The Muddled Feminism of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”

The Muddled Feminism of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”

The Muddled Feminism of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie

In trying to say too much, the film winds up not saying much at all.


Barbie did not begin as a doll but as a kind of page-filler. In the summer of 1952, the German publisher Axel Springer was poised to print a new newspaper—a conservative tabloid based on the British gossip rags angling to compete with the great new medium of the age: television. But just as the first edition hit the presses, Springer and his staff faced a problem. Amid the pasting of pictures and inverted pyramids, the editors had ignored a narrow chasm on the broadsheet that was too small for a photo, but too large to leave blank. Springer needed something to fill the space, so he turned, at the last minute, to a cartoonist acquaintance. What he got was “Lilli”—a thin, blonde, and slightly austere woman who looked like a caricature of Marlene Dietrich. Lilli, in the original sketch, was visiting a psychic. The caption read: “Do you know the address of a tall, beautiful, rich man?”

Lilli was supposed to be a one-off, but she attracted a fan base nearly overnight. Readers wrote in about the svelte babe en masse. Springer and his staff decided to keep her on, and in two years, Lilli was omnipresent on merchandise—from postcards to champagne bottles to novelty perfume. She soon gained a third dimension and became a doll. The gag gift was mostly intended for men; a car ornament model made her the mid-century equivalent of truck nuts. But Lilli was also the paper’s public face; it was its most effective ad.

Interest spread across Europe. In Switzerland, an American toy maker named Ruth Handler was on vacation and spotted a Lilli doll in a small shop. Handler had been angling for an adult-shaped doll in the United States, and here was a figurine already fully formed. She tasked a deputy named Jack Ryan—a former Raytheon missile designer who moonlighted briefly as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sixth husband—with sending a Lilli to a toy company in postwar Japan as the model for a similar product. The Stateside replica debuted in 1959 under a new name: Barbie. Handler’s company, Mattel, had more resources than Lilli’s manufacturer and better marketing; the doll soon eclipsed her continental predecessor and lodged so firmly in the American psyche that she seemed a symbol of the country itself.

Barbie had begun as a literal blank, and Mattel tried to maintain that blankness. Barbie had no age, no kids, no qualities anyone might mistake for a flaw. She gained some personal details: Her full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts. She was a teen model. She had a boyfriend named Ken Carson; sisters named Skipper, Stacie, and Kelly; and friends named Midge, Christie, and Teresa. When Barbie was licensed to a set of serial children’s books, readers learned that she went to high school in a small town called Willows. But soon details about Barbie’s specific biographical backstory seemed to disappear. In the 1980s, Mattel introduced numerous races, ethnicities, hairstyles, and builds—not as secondary characters but as various versions of “Barbie” herself. Barbie also began to work in a variety of professions: There was “Day to Night Barbie,” an executive who changed from business formal to club attire, in 1985 and “UNICEF Ambassador Barbie” in 1989. After the Gulf War broke out in late 1990, Barbie joined the Air Force. In the 1992 election cycle, she announced her campaign for president—the first candidate to run while also in high school. Her plasticity was both figurative and literal, a deliberately open-ended doll designed not to tell a story but to facilitate someone else’s. A 1985 tagline captures this aim for universal appeal: “We Girls Can Do Anything.”

In making Barbie, Greta Gerwig, therefore, needed to tell a story about an icon that purposefully did not have one. Gerwig’s approach: to literalize Barbie’s malleability in almost every absurd way. In Barbie Land, nearly every woman is a Barbie (as nearly every man is a Ken). Barbie’s blankness, in fact, becomes the butt of endless jokes: The protagonist’s name is “Stereotypical Barbie”; she drinks from empty cups; when Ken asks to spend the night, the pair puzzle over what they would even do (both have blanks where sex organs might be). But that emptiness also gets in the way of actually giving her an arc. Gerwig tries to give Barbie a challenge to overcome. She tries to let Barbie change. Eventually, she even makes Barbie into a human. But in the end, it is not Barbie but Ken, of all people, who proves the most compelling character, because it is Ken who is allowed to make real errors—ego, insecurity, longing, horrendous taste—and who, as a result, turns out to be the most human.

Barbie begins, appropriately, in a place called Barbie Land: a pink utopia, populated by women named Barbie, men named Ken, and occasional side characters from Mattel’s half-buried past: the pregnant doll Midge, her vibeless husband, Allan (known mainly as “Ken’s buddy”), and the sister Skipper who sprouts breasts on demand. The dolls are aware of the human world, but clearly have had some comms issues: They believe that, on Earth, “all the problems of feminism and inequality have been solved.” Barbie Land operates similarly. Women run all branches of government, win all its Nobel Prizes, and appear chiseled into a Barbie-fied Mount Rushmore.

