By Pamela Paul
We can all agree 2023 was a good year for the movies. Critically and commercially, several movies did well, and only one of those successes took place within the Marvel cinematic universe. Even the 10 Oscar nominees for best picture, announced Tuesday, included nine actually good films.
Is it safe now to call “Barbie” the outlier? Can I say that, despite winsome leads and likable elements, it didn’t cohere or accomplish anything interesting, without being written off as a) mean, b) old, c) hateful or d) humorless?
Every once in a while, a movie is so broadly anticipated, so welcomed, so celebrated that to disparage it felt like a deliberate provocation. After “Barbie” so buoyantly lifted box office figures, it also felt like a willful dismissal of the need to make Hollywood solvent after a season of hell. And it felt like a political statement. Disliking “Barbie” meant either dismissing the power of The Patriarchy or dismissing Modern Feminism. You were either anti-feminist or too feminist or just not the right kind.
Few dared rain on Barbie’s hot pink parade.
Those who openly hated it mostly did so for reasons having to do with what it “stood for.” They abhorred its (oddly anachronistic) third-wave feminist politics. They despised its commercialism and dreaded the prospect of future films about Mattel properties such as Barney and American Girl dolls. They hated the idea of a movie about a sexualized pinup-shaped doll whose toy laptop or Working Woman (“I really talk!”) packaging couldn’t hide the stereotypes under the outfit.
For those who hailed it, there was a manic quality to the “Barbie” enthusiasm, less an “I enjoyed” and more of an “I endorse.” How fabulous its consumer-friendly politics, its I-can’t-believe-they-let-us-do-this micro-subversions, its prepackaged combo of gentle satire and you-go-girl gumption. They loved it for reclaiming dolls and Bazooka-gum pink, its Rainbow Magic diversity, its smug assurance that everything contained within was legitimately feminist/female/fine. They approved of the fact that Weird Barbie’s quirks could X out Stereotypical Barbie’s perfection on some unspoken political balance sheet. That by being everything to everyone, a plastic doll could validate every child’s own unique and irrepressible individuality. To each her own Barbie!
And now there is a new Barbie cause to rally around: the Great Oscar Snub and what it all means — and why it is wrong. Neither Margot Robbie nor Greta Gerwig was nominated for best actress or best director, respectively. “How is that even possible?” one TV host exclaimed.
“To many, the snubbing of the pair further validated the film’s message about how difficult it can be for women to succeed in — and be recognized for — their contributions in a society saturated by sexism,” CNN explained. Ryan Gosling, nominated as best supporting actor for his role as Ken, issued a statement denouncing the snubs and hailing his colleagues.
But hold on. Didn’t another woman, Justine Triet, get nominated for best director (for “Anatomy of a Fall”)? As for “Barbie,” didn’t Gerwig herself get nominated for best adapted screenplay and the always sublime America Ferrera get nominated for best supporting actress? A record three of the best picture nominees were directed by women. It’s not as if women were shut out.
Every time a woman fails to win an accolade doesn’t mean failure for womanhood. Surely women aren’t so pitiable as to need a participation certificate every time we try. We’re well beyond the point where a female artist can’t be criticized on the merits and can’t be expected to handle it as well as any man. (Which means it still hurts like hell for either sex — but not because of their sex.)
Robbie had far less to do in “Barbie” than she did in “I, Tonya,” for which she justifiably got an Oscar nod. In this movie, she was charming and utterly fine, but that doesn’t make it a rare dramatic achievement.
With “Barbie,” Gerwig upped her commercial game from acclaimed art house to bona fide blockbuster. She was demonstrably ambitious in her conception of what could have been an all-out disaster. She got people to go back to the movies. All of these are successes worthy of celebration. But they are not the same as directing a good film.
Surely it is possible to criticize “Barbie” as a creative endeavor. To state that despite its overstuffed playroom aesthetic and musical glaze, the movie was boring. There were no recognizable human characters, something four “Toy Story” movies have shown can be done in a movie populated by toys.
There were no actual stakes, no plot to follow in any real or pretend world that remotely made sense. In lieu of genuine laughs, there were only winking ha-has at a single joke improbably stretched into a feature-length movie. The result produced the forced jollity of a room in which the audience is strenuously urged to “sing along now!”
A few reviewers had the gall to call it. The New York Post described it as “exhausting” and a “self-absorbed and overwrought disappointment,” a judgment for which the reviewer was likely shunned as a houseguest for the remaining summer season.
In our culture of fandoms, hashtags, TikTok sensations, semi-ironic Instagrammable cosplay, embedded anonymous reviews, sponsored endorsements and online grassroots marketing campaigns, not every critical opinion is a deliberate commentary on the culture or the virtue-signaling of an open letter. Sometimes an opinion isn’t some kind of performance or signifier.
There’s a crucial difference between liking the idea of a movie and liking the movie itself. Just as you could like “Jaws” without wanting to instigate a decadeslong paranoia about shark attacks, you can dislike “Barbie” without hating on women. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. And sometimes, alas, not a good one.