Greta Gerwig’s Barbie begins with a humorous — but nonetheless brutally fitting — homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It features the same moment of sheer, speechless awe, but instead of a black monolith, the little girls who inhabit this planet discover a monolithic version of the original 1959 Barbie, iconic black cat eye sunglasses, strapless black and white maillot. Kubrick has said that his monolith represented a powerful and unknowable alien life form, a blank canvas upon which viewers could unleash their own powers of imagination exponentially more than a cinematic representation ever could. For the generation of little girls who wouldn’t be able to sign their own checks without a man, have careers beyond those ascribed to the softer sex, nor even keep their own names, the canvas for unleashing their imaginations was Barbie.
The gift Ruth Handler offered young girls when she invented the doll 65 years ago was the opportunity to imagine what was then utterly unimaginable: an adulthood of their own. Dolls before this were baby dolls, meant to allow little girls to rehearse the inevitable end of a woman’s story. With this doll, a girl could play-act a world in which she could be a doctor or an astronaut or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (something Ruth was able to do by the ’60s, but she was a unicorn). She could even own her own dream home. And she didn’t need a man to sign her checks. She offered open-ended play, albeit with a close-ended, societally dictated, male view of beauty. But she was autonomous and it felt powerful.
This is the dream world Gerwig conjures in Barbie. In her version, there is a Black woman president, an all-female Supreme Court and even all-female construction sites. It’s also a world where women can be feminine and dress in skimpy sequins just because it is fabulous and fun and not to attract the male gaze. When Ken leans in for a kiss after a girls night dance party, Barbie not only has no interest, she has no guilt that she might have set herself up for this sexual attention just by being her exuberant, feminine self. It is a child’s version of what it means to be a grown-up. Yes, she looked like a stereotypical movie star, but she could do anything. There are no casting couches in her world, no doors being slammed in her face, no roadblocks.
Roadblocks exist in the adult world and that has been Barbie’s problem since the moment of her invention. As soon as the interpretation of her is taken out of a child’s point of view and is seen through the lens of an adult, everything changes. The doll instantly becomes not a toy but a symbol of all the contradictions of modern womanhood. As Gloria Steinem told me when I asked her why feminists detested the doll in the ’70s, a sentiment that has persisted, she said “She was everything we were told to be and were fighting against.”
And so it’s when the adult world intrudes into Barbie Land that Gerwig’s Barbie’s unshakeable optimism turns to existential dread. The dolls are only meant to exist to spark the imaginations of children, not adults, and the tear in the fabric of the universe is when an adult begins to play with the doll. The character Gloria (perhaps an homage to the aforementioned Gloria) is a working mother struggling with questions of meaning and self-worth as her maturing daughter begins to push her away. We see her daughter, Sasha, sending her big box of Barbies off to Goodwill. Sasha has reached the age when doll play is replaced by teenage rebellion. But Gloria rescues one Barbie from the pile.
She begins to play with the doll, imagining costumes for her that bespeak human mid-life crisis concerns, including Full Body Cellulite Barbie and Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie. And because an adult is playing with this doll, imbuing her with middle-age concerns, Margot Robbie’s Barbie, once obliviously happy, suddenly develops cellulite and is troubled by thoughts of death.
So Barbie sets off to try to set things right. She arrives in Venice Beach wearing her leotard and rollerblades and is immediately shocked by the danger she feels under the male gaze. Because of the ogling and sexist comments, she seeks comfort from a group of construction workers. In her world, they were always supportive friends. But she finds more threatening sexual objectification. Before blading off, she reminds them that their fantasies can never be satisfied because, as a Barbie, she has no vagina. This absurdly genius idea of turning the threat on its head by removing genitals from the equation is explored by several female comedians. One of my favorites is Wanda Sykes’ version. She asks us to imagine a world in which women could come home from work, pull on their sneakers, grab their keys, leave their vaginas behind on the bureau and feel safe to take an evening run through the park.
Another of Barbie’s experiences in the real world is her first glimpse of a postmenopausal woman. Barbie’s don’t age, so it’s foreign to her. She examines the woman for a moment and says in a manner utterly devoid of guile, “You’re so beautiful.” Barbie has only seen the world through the female lens, so her beauty tenets have not been shaped by what is aesthetically pleasing to men.
This deep appreciation for women becomes a valuable element when the Ruth character in the movie suggests Barbie could become human. This choice, at first blush, might seem ridiculous to many in the Barbie audience. Why would she want to leave such a magical place as Barbie Land? It’s the question Gloria is struggling with as well. Why would her daughter want to leave her cozy, safe childhood? Why would she or Barbie want to enter the adult world of women where, as she rants, “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard!!! It’s too contradictory!!!”
It’s much easier to be a child.
But there is also something magnificent about becoming a woman, despite the continued limitations and dangers attendant in that. Barbie, having witnessed something we as women have been programmed not to see, not to value, wants to become a part of the profound affinity group that the shared experience of womanhood creates. We are not men. We bleed. We can gestate another human life. We can make milk. We fight for our reproductive freedom. We weather menopause. And we laugh and cry about these things on girls nights. And in this movie, in Barbie’s view, in Gerwig’s view, in Ruth’s view, womanhood is a superpower. Barbie decides to join the real world because she wanted the gift Ruth gave to girls when she invented the doll. She wanted to become the subject, the creator of the narrative and not the object. And Barbie, in her very first stop as Barbara Handler, real woman, tends to her superpower, because it’s the most important thing. She goes to the gynecologist.