Barbie’s ubiquity in Barbie Land means that her many iterations are differentiated by vocation. We meet, among others, President Barbie (Issa Rae), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), Mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), and the protagonist, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie). For this legion of gainfully employed Barbies, we are told, every day is a perfect day: They wake up in idyllic Dream Houses, drive exotic pink cars to well-remunerated jobs, dance at pristine clubs untouched by spilled beer, and spend each night at an ongoing sleepover. Life is less rosy for the Kens, who are uniformly introduced as “just Ken.” Ken “has a great day only if Barbie looks at him” and is otherwise doomed to existential inconsequence.

This fuchsia paradise seems undisturbed by pedestrian concerns until Stereotypical Barbie undergoes something of a crisis. For whatever reason, she begins to worry about death, develops sudden pockets of cellulite, and, most disturbing in this realm of high arches, acquires flat feet. The Barbies recommend that she seek answers from the town’s Boo Radley: a damaged-looking doll nicknamed “Weird Barbie” for her jagged hair, erratic makeup, and constant splits—attributed to a human owner who “played with her too hard.” Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) diagnoses Stereotypical Barbie with the same condition, advising that she venture to the human world and console her kid owner who is doing the damage. This sends Stereotypical Barbie on a prolonged road trip to the real world, unknowingly trailed by Stereotypical Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose lack of a pituitary gland does not preclude his abiding (but unrequited) affection for Stereotypical Barbie.

To get to the real world, the two Stereotypes undergo an extensive voyage and several wardrobe changes—driving through cardboard deserts, swimming through cardboard oceans, floating through cardboard space—until they arrive by roller-skating through Earth’s portal (aptly, Venice Beach). The dolls get a dose of reality—aggressive stares, accidental shoplifting, multiple arrests—before Barbie ditches Ken to find her troubled kid. Her troubled kid, however, turns out not to be a kid at all. She is Gloria (America Ferrera), a depressed Mattel employee who has been drawing a range of more relatable Barbies with ordinary issues like cellulite and flat feet. When Gloria overhears Mattel’s all-male executives discussing Stereotypical Barbie’s flight from Barbie Land and their plot to put her “back in The Box,” she sets out to find Barbie and help her escape.

Left to his own devices, Ken meanwhile spends time in a place he believes to be an earthly Eden: Century City. There, he gets red-pilled: He discovers that, unlike Barbie Land, men run the real world. He returns home to tell the discontented Kens about male dominance, rallying the group into an over-accessorized mob. The Kens mount a notably January 6–ish coup, converting the Barbies’ mansions into “Mojo Dojo Casa Houses,” and taking over the Barbie-controlled Congress to rewrite the Constitution. They rename Barbie Land “Kendom.” Without any experience with patriarchy, the once-liberated Barbies all fall immediately in line, and it’s now up to Stereotypical Barbie and Gloria, who have arrived in Barbie Land, to deprogram them.

Until now, we’ve been on a wild goose chase of a film, full of absurd turns, several high-octane dance numbers, multiple digs at Mattel, and some almost Simpsons-like sight gags. But once Barbie and Gloria get back to Barbie Land, the joking mostly stops: They are there to help their fellow women emancipate themselves from the Ken world order. The pep talk they give, about the impossibility of being a woman, waffles from occasionally moving to meme-format observations on par with holding a “Male Tears” mug. Despite this rather trite strategy, the Stereotypical Barbie and Gloria succeed: A feel-good montage of empowerment monologues cures the Barbies’ brainwashing, and they band together to reclaim their queendom. The Barbies let the Kens drone on about The Godfather and play guitar for hours on end, only to neg them into feeling envious of other Kens, who start fighting among themselves, and get so distracted that they miss the vote on the new Constitution. The Barbies have restored their feminist ancien régime by playing to the Kens’ vulnerabilities. They make some modest changes to accommodate Ken rights and then return to an age of pink feminist utopianism.

If this all sounds a bit unbearable, that is because, well, it often is. But Gerwig’s sense of humor can often drive the movie forward even in its most exhausting moments. The film is funny—and often intentionally so. Barbie Land operates under an often hilariously plastic logic: Her home is open-air, like a bisected dollhouse; its rooms are tight, as the toy versions are 23 percent smaller than human scale. Closets resemble display boxes. Ken’s abs are constantly flexed. No one uses stairs; they float instead from floor to floor like a child has picked them up. Barbie can walk on water for the same reason Ken crashes into waves when he tries to surf—Barbie Land is liquidless. The cups are empty and the shoreline is ocean-less.

