The Double Bind of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”

The Double Bind of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”

The Double Bind of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie

The message of Barbie is that girls can be anything, but you still have to be gorgeous while you’re doing it.


I’ve never been a Barbie fan. As a little girl I was more of a dollhouse person. I thought Barbie was tacky. As a grown-up, I totally buy the claim that she encourages girls to hate their bodies, and science agrees with me. She’s not the only thing, obviously—our whole culture sends the message that being slim and gorgeous is females’ most important job. But she does her 11.5-inch plastic bit.

Still, what can I say? Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie is irresistible. It’s clever, hilarious, visually delightful, and restores the beautiful color pink to its rightful place in the rainbow. It’s a celebration of women and girls, and it’s also a product tie-in shoppapalooza for Barbie-inspired makeup, jewelry, clothes, accessories. There’s even a Barbie’s DreamHouse Airbnb. It’s also the most overtly feminist mass-market movie in recent memory, maybe ever.

Barbie started out in 1959 as an American take on a German doll intended as a sex gag for men, because Mattel cofounder Ruth Handler wanted her daughter to have a grown-up doll for imaginative play. (It isn’t quite true, as the first scene, a takeoff on the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, suggests, that the only dolls for little girls back then were baby dolls—there were plenty of girl dolls, going back a hundred years and more. Remember Ginny? Chatty Cathy? Madame Alexander’s fancy costume dolls? Sara’s precious Emily in A Little Princess? But never mind.)

Barbie may have started life as a woman with pointy breasts and a striped bathing suit, but since 1959 Mattel has given her over 200 careers: doctor, veterinarian, ballerina, chef, lifeguard, president. There are Barbies of every race and skin tone now—Chrissy, aka Black Barbie, goes back to 1980. We’ve also had Anna May Wong Barbie, a Barbie modeled on Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dia de los Muertes Barbie, Queen Elizabeth l and ll Barbies—to say nothing of a recent line of Barbies: wheelchair Barbie, Down Syndrome Barbie, vitiligo Barbie, prosthetic leg Barbie, and bald Barbie. There’s also “curvy” Barbie, who is actually normal-weight Barbie.

In Gerwig’s movie, Barbie Land is a total matriarchy. The Barbies run everything from the Supreme Court on down; the Kens are just genial airheads whose main activity is “beach.” The plot of the film involves Stereotypical Barbie (triumphantly played by Margot Robbie) traveling to the real world to discover the source of her sudden thoughts of death. Unfortunately, Ken (Ryan Gosling, a comic genius) has tagged along and soon discovers the delights of patriarchy—a word that appears at least eight times, I read somewhere, but who’s counting. Before you know it, Ken has turned the DreamHouse into the Mojo Dojo Casa House, and the Barbies have forgotten their achievements and are just subservient girlfriends. Fortunately, the Barbies foil the Kens’ plan to change the Constitution and take women’s rights away (sound familiar?). Barbie tells Ken he has to find his real self and goes back to the real world to become a human woman.

You can see why Ted Cruz, Elon Musk, and other right-wing men are apoplectic. Ben Shapiro was so infuriated he made a 43-minute YouTube video that features him setting two Barbies on fire. Imagine a movie admitting that male supremacy exists and is a bad thing! Or uses the word “gynecologist.”

The centerpiece of the movie is a glorious rant by Gloria (America Ferrara), a Mattel receptionist and mother of a very sullen Barbie-hating middle schooler, about the many double binds in which women find themselves:

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.…

“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. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.”

The ultimate irony of this very wink-wink-ironic movie is that it exemplifies that double bind itself. Even in Barbie Land, there is no Frumpy Barbie, no Too-Busy to Care About My Hair Barbie, no I Hate to Shop Barbie, no Don’t Bother Me I’m Writing Barbie. The message of Barbie is that girls can be anything, but you still have to be gorgeous while you’re doing it. Even Weird Barbie, whose hair has been chopped off and whose face is covered with crayon scribbles, is adorable. (Well, it’s Kate MacKinnon, so of course she is.)

And isn’t that the problem right there? Look at the real-life glass-ceiling-breakers whose achievements Barbie dolls supposedly encourage girls to emulate—politicians, judges, scientists, astronauts, airplane pilots, reporters, wildlife rescuers. These women do not give the impression of spending a lot of time trying on outfits in front of the mirror or leafing through Vogue by the side of the pool. The professionals I know are supersmart, kind, energetic women, but if they had spent as much time primping and shopping and obsessing about their looks as the Barbie lifestyle encourages, they never would have gotten anywhere. There are only so many hours in the day, and men don’t spend those hours putting on makeup.

Gloria is right: You can’t escape the double binds. When Hillary Clinton, one of the most accomplished candidates ever, ran for president, every single aspect of her appearance was attacked, by both men and women. People were obsessed with her hair (so many styles, is she insecure?), her pantsuits (a lesbian?), her skin (eeww, wrinkles!). Unlike Barbie, Hillary did not have graceful calves that narrow into well-defined, slender ankles. I’d never heard the word “cankles” before Hillary. Had you? Apparently, they are a thing, and if you have them you can forget about the White House. Hiding them won’t help—see pantsuits, above.

And if Stereotypical Barbie actually ran for president in the real world? People would call her an over-ambitious bottle-blonde clotheshorse, Ken would sell his story to the National Enquirer (“Barbie’s tragic secret: she hates kids”), and Fox would give him his own show. Aaargh!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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