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Longing for a Wider, Weirder Barbieland
Made of plastic, it’s fantastic?
Note: SPOILERS. There are so many spoilers here. Please do not read before you see the Barbie movie unless you don’t mind spoilers.
When I went to nationals for my original oratory in high school, the speech that got me there began with Barbie. I opened by describing her in a way that didn’t reveal her identity: pointing to a woman’s perfect house, perfect world, perfect wardrobe, perfect body before I said her name. I explained that if the dimensions of her body were translated to human proportions, she would topple over. It is dangerous for us to ascribe to this unrealistic and unachievable icon of the “ideal woman.” It is dangerous to strive for perfection.
But, like so many of us raised as girls, I grew up with Barbie. Many playdates began and ended with her. She was ubiquitous and, I understood from a young age, meant to be aspirational. Barbie came in different boxes with different careers and outfits. I love camp and glamor and glitz, and the fact that the film was being reemed by far right networks and figureheads as “anti-man” and “bizarre” was a further draw. So I was super excited to see the Barbie movie, with its hot pink dreamscape and praise of high femme energy.
The movie is aesthetically gorgeous, charming, hilarious, and has moments of power and insight. I laughed more than I have at a film in a long time, and I felt a sense of kinship with the theater full of us who had culled all the pink and sequins and sparkly accessories we could find from our closets to be part of this cultural moment. There was a lot of joy and delight in this film. That is true. What is also true is I wanted more.
As the glitter settled, I found myself disappointed that a film with such a far reach didn’t do more to interrogate the dense and complicated terrain of questions that Barbie presents. I found myself wanting something that Barbie has never offered but I thought this film might do something to course-correct: real inclusivity.
Just as Mattel has (somewhat) expanded their Barbies to include dolls of different races with different skin colors, the movie featured Black Barbies, including Issa Rae as President of Barbieland, Asian Barbies, and Latinx Barbies in the cast. For about three seconds in a choreographed dance scene, we see a Barbie in a wheelchair. And I noticed two white plus-sized Barbies featured in a few scenes alongside all the other thin, straight-sized Barbies.
Although Barbieland is teeming with Barbies and Kens, the film’s journey closely follows the narrow arc of one Barbie: Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie.” Her particular job as Barbie is to be an impeccably-dressed presentation of a stereotypical European ideal of beauty: blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and thin. When “Weird Barbie,” played by Kate McKinnon, reveals that Stereotypical Barbie’s thoughts of death are likely coming from the young girl playing with her, Stereotypical Barbie must journey to the Real World to set things right.
The movie Barbie knows that representation matters. That is a main focus of the film itself. In the Real World, Barbie learns that Barbieland has not, in fact, through representation solved all women’s issues around equity and that some women and girls actively resent her for making them feel bad about themselves. Beach Ken learns about the Real World and patriarchy: that in the Real World, “men rule.”
For a film that is supposed to be about Barbie, Ken(s) takes up a whole lot of space. And the main source of humor (feels like an underutilization of Kate McKinnon, among others). It’s not only that Ryan Gosling draws focus in his stellar embodiment of the role of Beach Ken, Stereotypical Barbie’s boyfriend. Or that truly epic Ken war that involves noogies and plunger darts. So much of the narrative involves the Kens takeover of Barbieland. This is where the film is trying to do the work of juxtaposing Barbieland, where women lead everything, to the Real World, where the opposite is true.
When Barbie and Ken visit the Real World, Ken is so emboldened by feeling like he is “seen” by others apart from his role as companion to Barbie, that he brings the patriarchy back to Barbieland. Expecting to show them the beauty and power of Barbieland, Stereotypical Barbie returns with Mattel employee America Ferrera’s Gloria, who was playing with her and whose thoughts of death Barbie felt, as well as her daughter Sasha, who originally played with Barbie. Instead, Stereotypical Barbie is appalled when she witnesses Supreme Court justice Barbies serving Kens beers on the beach.
The Kens, led by Gosling’s Beach Ken, have turned all the Barbie Dreamhouses into Mojo Dojo Casa Houses, dripping with tvs, mini-fridges, brewskis, and horse iconography. Stereotypical Barbie witnesses the other Barbies brainwashed. Ken tells her that her home belongs to him now. She doesn’t know what to do. So she lies on the ground (relatable).
It is then that Stereotypical Barbie has an existential crisis. On the floor of Weird Barbie’s amazingly vibrant house (why can’t all of Barbieland look like this contemporary art masterpiece?), where Weird Barbie is attempting to wake up brainwashed Barbies who have forgotten who they are, Barbie cries. She lays her insecurity bare: she isn’t pretty enough, isn’t smart enough, isn’t good enough.
Her confession about her felt inadequacy sets Gloria/Ferrera off on a long monologue–one of the strongest moments of the film in my opinion, I clapped–about the infuriating, confusing, and unfair plight of being a woman in the real world.
