Image credit: Paloma Velasco
I never had a Barbie, but Greta Gerwig has given Barbie some Protean powers that put her on my radar. Supposedly, Barbie can wear anything, and therefore be anything. This was true of mannequins and fashion models before her, but Barbie endeavors to outstrip them in her uncanny anthropomorphism. Immediate objections no doubt include that Barbie’s first incarnation was as a skinny white girl. But there is also the fact that she is a doll, and therefore forever denied the awkward self-consciousness that makes possible both ambition and disappointment.
For Barbie, it is her outfits that carry the superpowers of all her degrees and professions. Barbie herself does not have to bother with becoming or change, since she never was a child, never had a child, and never went to school. The Barbie movie makes clear that she has never been to the gynecologist either. How could she when she has no genitalia? Maybe this is related to the fact that she has no sexual interest in anyone, especially not Ken. Nor does Barbie feel the male gaze. She cannot grasp the possibility of the patriarchy because she lives in her own inverted version of it. In a plastic dreamhouse, girl power looks as unjustified as boy power. There is only Barbie in the Barbie world. No one else.
So, Barbie is, obviously, not a real person. She is not a woman either, but rather, as Hesiod said of Pandora, the “look” of a woman. Pinocchio and Small Wonder had similar plotlines: Barbie must discover that she is missing a soul. When her creator, Ruth Handler, finally grants her one, no other doll from Barbie Land tries to follow in her footsteps. The success of the movie is not built on the desirability of a humdrum life but rather on the serotonin sequins of the Barbie life.
In the process of Barbie’s coming to realize that she prefers to be the more grounded “Barbara,” Ken goes on a “smash the matriarchy” rampage and the conclusion hints that the truly ideal world would operate without reference to gender—although it is the Barbies who have figured this out. But the real question of the movie is why a doll would ever want a soul in the first place. This is the same as the question of why a god would ever want to have anything to do with humans, and it is likewise the issue behind the thrill of divine power: Can an invincible life be meaningful?
For many decades, criticism of Barbie had made her seem like a weapon of mass destruction (the playful Oppenheimer parallels are more than coincidental here). Barbie was a caustic ideal that prevented women from aspiring beyond prejudices and stereotypes. The Barbie movie tries to turn the tables on this. It offers “Depression Barbie,” who has smeared mascara, cries all day in her sweatpants, and rewatches the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice; “Weird Barbie,” whose legs are eternally akimbo; “Cellulite Barbie,” self-explanatory; “Thoughts-of-Death Barbie,” a close relative of depression Barbie; and, maybe the most disturbing, “Ordinary Barbie.”
Ordinary Barbie is a species of girl-next-door Barbie, sort of like what Skipper was probably supposed to be when Mattel made her average height and forced her to do run-of-the-mill tasks like babysit. In the film and like the film, Ordinary Barbie is half a genuine proposal and half a Mattel marketing scheme, designed to represent that it’s okay to just be okay. Ordinary Barbie says, “Don’t worry, just be who you are and never aspire to be anything glamorous or conventionally successful.” Ordinary Barbie is perfectly imperfect, fine as is, even as an anxious basket case. She probably owns a pair of Bernie Sanders’s mittens. At the end of the movie, previously ideal Barbie dares to become ordinary when she willingly accepts flat feet and Birkenstocks.
Reality TV, of course, played this trump card long ago; it manufactured shiny celebrities out of flip-flop-wearing existences. It did not end well for American politics. Nor does history have any shortage of sinister idolizations of the common. When the character Barbie makes her way into a real-world high school, an emo teenager immediately identifies her as a “fascist.”
No matter how ordinary Barbie looks, no matter how much she seems just like you, she is still a doll, which is to say a fetishization of the human, an unerotic puppet into whose welded jaws children (and adults) profess their hopes and dreams. Outside of the movie, Mattel’s latest sales campaign is the creation of a rainbow of individualistic Barbies that mirror their particular owners, just as Facebook and Instagram allow you to play dress up with your own avatar. While, to me, it does not seem obvious that children are seeking in toys the exact reflections of their selves (even if this provides a comforting image of controlled “play” to their cynical adult parents), difficulties swiftly arise with Barbie’s professed freedom of expression.
How free is Barbie to be anything she wants? Where are Trucker Barbie, Ugly Barbie, and, as Agnes Callard has noticed, Philosopher Barbie? Weird Barbie is a nod in that direction, but, again, unfortunately, Barbie’s freedom is limited to what can sell, which puts a cloud of doom over her ability to signify liberation. In the faux Barbie world of faux liberation, free expression means no money, no sex, no ogling, no oppression, no anxiety—and, importantly, no meaning. Barbie must remain chronically unsympathetic, unable to imagine the relations between things as anything other than replicas of herself. Who would want to live in this tragic-comic world?
