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Why doesn’t Hollywood consider ‘Barbie’ to be a valid movie? How a film that grossed $1.4 billion is still viewed with derision

Greta Gerwig’s motion picture starring Margot Robbie earned eight Oscar nominations, but not for its director or its leading actress in an unexpected and surprising move that says a lot about the industry’s duality

Greta Gerwig y Margot Robbie
Director Greta Gerwig, with Margot Robbie, both in pink, on the set of 'Barbie.'CONTACTO
María Porcel

Hollywood has never loved Barbie as much as it has despised her. After six months of talking about the movie (and as many months discussing its arrival), about the doll, about feminism, about marketing, about what is frivolous and what is profound, about what is high culture and what is low culture, about what is valid for the world’s most powerful movie industry, which has been setting the standard for a century, everything seems to have become clear in the past week. The cards have been laid on the table. Or have they?

The film written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie (who also produced it) received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. That’s nothing to sneeze at. But given the debate ignited by the snubs of both women in their main categories, that seems insufficient. It was not even 6 a.m. in Los Angeles when the discussion began: what about Barbie?

From the very beginning, Hollywood has had a love-hate relationship with the movie about the Mattel doll. That relationship has bordered on cynicism. For starters, that’s because money is the standard by which everything is measured in California, where seven out of every thousand people are millionaires (and rising), according to Bloomberg. And this movie has been a moneymaking machine: it earned over $1.4 billion in theaters, making it the highest-grossing film in Warner’s history. And that’s not all: many brands have jumped on the bandwagon, in what has been not only a marketing strategy, but also a way to earn revenue through a social and cultural touchstone. “Barbie has become the leader of pop culture,” University of Southern California (USC) associate professor of marketing Therese Wilbur, a former Mattel employee (she was the company’s international marketing director for six years), explained to this newspaper when the movie was released.

The film’s success was assured, but the bombshell it became was unexpected, the extent of its success immeasurable. However, after the big premieres and bigger profits, awards season arrived. And Barbie seems to have gone downhill from there. The film’s actors, director and songs were nominated, but they didn’t win anything. Beyond its competition with Oppenheimer, the film could have had a chance, but it hasn’t. That much was obvious at the Golden Globes, which basically created a category for the movie to win something, Best Film Phenomenon. Barbie star and producer Margot Robbie saw that it was going to be one of her few opportunities to go on stage and pick up an award, if not the only one. She dedicated it, of course, to the fans, to all those who paid for their tickets, dressed in pink, in costume, and showed their enthusiasm for the movie in theaters. Indeed, Barbie is a unique phenomenon that has changed the way people interact in movie theaters, as the Golden Globes recognized.

But why is a movie ticket bought by a 10-year-old girl, or a 20-year-old young adult, or a 30-year-old woman, dressed in a pink t-shirt to see Barbie, valued less than one bought by a man to see Oppenheimer or Spider-Man? In Hollywood, it seems like the latter is worth more, right from the get-go. It was all laughs with Barbie — teasing, giggles, complacent looks; that’s machismo, after all. There’s a social dichotomy at the heart of the film: is Barbie a purely Hollywood product or is she the exact opposite? The film packaging seems to point to the former: it has Hollywood stars, a big studio and a big budget, as well as a best-selling doll at its core, catchy songs, saturated colors and the beaches of Los Angeles in the background. But perhaps it isn’t just that. Its female point of view, with an eminently feminine script, production and direction, an ironic, nuanced story that highlights the tyranny of patriarchy, the frequent uselessness of the gray-clad bosses, the complications of being a woman in the 21st century, are not comfortable topics for the always politically correct entertainment industry. Is it too pink? Too corny? Is it criticized for being too feminine, too feminist; or for excessively white, simple feminism? In an increasingly open Hollywood, which is thinking outside the box and focusing on a different cinema this year, the decision is difficult to understand.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a still from the film.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a still from the film.alamy

It’s a pitched battle between two sides who can’t agree on what is already undoubtedly the most overanalyzed, dissected film of the year; there are hundreds of reviews and editorials about it. But the 9,800 members of the Hollywood Film Academy knew where they stood (or at least the actors and directors, because for award nominations members only vote for their corresponding fields — such as makeup artists, producers, composers — and for Best Picture). And it seems that the 1,294 actors who are members of the Academy do not see the same potential in Robbie as the millions of viewers who have given her billions of dollars at the box office do.

According to the trade magazine Variety, it is very difficult for actors in “fantasy” films to receive Oscar nominations: “Oscar voters annually choose spinach over sweets, meat and potatoes over champagne and caviar.” But last year, Michelle Yeoh won for the highly fantastical metaverse craze Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. This year, Poor Things’ Emma Stone (along with Lily Gladstone) seems to be the favorite for a very imaginative character and film. Stone also won an Oscar seven years ago for the no less fanciful La La Land.

“They like their movies serious and meaningful, and their actors tortured by real world woes such as physical disabilities, addictions, mental illness and all the oppressions and injustices that our mad world has to offer,” journalist Steven Gaydos continued in Variety. Barbie encounters a couple of oppressions and injustices throughout the film. As Los Angeles Times columnist Mary Macnamara wryly quipped, “If only Barbie had done a little time as a sex worker. Or barely survived becoming the next victim in a mass murder plot. Or stood accused of shoving Ken out of the Dream House’s top window.”

Ken is the one who doesn’t know what to do with himself. As so many memes have lamented these days, his nomination seems to reflect the film’s plot. If Ryan Gosling was surprised to win Best Song at the Critics’ Choice Awards a few days ago, now he can only be disappointed that he was nominated but not his female co-stars (except America Ferrera). “No recognition would be possible for anyone on the film without their talent, grit and genius. Against all odds with nothing but a couple of soulless, scantily clad, and thankfully crotchless dolls, they made us laugh, they broke our hearts, they pushed the culture and they made history. Their work should be recognized along with the other very deserving nominees,” he said in a statement a few hours after the nominations were announced. “To say I am disappointed that they are not nominated in their respective categories would be an understatement.” In an interview, America Ferrera said she was “incredibly disappointed” by the snubbing of her co-stars. Even writer Stephen King and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed their surprise on social media: “Your millions of fans love you.”

Box office success and public recognition and the fact that it was an original cultural product, not a franchise, whose resonance will endure for years to come, will probably give Barbie much more power than certain Oscar nominations. Indeed, the film has been back in U.S. theaters for a week, a sign of the interest it continues to generate. But these awards, with almost a century of history behind them, are still a gauge of the industry and of a film’s validity. It’s a complex duality. As Barbie herself cries in the film: “I’m not good enough for anything.” Not even for awards, apparently.

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