and fights), various laugh-out-loud funny asides, and a large, unevenly utilized cast that seems happy to be there. What this is all in service to is less clear. Whether the film is fun is subjective, though I was more impressed by the cross-brand affiliations; among other things, Barbie wants to sell you a Chevrolet and Birkenstocks. Near the end of the film, America Ferrera, who plays the Andy to Robbie’s Woody, launches into a monologue about the expectations foisted upon women by patriarchal society, her points cribbed from a gender studies syllabus circa 2015, complete with applause break. Most of Barbie is similarly, surprisingly po-faced, the threat that something compelling or at least organically funny might happen hinted at in flashes. 

Barbie is unlikely to be received as any kind of reneging on Gerwig’s artistic sensibilities, in part because there has been so much publicity emphasizing its pointedly non-corporate (though corporately approved) motivations. The film is a brightly colored, self-aware romp with a well-known cast that gently sends up the company it also praises. Its aesthetic touchstones range from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Powell and Pressburger to Jacques Demy. The idea put forth is one of originality and risk. Gerwig has expressed surprise that Mattel let her make a movie with such surreal elements at such a large budget, though these elements are actually few and far between. Besides, bold imagery and a sense of novelty help legitimize the hype. That the end product is as milquetoast as it is speaks to the weight of whatever perceived responsibility Gerwig and Baumbach felt, though that isn’t necessarily an excuse. Convincing someone like Gerwig to sign on involves taking advantage of a certain narrative, both about the product and its company, and about what the artist in question believes herself to be accomplishing.

Jamie Hood, writing in The Drift, said, “I no longer give much credence to arguments about selling out. I think they’re operative mostly in theory, because what they condemn is an inexorability to which there’s no longer any alternative.” To many, the very idea of a sellout now presents as outdated or perhaps just inoffensive, the friction between art and commodity, integrity and mercenary amorality merely a fact of life. It’s less that calling someone out in this regard is seen as naive and more that the tides have shifted. 

Mattel, the company behind the doll and the movie, has dozens of projects in development, among them a “daring” Barney movie with Daniel Kaluuya, and a Polly Pocket venture with Lena Dunham. In a recent New Yorker article about Mattel’s repositioning of its products into adaptable IP, the players, including Barbie’s star, Margot Robbie, Gerwig, and various executives at the company, deliver blandly empowering endorsements for the artistic possibilities of a big-budget movie about a doll, because this is what they judge will make the endeavor worthwhile. 

There are expensive, ambitious swings from indie directors that cause suspicion, and those that embolden an artist’s fans to reject such suspicions with accusations of hating fun. It’s difficult to square where Gerwig fits here. Before Little Women, Gerwig was by no means obscure or unfamiliar with studio work. If anything, it’s more telling that her breakout directorial debut with Lady Bird marks the last time she or her partner Noah Baumbach publicly worked with noted cantankerous asshole Scott Rudin after he produced Frances Ha, Mistress America, and The Meyerowitz Stories, among other films. Neither Gerwig nor Baumbach have ever commented about their relationship to Rudin, whose volatile, often abusive behavior has been known about for decades. 

There’s no gotcha in pointing out Gerwig’s relationship to Rudin. Sitting alongside the “sellout” conversation is an equally complex, distressing one about the character of the people one is likely to work with in order to get a film financed, though, again, in the case of Gerwig, it’s not as if she’s powerless or stupid. These are considered and deliberate decisions, and cleverly maneuvered ones at that. At this scale and this level of scrutiny, the entanglements are up for grabs. Which is to say it’s fair to bring up Gerwig’s artistic compromises, the rampant misogyny she’s faced throughout the Barbie press cycle, and the fact that she might be one of few directors who gets to dress up corporate coziness as creative ambition. What the New Yorker piece illustrates so clearly is what an even more recent New York Times piece summarizes:

They wanted Gerwig, with her indie bona fides, feminist credentials and multiple Oscar nominations, to use her credibility to make this multibillion-dollar platinum-blond I.P. newly relevant, delivering a very, very, very pink summer blockbuster that acknowledges Barbie’s baggage, unpacks that baggage and, also, sells that baggage.

In the midst of the WGA and SAG strikes, there is a vacuum of official response from Barbie’s talent. Its stars can’t participate in any ongoing promotion and Gerwig is unable to speak about the film as a writer (she’s able to do so as a director, in part due to the DGA’s less-than-noble, cushier deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which some union members feel was an effort to make SAG and the WGA accept shittier contracts). The marketing ellipsis continues as both unions protest the cruel terms foisted upon them by the studios, including Barbie’s distributor, Warner Discovery.  

In the New Yorker article, it was revealed that Gerwig has signed on to direct two films based on the Chronicles of Narnia for Netflix, which also produced Baumbach’s expensive, panned adaptation of White Noise and has been at the heart of critiques over the exploitative use of mini-writers’ rooms and non-existent residuals. The online reaction to this news was typically measured, with film critics like Matt Zoller Seitz comparing disliking Gerwig’s films to hating ice cream and would-be Twitter pundits infantilizing Gerwig by saying she’s never had the chance to make a popular movie before (Gerwig has co-written the upcoming live-action Disney adaptation of Snow White). It’s difficult to understand why it’s inaccurate to call these developments selling out when, by all indications, Gerwig is doing it quite well. 

Clearly, there is a resounding unease with these deals, one that proliferates throughout Hollywood and the general public. In the New Yorker story, Gerwig’s agent asks, “Is it a great thing that our great creative actors and filmmakers live in a world where you can only take giant swings around consumer content and mass-produced products?” Following his rhetorical exercise, the agent declines to answer his own question. Corporations like Mattel might bat around the fact that they give their filmmakers freedom to play in the sandbox, but the bottom line is still the same. Gerwig and her peers aren’t salvaging dying brands. They are selling dolls and making themselves feel better about it. Whether or not one finds such an obvious element of the business distasteful is one thing. How creatively one is able to contort their thinking into making that sound like a noble venture is another. 

Back in 1992, Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone, “I don’t blame the average 17-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. And maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously.”

There’s something to the 17-year-old’s outrage and to Cobain’s wizened rejoinder. Compromise is necessary and mass appeal comes with trade-offs. The difference now is that the commodification of self is often coupled with the re-repackaging of an established brand, a way to widen one’s reach while pumping someone else’s stock. If nothing else, Barbie stands out for being one of the few such cases that is so clearly neurotic and uncomfortable about the circumstances of its existence, a narrative component and a creative anxiety. It’s tempting to revert to a sense of relativism about what this means on a case-by-case basis. After all, some of the projects motivated by blatantly capitalistic forces turn out well. But even the most virtuous reasonings for selling out read as self-conscious attempts to mythologize what are, at bottom, canny business decisions. “I should feel really guilty about it,” Cobain continued. “I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial and sticking in my own little world and not really making an impact on anyone other than the people who are already aware of what I’m complaining about. It’s preaching to the converted.”

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