Plastic People

Plastic People

There has long been a gap between stereotypical ideas of women’s empowerment and gendered reality. Barbie explores these contradictions in miniature.

A vistor walks through the gift shop at the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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Barbie, who will turn sixty-five next year, is older than Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. She predates bra burning and feminist consciousness raising. And in Greta Gerwig’s latest blockbuster hit, Barbie, she both kind of knows it and kind of doesn’t.

The film begins with an origin story—one of many packed into its 114-minute run time. Framed as a riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we hear, through voice-over, how “since the beginning of time,” little girls had dolls—“but the dolls were always and forever baby dolls.” Enter Barbie—or, more specifically, Margot Robbie dressed up as the first Barbie, looming larger than life over these little girls. Enraged, one of the girls throws her doll into the sky, where it transforms, midair, into the Barbie logo.

This breezy transmogrification—from baby dolls to Barbie doll to Mattel’s bright pink trademark—might be an allegory for what happens next. Barbie is fueled by imaginative leaps and free associations that, by design, do not bend toward coherence so much as continuously switch metaphoric gears.

Much has been made of the conditions of Barbie’s production and consumption: from the film’s $145 million budget to its record-breaking $337 million first weekend global box office pull. Critics questioned whether indie darling Gerwig sold out to a corporation whose primary objective is to sell toys; some noted that Mattel’s ideologically problematic dolls marketed to children in America may even be manufactured by child factory labor in Asia. In a maelstrom where form and content—corporate shell and aesthetic style—can hardly be disentangled, reviewers have tended to view the film through the lens of its company’s metanarrative: that is, as a kind of blueprint for Mattel’s aspirations in Hollywood, which currently include forty-five intellectual property–based films in the pipeline. But the compelling story about Mattel’s growing pains that underwrites Barbie doesn’t take away from how the doll’s own history, and the movie Gerwig has produced about it, refract feminisms past and present. The film’s exuberantly fanciful narrative strategies replicate the appeal of the doll itself: you can make a Barbie do almost anything. She’s not like other commodities, Gerwig seems to say with a wink. For a movie so deeply invested in storytelling—whose very premise rests on adult dolls as vehicles for little girls’ bildung—Barbie proves to be the ultimate raw material. She’s plastic in more ways than one, though her symbolic flexibility far surpasses her physical malleability. The history of Barbie has long been animated by the gap between the stereotypical idea of women’s empowerment and gendered reality. To wit: Barbie has been president and was sent to space, even as such things remained out of reach for women in the real world.

Barbie explores these contradictions in miniature. The film is divided between Barbieland, where feminism has been neatly resolved and women run everything, and the real world, which is our present. It opens in the former, where Robbie, playing Stereotypical Barbie, wakes up in her Barbie Dreamhouse and waves at her friends, also named Barbie. This is a world of gleaming surfaces and limited interiority—where Dreamhouses have no walls and, presumably, Barbies have no dreams, having already achieved perfection. But this pink paradise is soon punctured when Barbie asks her friends, mid-choreographed dance number, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Barbie’s “irrepressible thoughts of death” are the first sign that she might be a little bit human. The next morning, trouble in paradise appears in the form of bad breath, a burnt waffle, and her previously arched feet falling flat. Barbie is brought further down to earth when she learns that the only way to fix these “malfunctions” is to visit the real world, find the girl playing with her, and remedy whatever is ailing her.

In a New York Times profile, Gerwig explained that she wanted everything in the movie to be “authentically artificial,” with special effects and film techniques drawn from 1959 (the same year Barbie was invented) and a dreamy blue backdrop that’s not a green screen but a giant canvas of painted sky. Barbieland is frozen in time—“a frictionless Brigadoon,” as Richard Brody described it—and so too are its fantasies. Here, the men, or Kens, as they’re called, have taken on the spiritual and structural position of women in the real world. “Barbie has a great day every day,” the film’s guiding narrator informs us early on, “but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him,” in a coy inversion of Laura Mulvey’s famous 1973 essay on Hollywood cinema’s internalized “male gaze.” Populated with a female president, an all-female Supreme Court, and an all-female Mount Rushmore, Barbieland paints a feminist utopia whose fantasies of liberation feel stuck in 1959.

But in the real world, as Barbie and her Ken (played gamely by Ryan Gosling) roller-skate through Venice Beach, the male gaze returns with a vengeance: men ogle Robbie’s character in her neon spandex. The judgmental glares of young girls, presumably Barbie’s target demographic, aren’t much more forgiving. Once Barbie finds Sasha, the tween presumed to be the cause of her malfunctioning, Barbie receives, this time, a verbal dressing down. Sasha calls her everything from a symbol of “sexualized capitalism” and a “glorification of rampant consumerism” to a “fascist.” This is all news to Barbie, who, having just arrived from Barbieland, believes herself to have “fixed everything in the real world so all women are happy” and is expecting to be greeted with a hug and a thank you. She quickly learns that history of the intervening years between Barbie’s invention and the present is what hurts—a history that reduces her to tears many times over.

