Harley Quinn, Frances Ha and the king of Mumblecore walk into a bar. The bartender says: You guys want to make a live-action Barbie movie and they all say YES. Is this a joke? No, but it is pretty freaking weird. On Monday, The Hollywood Reporter reported Barbie is “going indie” insofar as twee-filmmaking darlings Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have been tapped by Warner Bros to write a big-screen Barbie movie, with Margot Robbie producing, and possibly playing the titular role.
If Barbie movies must be made, then I suppose you want smart, artistic and sensitive people doing it, right? In theory, the news that Baumbach and Gerwig are writing a big-screen version of the famous blonde plastic doll should be a cause for celebration. As a little boy, I had my own Barbie, and as an adult, Frances Ha (written by Baumbach and Gerwig) is one easily in my top-five-favorite movies of all time. My wife and I also cried buckets while watching Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird in 2017, the year our now two-year-old daughter was born. So, great. A big studio, corporate Barbie movie is coming and it appears that non-corporate, arty people will craft that vision.
So why am I worried?
Two reasons. First, the idea that a Barbie movie should be “good” or, to put it more succinctly, the idea that a Barbie movie needs to be perceived as good or smart is a dubious proposition. This is how I imagine the result of this in-development film on the zeitgeist; the cultural impact of this movie will elicit the kind of conversation years from now in which a parent I know, at a cocktail party or a playdate says to me: “Actually, that Barbie movie is really smart. It’s so subversive.” And, I will nod because I nominally agree, but at the same time, I’ll silently worry that the hypothetical person saying this to me has both never seen 2010’s Greenberg and also has a Shrek-ish idea of what constitutes subversion in a kids’ movie. In other words, just how fucking hardcore can Gerwing and Baumbach get here?
At this point, everyone with a plastic doll in this fight will bring up two examples that prove this is great news: Charlie Kauffman wrote some of those Kung-Fu Panda movies and Wes Anderson did an excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox, even if it had nearly zero connection to the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Gerwig and Baumbach doing Barbie is then in a grand tradition of cool filmmakers and artists deciding they want a large paycheck. Remember when Alfonso Cuaron, the guy who made Y Tu Mamá También—you know, a movie which features teenage boys jerking off in tandem, and contains lingering shots of their ejaculate diffusing in a swimming pool — remember when that guy then directed the third Harry Potter movie? Same thing, right?
The problem with these comparisons is simple. Kung Fu Panda is funny and the source material for Harry Potter and Fantastic Mr. Fox are objectively awesome. Gerwig and Baumbach writing a Barbie movie is more analogous to a world in which Spike Lee was suddenly doing a movie based on Silly Puddy. There’s no story connected to Barbie, other than the doll has caused generations of girls (and boys) to have really weird issues about their body.
But, I’m not here to knock Barbie, and that’s because I have really good memories of my childhood Barbie. My mom required me to have my own because after I mummified one of my sisters’ Barbies (Aerobics Barbie) it made more sense that if I played with my sister, that I have my own doll. Enter, Astronaut Barbie, and several wonderful childhood memories. (Being a boy who had a Barbie was briefly traumatic in Kindergarten for like one day, but all-in-all it was great.) Which brings me to my second concern: I don’t want a good Barbie movie, because Barbie is a toy not a narrative idea.
I think any rational parent can agree that all existing versions of Barbie TV shows or direct-to-video Barbie “movies” are total crap. The only thing that approaches interesting and transgressive art that bears Babie’s name is that awful song by the band Aqua “Barbie Girl,” which is, of course, supposed to be a criticism of Barbie culture but, in reality, is actually just annoying. This is my fear for the Barbie movie: It will be the cinematic version of the Aqua song. Making fun of the triteness and shallowness of Barbie is so obvious that on some level it’s boring. Smart children, however, can invent all sorts of stories for their Barbie dolls (or other dolls) and often, those private stories are way better than anything a movie studio can throw at them, even if the script is being written by absurdly smart people.
The best result for the Barbie movie from Baumbach and Gerwig is that it will actually do what you expect it to do: Help kids get rid of weird body image ideas, belittle Barbie’s superficiality and preoccupation with purchasing things to make her happy, and, overall, be pretty funny. This, I imagine, in the best possible scenario, would be like the movie Clueless, but for kids.
Then again, even Clueless was based was on Jane Austen’s novel Emma. I worry that there’s not much to work with here. The brilliance of Baumbach and Gerwig’s critiques of human nature in films like Mistress America or Frances Ha is, essentially, criticisms of the adult world. In other words, I long for another movie from these two that is made for me. And I guess, if I’m being really honest, I’m a more than a little jealous that the next movie made by two of my favorite filmmakers won’t be for me at all. It will, for better or for worse, be for my daughter.