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Disconnection Barbie (Ken Sold Separately)
Boy doesn't get girl: patriarchy smashed
I did not hate Barbie. I sat with my mother and consumed a tub of popcorn and enjoyed myself. The last reel of the film is a bit didactic and self-absorbed and not as much fun as the rest. Yes, there is feminism. Yes, there is analysis. But this film is about girls, and how they live in a world half full of boys, in which time destroys beauty and the link between generations of women is fragile. For unpacking all that in one film, a world of plastic is indeed fantastic.
Barbie reconnects Gloria, the mom in the ‘real world’ played by America Ferrera, and her daughter Sasha, played by Arianna Greenblatt. During the third act, when the film indulges its magical realism the most, Barbie reconnects to her fairy godmother, Rhea Perlman, playing the part of Barbie creator Ruth Handler. She also reconnects all the Barbies to themselves, smashing the patriarchy in the process.
Ken, though? Poor Ken. He must learn to live on his own instead of living for Barbie. She does not want him. Spoiler: boy does not get girl in the end. Barbie is too busy connecting to herself the whole time. Her character arc does not bend. It is a desire to live alone. This film has been criticized for wokeness and invoking adult issues when the actual problem with Barbie is its atomizing dread of adult intimacy between women and men. Nevertheless, there is hope at the end.
Margot Robbie has pulled off an amazing feat. It is hard to keep using the same smile over and over again with fresh meaning. Ryan Gosling has perfect timing and delivery with some of the funniest lines in the film. A large cast of Barbies and Kens delivers good performances.
Barbie-world is visualized with a consistent physics — flung into the air, vintage toy clothes pause in flight with their names and production years on screen. The film has all the Easter eggs a Barbie fan could want, unabashedly and often hilariously. To journey back and forth between Barbie-world and the real world requires travel by car, boat, rocket ship, bicycle, snowmobile, and roller skates, because Barbie does all of those activities. Even her RV gets into the routine.
Whether or not you like Barbie dolls, most of the film has the virtue of being funny and entertaining. Barbie-world is silly because the real world is not. In the real world, the war of the sexes has involved too many atrocities.
If the film has a serious weakness, it is Gerwig’s understanding of Kens. ‘Patriarchy’ is not really analyzed or explained so much as transmitted from the real world to Barbie-world by mere knowledge of its existence.
Gosling’s Ken likes the sound of patriarchy. He learns just enough about patriarchy to become dangerous to himself and others. He returns to Barbie-world as a patriarchal Prometheus, gifting the Kens hypnotic powers to make President Barbie and Nobel Prize Barbie forget they have any power at all.
Both of those Barbies are played by black women, by the way. Leftist critics refusing to see Barbie because they perceive “unintentional whiteness” in the film should take note. Readers who have not seen the film because it is ‘woke’ should likewise reconsider. Barbie has always been diverse and the casting makes use of that history without preaching from a script. I did not feel cudgeled by the diversity, not even with the transgender Barbie, because that is a real product included in the film.
Played by Hari Nef, Transgender Barbie has a surprising amount of depth in five lines. Transgender Barbie starts out in pajamas with the other Barbies during Act I, but admits being turned on by male objectification in Act III. What! A nuance? A difference in type, perhaps? Gerwig made a film with a corporate diversity mandate, yes, but it might just arguably be a little bit … based? Maybe?
If Barbie is to be a cultural watershed, then it is because this film has made room to debate the character. We might hope that Mattel will make a sequel in which Gerwig asks what is the difference between a Transgender Barbie in a dress and a Ken doll in a dress? Or: what happens in the real world to boys who play with Barbies? Do they sometimes disconnect from the real world and try to make everyone else perform their fantasy Barbie-world? Is America ready for that film, I wonder?
Controversial, the ending of the film suggests Gerwig is capable of writing a script about healthy embodiment in the real world. Barbie’s first visit to a gynecologist is a complete acceptance of mortality and flesh-existence. Women are female by birth and not made of plastic. That is a good lesson for girls to learn right now.
The battle of the Kens in the third act is cartoonish, a lampoon of intergroup violence scenes in the age of Marvel superheroes. Gosling’s Ken and the Ken played by Simu Liu are set up as antagonists from the beginning; Barbie stirs the rivalry of all the Kens, and the rest of the Kens simply fall into line behind Gosling and Liu.
Thus the newly-violent politics of the Kens derive from individual jealousy, but rather than every Ken for himself against all the other Kens, they divide into teams of Kens and battle collectively. This is a yawning plot hole — not just in Barbie, but in feminist analysis of war. War is just a dumb thing boys do. Kens are interchangeable and so are their wars. Who cares about that stuff when there are fashionable outfits and glitzy earrings and vintage boots?
This lack of concern for male concerns extends to the boardroom of movie-Mattel. Whereas the actual toy company has a very diverse board, and the Barbie division is run by a woman, the Mattel in this film is a stodgy band of morons in suits led by a bumbling Will Ferrell. He manages to get laughs with the chase scenes, though his character is useless in the last reel.
Alan, the character played by actor Michael Cera, turns out to be the biggest badass in Barbie-land, single-handedly defeating a whole crowd of Kens in hand-to-hand combat — but mostly offscreen as Gloria and Sasha discuss Barbie. Gerwig chose this moment to pass the Bechdel test instead of glorifying male violence even the tiniest bit. The scene is her ‘statement’ to the world.
