Forget the analyses; Barbie gives your child-mind something to play with
Warner Bros. 2023
I wonder if Paul Reubens saw Barbie.
As the New York Times noted when he passed this week (though they missed his regretful ghost in Life During Wartime) Reubens did a lot of great things besides Pee-Wee Herman. But Pee-Wee is a singular achievement.
I think the first time I saw Pee-Wee was on Letterman, his perfect foil; he came out, waved spastically, sat down and said, “Hey Dave, first one to speak is monkey for a week!” Letterman’s apparent perplexity, the audience’s delight, and finally, when the host helplessly stated talking and Pee-Wee hollered “HA HA! HI MONKEY!” everything went out the window. I was used to the typical late-night shticks and tricks, as well as to Letterman’s low-grade cynical takes on these, but Pee-Wee didn’t just “make fun,” he was fun, a buffoon you actually liked, an honest-to-God Fool like the guys in motley and bell-caps in old movies were supposed to be but actually funny.
I love Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and I thought of that when I saw this year’s Big Summer Movie, too, but mainly I was reminded of the TV show — partly because, though Tim Burton built beautifully on it in the film, it was the show’s creation of a Pee-Wee universe that Barbie echoed; also its sense of wonder and what we might call its invitation to play.
In 1986 we just had a crummy little black-and-white TV to watch Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on, but the Gary Panter-Ric Weitzman-Wayne White design was so brazen that it still got through — when I saw it in color later, I didn’t feel as if I’d missed much.
And the effect wasn’t carried just by the set, costumes, and props (some of which, like Globey, were also characters), but also by the whole mad assemblage of visitors (human, puppet, and spectral), talking furniture, and sideshows like Aardman Animation’s Penny. It was like a candy bag after a night of particularly fortunate trick-or-treating.
Pee-Wee was the come-on and a good host, but the thing that made it more inviting than Come Watch Weird Shit While You’re Hung Over was the sense that the Playhouse and its neighborhood were a sweet little world of easy pleasure and camaraderie. Mrs. Steve might be grumpy but that just made her more fun to prank; Sales Man you could pretend to be frightened of and he would run away. Everybody else was just a good neighbor whose personality was a treat, and everyone reveled in each other’s company and knew when one of them left they’d be back next week.
Even if you were a kid who didn’t know what gay was, you had to know Pee-Wee’s affection for Miss Yvonne was a child’s affection, and indeed the ability to even tolerate, let alone enjoy, all these disparate, outrageous, cacophonous elements was only a child’s idea of heaven. But you could live in that world for a half-hour a week and be a child yourself: tolerant, joyful, endlessly interested. And it might do the grown-up you some good.
I started having Pee-Wee flashbacks when the Barbies of Barbie Land in Greta Gerwig’s movie endlessly chirped “Hi Barbie” at each other — they’re so deliriously happy just to be Barbie, and to have their Barbiehood endlessly reflected back to them.
As you must know even if you haven’t seen it, there’s a definite and strong social messaging component in Barbie (as distinct from a message, because it’s nothing as simple or direct or, to be honest, coherent as that), and it doesn’t always or entirely cut the doll’s way. And if you suddenly jumped from the opening to the later “it’s impossible to be a woman” speech, you might think you’d wandered into Bertolt Brecht’s Barbie.
But the movie’s secret weapon is, it acknowledges that while Barbie may be ridiculous, she’s also fun, attractive and likable — millions of girls have played with her, of course she is. And while Barbie’s agon, which starts with “irrepressible thoughts of death” and cellulite and proceeds to a full-blown personality crisis, is serious enough to motivate the character’s journey to the Real World and beyond, at the same time it’s also very low-stakes — because she’s a doll.
I got over that hump when Barbie, new to the Real World and rollerblading with Ken in absurd matching outfits at Venice Beach, is ogled and catcalled by non-Ken men, and remarks “I very much sense an undertone of violence” in it. (Ken, bless him, just thinks he’s being appreciated.) Gerwig swiftly neutralizes the threat by having Barbie slug a guy who smacks her ass, leading her and Ken into about two minutes of legal trouble that is swiftly dropped (“you know what, keep ‘em”) so the story can continue.
You might think (particularly if you’re a Ken who loves to explain things) that this is a cheat and a truly coherent and logical Barbie movie would have Barbie at this juncture immediately embittered and defensive rather than, ping, right back on her vision quest for the human whose brooding and lumpy-thighed vision of her has messed up her dream world.
But like I said: She’s a doll. The charm of Barbie the movie is that it’s also a plaything — a dream house, if you will. It’s got an added layer of sophistication, certainly, with complex sentences and gags about the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, but the appeal is that even when the going gets tough and Barbie has to fight back against a Ken gone mad with patriarchal fever, and even as she picks up Lessons in Life from the sisterhood, she’s still a fantasy object for girls (now with added feminism!), and also for the boys who don’t mind a fun summer movie that doesn’t have Batman in it.
And I’ll tell you this: I have seen (not to say I’ve read, because why would I) dozens of essays on the sociopolitical import of this summer blockbuster produced by a toy company (here, knock yourself out). None of that interests me half as much as the spirit of play and adventure with which this big, ridiculous thing is imbued.
In the goofy conveyances Barbie and Ken take to and from Barbie World (and the dolphins painted on two-dimensional wheels that spin beside them as they ride their pink boat), and Will Ferrell and the other fully-suited executives furiously rollerblading toward the portal, and the hilarious Barbie Guerrilla Insurgent jumpsuits in which they take back Barbie Land, I see not only great waves of imagination and craft, but also an invitation to the audience to enter into the world they created — to live for a few hours in, and through, simple characters whose lives may contain some easily-overcome, childish versions of the conflicts that trouble us in the Real World, but who also and mostly have community and pluck and outfits and accessories to see them through, and for the interim that can be enough. I see a lot of Pee-Wee in Barbie and, like the old tag line said, boy, do we need it now.