A Heterosexual Cis-Gendered Middle-Aged White Male Mansplains 'Barbie'
I, Matt Goldenberg, a heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-aged white male from a privileged upper-middle-class family in Manhattan's chichi West Village, loved Barbie, the new comedy from director and co-writer Greta Gerwig. I point out that the other credited writer on the film was Gerwig's partner, Noah Baumbach, not because I feel the need to call attention to a man's involvement in the creation of this film, or even because Baumbach is a big deal in his own right. I do it simply out of my general fetish for writers and the feeling that if everyone knew who wrote their favorite movie the world would be a better place.
There are a lot of ways you can read Barbie: It has things to say about femininity, gender, the patriarchy, capitalism and consumerism, politics, self-actualization, movies and mass media, and, of course, beach. I know someone who even asserted that the movie is really about January 6 - and, hey, I can see it! I am not sure that I have anything to say about those interpretations that other people haven't already said, and said far more eloquently than I ever could.
What I would like to talk about, because I haven't seen it discussed elsewhere, is how Barbie can be understood as a reimagining of the Adam and Eve story through the lens of entering puberty.
Barbie begins with a brilliant prologue in which we learn that prior to Barbie, all dolls were baby dolls, and the only thing little girls were allowed to play at was being mothers. This is presented as a satirization of the first section from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssesy - maybe the single best movie ever made? - but what makes it really great is that, thematically, 2001 is a completely appropriate choice. That movie is largely about evolution, literal or otherwise, and the symbiotic relationship between the advancement of technology and the advance of humanity. In 2001's prologue, the apes come into contact with the Monolith, and that leads them to figuring out how to make crude tools and weaponry; the sequence ends with an ape smashing another ape skull before throwing it into the air. Barbie is also about evolution, of course, and this scene posits a symbiotic relationship between the advancement of dolls and the advancement of feminism. So this isn't just a funny scene - it's riffing on an actual correlation with Kubrick's film! Wild stuff.
(Incidentally, there's a second Kubrick reference later, this one to The Shining. It's not as thematically relevant and I am mentioning it only because as a heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-aged white male from a privileged upper-middle-class family in Manhattan's chichi West Village, I believe Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, and get very excited about any and all inter-textual allusions to his work.)
ANYWAY, after that prologue, we find ourselves in Barbieland, surrounded not by little girls, but, rather, by grown women - kind of. In most ways, Barbieland is a feminist utopia: An intelligent, diverse, caring, supportive body of women (no pun intended) run everything, and the Kens are bland meat puppets who want nothing more than to impress these powerful ladies and are often passive-aggressive towards one another when they don't receive the female attention they so desperately crave. The movie's protagonist, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), moves with ease through a stress-free day; heck, she doesn't even have to leave her home and get into her car, because she just kinda gently floats down from the roof into the vehicle!
But there's a sense in which the Barbies and Kens are all still children. Specifically, they know nothing about sex (Ken: "I thought I might stay over tonight." Barbie: "Why?" Ken: "Because we're girlfriend/boyfriend." Barbie: "To do what?" Ken: "I'm actually not sure."), and they're unconcerned with pesky existential issues like, say, death.
Thoughts of death - that dreadful, awesome, inescapable truth every living creature must face sooner or later - is what first propels Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) on her journey. Suddenly, horrifying things are happening to her body: She has flat feet and cellulite! And there are other effect to boot - she no longer gently floats down from her roof, but falls, hard, the way a regular person would. She is starting to have to confront the stark realities of adulthood and her own mortality.
So Stereotypical Barbie goes to see Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, killing it as always), and Weird Barbie tells her she needs to go to the real world and find the girl playing with her doll, because that's the origin of all the intrusive thoughts re: death, and all the physical changes it has brought with it. A cheesier (or just male) director might have presented this as a serpent convincing Eve to take a bite from the Forbidden Fruit, but Gerwig presents it as a clear parody of the red pill/blue pill sequence from The Matrix. It's one of at least two overt homages to the Wachowski's cultural sensation - the other one being a scene where the Mattel executives pursue Stereotypical Barbie through an office of cubicles. Proverbially name-dropping The Matrix is just as appropriate as the 2001 reference - The Matrix is also a movie about someone leaving their reality for a scarier "real world." It's also the first of several references to big Hollywood movies that, for reasons too complicated to dive into here, became co-opted by right-wing extremists (there's a joke about the so-called "Snyder Cut" of Justice League that is just PERFECT), which is precisely what happened with the red pill/blue pill thing.
