Editor’s note: This article contains significant spoilers for “Barbie.”
“Barbie” is a movie that dares to make the critique that Barbie—the much-loved and much-criticized doll—just isn’t enough.
Sure, she’s got a bombshell figure
, and the chops to climb the ladder in any industry. (Barbie has reportedly held more than 200 jobs, including being a CEO, a surgeon, and even a moon-landing astronaut—four years before Neil Armstrong.) She has an amazing dreamhouse, a fun convertible, and enough fabulous outfits to make any social media influencer cry with jealousy.
She’s got it all, supposedly—and yet in a twist, the “Barbie” movie shows us just how poor and sad the life of this supposed icon, beloved by generations of girls, is.
What we imagine, it turns out, isn’t as wonderful as what we have.
In the tradition of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the “Barbie” movie is an exploration of how reality—with its messiness, with its hardships, with its ugliness—is to be preferred to the plastic perfection of the Barbie universe, where everyone is young and gorgeous, fabulous and unencumbered. (A pregnant friend of Barbie, Midge, is mostly relegated to a creepy side character.)
No one’s wearing wedding rings. No one’s trying to smooth makeup over a newly
–wrinkled brow. No one’s cooking barefoot in a kitchen. No one’s trying to manage a fussy baby. No one’s dealing with an irritating colleague in a dead-end job.
It’s a pink, fantastic world, where nothing ever changes and no one ever wants changes, and everything is Instagram-ready at all times.
In some ways, it embodies the lives the sexual revolution and modern feminism, both huge in 1964 when Barbie was created, envisioned for women.
Yet this 1960s leftist utopia is shattered one night. Mid-dance number at a girls’ night out with a bevy of other Barbies, Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
That question is just the beginning of what is soon diagnosed as her “malfunctioning.” Soon, Barbie’s feet—meant to be perpetually arched, so she’s always ready for heels—collapse into regular, flat feet. Her waffle burns. She discovers—clutch your pearls—that she is developing cellulite. The solution, Barbie is told, is she must journey into the real world, find her owner who is somehow letting this malfunctioning happen, and fix it.
But once you go into the real world, it’s not so easy to slip back into Barbie land.
Sure, that’s not the only message the movie conveys. The “real world” — which includes an all-male executive team at Mattel and male construction workers who ogle Barbie —is critiqued as too patriarchal.
But “Barbie” also slams the matriarchy. If your heart doesn’t initially bleed for Ryan Gosling’s Ken—adrift in a Barbieland where women are the president, the Supreme Court justices, and all the faces on their Mount Rushmore equivalent and he can never get a house of his own or any kind of commitment from his beloved Barbie—it will when he has his powerful, ridiculous dance number, when he erupts, “I’m just Ken/Where I see love, she sees a friend/What will it take for her to see/
Neither men nor women holding all the power, the movie seems to posit, is the answer—a fairly “duh” takeaway.
The movie is also fairly anodyne in a key monologue, when a human woman, not a Barbie doll, complains, “It is literally impossible to be a woman.”
That character, Gloria (played by America Ferrera), goes on to rant about how women have to “be thin, but not too thin,” “have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean,” and “you’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time.”
“You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line,” she continues. “It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory, and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you!”
Listening to this diatribe, I didn’t want to clap
—I wanted to send the character to therapy to unpack why she’s such a people pleaser and explore why she can’t just live according to her own values, and why she’s so haunted by how others perceive her.
It’s not impossible to be a woman, but it is impossible to be a woman–or man—who everyone likes at all times.
And since when was that even a worthy goal?
In another irritating display of wokeness, one of the main other Barbies is played by Hari Nef, a man who now “identifies” as a woman. (This is just another reason, among many, why the movie, despite being about a children’s toy, is not a good one to take the kids to.)
Perhaps, though, in a way it’s a fitting reminder of how Barbies have always been a little bit too much about the male gaze. While the origins of Barbie are apparently a topic of hot dispute between Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, who is featured in the movie, and toy designer Jack Ryan, who is very much not featured in the movie, it seems undisputed that the original Barbie was, in part, inspired by a German prostitute doll and created, in part, by Ryan, who went on to lead an orgy-filled life.
But “Barbie,” thankfully, ends up taking a fuller view of feminine grace and beauty than Mattel seemingly does.
Sitting at a bus stop in the real world, Robbie’s Barbie sees an old woman—a woman who has wrinkles and no doubt cellulite—and tells her, sincerely, that she’s beautiful.
In some ways, it’s a strange moment. One imagines the Andrew Tates of the world, quick to reduce women to merely their immediately apparent sexual attractiveness, would see nothing beautiful about this old woman. Why does Barbie—Barbie of the bouncy hair, perfect body, and exuberant smile—think this old woman is beautiful?
Greta Gerwig, the movie’s director and co-screenwriter, told Rolling Stone she was advised to cut the scene. She responded,?“If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.”
“It’s the heart of the movie,” Gerwig added.
The old woman isn’t the only revelation Barbie gets in the “real world.” She’s also yelled at by a junior high girl, called a bimbo and fascist. In response, Barbie cries—an emotional response that is as alien to Barbieland as neutrals are.
Yet the movie culminates in Barbie deciding to leave the matriarchy of Barbieland—and join the real world, with all its discomforts and ugliness and messiness.
It’s full circle from the beginning of the film, which shows girls playing with realistic baby dolls and tending house with them. Once, we are told, girls only had baby dolls to play with. Then, Barbie was created—an adult, a woman with her careers and opportunities. (Incidentally, there’s never been a pregnant or mom Barbie in Mattel’s history.) The little girls are delighted, smashing their baby dolls to smithereens as a huge Barbie towers above them.
And yet, in many ways, the key relationship of the film is between a human mother and daughter, and their complex relationship with each other and Barbie. Barbie’s own arc ends, not just with her becoming human, but with a visit to the gynecologist—showing that she, who
Maybe what women want is more than careers and glamor. Maybe it’s time for a third type of doll, one that can handle girls’ yearning for motherhood and careers, for self-fulfillment and for giving of self in relationships. Maybe it’s a doll who sometimes curls up in a corner and cries
, and who sometimes puts on make –up and parties the night away.
Ultimately, the message of “Barbie” is: Barbie’s life isn’t enough. Sure, the world of Barbie is sheeny and sparkles and there’s no aging or cellulite or crying babies or stress. But it’s also vapid, meaningless, and loveless.
In some ways, this 1960s doll is in line with the bad thinking of both the sexual revolution and modern feminism—the idea that women could have casual sex, and not be emotionally destroyed, just because they could prevent pregnancy, and the idea that to be a fully realized woman must include having a successful career outside the home.
The never-pregnant, never-married, career-laden Barbie is exactly the kind of woman the 1960s thought we might all want to be.
Except female desire—including, as it turns out, even in Barbie herself—is just more complicated than that.
“Barbie” has some woke moments. But ultimately, it’s a movie that challenges the understanding of women promulgated by the sexual revolution and modern feminism.
Conservatives should cheer that, not despair.
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