This “Barbie” Is in Crisis

This Barbie Is in Crisis

Greta Gerwig tackles philosophical questions that are more daunting than a film based on a children’s toy can handle. It results in a strange, uneven, but beautiful movie. 


To understand Barbie, the much-anticipated film by Greta Gerwig (Little Women, Lady Bird) based on the 64-year-old Mattel toy, you have to first understand its cosmology. Barbies and Kens (plus the discontinued Alan and Midge dolls) live in a glossy pink utopia called Barbie Land, where every day is perfect and “all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.” In this world, every Barbie is unique, but all share the name Barbie, like a throng of angels or a mycelial network. Barbie is the president (Issa Rae); the Supreme Court justices are all Barbie; Barbie pens Pulitzer Prize–winning journalism, delivers the mail, works construction, and performs emergency medicine. (Ken, by contrast, is ancillary: “Barbie has a great day every day,” Helen Mirren tells us in voiceover, but “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”)

The real world—our world, where Joe Biden is the president, women make 82 cents to men’s dollar—exists outside the confines of Barbie Land, and Barbie dolls exist within it. Some things that happen in the real world are felt in Barbie Land, and vice versa. Gerwig’s story begins when main character Barbie (Margot Robbie) has an existential crisis that manifests as looming thoughts of death, flat feet, and cellulite, which she later discovers is an expression of the sadness and nostalgia that real-world parent Gloria (America Ferrera) feels upon picking up her tween daughter’s abandoned dolls. But for the most part, the Barbie utopia is a bubble dimension, unpunctured by the prosaic realities of war, death, misogyny, violence, decay, dissensus, bad breath, and ugly shoes.

This changes when Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling) travel to the real world to fix her crisis at its source. But after finding Gloria’s daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) at school, Barbie is swept into a black SUV and taken to Mattel’s offices, where she meets the company’s oily CEO (Will Ferrell), who offers to restore Barbie to her former self by confining her in a plastic display box. At first she accepts, but the CEO’s shiftiness about the role of women at the company (the board is all male, but “we have gender-neutral bathrooms up the wazoo,” he says) causes her to flee at the last moment, and she escapes the office building with the help of the friendly ghost of Ruth Handler, the doll’s inventor (Rhea Perlman), who haunts the building’s 17th floor.

Outside Mattel HQ, Gloria and Sasha pull up in their station wagon and save Barbie—it turns out that Gloria works there—and the trio flee back to Barbie Land. But real-world concepts follow and spread like an invasive species (the script makes an ill-considered comparison to early American epidemics caused by European colonialism). Ken made his way back to Barbie Land first and, after discovering patriarchy in the real world, has conscripted the other Kens into his version of it, heavy on horse imagery and Rocky Balboa cosplay; in leading the uprising against him, Barbie discovers self-awareness. As a result, Barbie Land has to speedrun centuries of feminist thought, political theory, and theories of consciousness to restore its world to harmony.

If this sounds high-concept for a summer blockbuster, it is. Barbie sets up philosophical questions that are more daunting than a film based on a children’s toy might need to drive its plot forward—it gives itself the particularly hard task, for example, of summarizing contemporary feminism without skewing corny or jargon-y, something it does with mixed success. But underneath the lore and allegories, the thought experiments and dance parties of Barbie Land, it asks a more fundamental question: What do we love so much about this doll?

After the Kens discover patriarchy, they take over the government, electing Barbie Land’s first male president and plotting to rewrite the Constitution and enshrine Ken power forever. The dolls in Barbie Land are brainwashed by patriarchy in the process, but Gloria discovers that she can deprogram them by reciting a list of sexist double-binds (Barbie describes the phenomenon: “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance of living under patriarchy, you robbed it of its power”), which snaps them out of their daze. When the Barbies have successfully retaken the government, Ken asks for a spot on the Supreme Court but is offered a lower-court position instead, with the suggestion that the Kens may eventually build “as much power and influence in Barbie Land as women have in the real world.”