As an exercise in archival research and overdetermined excess, Barbie is a production design triumph. And if it had a slightly more Seinfeld “no hugs” sensibility—or at least scrapped some of the saccharine montages of frolicking girls and unconvincing speeches—it might have succeeded as a comic one too. But this is a toy movie where tears must be jerked, and the literal stiffness of the source material makes for a confusing set of arcs. Despite the marketing rollout touting an array of different Barbies, most of them are, as in the toy aisles, sidelined for the Stereotype. The absence of any character development or coherent world structure creates continuity issues too strange to laugh off: Are these women who have spent years under matriarchy so susceptible to subordination that they can be immediately brainwashed? And if aggressive doll play has real impact in the Barbie dimension, why aren’t half the Barbies beheaded, a fate so common it has its own field of academic study? What do the Mattel executives, who ultimately prove less evil than the boy-brained Kens, stand to gain from putting Barbie in “The Box”? The movie, perhaps rightly, assumes viewers will not overthink its internal logic; this is a toy story. But its appeals to the unexplained and absurd strain an overt desire for viewers to feel something for these dolls we don’t entirely understand.

Even our protagonist proves stilted. She is, as her name spells out, an empty archetype, whose sole personality comes from discovering the rough edges of the real world (“I don’t have a vagina,” she tells a group of catcalling construction workers). Barbie’s emotional arc hinges on a meeting with her maker, Ruth Handler. The former CEO, we learn, maintains a celestial office (depicted, curiously enough, as a quaint, mid-century kitchen) in Mattel’s otherwise soulless corporate structure and appears at the end to deus ex machina Barbie out of dollhood.. In real life, Handler was forced out of Mattel after being charged with fraud and remained exiled from the company into the mid-1990s, when she was rebranded as its sweet elder statesman. The movie treats her “tax problems” as a punch line, pitching her instead as the human heart of Mattel’s otherwise profit-driven operation. In the film’s climactic (and perhaps most phoned-in) scene, Handler materializes from nowhere and walks Barbie into an all-white other dimension, possibly Heaven, to discuss her desire to be human. “Humans have only one ending,” Handler cautions. “Ideas live forever.” (The irony here is perhaps unintentional: Handler is a ghost, and one the movie is reviving as Barbie’s benevolent leader.) But when Barbie insists, Handler reveals that she doesn’t need her help at all. Barbie, we learn, has had the power to transform herself all along—we girls can do anything, even alchemy.

There is a lot going on here—one could not accuse Gerwig of playing it safe. But perhaps when it comes to the film’s feminism, one does feel that in trying to say too much, Gerwig winds up not saying much at all. While women exist in a world with very few challenges and can easily overcome any resistance to their rule, it is Ken, whose status as an afterthought casts him an obvious underdog, who ends up having the most interesting, and funniest, arc—not Barbie or Handler or the myriad characters parroting critical theory. In the upended order of the Barbie Land universe, it is Ken who feels the most feminine. Ken is the one who can’t have a real career (his job is just “Beach”). Ken is sidelined for Barbie’s endless nights of homosocial bonding. Ken is the one who languishes outside the Barbie gaze. Ken does not “control the railways or flows of global commerce.” He also gets the best punch lines. Ken likewise offers the film’s only intelligible politics. Both he and Barbie recognize the flaws in their worlds, but he’s the only one who tries to do something about it.

The end product of Barbie is obviously a commercial, so maybe it’s not worth thinking too hard about the politics of a film that clearly is designed to give a languishing commodity more market interest and to extract even more value from Mattel’s existing IP. The movie tries to make light of Mattel’s omnipresence, not least by painting its executives as unsubtly sexist buffoons. But Gerwig refrains from fully indicting the bumbling bosses. In the end, they too care about little girls, at least enough to keep Ken from conquering Barbie Land. The gesture feels more like a strategy to make the company more appealing to a new generation suspicious of corporate influence. And while Barbie may become a person in Gerwig’s story, she has no meaningful narrative arc, no surprising twists and turns, no intelligible interior life. She remains a doll with nothing offensive, nothing to change. Her personality feels focus-grouped. Even as a hero in a film, she appears ready-made for retail testing, with little that might alienate the consumer. In the end, Ken, on whom much less money relies, gets to be a real character—with all the dumb mistakes and personal foibles that entails.

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