28 July 2023
With Barbie, Greta Gerwig plus cast and crew have achieved something remarkable: a “social problem film” that isn’t moralizing or simplistic but fun and multifaceted. After previous media franchises such as Barbie Dreamtopia and Life in the Dreamhouse, this is the first live-action Barbie film, and it promises to give us a more critical perspective on the iconic doll. What it is critical of, however, has been widely misunderstood. It is not the patriarchy but the most recent iterations of feminism that Barbie deconstructs.
Barbie is set in Barbieland, a dollhouse utopia where “all problems of feminism and equality can be solved.” In Barbieland, women get to do all the things denied them in “the real world.” They govern. They excel at science and literature. But they also collect garbage. There is no social hierarchy; everybody gets along; and “every night is girls’ night.” Such feats of equality and social organization happen under the admiring gaze of Ken, a beta-male in an alpha-male body, whose sole purpose is to applaud Barbie’s achievements.
Barbieland looks exactly as you’d imagine it. Barbie’s meticulous production design makes a huge contribution to the fun and feel of the film. Barbie drinks from empty cups and takes waterless showers. She opens a fridge door to reveal two-dimensional perishables. Food is not eaten but nuzzled. A perennially blue sky bathes endless bolts of pink fabric in luminescent light. Barbieland is bound to give even the color-blind a synaesthetic experience. In short, everything is “perfect”—until “stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) begins to have thoughts of mortality.
Death is a taboo in this changeless world. Trying to figure out what’s wrong with her, Barbie discovers that there’s been some kind of quantum mix-up. The real world is interfering with Barbieland, likely because there’s something amiss with Barbie’s human owner. She and Ken travel to “the real world” to right the situation. In the process, Barbie encounters sexism and envy—“men look at me like I’m an object, girls hate me”—and the negative feelings accompanying them. For the first time in her life, she cries. By contrast, Ken instantly develops a liking for this world, which, he discovers, is defined by something called “the patriarchy.”
After a long detour (featuring Bourne-style fights with corporate execs and… horses), Barbie returns to Barbieland, only to find that Ken is well on his way to implementing the ideas of the patriarchy at home. Barbieland is fast giving way to “Kendom.” However, the male counterrevolution fails. “Kenland contains the seeds of its own destruction,” Barbie archly notes, and she is not wrong. One of the film’s most memorable scenes sees two factions of Kens engage in performative fisticuffs, demonstrating that the men in Barbieland are just as incapable of working together as the women in “the real world.”
In the end, the Barbies succeed in preserving the status quo, defending their rights and privileges. But they are generous enough to toss the Kens a few symbolic concessions. Henceforth their contribution to Barbieland will be acknowledged. We are given to understand that the situation of the Kens now mirrors that of women in the real world. On the one hand, equality is elusive. Kens are palmed off with terms of endearment and the suggestion that “maybe it’s time to discover who Ken is,” while the Barbies keep hold of the reins of power. On the other hand, change—and therefore history—has been introduced into Barbieland, promising the possibility of progress towards equality.
Director Greta Gerwig has said that Barbie is “most certainly a feminist film.” But it’s better to think of it as a critique of feminism. The film criticizes its own feminist premises by reifying the distinction between sex and gender. As such, it channels the dispute between “materialist” gender critics and “constructivist” queer theorists, laying bare the central contradiction within contemporary feminism.
One of the curious facts about Barbieland is that the dolls are gendered but not sexed. (Faced with a sexist remark in the real world, Barbie responds, “I do not have a vagina and he does not have a penis. We have no genitals.”) Yet Barbieland functions according to a rigidly binary system (male/female, Ken/Barbie)—despite the inclusion of a trans actor. Thus Barbieland figures a world in which gender is the sole reality, but where gender functions like sex. The upshot is that gender is naturalized, no longer a social construction, as it is habitually understood. In the same way, the emancipatory notion it embodies—let’s call it equality—is elevated to a timeless and perennially valid Big Idea. In Barbieland, this idea is actualized. Women can be anything they want, provided they are not biological women. The implication is that women in the real world are being held back by their bodies. The patriarchy is a function of their biological sex, the state of nature, as indeed this premodern term suggests. This gives rise to the dystopian idea that the oppression of women is here to stay. The patriarchy is ontologized.
But this is only half the story. Barbie critiques not only the patriarchy but the utopianism of Barbieland. Far from being the means by which “all problems of feminism and equality can be solved,” Barbieland is what makes the patriarchy possible. It sells girls on the illusion that they can be anything they want. (“Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything.”) It is a classic example of what Herbert Marcuse called “affirmative culture.” Barbieland sets up an ideal that women can achieve through an act of will or imagination, subverting their need and desire to change the state of fact. Barbie presents Barbieland as utterly disconnected from reality—specifically, the reality of sex in “the real world.”
From the standpoint of the real, Barbieland appears as nothing but a castle in the air. It lacks substance, body. For all her voluptuous plasticity, Barbie is no more than a disembodied idea, a fiction. Through her stay in the real world, Stereotypical Barbie comes to realize this and decides to make the transition—which requires her to go from being merely gendered to becoming sexed (the first thing she does is see her gynecologist). Barbie thus joins the world in which the patriarchy calls the shots, but which seems in many ways superior to the bloodless utopia of Barbieland. The main advantage of the real world is that it’s real—it is populated with real people with real emotions (Barbie discovers that crying is “actually kind of amazing”). Most importantly, the real world is a historical world, where change is a given.
As Barbie leaves Barbieland behind and transitions into her body, she explains, “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea.” This wish sums up the contradiction at the heart of the film. Barbie affirms human agency—she wants to be the kind of creature that has ideas and is able to imagine that things could be otherwise. But this leaves aside the question of the role of ideas in the process of change—ideas like equality, of which Barbieland is an expression. And so we shuttle back and forth between a utopian pipe dream and a permanent patriarchy. Barbie sets up two worlds, each of which points out the insufficiency of the other—one is patriarchal, the other illusionary—but in failing to connect the two critiques, the film remains one-sided. This colors the uplifting message that Barbie wants to put across.
Barbieland, we are made to understand, is nothing but a projection of the dreams of real women and girls, which, in order to materialize, require equality. Barbie affirms their dreams, even as it implies that they have no place in “the real world.” The idea of equality is negated by the reality of sexual difference, which in turn is negated by the possibility of gender equality prefigured by Barbieland. Ultimately, all the film can do is suggest that utopian ideas are not entirely lost on the world, that they might, if we’re lucky, lead to positive outcomes. But this is no more than a vague, unsubstantiated hope. Change is a haphazard process over which we (and women in particular) should not presume to exercise control. This is the dark and pessimistic truth beneath Barbie’s tinseled exterior. But this is merely the pessimism of contemporary feminism itself. What drives it into this dead end is its binarism. To move forward, it would have to find a mediating third term. This is neither gender, which bewitches its devotees like a fetish, nor the reified category of sex, but society and its crisis—a concept which is absent from Barbie’s imaginary worlds. What is at issue is neither an unchanging, premodern patriarchy, nor the peregrinations of a beautiful but toothless ideal, but an objective reality which emerges in the interaction between individuals, that is at once real and ideal, and could be changed if its self-contradiction is grasped at the root.
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The Barbie-Marx pin pictured above is designed by FREAKYgrl.