Barbie against Barbie

When my daughter was young, she and her two best friends played with a collection of Barbies. Her mother worried about Barbie’s influence, yet when I observed my daughter and her friends playing with the Barbies, they were grabbing parts from one Barbie and putting them on another, to my mind treating them more like an Erector set, admittedly a very male point of view. This past summer my daughter, CEO of a drone company, and her daughter, a PhD candidate in economics, dressed up in pink to see Barbie.

Greta Gerwig is an intelligent and talented director, as well as an actress and screenwriter. She previously directed Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), both of which received Academy Award nominations. Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach, wrote the script. Margot Robbie, who stared as Stereotypical Barbie, produced the film. (For a review of the film see Manohla Dargis and Mark Kermode.)

Barbie is a movie about the Barbie doll which represents a mythology about American womanhood. Barbie depicts one ideal of the American woman—slender, blond, full-chested. Barbie went to the moon before women could get a credit card. Yet Barbie is anatomically impossible. She cannot even stand up, as my daughter endlessly complained. Barbie proclaims its mythmaking when it opens with a scene that echoes the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Girls flail their old-fashioned dolls like the hominids that wielded bones. Into that scene appears Stereotypical Barbie in her iconic original form—striped bathing suit, blond ponytail, and high heeled shoes. Myth embodied!  

The film wonderfully brings to life the plastic, brightly colored, multi-shades of the pink Barbie world, populated by Barbies of all types and matching Kens. The dialogue is funny and often ironic. It follows the logic of Barbie’s plastic doll world in strange and amusing ways. When Ken (Ryan Gosling) runs into the ocean, he bounces off the plastic waves. It’s funnier in film than description.

The crisis begins when Barbie takes off her high heeled shoes: her heels fall to the ground. When she shows her flat feet to the other Barbies, they react in horror. She begins to have thoughts of anxiety, death, and cellulite.

To solve her problem, Stereotypical Barbie visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). Weird Barbie asks Stereotypical Barbie if anything preceded this. Barbie answers in a mumbling whisper, “thoughts of death.” Weird Barbie explains that Barbie has opened a portal between Barbie world and the real world. To fix it, Barbie needs to go to the real world and find the girl who’s playing with her. That girl is having sad thoughts, which disturb Barbie’s dollness. Stereotypical Barbie asks why the girl would be sad, “Didn’t we fix everything so that all women in the real world could be happy and powerful?” Weird Barbie presents Stereotypical Barbie with a choice. In one hand, Weird Barbie holds a high heeled shoe, Barbie world, and in the other a Birkenstock, the real world, declaring, “You can know the truth about the universe.” Stereotypical Barbie at first chooses the high heeled shoe, refusing to go. She wants everything to return to normal. Weird Barbie tells her she only gave her a choice to give her a sense of control. She must go.  

When Stereotypical Barbie and Ken get to the real world, which looks like Venice Beach, CA, she finds things not at all like she had expected. Men cat-call and wolf-whistle at Barbie. She feels “ill at ease” and detects an “undertone of violence.” She remarks that real world seems so male, while Ken replies that “everything is reversed here.” When she spots a billboard featuring a line of beauty queens, she misinterprets and remarks, “Oh look, the Supreme Court!” The Barbies clearly did not fix everything in the real world.

Dressed up in her pink cowgirl outfit, Barbie meets up with a group of teenage girls dressed in black and introduces herself to them, expecting the girls to recognize and welcome her. “Who are you?” they ask. She answers, “I’m only your favorite woman of all time, Barbie!” One of the girls, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), replies, “So you are, like, Barbie-Barbie, a professional bimbo?” A surprised Barbie responds, ”No, Barbie is a doctor, and a lawyer, and a senator, and a Nobel Bell Prize winner.” When the other girls egg Sasha on, Sasha responds, “You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented,” and calls Barbie a fascist. An astonished Barbie flees in tears, a new experience. This propels Barbie on her quest.

Barbie the movie stars a child’s doll, but it is not a child’s movie. It transgresses several genres. In this fantasy, the dolls are human scale, living in Barbie wonderland. Yet Stereotypical Barbie experiences an existential crisis. The film entertains a science fiction aspect when the doll world and real world interact. Mythologically, science fiction films explore what it means to be human. The book Frankenstein (1818), as well as the 1931 movie of the same name and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), make this evident. Weird Barbie is a kind of Frankenstein and, in her own way, so is Stereotypical Barbie—she’s impossible.

On her quest while trying to escape Mattel headquarters, Barbie meets Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), the actual creator of the original Barbie doll, hidden away in the Mattel headquarters on the seventeenth floor in an amber, sunlit, old-fashioned kitchen. When Ruth hands Barbie a cup of tea, the image recreates Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of God creating Adam.

At the film’s denouement, Ruth reappears and says to Barbie, “I created you so you wouldn’t have an ending.” Barbie is astounded that this old lady had created her. “You think the lady who invented Barbie looks like Barbie? I’m a five-foot nothing grandma with a double mastectomy and tax evasion issues. Nobody looks like Barbie.”

Ruth takes Barbie’s hand, and they walk out of Barbie world into the light. If Barbie is no longer Barbie the doll, who is she? Ruth confronts her with her new mortality. “Humans make things up like patriarchy and Barbie just to deal with how uncomfortable things are. And then you die.”

Barbie explicitly states its antimyth theme. It puts death, the ultimate mythological challenge, right up front. When Barbie’s heels fall, thoughts of death intrude. Again in an early scene in her quest, she sits on a bench next to an old woman (two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth) and says, “you’re beautiful.” The woman replies, “I know.” And when Barbie wants to become a real human, her creator reminds her, “And then you die.” Barbie begins her new life in the real world immediately aware that in choosing to leave Barbie world she chooses death.

Barbie explicitly takes on patriarchy. It even uses the word. When Ken goes with Barbie to the real world, he discovers “the patriarchy” and likes it. He thinks he can be a doctor simply because he is a man. No training necessary. He imports patriarchy back into Barbie world and the Kens take over.

Only Barbie becomes human, not Ken. Barbie does not defeat patriarchy, but through celebration, satire, and deconstruction, the film gains leverage on patriarchy. A doll shows up the male world for what it is. Choosing to live in real life defies myth’s effort to define and control us. Barbie chooses life even though she knows it will end in death.

But you could argue that patriarchy struck back. Even though Barbie was the highest grossing film of the year and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won only one—for best Original Song, Billie Eilish and Finneas’ “What Was I Made For?” Oppenheimer, a fine film in its own right, was the big winner, a very male movie with a big screen, a big camera, a big sound, and an atomic bomb. And Ryan Gosling’s live rendition of “I’m Just Ken” stole the show.

In Barbie’s final scene, Stereotypical Barbie now the human Barbara Handler appears, wearing a light brown coat, jeans, and pink Birkenstocks, on her way to visit her gynecologist.  

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