Barbie, the controversial smash hit of the Summer of 2023, is an entertaining, but ultimately empty film about the emptiness of perfection. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the film asks us to imagine what life would be like if our identity under capitalism as consumers was taken to its logical conclusion. What if we could become what we buy?
Barbie opens with a parody of the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Since the beginning of time,” the voiceover, read by Helen Mirren, says, “as long as there have been little girls, there have been dolls.” Until recently, however, little girls have only played with baby dolls, limiting their the scope of their ambitions to motherhood, the voiceover continues. We then look up to see a giant adult female, Margot Robbie as Barbie, the very sight of whom inspires the girls to smash dolls on the rocks, freeing their minds and allowing them to imagine themselves in any career they want.
Or does she?
A little girl who plays with a baby doll to prepare herself for her future life as a mother still has a future, however limited and sexist that future may be. Some day the doll will be a real child. She never imagines herself as the doll, or even as the doll’s mother, but as the mother of her own future son or daughter. That same girl who plays with a Barbie, even before the innovations in the 1970s that allowed Barbie to have a real career as a doctor or a lawyer, imagines herself as the doll, as a piece of plastic formed into the shape of an adult woman. She commodifies herself, trades reality for perfection, a body that will grow old and die for a body made out of polyvinyl chloride.
The feminist utopia in Barbie that angered so many social media conservatives is, at very best, a stage, an artificial world where talented performers like Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, and Dua Lipa in the very briefest of cameos, can sing and dance in a never ending chorus line. No performer, however, except maybe Bruce Springsteen, wants to spend his whole life on stage, especially if he’s cast in a supporting role. Ken, played by the 43-year-old Ryan Gosling who looks as if he spends at least 6 hours a day in the gym, resents being cast as the boyfriend to Margot Robbie’s Barbie, as a member of the chorus line, one of many Kens even if he’s the lead Ken, instead of as the star in his own production. He doesn’t even get to be a real boyfriend anyway. Neither of them have genitals.
Barbie, in turn, the still gorgeous but 33-year-old Margot Robbie, is beginning to feel the anxiety most women feel in their mid-30s. Is she starting to get fat? Is she crying for no reason and making her makeup run? Is she going to die some day? Barbie’s, or to be more specific “stereotypical Barbie’s, anxiety gets so bad that after consulting “Weird Barbie,” Kate McKinnon as some kind of frumpy thirty something goth girl, she decides to make a trip to the real world, more specifically Los Angeles, to seek out the little girl who has been playing with her in a way that’s made it impossible to revel in her plastic fantastic perfection. What she finds is essentially, another Greta Gerwig movie, or, to be specific, Ladybird, a teenage girl and her mother in a contentious relationship. Sasha, the girl, is an angry “woke” tween played by Ariana Greenblatt. Gloria, her mother, played by the 39-year-old America Ferrera, is beginning to feel the same anxiety as “stereotypical Barbie.” Is her life going anywhere? Is she getting old? Is she going to die some day?
Where Barbie sees Los Angeles in all of its imperfection, for Ken the real world looks like utopia. He no longer has to hide his belief that he’s “entitled” to an important job simply by virtue of being a man. He looks like all of the white men on the dollar, five dollar, and ten dollar bills. For Barbie, getting cat called is ugly and strange. For Ken, it’s flattery. A strange woman even asks him for the time of day, which, of course, he doesn’t have, but is still pleased by the idea she thought he had something to teach her. Eventually Ken realizes he’s no more qualified for an important position in the real world than he was in Barbie Land. Male privilege in the real world is a cruel illusion. Far for being discouraged, however, he simply decides the men in the real world are “doing patriarchy wrong.” So he heads back to Barbie Land, and in Barbie’s absence, stages a rebellion that overthrows the matriarchy, and replaces the pink, female dominated hell world with the perfect fraternity, the ideal man cave, his Mojo Dojo Casa House.
Initially, brainwashed by Ken, the Barbies all seem to enjoy the new male dominated world. Stereotypical Barbie, however, disabuses them of their false consciousness, and decolonizes their minds. She organizes a counterrevolution that exploits the innate weakness of the male sex, pitting Ken against Ken, and provoking a civil war that gives the Barbies a supermajority in the Barbie Land capital that allows them to enshrine the matriarchy in power for eternity.
But having freed her sister Barbies from Ken’s reign of patriarchal terror, stereotypical Barbie is no longer happy with perfection, and escapes to the real world. She explains to Ken that he no long needs her, that he should live for himself instead. She rejoins Sasha and Gloria in Los Angeles. In the last scene, as a visit to a gynecologist confirms, she has become fully human, ready to begin her life as a doctor, lawyer, filmmaker, or even wife and mother, should that be what she eventually chooses. Like the Angel in Wim Wenders Wings of Desire, who chose love over immortality, Barbie has chosen reality over perfection, cellulite, aging and eventual death over her plastic utopia.
The problem is that by this point Barbie Land is more appealing than reality, the hilarious Ken more likeable than the glum Sasha and Gloria. Perhaps the pink matriarchal hell world isn’t so bad after all. Indeed, the ending of Barbie feels like Greta Gerwig has left the big budget fantasy of a never ending Busby Berkeley musicals of her greatest hit for the mumblecore of her youth.