Barbie showed up and, just like that, the world changed. Are we talking about Barbie or Barbie, you ask? Why, both, of course! Ever since Greta Gerwig, prestige director and former queen of mumblecore, was announced as the director of the upcoming Barbie film, the anticipation has loomed large. “What exactly is Greta Gerwig doing?” the people (of Vulture.com) asked. “What kind of movie is she intending to make?” There’s also the fact that Gerwig wrote the screenplay with her partner, Noah Baumbach, who’s behind indie classics like The Squid and the Whale. The teaser trailer is chock-full of references. It’s an elaborate homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; the historical implications of the introduction of Barbie make up the narration by Helen Mirren, reminding fans of her work in Documentary Now!. Margot Robbie, playing Barbie, is clad in an exact re-creation of the original Barbie’s outfit; Gerwig is clearly thinking about the interplay between highbrow and lowbrow, between art and commercialism. But what does that look like in movie form? She’s a Barbie girl, but what is going on in her Barbie World?
The main issue is that we don’t actually know the plot of the movie. In the early stages of the film, it was supposed to be “a fish-out-of-water story à la Splash and Big, whereby Barbie gets kicked out of Barbieland because she’s not perfect enough, a bit eccentric and doesn’t fit in,” Deadline reported back in 2018. “She then goes on an adventure in the real world and by the time she returns to Barbieland to save it, she has gained the realization that perfection comes on the inside, not the outside, and that the key to happiness is belief in oneself, free of the obligation to adhere to some unattainable standard of perfection.” That plot isn’t out of the question, but the film seems a bit more meta than that description allows for — the teaser implies a specific knowledge of Barbie’s real-world impact, for example. Also, Will Ferrell has been confirmed to be playing the CEO of Mattel, which means Barbie could gain sentience (??) at some point.
We do have another fun clue: Margot Robbie’s Letterboxd account, which was unearthed and then promptly deleted. The category of “Watch for Barbie” included such titles as The Truman Show, Splash, Puberty Blues, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Truman Show has an obvious connection to the “CEO of Mattel” situation, but perhaps most interesting is the inclusion of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which are musicals. Umbrellas is a searingly emotional, entirely sung-through romantic drama, while Young Girls is a musical comedy. Given the amount of dancing that is flashed through in the teaser trailer — including Simu Liu and Margot Robbie in a disco dress — Barbie may be … a musical. Not to mention Dua Lipa, a confirmed singer, is part of the cast.
This theory was compounded by the recently released soundtrack list, which includes a Dua Lipa song called “Dance the Night,” out May 26, along with a bevy of other musical artists such as Charli XCX, Ice Spice, and … Ryan Gosling, another member of the Barbie cast known for his work in movie musicals. We also hear the movie has at least one dance number that is used to contrast with reality. In a recent Vogue feature, a scene was described in which a dance scene is interrupted by Barbie asking, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
That contrast between fantasy and a dark reality seems to be the guiding hand behind most of Barbie’s instincts that we know of. In the Vogue piece, Gerwig describes being inspired by the book Reviving Ophelia, by clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, which discusses the changes teenage girls undergo mentally in adolescence. “They’re funny and brash and confident, and then they just — stop,” Gerwig said. The way she described it, it sounds as though she sees the Barbie story as a possible allegory for that process. “How is this journey the same thing that a teenage girl feels?” Gerwig said. “All of a sudden, she thinks, Oh, I’m not good enough.” Given that we know from the trailer that Barbie heads into the real world, it seems the contrast between Barbieland and reality, between youthful naïveté and complicated adulthood, is the central idea of the film.
So what is Barbie? So far, it’s a collection of references — meta, esoteric, and pop culture alike — with a deep dark, adult center, all wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.
This is a developing story.