Men are not stupid in Gerwig’s Barbie. They are portrayed stupidly. Sasha’s father barely appears on screen. He is struggling to learn Gloria’s native language, but he is struggling. The men in Barbie are not evil. They are not the enemy. They are not bad. They are in fact very loving and eager to connect with the Barbies.
But men are different from girls. Men do war, and war is stupid. They do war because they are stupid-jealous of one another over the attention of the Barbies.
Who cares about what boys like, anyway. This is a film for girls. Some girls prefer to play with GI Joe, sure, but the largest cohort of girls aged 7 to 12 who like dolls will prefer Barbies. While Barbie has worn military uniforms before, she does not wear any in this film. Veteran Barbie did not rate on the inclusivity index.
The feminist text at work here is not Judith Butler, but Kristin Kobes Du Mez.
A professor of history and gender studies(!) at Calvin University, Du Mez published Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation in 2020. She argues that the modern crisis of masculinity in white evangelicalism has resulted in a fusing of religion with militant patriotism. Republicans, American imperialism, and fundamentalist Christianity all take their cues from cowboy nostalgia, she argues.
Gerwig rides this hobby horse by putting the Kens on hobby horses as they battle. Ken mistakes the horse, John Waynian symbol of manhood, for manhood itself. Yes, the film has political subtext.
Gerwig has also been accused of taking an anti-natalist view. The much-discussed opening scene references Barbie as a monolith of consumerism and ends with girls destroying or ditching unwanted baby dolls for the towering Stereotypical Barbie. Helen Mirren’s voiceover soothingly admits that baby dolls “can be fun” but the scene still staggered some viewers. Mirren then calls the pregnant Midge Barbie “creepy” and in the final reel Ferrell is repelled by her appearance. Motherhood is portrayed as a tearful struggle throughout as well as in the credits.
Yet motherhood is still shown as part of being a Barbie. Tears, Gerwig says, are normal for Kens and Barbies. They both cry. Parenthood is just part of the crying. A bleak view, perhaps, but not unrealistic.
Gerwig’s Barbie-world is made for girls who are too young to have babies and barely old enough to understand how their bodies work. Young women seem to enjoy the film. Their brothers and fathers are at least entertained by it. But the fact that moms take their daughters to see second screenings speaks to what they feel about this theme in the film, and whether it is appropriate. My own mother enjoyed it.
One might then ask: why is a pregnant doll “creepy”? Is it because the changes to Barbie’s body from childbearing include the cellulite and forebodings of doom that afflict Stereotypical Barbie and send her to the real world? Barbie is valued for her perfect beauty, cast in plastic and sealed in a box. Gerwig pauses to let Barbie take in the beauty of her future crone-self in the real world. By Gerwig’s own telling, this is the core moment of the film and feels like it. Pregnancy and birth are intrinsic to the physical decline of aging, for most women. Childbearing carries its own mortality risks. Does Midge make people uncomfortable because she reminds them of death rather than birth?
But where Barbie succeeds in having both Barbie and Ken connect to their own embodied existence, at least in principle, it chooses to split them as a romantic match. Each of them are full human beings independent of the other, rights and boundaries established, but also each of them is alone. Single.
This leaves room for a potential sequel — will Barbie ever meet her Ken? — but it points to the ongoing decline of intimacy in the 21st century, the attendant decline of birth rates, and the spiralling mental health of young people who are terrified of growing up because their snowplow-and-helicopter parents have curated their childhoods. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the loss of free play time, especially outdoors, is making our kids sick. Children must learn their own limitations and direct their own imaginations to grow up and become healthy, well-adjusted people who form happy families.
We are now generations beyond Mary Tyler Moore, the archetypal unmarried, professional woman, as well as Murphy Brown, an unmarried, professional single mother. Gerwig’s Stereotypical Barbie seems to be on this sort of career track. She does not need a Ken. She can have it all, and have it all on her own. Most women in human history never enjoyed such a luxury of opportunity.
The little girls ditching their baby dolls at the beginning are the revolutionaries of the film. They want to be women, even mothers, without restriction on whatever else interests them. This is both totally fair and utterly wrongheaded. Most humans are not healthy as hermits. A television character can exist without intimacy but a real person cannot.
Real-world characters would perhaps be more tragic: Abandonment Issues Barbie, Loneliness Barbie, Anxiety Barbie. Gerwig has the Barbies awaken and rediscover their power against the Kens by confronting them with the cognitive dissonance of being a woman in a man’s world. The script insists that ‘patriarchy’ simply hides itself better now. Yet the differences from just a few decades ago are stark, and still women today are less happy than they were before Barbie towered over them.
Casting away the baby dolls did not lead to utopia or world peace. It did not smash the patriarchy or unhorse John Wayne. It made Mattel very, very rich selling plastic dolls to little girls.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is flawed and contentious but also worth watching. We will all be talking about it in the years to come because feminism is due for a reassessment. If there is going to be a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism, it will have to reckon with the consequences of earlier waves, good and bad. Disconnected adult Kens (‘incels’) and Barbies are a modern problem related to the implementation of feminism amid the broader destruction of social institutions that once led young people to maturation. Gerwig tacitly acknowledges that the crushing of patriarchy also crushes the link between Barbie and Ken. Can she ever reconnect them?
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