Doll. Toxic feminine ideal. Pop cultural icon. And now, Hollywood movie. What are we talking about? Why Barbie of course! Directed by the acclaimed Greta Gerwig, and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Barbie appeared in theatres at the same time as Oppenheimer, the film about one of the physicists who was central to the invention of the atomic bomb. Whether this demonstrates the split psyche of America or the immense diversity of Hollywood, we’re not certain, but we are sure that Barbie – the doll, ideal, icon, and movie – are worthy of contemplation.
As Barbie learns of a world beyond her own colourful and plastic-looking Barbieland, Gerwig takes viewers between Barbieland – mostly inhabited by a diverse group of happy and fulfilled dolls – and the real world where human beings invent, buy, play with, and even sometimes harm these dolls. Barbie’s main character, played by the Margot Robbie with abandon and delight, fits the Eurocentric stereotype of white female beauty (tall, slender, pale white skin, and long blonde hair) which the original doll reified. But Gerwig has also made sure to include dolls that are not just white, slender, and blonde, but black dolls of various complexions and hair textures, Asian dolls, larger sized dolls, and dolls whose sexuality is not defined in heteronormative ways. She even includes the anomalous Midge Barbie (first created in 1963), specifically a pregnant version first launched in 2002 as a part of a “Happy Family” set. You can’t make this stuff up!
The movie opens with scenes of little girls playing with baby dolls to drive home the radical nature of the Barbie doll. Invented in 1959 by the Jewish American businesswoman Ruth Handler (born Moskowicz), Barbie literally broke the mold of what dolls looked like and how little girls were supposed to play with them. Instead of diapering, feeding, and rocking your baby doll to sleep, little girls in America – and soon around the world – had a woman-doll, a tall, slender, stereotypically beautiful white woman with whom they were taught to relate and one day, aspire to become. Radical indeed, but racist too! The problem was that Barbie was originally, of course, a white fashion doll who had a lot of stuff, but no apparent social access or back story to explain her wealth and prodigious accumulation of symbols of the American dream – house, car, closet full of clothes, pets, pool – we could go on. Thus, as radical as Barbie was in form, she was anything but radical in the initial messaging that Mattel sought to convey through her, messages that were, of course, also extremely exclusionary in terms of racial and gender norms of female beauty. But Barbie eventually did become a flight attendant, fashion designer, teacher, nurse, doctor, pilot, and architect and so, Mattel changed its message to let little girls know “because Barbie could be anything, women could be anything.” But of course, Gerwig’s message throughout the movie (delivered with a wink to the audience) is that Barbie was as much a problem for feminism as she was one of its potential solutions.
To understand the deep emotional journey that Barbie undertakes in the film, you must understand the nature of her home in Barbieland. Barbieland is a mix of colourful, mainly pink set designs and animation that was literally rendered to look like Barbie’s playhouse and other accoutrements that parents have been encouraged to purchase for their kids alongside the dolls for decades. This plastic toy feel is accentuated by the open face nature of the homes – none of the dolls has anything called privacy – and the simulated form of their possessions. When Barbie “showers,” no water comes out of her taps, when she “eats,” the food looks like plastic, when she looks in the “mirror,” there is no reflection, and when she pours herself a drink, no liquid flows into her cup. This feat of existing without biological function points out the lie of many of the Barbies’ perfect physical forms (many of the Kens have six packs) that are not sustained by practices like exercise or good nutrition. They don’t eat!
In Barbieland, the Supreme Court has a group of all female judges; the president is a black woman (thank you Issa Rae), and the equivalent of Mount Rushmore boasts the faces of four female heroes. Yes, my friends, Barbieland is a matriarchy! Of course, this is why, as we soon learn, Barbie has a great day, every day. But Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) only has a great day when Barbie recognizes him. Ken’s desperation to be noticed and acknowledged by Barbie, not as a friend, but as her boyfriend, is accentuated in a scene in which he attempts to invite himself over to her house. Barbie, oblivious and frankly unmoved by Ken’s demonstrations of affection, informs him that he can come to her party which will include choreographed dance numbers, with everyone else. Barbie’s party is the beginning of her existential crisis symbolized by the question she poses to her friends, “do you ever think of dying?” The shocked expressions and gasps of horror tell Barbie that she has crossed some line. But her unease lingers as she kicks Ken, who wants to stay over, out of her house because “every night is girls’ night, forever and ever!”
But unlike Las Vegas, what started at the party does not stay at the party. The next day we see that Barbie’s unease has manifested in physical form – think cold shower, burnt waffle, bad breath, and horrifically, flat feet! Surely, something is amiss. Encouraged to visit one of the shunned dolls known as Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon of SNL fame), a doll who has been physically damaged by a careless and violent child, Barbie learns that her recent un-Barbie transformation (thoughts of death, cellulite on the thighs, and flat feet) are all connected to something that is amiss in the real world with the person who is playing with her.
To help herself, Barbie must travel to the real world to help that girl. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, not exactly. First Barbie must figure out how to get to the real world (a trip she has never taken) and make the arduous journey. The trip is symbolized by Weird Barbie holding aloft two shoes in her opposing hands, one Barbie’s typical high heeled version and the other a flatter-than-flat Birkenstock sandal. Hilariously, when Barbie continuously points to the heels, Weird Barbie must command her to choose the sandal and set off on her life-changing mission. And set off she does, with Ken who has smuggled himself uninvited into the back seat of her pink convertible. But disturbingly Ken’s patriarchal instincts are already visible since his desire to accompany Barbie has nothing to do with protecting her from the potential ills of the real world, but instead with a bet he made with another Ken. Thus, the stakes and investments of homosocial competition are revealed.
