Why yes, of course Barbie belongs here. It is about someone who travels from an imaginary world to the real world. How much more fantasy can you get?
So yes, in Greta Gerwig’s film, Barbie, a doll, ably assisted (or not) by her loyal boyfriend, Ken, travels to the real world to try to solve a problem that is making Barbieland less than perfect. Barbieland is, of course, that ideal world of the imagination in which all Barbie dolls (and Kens) exist. No one has to climb stairs, because a little girl can just pick you up and put you where you need to be. No one eats or drinks, though their homes are full of boxes, bottles and crockery. And, most importantly, no one has any genitals.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the primary source of discontent seems to be that a girl in the real world is having sad thoughts playing with her Barbie. This is bad, because it is Barbie’s job to make little girls happy. And because of this, things are starting to go wrong in Barbieland. Our heroine has discovered that her feet have gone flat, and therefore no longer fit perfectly and painlessly into high heels. Worse, her pristine plastic skin has started to develop blemishes that look suspiciously like cellulite!
Also, though this will only become an issue later, Ken is sad. Barbie is a doll for girls. In Barbieland, every night is Girls’ Night. While Ken sees himself as a fine figure of a man who might stand a chance with a girl as perfect as Barbie, she only sees him as a pleasant accessory. Ken is starting to grow up, and Barbie is still a girl.
At this point I should note that Barbieland is full of Barbies. Our heroine, played by Margot Robbie, is Stereotypical Barbie, but she has many friends. There’s President Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Famous Author Barbie, Doctor Barbie (played by Hari Ness) and many others. All of them are perfect, and they run Barbieland. There are many Kens too. They have nothing to do except admire the Barbies.
When things start to go wrong, Stereotypical Barbie is sent to see the great sage, Weird Barbie, beautifully embodied by Kate McKinnon. Weird Barbie is not perfect, but she does know a thing or two about getting to the real world. She sends Stereotypical Barbie on her way. Ken (Stereotypical Ken, that is), desperate to get the girl to notice him, tags along. And things go downhill from there.
There are a bunch of additional fine performances. I should have already mentioned the wonderfully sarcastic narration provided by Helen Mirren. Will Ferrell does a fine job as the CEO of Mattel. Simu Liu (previously famous as Shang Chi) out-dazzles Ryan Gosling as a rival Ken. Ncuti Gatwa has a Ken role as well, and as he’s now Doctor Who the possibilities for fanfic are endless. I was particularly pleased to see a staring role for America Ferrera that does not require her to be ugly. Indeed, as she (Gloria) and her daughter (Sasha) get to travel to Barbieland, they get to spend part of the film being impossibly gorgeous, because every woman in Barbieland is impossibly gorgeous (except Weird Barbie).
The film is very funny, or at least it is if you are female. Many of the jokes are at the expense of men and their obsessions. The Zack Snyder joke, in particular, will never cease to be hilarious to me.
Saying any more about the film would require serious spoilers and feminist critique. That will come, but before I need to scare away those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, I have one small complaint.
At the start of the film there is this brilliant 2001 pastiche in which we are told that, from the dawn of time, all dolls were babies intended to teach little girls the joys of motherhood. This supposedly changed when Barbie arrived. Reader, this is so not true.
The first known doll-like figures are neolithic and we don’t know a lot about them as they were mostly organic and don’t survive well. There are doll-like figures from ancient Egypt, but they are basically just a shaped piece of wood with hair attached and it is hard to know what they were for. By the time of Classical Greece, however, little girls absolutely had articulated, humanoid female figures to play with. And reader, they were not babies. Let me introduce you to Warrior Princess Barbie.
Photo credit: Adrienne Mayor; the doll is from the 5th Century BCE and is currently in the Louvre.
Yes, girls from Classical Athens got to play with Amazon Warrior dolls. How wonderful is that? The whole baby thing didn’t start until around the middle of the 19th Century. It wasn’t actually the Victorians who were responsible, but rather their cousins in Germany and France. But of course the idea that little girls should play with toys that would equip them with the skills to become little wives quicky became popular in Britain and America too. Thank goodness we have mostly escaped from that.
I really recommend that you see this film unspoiled, but if you have seen it, or are unlikely to see it, read on.
When she arrives in the real world, Barbie discovers that the lot of women there is far from the perfection of Barbieland. Ken, meanwhile, discovers a concept called Patriarchy, and he rushes back to Barbieland to implement it there. Barbie has a lot of running away from Mattel goons to do. When she is finally rescued by Gloria and Sasha, and makes her way home, it is too late. Barbieland has become Kendom, and most of the Barbies have become simpering, brainless tarts who exist only to serve and adore their Kens. It is all very Joanna Russ.