What Barbie does and doesn’t know is the central narrative conceit of the film. After being called a fascist, for instance, Barbie wails: “But I don’t control the railway or the flow of commerce!” It’s one of the film’s funniest moments, a joke that stems from an implausible excess of historical knowingness—a point that Ben Shapiro harped on in his forty-three-minute rant about the film’s incoherencies.

Gerwig anticipates some of the critiques that have come from more left-leaning viewers and filters them through Sasha and her mother, Gloria (who turns out to be the real cause of Barbie’s malfunctioning). Back in Barbieland, with Barbie and her human correlates in tow, there’s a sense that these otherwise empowered and liberated Barbies don’t seem to know enough. Given that Barbieland has always been a feminist utopia, it lacks the historical consciousness that is born from political struggle—that is, until now. In place of the seemingly perfect world she had left behind, Barbie finds that Ken, having tasted the fruits of real world patriarchy, has now spread its seeds all over Barbieland.

Confronted with Barbieland turned upside down, Barbie falls into a profound existential crisis. Cue Gloria’s impromptu and impassioned speech on the impossible contradictions of being a woman, which has been much mocked online. “You have to be thin, but not too thin,” she begins, “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.” The speech continues down a series of seeming contradictions, concluding: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.” With that statement, one of the Barbies snaps out of her trance. “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under patriarchy,” Barbie realizes, “you robbed it of its power.” Gloria is subsequently tasked with repeating a version of her speech to all the patriarchy-pilled Barbies.

This impossibly simple plan could only work in an impossibly fictional world like Barbieland. The fact that the speech is almost immediately codified and repeated—turned from an inspiring monologue to a tired mantra—speaks to the uneasy relationship between what counts as feminism in Barbieland and in the real world. But simply voicing “cognitive dissonance” won’t jolt women out of their internalized misogynistic stupor. Consciousness raising does not occur in representation alone. If anything, Gerwig’s framing of the scene should remind viewers how women have been voicing these dissonances for so long—and with such limited and uneven gains—that they’re likely to be swiftly reduced to a cringe-worthy punchline.

Barbie skates between and finally collapses these various tiers of feminist knowing and unknowing, consciousness and self-consciousness. The discourse surrounding the film seems to do the same. Between the right-wing panics about “woke” Barbie’s anti-patriarchal sentiments, to the liberal embrace (and sometimes, rejection) of its satirical send-up of its own corporate origin story, Barbie has proven to be a kind of ideological Rorschach test that probes the viewer’s own sense of levity and cynicism.

After the second (or is it first?) feminist awakening in Barbieland, everything eventually reverts largely back to how it was before. President Barbie regains her seat following a vote among all the Barbies to let “Barbieland be Barbieland,” suggesting that these once counterfactual fantasies are now the wish fulfillments of the past. Because if little girls get the chance to grow up, Barbies have, since 1959, stayed always and forever the same age. This is why Robbie’s Barbie, who has experienced too much ideological dissonance between Barbieland and the real world, must ultimately leave the former for the latter. In Barbieland, she might as well be dead.

This narrative unraveling isn’t all that different from the history of Western feminism itself, which has long entailed amnesia and recursion. Since the second-wave feminists of the 1960s turned against the suffragettes before them, feminism has been as much about repudiation as it has been about reinvention. Rather than take the film’s contradictions as a sign of its aesthetic or political failure, or even of Mattel’s corporate success, we might see the film (and our response) as not only reflecting, but exemplifying, our present condition. Stereotypical Barbie begins fully grown, but with no interiority and a very, dare we say, stereotypical idea of female empowerment. Standing in for so many figures and eras, she is the impossible personification of a collective idea that, for decades, has struggled to grow up. What Barbie does is take this relatively old conceit and force it through the paces of feminist consciousness, both all too rapidly and belatedly.

The gambit of the film is to, quite literally, humanize the idea behind the toy. But in becoming human, Robbie also moves from the iconic Stereotypical Barbie to a Typical Woman. As she falls from heaven, her individuated character cannot ultimately sustain the kind of symbolic weight the film has previously placed on her tiny shoulders. Barbie can only represent these contradictions so long as she doesn’t understand them. Once she does, she has little choice but to become mortal. As with most film endings, this one is about death. But it’s also about, and enacts, feminist disappointment and political compromise, bringing a fantastical blockbuster movie a little closer to earth.

Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.

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