So, this is how Barbie and Ken go from the plastic world of Barbieland to the plastic world of California, symbol of the real world. Much of the film’s most hilarious scenes take place when Barbie and Ken are confronted by the frightening differences of the real world and misidentified as oddly dressed and ill-behaved real humans. For her part, Barbie is almost immediately beset by an anxiety that arises from being the target of unwanted, aggressive male attention that is both unseemly and sexualized. Her response to the leering construction workers is to inform them that she does not have a vagina, nor does Ken have a penis. This, of course, serves to inform them, and the audience, that even in her stunning innocence and naivete, she is aware that sexual violence can result in rape. But at the same time her declaration instructs them that although she looks like a biological woman, she is literally inviolable.
Intriguingly, Gerwig and Baumbach depict Ken as almost orgasmically delighted and enamored with the all-encompassing patriarchy of the real world represented in symbols like the male portraits of presidents on money, businessmen who dismiss female colleagues, and policemen on horseback. Indeed, the horse becomes an indelible symbol of patriarchy for Ken and one that he clings to, imports, and shares with other Kens when he returns to Barbieland, ahead of Barbie.
Barbie’s solo meditation (after shooing Ken away) allows her to find her girl owner who is actually not the grumpy, know-it-all adolescent Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt), but her unhappy mother, the receptionist at Mattel named Gloria (played by America Ferrera). But to Barbie’s dismay her attempts to aid Gloria are disrupted by a panel of Mattel executives, all male of course, who attempt with a tip from the FBI to quite literally put her back “in her box”. In a poignant scene in Mattel’s boardroom, Barbie comes to understand the gravity of the problem when she asks to see the CEO, CFO, or COO all of whom she assumes will be women, but instead are men. It is then that a lowly white male clerk offers, “I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?” During an escape in which Barbie is literally made to run from the all-male Mattel board, she has a Matrix moment in a kitchen where she encounters a kindly older woman (played by Rhea Perlman) who unbeknownst to her, is her inventor, Ruth Handler. With tea and kindness, Ruth reassures a frightened Barbie before she flees Mattel headquarters.
Once back in Barbieland with the help of Gloria and Sasha, Barbie is horrified to discover that Ken has remade everything in the patriarchal image of the real world in which, as he explains to the other Kens, “men and horses run everything.” The all-female Supreme Court has been dismissed and they, like the female president, have been reduced to cheerleading, drink-bringing, and foot-rubbing servants who have been expelled from their homes which the Kens have now uniformly renamed Mojo Dojo Casa Houses replete with screens projecting galloping white horses. The urgent task at hand for Barbie (who has now fallen into an unheard-of depression), Gloria, and Sasha is to restore the order and harmony of the matriarchy of Barbieland. But how to do so in the absence of immediate assistance from the other now brainwashed Barbies? Before Gerwig leads us down the path of triumphant restoration and renewal, she shows Barbie’s indelible and ongoing impact on the real world as Mattel launches “Depression Barbie” who wears jogging pants, falls down the rabbit hole scouring social media for details of her used-to-be best friend’s wedding, and binge-eats junk food.
So, how do the Barbies take back Barbieland? With the help of Weird Barbie, they kidnap the brainwashed Barbies one by one, deprogram them, and set about turning the heterosexual Kens against each other in the surest way possible; by filling their hapless minds and fragile hearts with jealously. When Ken invites Barbie to “play the guitar at her,” his lyrics include “I want to push you around,” and “I want to take you for granted,” stripping away the gallant facade that most men put over their violent patriarchal drives. In this scene and throughout the movie, Gerwig and Baumbach ingeniously reveal the extent to which so much of heterosexual masculinity is about self-aggrandizement and homosocial relevance. The assemblage of Kens singing at the Barbies by campfire on the beach are doing so more for each other than for the Barbies they profess to care for.
Distracted by their newly waged war and choreographed dance numbers, the Kens miss a crucial Supreme Court vote which ousts them from power including the presidency. When Ken remarks, stunned, that the Mojo Dojo Casa Houses appear strikingly different, a reinstated President Barbie states emphatically, “That’s because they’re Dream houses mother******!”
Interestingly, when the Kens are finally relieved of their positions of authority, Gosling’s character breaks down and let’s fly two stunning confessions to Barbie: 1) it was hard running stuff and (2) I only exist within the warmth of your gaze. To this, Barbie compassionately and wisely exhorts Ken to figure out who he is without her, the Mojo Dojo Casa House, and the white mink coat.
In the end, Barbie transformed by the experience, does not know what she wants, but understands that Barbieland and its limitations are no longer for her. It is Ruth who returns to counsel her and give her permission to lay claim to a life of her own imagining. So, as the narrator Helen Mirren explains, Barbie left behind the pastels and plastic of Barbieland for the pastels and plastics of Los Angeles. In the final scene, when Barbie is dropped off in a car by Gloria and Sasha (and their insignificant husband and father) to enter an office building in the real world, we see that she is now transformed, flat-footed, and wearing pink Birkenstocks. But Barbie is not there for a job interview. Instead, her request to see her gynaecologist tells us that she is now a real woman, vagina and all.