A portrait of Herland author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Barry and Marble.
Sometime in 1913 or 1914, three explorers crash on a mountain and discover “Herland”—a hidden civilization of women.
The novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagines that Herland had once been a community of slave-holding, polygamous people. After they lost all their men to war, the women developed the ability to reproduce without men. These women are strong, healthy, peaceful, educated, wise, technologically advanced, and do everything collaboratively.
The three stranded explorers are all men. The women of Herland capture them.
After isolating them to ensure they aren’t dangerous, the citizens of Herland allow Van, Jeff, and Terry to enter Herland as long as they are led by guides, and to interact with its inhabitants while under surveillance. Eventually, all three men fall in love with, and choose to marry their guides, Ellador, Celis, and Alima.
But to the husbands’ surprise, the women they have married don’t change a thing about their way of life: the wives of Herland expect their husbands to accept that they are in charge of their own destiny.
Van and Jeff are able to adjust, but not Terry, who is aggressive and stubbornly holds on to the way things are in his patriarchal world. In an effort to prove that all women are by nature desirous of being dominated by a man, he assaults his wife, Alima. “Terry put in practice his pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered,” writes Perkins Gilman, “and by sheer brute force, in all the pride and passion of his intense masculinity, he tried to master this woman.”
The citizens of Herland immediately expel Terry, and Van feels obliged to go with him. Van’s wife, Ellador, decides to accompany him so she can study the rest of the world. Their journey is taken up in With Her in Ourland, the final novel in the Herland trilogy.
Europe is in the midst of the First World War. Terry tells Ellador that to make war is human nature. Ellador retorts that if only men engage in it, if there are no women soldiers, then it must only be in men’s nature, not human nature.
Ellador questions all the men she meets on their journey, eager to learn. Her enthusiasm comes across as childish first. “The freshness of mind of these Herland women concealed their intellectual power,” remarks the narrator. “We are so used to seeing our learned men cold and solemn, holding themselves above all the ‘enthusiasm of youth’ that it is hard for us to associate a high degree of wisdom and intellectual power with vivid interests in immediate events.”
Ellador’s curiosity turns to horror, however, when she witnesses what the war has done to people: “This world is not civilized, not human. It is worse than the humble savagery below our mountains.” She locks herself in her room, collapses, calls for her mother, and is only coaxed back to life by her husband’s trust.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie follows a strikingly similar story line. Like Herland, “Barbie Land” is a place where women go about their business, without being tied to a man’s choices or values. The women are highly successful at all human endeavors, they have a government that works and that they are happy with. They are proud of each other, and everything they do is collaborative. And, like the women of Herland, they do all of this with childlike (or maybe doll-like) enthusiasm.
There are men in this land, but they are pretty much nonentities. They don’t have jobs (Ryan Gosling’s Ken describes his work as “just beach”) or skills, they don’t join the evening parties, which are always “girls’ night.” Because they don’t share the Barbies’ homes, it’s a mystery where they spend their nights. They might as well not be there.
But when Margot Robbie’s Barbie visits the “Real World,” she immediately discovers patriarchy, which feels wrong and unpleasant to her. But it presents an alluring opportunity for Ken.
So while Barbie stays to try and help fix the Real World, Ken goes back and tries to install patriarchy (which he understands as “men and horses in charge”) in Barbie Land. When Barbie returns to Barbie Land and finds it has become as male dominated as the Real World, like Ellador, she experiences a mental breakdown. Her Real World friends Gloria and Sasha help bring her out of it, so she can start fixing things.
Ken probably has more of an excuse to try and change Barbie Land than Terry had to try and break his wife’s will. After all, Ken has to live in Barbie Land, and he naturally yearns for a greater degree of authority and autonomy, even if the Barbies are great at running things.
At the end of the film, Robbie’s Barbie concedes to Ken that “not every night has to be girls’ night.” But Ken’s attempt not just to change Barbie Land but to impose patriarchy is as inexcusable as Terry’s rape of his wife.
What is perhaps most striking in both stories is the discovery that the Real World and Ourland are both barbaric places dominated by murderous men.
In Perkins Gilman’s fiction, better worlds are out there. The first book of the trilogy, Moving the Mountain, tells the story of an explorer, lost for several decades, returning to America to find it a feminist and socialist utopia, with people living sensible, peaceful and happy lives, and men and women perfectly equal.
Barbie the movie doesn’t give us such a happy ending. Barbie Land turns back to what it was, with the vague promise of some more consideration for the Kens, and Robbie’s Barbie opts to become human, because she wants to discover a greater range of emotions.
But will Robbie’s Barbie become the kind of modern human being who is egotistical and who acts only selfishly? Probably. Collective action works well in Barbie Land, but not so much in the United States of America, where one has to worry about things like taxes and doctor’s appointments—which is where the movie ends.
Still, by contrasting the world as we know it with Barbie Land’s utopia for young women, Gerwig suggests another way of life is possible.
So thank god for all the pink. It is probably saving millions of girls from giving up on enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which they deserve just as fully as the white men who drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Sandrine Bergès is professor of philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. She is the author of Liberty in Their Names, Women Philosophers of the French Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2022) and Olympe de Gouges (Cambridge University Press, 2022).