In this monologue, Gloria says that women are expected to be thin but not too thin and then to want to be healthy, not thin; to be the boss but not be mean; to care about their careers but also take care of everyone else; to want to be a mom but not to talk about their kids too much and on and on and on. “It’s too much,” she says. “I’m tired.” She continues to address Barbie, saying that if a doll, not a woman but a representation of a woman, also feels that way, she has no idea what to do.
With Gloria’s words, Celebrated Author Barbie snaps out of her brainwashing, remembering who she is, and together, the Barbies along with the humans, concoct a scheme to distract Kens by appealing to their egos: letting them mansplain, showing the Barbies how to perform tasks, and playing guitar at them for hours (I want to say here that one of my favorite choices in the film was to make all the Kens play Matchbox Twenty’s “Push,” the most archetypal egoic masculine song I can think of, for this scene). While the Kens are distracted, Barbies pick off the other Barbies one-by-one to wake them up and join their plan take back Barbieland from the Kens.
I need to take a moment to note that my first association with America Ferrera and her first major role was as Ana, the teenage Mexican-American daughter of an immigrant mother and seamstress in Real Women Have Curves. Ferrera delivered an incredible performance in that film, which included the navigation of many obstacles, one of which was loving herself through and after her mother’s criticism of her curvy body. I was deeply moved by her performance and particularly by her embodiment and the way in which she was able to move to a place of self love as well as truly receive the admiration and love from her romantic partner. Ana was a force of change and power in her life and the lives of those around her.
A few years ago, I heard an interview where Ferrera talked about a turning point in her career.
She had gone to college to study international relations and at one point wondered whether she should continue acting. “I had a professor who meant a lot to me who I confided in and said, ‘I feel like I should stop acting and do something meaningful—go off and become a lawyer or something to do with trying to fix the world,’” she said. The professor shared that a mentee of his had told him: “If you really want to know what my life is like, come watch this movie Real Women Have Curves.” That moment made her understand that “[her] passion and specific unique talents could be used for good.” She spoke about the power and responsibility of representation.
Ferrera inhabited a bigger body when she was in Real Women Have Curves as well as when she starred in the television series Ugly Betty. To be clear, everyone has the right to shape their body however they choose and however feels right to them. And the desire to be smaller is understandable in a culture that is deeply fatphobic—where opportunities are lost because of a system that values smaller bodies over large ones, particularly for women. I don’t know the details of Ferrera’s personal journey with her body nor is it my business, but it seems likely, given how Hollywood works and what it demands, that her inhabiting a smaller body likely allowed her access to more and better roles even despite her enormous talent which should award her roles regardless of size.
When Rebel Wilson performed her opening monologue at the 75th Annual British Academy Film Awards, she mentioned her seventy-pound weight loss. She first joked she lost weight to get the attention of Robert Pattison before saying, “No seriously, it was to get more acting roles. I can now play the non-funny love interest in an Adam Sandler movie.” In that one line, with humor, she exposed so many limitations actresses face. The crowd erupted in a short burst of uncomfortable, knowing laughter.
The first time I was called fat, I was seven. I can still remember where I was on the playground and who said it (a second-grade bully who, a few years ago, sent me an invitation to be my friend on Facebook). That word–which I already understood to be the worst thing a girl or woman could be–carved a hole in me that began to grow. To be big was to be lacking. To take up too much space as a woman was an unforgivable flaw. Like other girls coming of age in the era of rail-thin supermodels like Kate Moss, I always felt like I took up too much space. And because the ideal set before me was one I could never meet, even when I was at my thinnest (where I can now see, in photos, my bony shoulders and body too small for my frame), I felt too big.
Barbie has always had a body problem. Barbie makes women feel like they needed to look a certain way to feel valued and valuable. Barbie is not universal in any way, and certainly not now in the United States where the average woman is a size 14. Barbie’s figure has helped launch many eating disorders. Barbie’s dimensions and aesthetics are not innocuous.
Barbies are just one gesture amid thousands that each of us receive every single day repeating the message that the only value women have is what they look like. And that they should take every measure–and I mean every measure possible–to ascribe to the narrow standards of beauty enforced by our culture. As bell hooks named it: our “imperialist white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriachy.”
In Gloria’s monologue, there is a powerful message about the endless and impossible-to-meet expectations of women, ones that pit us against ourselves and one another. But there is also no real interrogation of the very thing that Barbie has always embodied: a narrow definition of beauty, including the thinness our culture requires.
Theoretically, Barbieland is a place where Barbie can be anything she wants to be. But, in the film, she is mostly thin, mostly able-bodied, mostly white. And the main motivation for Barbie embarking on her quest from Barbieland to the Real World is because she is horrified by the cellulite that has begun to appear on her perfect thighs. When Weird Barbie tells her if she doesn’t go, the cellulite will stay, the decision to go becomes obvious. And the main message on the Bon Voyage banner fellow Barbies create to send her on her way is about freedom from cellulite. It’s funny but also, is it? In a culture where women go to such extreme measures to fit a certain beauty standard, where women die from the complications of cosmetic surgeries they undertake to get closer to an ideal they have been sold their whole lives.
