With Barbie, Greta Gerwig has made the box-office record for a film directed by a woman, raking in at least $155 million over the weekend. Barbie, along with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, is also part of a summer cinema revival, with audiences for both films dressing up (pink for Barbie, black for the bomb) in a surprise return to the days when media consumption wasn’t so grimly siloed across numerous digital platforms. Perhaps even the most die-hard post-Covid shut-in has grown weary of yet another insipid Netflix series.
The doll—like mass atomic death—is rather popular. And this should come as no surprise, since Barbie and the bomb are the alpha and the omega of the American 20th century. But before we all perish in a thanatological inferno, Barbie forces us to confront the doll as a symbol of the other fundamental drive: eros.
In her 1949 classic, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “If woman should succeed in affirming herself as subject, she would invent equivalents of the phallus: The doll that embodies the promise of the child may become a more precious possession than a penis.” The phallus, de Beauvoir suggested, is important because it symbolizes male sovereignty in multiple domains—the whole world radiates outward from this most gloriously erect of cyphers.
In de Beauvoir’s feminist future, too, the doll that once represented the little girl’s destiny as mother could take on a plethora of other meanings, turning from toy to talisman. The transmission of motherhood from mother to daughter, represented by the doll, would simply become one possibility among others. Gerwig is undoubtedly no slouch. Nevertheless, she has a tough job with Barbie—how to make a film camp enough, feminist enough, and popular enough, all at once? What Barbie might lack in overall coherence, however, it makes up for in playful, and even occasionally profound, chaos.
Barbie opens with a group of little girls dressed in stuffy 1950s outfits playing with their infant dolls, serving them tea, burping them, and pushing them about in prams. In an homage to the “Dawn of Man” from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, instead of a mysterious monolith, the legs of a giantess appear, and the girls look up: it’s a massive Barbie in a sexy swimsuit. This is no mere baby doll, but a grown woman, a goddess. The girls are suitably awestruck.
Just as Kubrick’s apes all at once come to understand that bones can also be weapons, the little girls are “enlightened” by the revelation of the adult figurine, and the promise it represents: They don’t just have to be mothers—now they can be objects, too. But dolls have always been ambivalent: The girl emulates her own mother caring for her and her siblings; she practises her own potential motherhood, but she also rehearses her own adornment. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not noted for his expertise in child-rearing, having shipped his own five children to an orphanage, wrote in his 1762 Emile, or Education, in playing with her doll, the girl “cannot see herself; she cannot do anything for herself, she has neither the training, nor the talent, nor the strength; as yet she herself is nothing, she is engrossed in her doll and all her coquetry is devoted to it. This will not always be so; in due time she will be her own doll.”
Minds blown by the appearance of the numinous Barbie, the prehistory girls gleefully set about smashing up their figurative babies. One girl throws hers up into the air—but in place of 2001’s space station, we are suddenly in Barbie Land, where every night is girls’ night, and there is a Barbie in every conceivable role, from judge to doctor to journalist to Nobelist, from astronaut to president (garbage-collecting Barbie I might have missed). There is a Barbie in a wheelchair, a fat Barbie, Barbies of every conceivable race, and, of course, a transgender Barbie. Mattel’s real-life ill-fated pregnant doll, Midge, is there, too, waving in embarrassment from the sidelines. And everything is pink, fuchsia-pink, labia-pink, candyfloss-pink, aristocratic-pink. Barbies have their own houses, their own money, snazzy careers and democratic government. Yet they never, ever forget to have fun. Unlike Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, these Barbies don’t need to don fake beards and cease shaving their armpits in order to rule.
But there is a nightmare in the dreamhouse. Suddenly “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie) can’t stop thinking about mortality, and her feet, usually in perma-high heel lift, have become flat. Cellulite starts to appear on her smooth plastic thighs. “Do you guys ever think about dying?” she asks at a party, bringing proceedings to an abrupt, horrified ending. While the other Barbies continue to make merry with Bataillean abandon—“the sovereign is he who is as if death were not”—our heroine is sent to see “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), a Barbie bent out of shape with punk hair who has been played with “too hard.” Our heroine is informed by this strange, wise Barbie that there is a rift in the space-time continuum, and that in order to overcome her existential angst—her Barbie-toward-Death—she must visit the real world and find and revive the spirits of her unhappy owner.
Ken (Ryan Gosling), marginalized as something between Barbie’s ambiguous boypal/gay best friend, useless at even his one job (“Beach”), sneaks along for the pink convertible ride. The real world turns out, predictably, to be not the utopia Barbie imagines, for the doll has not emancipated women at all. Some women even hate the thing. A grumpy goth tween calls Barbie a “fascist” and she weeps. Gnosis is a painful thing. Meanwhile, just as Barbie discovers sexual harassment at the hands of some horny male builders, Ken discovers the patriarchy, having found a book on the topic in a school library, alongside one about horses. The animal and patriarchy appear to fuse in Ken’s blond mind—perhaps this is Gerwig’s tribute to Jonathan Swift’s “Houyhnhnm,” the intelligent horses who govern one of the lands in Gulliver’s Travels, the implication being that a world governed by humans of either sex will always be imperfect.