Naturally there has to be a revolution. Weird Barbie is a key part of it as she’s not the sort of Barbie any Ken would want. Gloria is also able to help by explaining to the Barbies what life is like for women in the real world. But there is another character who is part of the revolution: Allan.
In Barbie mythology, Allan is Ken’s best friend. However (Grease allegory coming up), while Barbie and Ken are the perpetual Sandy and Danny of Barbieland, Allan is more like the guy Danny tried to pretend to be after seeing what Sandy was like in school. This isn’t in the film, but in Barbie history Allan married Barbie’s friend Midge, and they have a son in addition to Midge’s pregnant bump. Ken sees himself as an alpha male, whereas Allan is way down the pecking order. So far down that he succumbs to the dangers of matrimony. Russ would have had him as one of the Half-Changed.
In the film, Allan is played for laughs. I think this is sad, because Allan is basically an actual nice guy. He sees the Barbies as people. He respects them. And he knows full well that Patriarchy will be as much of a disaster for him as for them.
As I hinted earlier, much of the problem of Barbieland is that Ken sees himself as a man whereas Barbie still sees herself as a girl, albeit a woman-shaped one. Part of the message of the film seems to be that Barbie needs to grow up. I think that’s valid. It is all very well little girls being given positive role models, but unless they learn to cope with the real world (and the Patriarchy that infests it) they are not going to realise their dreams. Inevitably, learning to cope with it means learning to manage relationships with men.
And I do mean with men here, because Barbie is a very straight film. There is no Lesbian Barbie, and the perpetual Girls’ Night is just a slumber party. (There was once an Abby Wambach Barbie, but you couldn’t buy her.) The Kens might all look like refugees from the Village People, but they have only one thing on their minds, and that is Barbies. (They can’t think about their dicks because they don’t have any.)
However, while Barbie is very straight, it is not at all cis. One of the most talked about parts of the film is the end sequence where Barbie, having become human, visits a gynecologist, presumably to get herself a vagina. There are, of course, other explanations for this. When she became human I don’t see why her anatomy shouldn’t have followed suit. It is entirely possible that her visit to the doctor is about a pregnancy. But, given the jokes about her lack of genitals, her need to get a vagina seems a highly likely explanation. It also makes the ending one of pure transfeminine joy, seeing someone who desperately wants female genitals finally being on the brink of getting them.
The anti-trans lobby, of course, is also keen to see the trans-related ending, because it gives them an excuse to be outraged. They live for outrage.
The montage of (female) human life that Barbie sees before making the decision to become human is much more gender-essentialist, being basically all about family and raising children. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that this is not the inevitable lot of human females, and that no one should be forced into it. However, our Barbie is a sovereign individual, and if that’s what attracts her to life as a human we shouldn’t criticize her for it. It is one of the things that is least available to her in Barbieland, after all. (There can be only one Pregnant Barbie, and Midge has that role.)
To my mind, however, the most trans part of the film occurs much earlier when Gloria is making her big speech about the lot of women. Towards the end she says this:
“And it turns out, in fact, that not only are you doing everything WRONG, but also, everything that happens is YOUR FAULT.”
I’d been nodding along with her throughout, because you can’t live as a woman in this world for 26 years (which I have) without getting a very good idea of the lot of womankind. That final line really hit home, because it is absolutely the lot of trans women. Everything we do we are told is wrong, and apparently all of the bad things in the world, specifically the bad things that are done by cis men, are our fault.
This, I think, explains a lot of the attraction of the anti-trans movement to a certain type of cis woman. They get to treat trans women the way that cis men treat them. It is a classic bullying victim reaction: if you can’t stand up to the bully, then you find someone even less fortunate than yourself and bully them in turn. And this is why it is pointless to use reason with transphobes. They know the things they are accusing us of aren’t true. They know that what they are doing causes hurt and distress. That’s the whole point. You don’t stop someone being a bully by telling them that being a bully is cruel, because being cruel is precisely what they want to do.
Barbie, thankfully, sees being cruel as bad. She’s as much on the side of trans girls as she is on the side of cis girls. Good for her. And you know, Barbie has come to the real world without Ken. He didn’t want to be human, and she decided that she didn’t need him. Maybe we’ve finally got a Lesbian Barbie after all.