Thus, Barbie leaves Eden - er, Barbieland - and heads out into the real world. Unbeknownst to her, though, she has a stowaway: Ken (Ryan Gosling). I don't think he's ever referred to as "Stereotypical Ken," although that's what he is. (Actually, none of the Barbies or Kens are differentiated by adjectives in the credits - e.g., 'Brunette Barbie' or 'Merman Ken' or whatever - they're all just 'Barbie' and 'Ken.' Which makes total sense, given the movie's messaging. But as a screenwriting nerd, it makes makes me super-curious as to how they differentiated all these characters in the script.) Regardless, Stereotypical Barbie agrees to let Stereotypical Ken tag along, because she's a nice person, and also because the movie has to happen.
Stereotypical Barbie and Stereotypical Ken end up in Los Angeles, where Stereotypical Barbie abruptly feels aware that men are ogling her (some asshole even smacks her on the butt). This is an experience I have heard described by so many women - the moment in adolescence when their bodies started to change and suddenly dudes were being all creepy with them. Now, in addition to the concepts of death and physical decay, Stereotypical Barbie has sex to deal with.
Stereotypical Barbie and Stereotypical Ken soon come to realize that in the real world, men are in charge, thanks to something known as 'patriarchy.' Barbie is horrified - the denizens of Barbieland were under the impression that they had ended all gender inequality everywhere. Ken, on the other hand, is delighted, because, well, the patriarchy favors men, and especially favors men who look the way he does. Still, he can't get a job because he doesn't have a degree or training in anything, so he decides to head back to Barbieland to spread the gospel of patriarchy.
Barbie, meanwhile, tracks down Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the girl she believes to be her doll's owner, at high school. Despite warnings from one of the students, Barbie approaches Sasha, earnestly believing Sasha will be happy to meet her. Instead, Sasha tears her apart, calling her a "fascist" ("I don't control the railways or the flow of commerce!" Barbie weeps). Barbie has now literally been to high school, where she was bullied by a mean girl for a crime no worse than being earnestly outgoing. I'm sure that's not an experience with which many women can relate.
So now Barbie is really down in the dumps when the Mattel executives, who have become aware of her presence in the real world, send a car to pick her up and bring her back to their office (Mattel's CEO is played by Will Ferrell, which seems like a fairly direct acknowledgement of Phil Lord and Chris Miller's The Lego Movie, another toy movie that features a real world separate from the toy world, and also includes Ferrell as the real world's chief antagonist). Their plan is to put Barbie back in "the box" (it's not entirely clear what the consequences of this will be, but it's safe to assume it's nothing good).
Barbie escapes, encounters the ghost of her creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), and, with Gloria and Sasha, flees back to Barbieland while the Mattel executives pursue them (in one of the movie's many excellent blink-and-you'll-miss-it gags, two of the executives are inexplicably holding hands as they rush into the back seat of an SUV).
But - EGADS! - upon returning to Barbieland, Barbie discovers that it has been rechristened 'Kendom': Ken and his patriarchy have completely taken over, and all the other Barbies have been brainwashed into being ostensibly the women from commercials for bad domestic beer.
Barbie is understandably distraught. She takes it out on Gloria, giving her a speech that's about a half-inch away from the "Why did you even have me?!?!" bellyaching of many adolescents: "Why did you wish me into your messed-up world, with your complicated human thoughts and feelings? Barbieland was perfect before! I was perfect before!" When Barbie specifically expresses upset over the way things are changing, Gloria tells her, "Oh, honey, that's life. It's all change."
Barbie's picture-perfect childhood, where she never had to worry about anything serious or fight for her beliefs or think about death and sex and cellulite, is now kaput.
So what does Barbie do? She sticks her head in the sand! "I'm just going to sit here," she declares, "and wait and hope that one of the more leadership-oriented Barbies snaps out of it and does something about this whole mess." This is, once more, the attitude of a child - "Oh, I don't have to fix this, someone else will." Barbie is now denial about the fact that her childhood is over, and that her adolescence has begun.
