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Observing Barbie in La La Land

Touching on gender, sexuality and empowerment, it has been controversial in some parts of the Middle East

A person walks past a billboard showing an advertisement for the movie "Barbie" on its first day of release in Dubai Reuters
A billboard advertises Barbie on its slightly delayed release in Dubai after the UAE assessed its content

If Barbie were a real human, she would no doubt live in West Hollywood, the most vibey, buzzy part of Los Angeles, her hometown and headquarters of her creator, Mattel Inc.

So where better to get a sneak preview of the movie that got its belated general release in the UAE last week and which, I predict, will take the Gulf by storm over the coming weeks?

I watched it in the AMC Theatre in the Grove shopping district, a kind of open-air Mall of the Emirates, at the behest of my 14-year-old daughter, who led me screaming and kicking to the box office against all my protests and better judgement.

OK, that last bit was a lie, inserted to protect my macho image. In fact, my girl wasn’t that bothered, and it was I who insisted we catch the film while on a shopping expedition.

It had absolutely nothing to do with the presence of Margot Robbie, the Australian star who plays Stereotypical Barbie. Absolutely nothing.

Any movie that makes it into the elite ranks of the $1 billion box-office takings list has to be seen and understood.

I must admit to being intrigued by the razzamatazz around the film, released in the rest of the world in July. As a dad of two daughters, I remember Barbie as one of life’s minor irritations, a regular drain on my wallet and a source of angst when the favourite one was left behind on a trip.

She also became a target of the feminist lobby as an air-headed figure who symbolised men’s apparent “objectification” of women, an impossible physical and lifestyle benchmark for young girls that only served to reinforce the patriarchal nature of male-dominated society.

This movie has changed all that. Barbie played by Robbie looks set to become an icon for female empowerment – but in the most parodic and downright funny way imaginable.

Spoiler alert ahead of a brief plot summary: Barbie lives happily in Barbieland, a pink paradise populated by Barbies of all description – doctors, judges, scientists, even the president is a woman.

They live comfortably in command of the Kens – men – who are subservient wimps content to spend their days at volleyball on the beach, led by chief Ken, the brilliant actor Ryan Gosling.

This idyll is broken when Barbie and Ken visit the real world and become contaminated – she by self-doubt, he by the taint of patriarchy. When they return, he and the other Kens take over Barbieland and turn it into a male heaven – Kendom – consisting mainly of motor cars, sport, horses and beer.

I won’t detail the denouement, but suffice to say the Barbies return things to their “natural” state by using all their feminine guiles.

There are some great one-liners.

Ken: “I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?”

Stereotypical Barbie: “It is literally impossible to be a woman.”

It is not really feminist propaganda, more a pastiche of modern gender politics against a very wry background. And very witty, in many places.

It tells a fantasy story which touches on some of the big issues in modern identity politics – gender, sexuality and empowerment – and that has made it controversial in some parts of the Middle East, where such subjects are still being hotly debated.

But it is by no means feminist propaganda, nor – as some have alleged – an anti-family diatribe.

Surely the UAE has taken the correct course of action, by taking the opportunity to assess the content according to the prevailing social and cultural mores of the country. A few weeks delay in releasing the movie is neither here nor there.

I wonder if it was also a canny bit of commerce by UAE policy-makers too, allowing the anticipation to build up as the rest of the world talked excitedly about the movie – and avoiding a clash with the other big release of the summer, Oppenheimer.

If so, it has certainly worked. Dubai cinema executives report record booking for Barbie this coming weekend. I can see a cult following of sorts building up.

Which, in a kind of reverse way, is what has happened in Los Angeles.

On leaving the cinema and sitting on a warm summer evening in the Grove, I was struck by the sheer number of beautiful inhabitants of La La Land who were actually pretty close to the Barbie and Ken model.

As the narrator in the movie says when Barbie departs from her pink home for the real world: “She swapped the plastic artificiality of Barbieland for the plastic artificiality of Los Angeles.”

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