November 2023

A film directed by Greta Gerwig

Michael Bettencourt

We finally got around to watching it, for a price on Prime, on the 55" home screen (supplied with good snacks and drams of Irish whiskey no theater could provide).

I've been reading through reviews and commentaries, but while many writers do dub the movie "feminist," they can't seem to agree on what that term means or its usefulness in an age of intersectionality. Let's leave untangling that knot to the academics since they need as many pliable doctoral topics as they can find given the parlous state of tenure in the American academy.

The bone I have to pick with the movie is that after a decade in gestation and an army of people dedicated to making sure it made it to the screen and entertained and earned a lot of money and appeared to say something meaningful, the movie comes off as lazy – lazily written, lazily campy, lazily capitalist.

One example/headscratcher: The Indigo Girls "Closer to Fine."? The song came out in 1989 when America Ferrera was only five years old, so why would her character know it except that the writers said, "She knows it, end of discussion – and besides, it fits in with our theme." Second example? Thinking that Will Ferrell has ever been funny and that all you need to do it put him on the screen. And back to the first example: "Closer to Fine" might as well as be a bagatelle from the 19th century for all the relevance its lyrics have to today's identity struggles (or any kind of struggle – try making sense of the lyrics).

The movie also just jobbed-in off-the-shelf mythologies about matriarchy and patriarchy without taking a wry or slant look at them.

For instance, Gerwig presents patriarchy as teaching men to be piggish and derogatory, but whether Gerwig intended it or not, patriarchy gives Ken (a superb Ryan Gosling) a way to break his glassy life into shards of meaning and purpose: in short, it empowers him (to use the overused phrase). And while the "meaning and purpose" for Ken turn out to be an infatuation with trucks and horses, the outcomes of the matriarchy aren't that much better: a sameness and indifference among the other Barbies that make one wonder whether a gynarchy is such a good deal, creating as it does a world full of empty gestures and smug self-confidence.

And then there is the "existential angst" angle of the movie when Barbie, out of nowhere, says that she thinks about death. How did that happen in a world where people never die? No explanation, it just happens, but it allows the writers to bring in Rhea Perlman to teach Barbie about the blessings of a life that passes away – which seems to have no discernible effect on her actions as she returns to Barbieland to live once again in blissful indifference. A diversion that provides no pleasant diversion but does tick the box of "deeper meaning" on the director's to-do list.

But let's not get too carried away here. We're talking about patriarchy and matriarchy and all related terms in a movie that, at best, engages with them with a middle-school level of intellectual prowess. The movie's not to be taken that seriously since it wasn't made with very much seriousness. Just like the doll itself, it's a commodity cloaked in a patina of faux significance whose real subterranean purpose (the purpose that the suits follow, the capitalist purpose) is just to make a lot of money for a lot of people for a long time before the whole thing peters out, and, if you're lucky, maybe it will remain evergreen. (The New York Post called it a "corporate cash grab masquerading as an art installation.")

The thing that gives the game away: When America Ferrera pitches Will Ferrell that Mattel should create an "ordinary Barbie." He bats the pitch away until a suit with a tablet behind says that they could money from that, at which point the doll is now headed for production.

I am glad, though, that the Indigo Girls will get a cut of the action – they've been at it long enough (still touring in 2023) and deserve making some bank on their intellectual property. And maybe we'll get "Ken" at some point in the hands of someone like Wes Anderson or Steven Soderbergh – or, given his new memoir, Werner Herzog. Now, imagine that movie.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, Marķa-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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