Eventually, with Gloria's help, Barbie manages to snap out of her funk and go about de-programing all the other Barbies (Gloria's speech about the paradoxical expectations society has for women is friggin' brilliant). The Barbies subsequently figure out that they can manipulate the men's frail egos to such a degree that the men will fight each other. I think it's worth noting that, again, there's nothing actually sexual going on here - the Barbies aren't hinting at the possibility of anything physical, and that's not what the Kens seem to want anyway.
Still, when the Barbies and Kens all gather on the beach so the Kens can perform covers of Matchbox Twenty's "Push" and the Barbies can all pretend they give a shit, it feels slightly closer to romance than any of their interactions have previously. Once more, it's early adolescence - the vibe of this scene is not dissimilar from a sleepaway camp make-out party, but it's a very tame sleepaway camp make-out party. I was fourteen when "Push" was released, and, honestly... I always thought the song was dreck. Just, like, a prime example of everything wrong with rock music in the mid/late-'90s. Having said that, I know there are definitely bullshit machismo songs parading as "sensitive" power ballads that I did like, and I'm fairly certain I did make some poor girls listen to me play guitar and sing while I stared uncomfortably into their eyes for four-and-a-half minutes. Point being, this feels both very real and still (deliberately) chaste.
(Actually, come to think of it, there's a not-dissimilar scene in Lady Bird - only that obviously gets a lot more sexual. Those characters are high school seniors; I really don't think Barbie or Ken ever get to that age, emotionally speaking, in this movie.)
Lest there be any doubt that these aren't meant to be fully-formed adult women and men, when the Kens eventually gather on the beach for a war, that combat is presented very much as an imaginary battle being waged by little boys: They ride broomstick horses and duel with tennis rackets and have very dramatic, decidedly fake deaths (my personal favorites are two hilarious dudes behind Ken in one shot - not only are they not fighting, they are patently just doing a choreographed dance... and this is several minutes before the entire battle turns into one big choreographed dance). I've seen LARPers who are more aggressive than these dudes are - because they're not dudes, they're eleven-year-olds in dudes' bodies.
The Clash of the Kens is, of course, just a diversion so the Barbies can reinstate their Constitution and turn Kendom back into Barbieland. And Stereotypical Ken's reaction to this realization? He runs to his bedroom, buries his face in the mattress, and bawls. And the movie could end right there - again, there are directors (probably mostly men) who would have ended it there - but Gerwig don't play that. Stereotypical Barbie is further ahead in her emotional development than Stereotypical Ken, and so she does what any mature adult should do to resolve a conflict: She goes to Stereotypical Ken and she has an honest goddamn conversation with him (and yeah, she mothers him a little, but it's okay, because it feels like she's being kind, not like the movie is contradicting itself). And that conversation is about taking time to find one's authentic self ("Maybe all the things you thought made you you aren't really you").
So Barbieland is not just restored, but improved. Still, Barbie's arc would not be complete unless she left Eden and faced the real world. So that's what she does.
And thus, Barbie concludes with one of the best final lines of a movie ever written in the history of cinema, and an acknowledgement that Stereotypical Barbie has entered an epochal phase of adolescence: "I'm here to see my gynecologist."
Barbie has achieved womanhood. She has an awareness of adult concerns, and she's handling her shit, slowly but surely. And this heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-aged white male from a privileged upper-middle-class family in Manhattan's chichi West Village shouted, with too much confidence, "You go, girl!" as he sashayed out of the theater.
"Okay, you've sold me, Matt," I hear you saying, oh dear reader. "Barbie is about kids going into puberty. So what? Why would Gerwig take that approach, anyway?"
To which I reply: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Anthropomorphizing children's playthings as children makes perfect sense. The same way so many kids can relate to the idea of having a 'Weird Barbie' who got messed-up from "playing with her too hard," as Gloria puts it, a lot of kids can relate using their Barbies to play grown-up, even as they don't entirely understand what being a grown-up actually means. How many kids, do you think, have played out some kind of scenario where they know Barbie and Ken are meant to 'have sex,' even if they are completely clueless as to what that entails? The theme of adulthood impinging on childhood grows organically from the discussion of these dolls. It's one of the many things that makes Barbie more than your mere average comedy and further cements Gerwig's place as one of the best filmmakers working today.
Or maybe I'm completely wrong. What do I know? I'm just Matt.