At the moment, the answer is: billions of people. Reality Barbie is one of those fictions that needs Barbie qua Barbie to make sense: you want the preciousness of life but with all the campy pool floats that cushion you from thoughts of death. Yet even while the rejection of the doll world has to be grounded in the belief of its existence, the Neoplatonic separation of abstraction from reality makes Barbie’s choice inevitably singular. There is no going back for the fallen Barbie; in her fallenness she has become a new ideal, reborn as a meme in Jesus shoes.
Here is my reading of the movie in a nutshell: human beings invent gods to gain a sense of vicarious control over their lives, then forsake the very same gods by making them envy the souls that humans have. It is the rehearsal of a projection and rejection of humanness that taunts us like artificial intelligence.
The fact that Barbie is so absurdly untuned to death is what at first makes her look like a real champion. Once painted as a brainless moron, Barbie is suddenly akin to the Olympian gods, who are also happy-go-lucky simpletons. They, too, can only behave as a mockery of their mortal counterparts; they drink, eat, sleep, fall in love, and get hurt, but reap none of the human benefits or weaknesses. To them, life and death must be a joke. The Olympians tamper with mortal lives just for fun or out of boredom.
From their point of view, this seems a little pathetic. When gods deign to grace the human realm they turn into buffoons on rollerblades, weakened shades of their otherwise fluorescent selves. For a human being acting like a doll, on the other hand, buffoons on rollerblades are equivalent to flawless archetypes. What if you could live life without any risk? As a once rejected idol, Barbie freshly arrives as an ironic doll prophet, like some sort of bizarre version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Commentators on the movie have dubbed this attitude “bimbo feminism.”
Bimbo feminism has been around since the 1990s, when sadness was radical and everyone wanted to look distraught. Then Cher Horowitz reminded us that you can be fashionable and ditzy while also being formidable and independent. Elle Woods and maybe in some sense Mary Poppins are even better examples. All were femme protagonists who “took back” the look of women from the talons of society, while at the same time demonstrating the moxie of autonomous women who do all the things they’re told they can’t, and more.
To Simone de Beauvoir’s old school insistence that clothes don’t matter, bimbo feminists say whatever, in a valley girl accent. They are so over it. Women can do anything: totally. The world controls what women do and say: as if! Plus, as a doll, Barbie is androgynous, which means she is much more like the image of god than any mortal binary. That bimbo means “baby” makes its feminist appropriation seem all the more suitable. With the roar of an added r, Barbie’s power lies in her having popped out fully adult. This is the hyperfeminine-previously-anti-feminist ideal embraced as unabashed girl power. A critique comes in the movie, when the same emo teenager refers to Barbie in her newfound feminism as “White Savior Barbie.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling’s post-ironic Ken must claw away from his fate as Barbie’s homeless sidekick. Yet, like Ordinary Barbie, it doesn’t seem at all clear that Ken is really enough as just Ken. The fad has not been to attend a viewing of this movie as an ordinary person whose superhero power consists in getting pap smears, but rather, dressed in head-to-toe pink, ascending to larger-than-life doll status, breaking the stereotype while embodying it, like the Kubrick scene at the start of the movie, in which a giant Barbie doll compels a group of children to crush their baby dolls and bow down before her magnitude.
Do human-created gods decide to turn back into humans when they realize their deification exiles them to doll land? Maybe. But imagining gods can become human reinvents the gods as impossibilities. This is the spirit in which kids play with dolls, and also the spirit in which adults make mistakes. So Oedipus realized much too late that the playground of fate was uncrackable.
What happens when a doll suddenly says to itself, “I am a doll”? Is this position human or divine? In Aristophanes’s Clouds Socrates is portrayed as a confident purveyor of nonsense, which he peddles to his various disciples. The basis of his ludicrous theories seems to be that humans live in an insignificant dollhouse upon which they spuriously bestow meaning. They think, for example, that thunder is Zeus, when it is in reality just like the fart of a gnat. It doesn’t take long for one of Socrates’s students to burn his school down.
Does meaningless play always evoke thoughts of death—the fear that we are merely the playthings of some hollow chance? No wonder dolls and philosophers freak us out.
Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at The New School for Social Research and author of Fashion | Sense (Bloomsbury, 2022) and Thinking of Death in Plato’s Euthydemus (Oxford, 2022).