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"Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything"
I write this from notes tapped onto my phone while trying to keep my (too young) girls at bay watching Barbie. They were disappointed it was “an adult movie” not a cartoon. Tough crowd.
I’d be surprised if anyone’s talking about Barbie in a year. It touched on some classic Kvetch subjects like the domestication of man and female agency and it had its moments — surprisingly funny or subversive or charming bursts — in an otherwise incoherent and drab story.
“Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything,” opens the film in an instantly classic line. The sheer hubris of it. A brazen line in its ambiguous mix of self-parody, abrogation of female agency, and Mattel claiming the emancipation of women for itself.
Barbie lives in a sexless world that’s drained of charisma. Gone is the luscious Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street and in her place is a plastic-fantastic G-rated Margot Robbie that’s missing all sparkle. She’s a real doll. There’s a Pinocchio arc to this film as she begins life two dimensional and ends it in a hallucinated meeting with Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie in a kind of God or fairy godmother role, who imbues her with agency and turns her into a real girl. The world Barbie lives in is female, with Barbies of every colour. There are nods to cancelled Barbies likes Pregnant Barbie, Proust Barbie (“that did not sell very well”, in a nice piece of self-deprecation), and there is even a solitary Fat Barbie — which presumably doesn’t exist but is a silent nod to the audience and the God of Inclusivity. Although we all know Stereotypical Barbie — Margot Robbie — is the real Barbie. In this female Barbie world of Barbie Presidents and Barbie Judges and Barbie Astronauts, it’s girls night at Barbie’s house, every night. Forever.
The Kens of this world are losers. Subordinated and domesticated, they seek only the succor of Barbie’s attention. Kens are literal eunuchs and spend the days beaching each other off (don’t ask). Our main Ken (Ryan Gosling) begs to be seen by Barbie yet has his plastic six pack torn open daily by her indifferent talons as she glibly dismisses him in favour of her Forever Girls Night: “you can go now,” she tells him. (Michael Cera plays a Ken pal doll called Allan. He’s in an uncanny valley of half-adulthood, half-emerged from his eternal boyishness and looks like Despicable Me’s Gru had plastic surgery.)
This world is cutesy but it’s low-calorie. Colourful on the outside but empty and charmless like the innards of a cracked doll. And soon something strange happens. Like for Jack the Pumpkin King in The Nightmare Before Christmas, a hole opens in Barbie’s heart, a break with her world. Death looms over her. Dark, real, unintelligible death, like the snake of Paradise or the unintended girlfriend in The Truman Show. Death breaks this world, followed by cellulite. Barbie seeks guidance from the Oracle — ‘weird’ Barbie who is ugly (she has short hair) — who sends her to the real world.
What breaks Barbie’s world, we discover, is growing up. The scribbles of a single mum have made their way to Barbie’s Never Never Land and broken the infinite loop of singledom. Barbie runs into old women like Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come. The horror that has befallen Barbie Land is the realisation of their own juvenility. But Barbie can’t go back — there’s no going back into the Matrix. She has eaten of the forbidden fruit and she is cast out into the real world, into adulthood, into… Los Angeles.
Barbie the movie is about the anxieties of growing up. “I’m just a boring mum with a boring job with a daughter who hates me,” says the single mum. Reality isn’t Barbie Pinkdom, but the grim streets of LA, an LA of single Latina mums and angry daughters, of rude strangers and endless concrete.
In this world Ken finds inspiration.
Barbie feels self-conscious, threatened as the male gaze of the real world falls upon her, but Ken feels admired. He sees male spaces for the first time: dominance, lewdness, violence. He see Great Men and he likes it.
In this plot-line the show reaches its apogee. While Barbie remains a plastic bore — albeit bequeathed with the curses of womanhood like anxiety, tears, depression (the pain is “achey but good”) — Ken is energised. He is the charismatic heart of the film. His songs are actually fun. His yearning to break free is real. He quickly exceeds even the masculine aspirations of this world. In a meta or meta-meta commentary (I get lost), he condemns its feminised men. In maybe the film’s most biting moment, Ken tries to get a job:
Ken: I’ll take a high level, high paying job with influence, please
Corporate Man: Okay, you’ll need at least an MBA. And a lot of our people have PhDs
Ken: Isn’t being a man enough?
Corporate Man: Actually right now, it’s kind of the opposite.
A sublime admission of feminism’s total tactical victory amidst social failure. Over-credentialisation and feminisation have eroded this land. And now LA is fit neither for men who want a decent job nor for women who want to be treated decently. Men are subordinated and women face the impossible expectations of both motherhood and careers. Instead of displacing expectations, each generation piles new ones on. The worst of all worlds.
“You guys aren’t doing patriarchy very well,” says Ken. And goes to make Patriarchy afresh.
And here we get a break through the ice of the show. A villainous Ken returns to Barbie Land to transform it into a Kendom. This is Scar transforming Pride Rock, and the pinnacle song of the film is the hyenas goose-stepping before him. Ken’s rise is even accompanied by the horse, and like the Comanches transformed by the Spanish steed or the Texan Rangers who defeated them, Ken’s army is mounted. “Patriarchy: where men and horses run everything.” Here, every night is boys night.
I don’t know if it’s deliberate by director Greta Gerwig or a consequence of Gosling’s irrepressible charisma, but how could Gosling’s Ken not become a fascist-lite icon? A buff platinum blonde hero breaking free of his feminist shackles to build his own Kenocracy — what’s not to love? Ultimately Kendom is taken down by Barbies driving a wedge between the Kens: a tale as old as Troy.
The film is sporadic in its shotgun critiques. It takes shots at a man’s world (“I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?”) as well as the vacuity of female consumerism. The entire Mattel Board is male. Women don’t have agency in the real world — they aren’t even (anymore) the makers of their own iconic self-projection in Barbie. Mattel’s villainous CEO (Will Ferrell) has a banger:
We sell dreams, imagination, and sparkle. And when you think of sparkle, what do you think of next? Female agency.
(I admit I’m a lame enough yid that I was the only one in the cinema to cackle when one of Ferrell’s evil minions dropped a cheap “some of my best friends are Jewish” crack.)
Barbie, it turns out, is just about peddling fantasies, plastic buck making, with any feminist message just glitter wrapping. Its idea of agency is a new outfit and a cute line.
The film ultimately rejects both rebellious impulses — the boring feminist fantasy and childish critique as well as the darker masculine fascist parody. We’re all just dealing with the human condition: “humans make up things like patriarchy and Barbie to deal with how uncomfortable [being a human] is. And then you die.” It gives up on both. It’s hard to know whether this admission of visionless and feminist failure is optimistic or pessimistic. Its despondency with a failed post-feminist landscape is refreshing in its honesty.
In the end it retreats into plastic aesthetic comfort, into the good looks and chum of its leading pair. Who wants the vacuity of endless girls nights and the darkness of endless boys nights anyhow. Men and women are stuck with each other and all that matters is that you stay beautiful and don’t grow old. Or something. Don’t worry your pretty head over it.
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