Who Wore It Better: Barbie or Margaret?
Forget "Barbenheimer." There was a different movie mashup on my mind this past weekend: "Bargaret." Or "Margarbie?"
Regardless of the name's catchiness (or lack thereof), I noticed many striking parallels between the new “Barbie” movie and another movie from earlier this year: the heartwarming, thought-provoking and surprisingly hilarious film adaptation of the 1970 coming-of-age novel, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” While both flicks offer remarkably layered stories, I found "Margaret" to more effectively convey the heart of what "Barbie" tried to communicate with bright colors but ultimately with less success.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare a smaller-budget film adaptation of a progressive children’s book to a blockbuster about a bestselling, controversial yet iconic toy. Perhaps I shouldn’t pit two female characters against each other. But as a fan of writer-director Greta Gerwig's previous films such as "Ladybird" and "Little Women," my intent is for this brief analysis to be a conversation starter about how some stories can stick with us and effortlessly inspire our imagination and empathy, while others can feel forced, heavy-handed and unearned.
Though I didn't read Judy Blume’s beloved book as a kid, I was pleasantly taken aback at the "Margaret" movie’s honest and relatable portrayal of puberty, self-image, envy, parent-child relationships and the bittersweet journey of growing up. Much like Margot Robbie’s “Barbie” character, pre-teen Margaret is eager to understand her identity as a woman in a rapidly changing world. Anxious to get her first period and achieve the alluring status of womanhood, Margaret wishes away her childhood and in so doing has a rude awakening to the complicated reality of being an adult. In her desperation to be normal, she begins to talk to God in the solitude of her bedroom, begging for divine help as she tries to make sense of different religions and her own beliefs. Meanwhile, Margaret’s mother searches for ways to connect with her maturing daughter while trying to reconcile with her parents who disowned her for marrying a Jewish man.
In Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster movie, “Barbie” is living in a fantasy world where everything is predictable, colorful and held together by a plastic veneer of social progress and gender equality. When Barbie’s innocent perspective is disrupted by unsettling thoughts of imperfection and death, she discovers the truth that she is a doll, and her owner is a adolescent girl facing a challenging time alongside her depressed mother. Barbie must choose between either ignoring her painful new awareness or traveling to the real world to embrace the complexities of being human. Plus, she has to deal with an annoying, needy Ken (I will ignore this storyline in this study).
While the movie doesn’t specifically mention the divine, Barbie’s journey is quite spiritual. She looks beyond herself to make sense of her existence, to discern between good and evil, to combat the uprising of blatant patriarchy in her “Barbieland” society, and to connect with the Earth-bound mother and daughter who have cared for her “doll self.” Ultimately, the way she navigates her existential crisis and advocacy for gender equality can feel quite preachy, weakening the potency of the story with monologues and convenient plot devices that literally involve other "Barbies" being brainwashed offscreen by "Kens" and then being un-brainwashed by being kidnapped into the back of a truck and lectured on what leads to a flourishing female life.
The "Barbie" story began with several engaging and subversive plot threads, but failed to carry them through to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it could have been improved by investing more time in the tension between the human mother and daughter, or by giving more screen time to the inventor of the Barbie doll, an old woman who acts very briefly as a mentor figure for Barbie, as the title character begins to explore the possibility of becoming a human herself. Granted, the movie is a satire and comedy, but both the humor and messages expressed in the story would have been even stronger and less likely to be dismissed if bolstered by a more well-rounded plot progression.
While “Margaret” touches on similar themes, her theatrical journey feels more natural, genuine and nuanced. As a newcomer to her neighborhood, she is swept into a group of girls who swap secrets and engage in a comical ritual to accelerate the arrival of adulthood. In one scene, Margaret’s boastful, overly confident neighbor gets her first period while they are together at a restaurant, and the girl breaks into a fit of hysteria in a bathroom stall. The camera watches Margaret’s facial expressions during this fraught moment, as the intimidation and jealousy she had originally felt toward her neighbor melts into pity and discomfort. Margaret's introduction to the privilege and trials of being a woman is embodied by a series of similarly complicated experiences, actions and conversations she engages in with her mother, grandmother, friends and teachers. Later on, Margaret reclines against her mother on the couch, and the pair wordlessly comfort each other in the aftermath of a long day.
By the end of the film, Margaret has let up on her efforts to bend God toward her will, having sat through an inscrutable synagogue service with her grandmother, confessed to a priest about humiliating an unpopular girl at school, and endured an awkward dinner with her mother’s estranged, evangelical parents. When her first period unceremoniously arrives, Margaret still hasn’t fully acclimated to adulthood, but she has gained valuable perspective and enduring memories that, in my opinion, connect profoundly with the film's audience.
Meanwhile, Barbie entertains while asking her own big questions. But ultimately she stays in the shallows, making less of a ripple than her younger counterpart, albeit with much more pink.