So the Barbieocracy has revanchist tendencies, reclaiming the land with few concessions to the usurpers. But when moments like Gloria’s speech don’t land, it’s because the Barbie Land liberation movement doesn’t fit as an analogy for the fight against real-world misogyny, in large part because Ken is an imperfect stand-in for men. In a sense, he shows the effort of a mind groping its way toward consciousness more than Barbie does: If her arc resembles the maturation of a human mind from childhood to adulthood (“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come,” Perlman’s Ruth Handler tells Barbie), Ken’s is like an early quadruped galumphing out of the swamp or a dog barking at its reflection in the mirror. To borrow Jacques Lacan’s formulation that “the Woman does not exist,” in Barbie Land, Ken does not exist—he symbolizes nothing of his own; his role is to reflect back Barbie’s complexity and fullness with his blank plastic grin and washboard abs. “I only exist within the warmth of your gaze,” Ken says poetically, right before attempting to sweep Barbie into a nonconsensual swooning kiss, which she immediately shuts down.

Ken’s essential blankness throws the film’s critique of patriarchy askew. Patriarchy, like fascism (something Sasha accuses Barbie of), is not a coherent ideology but rather a reaction, by men in power, to perceived threats. It entrenches a hierarchy favorable to men by making the oppression of those who aren’t men central to the way power is exercised, but it also transforms the stuff of everyday life (aesthetics, affinity, desire), making it feel natural, inevitable, and sexy. This, however, is not Ken’s version of patriarchy; since Ken has never had power in Barbie Land, he lacks the impulse or know-how to preserve it. Rather, it’s a mash-up of the things that made Ken feel good about being a man during his brief stint in the real world: horses, Sylvester Stallone, shaggy fur coats, fist bumps, making women dress up in French maid costumes, beer, guitars, at-home workout equipment, The Godfather.

In this sense, the Ken regime in Barbie Land is less about a person’s lust for power than an object’s lust for other objects, a theme with less currency but one that feels closer to the film’s core. (“When I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest,” Ken tells Barbie after his reign ends.) Barbie may not cut a path through the discursive thicket around gender and power, but it does ennoble a kind of love that is rarely taken seriously: the love of artifice, objects, and surfaces, the profane magic by which the product of human craft becomes larger than life. At the center of Barbie is love for impossibly, excessively beautiful things, especially things that teeter on the edge of being crass or cheap, like a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” (Ken has several) or a baby-pink satin mule.

The best dolls anticipate their owners’ fantasies—for the big things, like beauty and novelty, but also for the details: brushable hair, changeable shoes, tiny wheels on tiny roller skates that actually spin. To have your fantasies fulfilled without having to ask is something women learn not to seek beyond childhood; instead, people seek it in you. Maybe the joy of Barbie is in watching a doll make that magic for herself. When Barbie smiles, high-res cartoon sparkles dance across her face; when a peevish Ken flings Barbie’s stuff off the balcony of her Dreamhouse, garments freeze in mid-air, provenance labeled in chubby curlicue text, as if inviting you to ponder each ruffle and rhinestone before they fall to earth. When the sun rises, it illuminates the smooth paint on a soundstage backdrop, colors so dense and rich you want to scoop them up with a spoon, and the turquoise waves of the ocean are frozen in perfect frothy curls.

The film’s climax involves an all-out Ken vs. Ken brawl, painstakingly choreographed, like the five-minute tracking shot of the evacuation of Dunkirk in the 2007 film Atonement, except these soldiers are thwacking each other with pool floats and tennis racquets instead of staring into the distance and contemplating the horrors of war. Then the beach falls away, replaced by a pink-and-blue set, with the Kens dressed in matching neat little black tees and loafers. They dance, leap, embrace, and then reconcile, remembering that they are all the same, and they all want the same thing.

Of course, perfect artifice can’t sustain an adult human mind—I’m not even sure it could sustain a movie with a runtime over two hours—and after Barbie becomes self-aware, she chooses to leave Barbie Land for good, following the tug of real life and its mysterious beauty, its entropy and mess. During Barbie’s first trip into the real world, there’s a moment in which she sits and quietly watches a tree breathe, sunlight filtering through its branches. The trees in Barbie Land are smooth and pink on the inside (we know this because Ken topples the one outside Barbie’s Dreamhouse), but here, they’re full of water and sinew, more alive than anything she’s ever seen.

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