Warning: This post contains spoilers.
What did you think of the Barbie movie?
I already wanted to see it, but the passion and commentary it has inspired – with fans making an event of it by dressing in pink and posting thrilled photos on social media, the hot takes that keep rolling in – really piqued my curiosity.
So, I watched it. And I loved it. It was a lot of fun, but also so dense with ideas that I have found myself thinking about ever since.
What was it saying?
Here’s what I think. It is a movie about growing up: the process of evolving from make-believe to real, child to adult, simple to complex, assigned values to self-discovered ones.
It’s the path every major character in the movie travels. It’s the path we all travel. What can the Barbie movie teach us about that journey?
Make-believe to Real. Child to Adult
The story begins with the residents of Barbieland stuck in adolescence. Despite their mature-looking bodies, they live in an asexual world of make-believe and innocence.
What’s compelling about Barbieland is it’s topsy-turvy: the girls are in charge (as they are when girls “play Barbies”) and are the protagonists of this world, while the boys are the supporting characters.
The action starts when Barbie is surprised by her feet losing their made-for-high-heels curve, cellulite on her thigh, and thoughts of death. She learns that these disturbances originate in the distress of the child who loves her. So, she leaves Barbieland to find the child and correct the problem, so that everything can go back to normal.
But there never is any going back, is there? You can’t unsee what you have seen, un- know, or un-grow.
On Barbie’s journey into the real world to find the girl – the mother, it turned out – who loved her, there were many more discoveries: patriarchy, misogyny, objectification, and cynicism. She discovered a mother who was tired of contorting herself and her body into a shape pleasing to men (symbolized by Barbie’s flat feet and cellulite) and wanting more out of life (thoughts of death).
It may look like a tragic loss of innocence, an exile from Eden. But it’s also the beginning of adventure for Barbie. Barbieland is static, unreal, low stakes – a haven for a child, but boring for an adult.
Simple to complex.
The matriarchy in Barbieland wasn’t a real paradise. Well, it wasn’t real, because there was no food, no liquids, no beach, and no genitals (it comes up). But it also wasn’t a paradise because it was so unsatisfying to Ken. It was always the Barbies who had jobs, costumes, Dream Houses, and cars. Ken had nothing to do.
Barbieland inverted the Feminine Mystique and made Ken, not Barbie, suffer from “the problem that has no name,” and ask the “silent question: is this all?” The result was rebellion. Ken tried to pull the whole thing down.
We don’t free ourselves by replacing one form of oppression with another. We live with the complexity of everyone in Barbieland having their own thoughts, desires, and values. We work it out.
Assigned values to self-discovered ones.
This story doesn’t have the classic comedy ending, where the leads fall in love and live happily ever after. It ends with Barbie going to the gynecologist and Ken being on his own.
I don’t think Ken was actually in love with Barbie. I think he wanted to feel real. Being seen and loved by Barbie was an obvious way to feel real that seemed within reach, but it wasn’t. He also wanted to grow up – to take things to the next level with Barbie – and to have a purpose. But in the end, he couldn’t use Barbie for that. He had to do it himself.
As for Barbie, her trip to the gynecologist speaks volumes. First, it tells us she got genitals, so she’s no longer make-believe; she’s real. It also strikes me as a kind of puberty, going from adolescent innocence to empowered adulthood. Going alone into the gynecologist – without a partner and without a mother – also suggests a woman in charge of her body and her destiny.
Romantic love isn’t the prize here. Growing up is. That doesn’t mean that romantic love isn’t a prize. It just wasn’t what Barbie wanted. She may have been assigned a partner in Ken, but she chose independence instead.
The Universal Story
Leaving Eden. Having an adventure. Growing up. They are classic themes that compel us every time because that story is the universal story – our story.
I think I’ll go watch it again.
How about you? What did you think of the movie? Is there something my analysis left out or got wrong? Let me know!