Some might say I’m asking too much from a fun summer flick about Barbie.
Except the movie itself sets up the expectations that it will do more. The movie brings up patriarchy and sends Barbie on a hero’s journey of self-discovery. The movie asks questions about gender norms (even as it reinscribes them: see Barbies employing romantic jealousy as a strategy to confuse and distract men). The movie itself wants more for Barbie. And for Ken. Towards the end, Issa Rae as President Barbie argues with the Mattel CEO (played by Will Ferrell) in saying she doesn’t want things to go back to how they were before. There needs to be room for Kens to be more than accessories to Barbies. And for Barbies to have more room for complexity as well.
The film was co-written by Greta Gerwig and her husband Noah Baumbach, and the film reflects back a very white, very cisgender, very heterosexual lens. In appearance, Gerwig fits into the aesthetics revered by Hollywood (and Barbie): blonde, blue-eyed, thin. And I find it interesting that they wrote the screenplay together as a couple because the commentary on gender, although humorous and insightful at times, reflects a well-trodden exploration of gender binaries, stereotypes, and patriarchal systems.
The movie’s only entrypoint to any discussion of queerness is through innuendo: the Kens threatening to “beach” each other off is a recurring joke. There has always been speculation about the Ken doll’s sexuality and that continues in this film, although not in any layered way. There is that amazing moment where Kate McKinnon offers Barbie a Birkenstock or a high heel and when Barbie chooses the high heel, Weird Barbie makes her choose again. And of course, Barbie sings the iconic “Closer to Fine” by LGTBQ+ legends The Indigo Girls at the start of her road trip to the Real World. But I wish queerness was explored more overtly in a film whose aesthetics so clearly pull from drag and queer culture. The film itself fits neatly inside binaries and compulsory heteronormativity.
As a feminist, I found it hard at first to think about entering even a thoughtful critique of this film. Women directors rarely get to helm the ship of such a gigantic film with a huge budget and this much anticipation. Greta Gerwig broke the opening weekend record for a female director and that is a testament to the draw of the film. I have respect for Gerwig as a storyteller and creator. And for her to have achieved this kind of platform and made a visually-stunning, smart, funny and entertaining film is a huge deal. But it is precisely because of the potential I saw in the film that I wished it did more.
Part of the problem with a Barbie world is that so few of us can see ourselves in it. But this world is created: it is imaginary and fantastical. In creating an imaginary world, is there no room to also go beyond the tropes? To imagine a world outside narrow definitions of beauty and power? To create a world where characters can be a panoply of sizes and shapes and races and sexualities and genders and varying abilities?
One of my favorite moments of the film is when, after his heart-to-heart with Barbie where Beach Ken wonders who he is without her and who he could be, we see him in his new sweatshirt: I am Kenough. What would it be like to represent more people and to offer them a message of “enough”?
In the end, Stereotypical Barbie wants to be more than what she’s been handed. She wants to be part of the Real World where things aren’t perfect but experiences are more complex. She likes the sensation of crying, the release it provides. She wants to live a fuller version of herself and that’s totally fair.
But there is also zero interrogation of the privilege Margot Robbie’s Barbie carries with her into that world or that her version of Barbie, Stereotypical Barbie, enters the Real World at an advantage. She will be widely embraced as a white, thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, stereotypically-beautiful woman. Compared to the other Barbies of Barbieland and the lives and embodiment of so many women, in many ways finding opportunities will be easier, dating will be easier, schooling will be easier, acquiring jobs will be easier. Yes, she will still have to fight patriarchal systems to be taken seriously, but she has so many privileges that go unexamined.
The film left me with some other questions: Will the Mattel boardroom continue to be filled with Will Ferrell and his chorus of Yes Men who talk about girls’ agency without allowing any women to work there? What ultimate good does introducing a line of Ordinary Barbies do if the only purpose is to make more money for the men at top? What does it mean that the only doll that gets to enter the Real World with a real and complex continuing story is the one who fits the most Eurocentric idealized standard of beauty?
I know that I was supposed to leave the film feeling empowered. But I found myself wanting something more flexible but less plastic than what the film provided.
I found myself wishing–not only for my adult self but for younger me, and all our younger selves–that a more expansive narrative was allowed to exist inside this imaginary world.
I wish that there was room for more weird Barbies, for bigger-bodied Barbies: fat and mid-sized Barbies, for Barbies with bodies that don’t adhere to cultural norms about ability or attractiveness, for queer Barbies, for non-binary and trans Barbies, and for all Barbies who would not have such an easy time if they departed from Barbieland for the Real World.
I wish that, inside a fantastical world that offers such vivid color and beauty and possibility, there was a broader vision of possibility for who is allowed to exist there.
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