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Why I loved Barbie (with spoilers)

Max Stearns

I had little interest in seeing Barbie until reading an article criticizing it for advancing a culture war agenda by presenting doll characters who might be gay or transgender. I appreciated FOX helping to market the movie when actors and writers were suffering amid the strikes. The movie's remarkable box office success primarily helps the specific movie’s actors, writers, and other artists, but it also conveys a growing post-Covid demand for in-theater entertainment that I hope will produce an agreement with greater gains shared by the actual talent.

Barbie is ingenious in ways that risk getting overlooked by some, especially men, with its pink over-the-top marketing. The hype, and the film’s admittedly whimsical nature, while appealing to so many viewers shouldn’t deter those who wouldn’t generally find these marketing features personally appealing. This movie is very much worth seeing. The premise is two parallel worlds, Barbieland and the movie’s version of our own. For the dolls, at least the Barbies, their world is filled with non-stop fun—parties, dancing, fancy cars, and female empowerment. The Barbies run it all. Until they don’t.

Ken is an appendage, minus an appendage. Barbie’s also incomplete, except in comparison with the dolls she replaced. The epic opening, adapting 2001 A Space Odyssey, depicts young girls trashing their baby dolls, with Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra playing in the background. The narrator explains that caring for babies can be fun. For a time. Ask your mother. True enough. Babies are endless work, explaining (perhaps in a loop) their remarkable cuteness, especially to parents. Otherwise, humankind couldn’t survive.

The Kens compete shamelessly for the Barbies’ attention, and like the Barbies come with a striking variety of physical characteristics and outfits. Living in Barbie’s world as a Ken is hard, so much so that there’s an Allen (Michael Cera), Ken’s one-time disaffected companion who wants only one thing—out!

The parallel world is a highly stylized version of our own. When Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), confronts shocking existential questions—thoughts of death and cellulite, which bring Barbieland temporarily to a halt—Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) compels her on a journey. Ken (Ryan Gosling) insists on joining, and initially together they set out to find the girl who caused the glitch in Barbieland and repair the relationship.

Barbie discovers that contrary to her mythical reality, Barbies have set young girls up for disappointment. Girls aren’t President, don’t dominate the Supreme Court, don’t run all the businesses (her own defense against allegations of “fascist” Barbie), and the list goes on. In fact, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a young, savvy, teenager despises the whole Barbie project as retro, demeaning, sexist, and removed from the real plight that, as women, she and other girls already know they’ll confront. In a later scene back in Barbie land, Sasha’s mom, Gloria (America Fererra), gives a brilliant monologue on the impossibility of womanhood. Every admonition has a self-contradictory counter. That monologue, and the realization that Barbieland’s understanding of womanhood is a fantasy, is key to rescuing Barbieland from the later Ken-dominated patriarchy.

Creator Ruth Handler’s inspiration for Barbie was an adaptation of a European sex toy marketed to men. (For a fascinating account of the backstory, see Orly Lobel, You Don’t Own Me.) Unlike the babydolls at the movie’s opening, the Barbies that replaced them drew girls in precisely because they expressed sexual features. These dolls had breasts. Girls could project maturing into womenhood onto Barbies, with their endless (not costless) array of outfits and careers. Except for Midge (the unsuccessful pregnant Barbie), such projections avoided the obvious burdens that typically accompany womanhood—complex relationships, pregnancy, parenting, and endless contradictory commands on how to live. (My sister, Wendy Bornstein, who wrote a terrific blog on Barbie, owned a Midge.) In Ferrera’s telling, if Barbieland is endless fun, womanhood’s an endless challenge.

In one real-world scene, Barbie conveys that neither she nor Ken are, well, complete. Stereotypical Barbie remains that way until the movie’s epic closing. Gloria tells Barbie, now human, “You’ve got this” as Barbie goes for the first time to see her gynecologist. In an early scene, Ken asks to stay the night in Barbie’s dream house. When she asks why, he stumbles. The sexless dolls make Barbieland reminiscent of Eden. In place of the apple, Barbie learns that unlike drinking from an empty cup at her dreamhouse, if you don’t expect it, you’ll get wet in the real world.

The movie’s ending reminded me of the NBC series (later on Netflix): The Good Place (more spoilers). Despite the buffoonish men controlling Mattel’s Board Room and leaving the tax-challenged Handler a self-described ghost, the problem in Barbieland never really was a fight over female or male dominance. Barbie recognizes this and apologizes to Ken, who, even without his boorish behavior, she’ll never love. For Barbie, the real existential threat isn’t cellulite or even death. It’s worse. It’s the meaninglessness of endless repetition and predictability, no matter how joyful it appears to those looking in. The known, no matter how seemingly idyllic, is more daunting than risking the unknown. The later, human, Barbie sees this, willingly assuming the power to produce life, and with that, to risk death. And cellulite.

Others have pointed out that the despite whatever controversy it might have provoked, although there are hints, the movie lacks any obvious gay or gender non-conforming characters. When all is said and done, the gender roles wind up fairly traditional. If the movie has an agenda, it’s reminding us that life’s always about the journey, and those who wisely figure this out (like Stereotypical Barbie) are willing to give up almost anything for a promising ride.

I welcome your thoughts.

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