Through his encounters with men in the real world, and alongside his research, Ken comes to understand that his birthright isn’t to be a eunuch, but to lead and to fight. And in the real world, men are in charge. Ken thus returns to Barbie Land in a giant Sylvester Stallone-style mink coat, and stages a man-coup to create “Kendom.” The dream houses are overrun with symbols of masculinity, most poignantly, little fridges for beer. The remaining Barbies are brainwashed into feminine submission, and set about serving the Kens with foot rubs and drinks and snacks whenever they demand them.
Barbie, meanwhile, locates her real-world owner—not a girl, but a depressed Latina mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), sad at the burgeoning distance between herself and her daughter, who has taken to drawing strange sketches of Barbie, which in turn have bled back into the dreamworld. The plot is pretty much irrelevant, but after defeating Mattel’s evil CEO (Will Ferrell) and his Yes-men, who try to put Barbie back in her (literal) box, Barbie and the now-reconciled mother and daughter return to Barbie World to dethrone the patriarchal Kens. Consciousness-raising the submissive Barbies by repeating feminist koans (“we have to always be extraordinary but somehow we’re always doing it wrong”), the Barbies set about pitting the men against one another. After enduring their personal Ken singing soulful guitar songs to them for hours, they feign interest in a different Ken. Incensed, the Kens go to rivalrous war with each other, armed with tennis rackets and lacrosse sticks. Female power is eventually reasserted, the Kens are recognized as having equal worth, and the war of the sexes settles down once more into everyday detente.
Our heroine, however, refuses Ken as her romantic partner: Her existential awakening has created the desire to feel, to be human. In one mildly sacrilegious moment, Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” is re-enacted with Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), infusing her handiwork with breath. Barbie can now feel and reason. A sentimental but moving montage of real human women—mothers and wives included—alerts us to the multitudinous possibilities for today’s woman. De Beauvoir’s doll has woken up.
Gerwig’s film is ultimately good-hearted, breaking the fourth wall to posit a feminist fourth wave. If the first wave sought political representation; the second, women’s reality and history; the third—well, whatever that was; the fourth posits a return to sexual difference, and to a heterosocial world in which men and women largely get along. In the final scene, just when you think Barbie’s off to be a #GirlBoss, it turns out she is seeing a gynaecologist instead. In the transition to the flesh, the smooth space gets complicated. Gerwig’s nod to what makes a woman a woman is quietly subversive. Barbie herself becomes post-Barbie, post-consumerist, and while the film generally splashes about in an enjoyable ironic and semiotic soup, the message is gentle but clear: not reducible to a bunch of signs, women exist and sexual difference is real. Ken’s story goes somewhat untold, but, after all, this is a highly feminine film—if you want men, go and see the other one.
The online reaction to Barbie has been intriguing. Right-wing men who complain about the “Longhouse,” mapping the Neolithic communal hall from the early days of agriculture onto today’s technocratic, feminized world, have taken amused succor from the “based” patriarchal Ken. They’re aren’t wrong, of course, to note that the post-industrial West—despite Gerwig’s implication in the film that the patriarchy has just learned to better hide itself—has become feminized. In place of adventure, violence, and heroism, we have risk-aversion, complaint, and saftey-ism. In this vision, men have become emasculated to the point of unmanning—as one Mattel worker, unnerved by Barbie World matriarchy puts it, “I’m a man without power. Does that make me a woman?” The temptation towards resentment and an imaginary return to male domination is strong.
The contemporary male leftist’s attitude toward women is no better and, in fact, is often worse. When not conducting witch hunts and defending pornography, prostitution, and surrogacy in the name of “liberation,” today’s liberal man strives to eliminate female reality altogether, reducing women to body parts, in language (“womb-havers,”“bonus holes”) and in practice (renting the wombs for accessory-babies). For the right, women exist but are extremely annoying; for the left, they barely register, other than as tools to serve, and signs to be plundered. Socialism or Barbie-ism, indeed.
Gerwig’s Barbie points instead to a dialectical exit: Women can be mothers or not; they can take up any number of roles, or none; they can conform to femininity or look weird. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. But there are limits: We are past the moment of the free-floating signifier, of womanhood as a mere “identity.” The doll is born into suffering. To have a male or female body is to suffer and feel in different ways: We forget this if we reduce each other to mere signs. To be human is also to have to choose—an existential Barbie can hide this possibility from herself for a while, but facing every maiden is death, behind every Barbie, an Oppenheimer.