Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the Barbie movie.
Follow the Juicy Subtext
Greta Gerwig checks all the boxes needed to earn a California liberal’s endorsement of Barbie: a diverse cast which includes a black woman President and a trans woman (without fanfare and as a matter of course); an ironic critique of Barbie as a tool of capitalist consumerism and sexist stereotypes; the defeat of the Big Bad Patriarchy which proves to be not so much evil as inept and immature; and a climactic feminist protest of sheer exasperation that made many a white-collar working mother reach for the tissues. Gerwig proved her liberal bona fides, and many conservatives have pegged Barbie as a work of misandry, Woke eye candy, and LibFem agitprop.
But all of this in-your-face signaling of Hollywood dogma can easily obscure a much more interesting and subversive meaning (and no, talking about “the patriarchy” isn’t subversive anymore, it’s the new orthodoxy). When it comes to girl talk—and Barbie is nothing if not nostalgic girl talk—there’s text and there’s subtext. Subtext is where the real action is: we ladies are masters of saying one thing while meaning a whole lot more. Underneath Barbie’s hot pink text of (a rather tired) third-wave feminism, there’s a juicy subtext that values female embodied experience—a Pinocchio-like story in which a plastic doll becomes a real woman. Barbie not only embraces cellulite, learns to cry, smiles at old age, and accepts the reality of death: she gets a vagina. Sorrow and a sexed body go hand in hand for “Barbara” (as she is later christened), when she becomes in real life the adult human female daughter of Ruth Handler, the maker of the first Barbie Doll.
The movie begins with a scene of little girls dashing their baby dolls’ heads to smithereens upon a rock in favor of the sparkling promise of Barbie, but it ends with Barbara heading breathlessly to the gynecologist’s office for a first exam of her sexual and reproductive organs—no longer sterile plastic but full of procreative potential. Barbie has wearied of endless girls’ nights in Femtopia and decides that a vision of a fleshy life, with all of its inherent suffering, is actually what she is made for. She is no longer content to exist as a permanently high-heeled simulacrum.
If the final scene proves the theme, then plastic is passé and real female anatomy with its maternal potential looks promising (with Barbara now in Birkenstocks of course, because she’s got both feet solidly on the ground). What would those little girls of the opening sequence think if they could see Barbie now? Every girl who once wished she could be Barbie in all of her glorious, accessorized perfection would be shocked to learn that Barbie wants to be just like you. Or rather, just like your mom.
Barbie’s Best Joke
Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland, a seeming utopia of bottomless wardrobes, girlboss careers, beach days, girls’ nights, a government of, by, and for The Ladies, and a cadre of superfluous Kens. But when Barbie’s dream life is disturbed by thoughts of death, the laws of physics, and signs of aging, she visits Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) in the hopes of finding relief and guidance.
Instead, she is offered the choice between going back to her regular life or learning the truth about the universe by entering “the Real World.” She immediately picks the life she knows, the paradise of the puella aeterna. “No, let’s do a redo,” Weird Barbie insists, like any good mother would to a scared daughter. “You have to want to know, okay? Do it again.” And so, Barbie’s changing body—with its bumbling flat feet and increasing gravity—drags her forward into her own heroine’s journey. “You’re gonna start getting sad and mushy and complicated,” Weird Barbie warns her (in a pretty decent description of female puberty). So Barbie drives her pink Corvette off into the sunset with a codependent Ken (Ryan Gosling) hiding in the backseat.
Everyone knows that the best grown-up joke about Barbie and Ken is that they have no genitals, just a formless and functionless plastic hump between their legs. The Barbie movie takes this joke and runs with it (or rather, rollerblades with it) in one of its smartest scenes. Barbie and Ken have entered the Real World and are skating their way down Venice Beach when a group of male construction workers begins cat-calling. With a straight face, Barbie tells them that she doesn’t have a vagina and Ken doesn’t have a penis—obviously assuming that once the men realize they’re genital-free, the harassment will stop, because sexlessness means you’re safe (right?).
Girls’ Worst Nightmare
It’s impossible in this current moment to see this scene in which Barbie is sexually harassed verbally and physically and not recognize in it the tempting escape hatch from femaleness exemplified in the transgender medicalization of tween and teen girls. We can’t say what was going through Gerwig’s mind when she wrote that scene, but we sure know how it landed. According to gender researcher Eliza Mondegreen, “If you are female, you live your entire life in the shadow of your reproductive potentiality,” a potentiality which comes with a set of vulnerabilities—not only to male harassment and sexual violence, but to the increase in negative emotion associated with pubertal maturation, and to the risks of pregnancy and the dependency involved in childbearing.
“You can’t hurt me—I’m not really a girl even if you think I look like one,” is a Barbie-like fantasy that some young women are understandably drawn to. “I was so validated at first when I became mutilated, and boys and men stopped touching me,” writes Prisha, a young lesbian with a history of sexual abuse and multiple mental health problems who deeply regrets her transition and feels betrayed by her healthcare providers who facilitated the fantasy escape. Becoming a boy or a man is not a genuine option for a girl feeling sexually threatened, inadequate to the demands of maturation, objectified by our porn-saturated culture, or uncomfortable with her sexual orientation.
Such a girl can attempt to de-sex herself, to un-woman herself, to change her outfits and hair and accessories, to surgically remove her breasts, to grow some facial hair, to look a little more like Ken and a little less like Barbie, but it’s still playing a costly game of dress-up instead of growing up into a reality that sometimes hurts. When a girl grows up, she stops playing with dolls—she doesn’t make herself into one, and the adults responsible for her should trust their instincts and protect her from self-harm.
Barbie Is an Idea, But Barbara Is a Woman
Barbie is a plastic doll that holds all the projections and dreams of girlhood about womanhood. She is a concept, an imagined stereotype of sex, quite literally dubbed “Stereotypical Barbie.” She is not an individual (each doll has the same name) but rather an iteration on a desexualized (but still feminine) gender ideal. Barbie’s femininity is both forever and fashionable—she’s always pretty, but her career dreams are always shattering the newest glass ceiling. Barbie is thus whoever we need her to be; she’s a reliable and aspirational avatar of gender (sex difference in culture), created long before academia reformulated gender as a facet of personal identity and social media insisted everyone under thirty select a gender and a matching set of pronouns.
What Barbie most decidedly is not (until the final scene) is an avatar of sex. Sex means genitals, genitals mean generation, and generation happens because we as individuals die, while Life carries on. There’s a straight line from sex and procreation to mortality—from birth to death. Sex also means particularity and individuality: this real woman has these specific genes, which she got from her parents who had sex and conceived her, as did their parents, and on and on back through a whole family tree of particular pairs of men and women. Sex is generative, and it embeds people in a genealogy, in a time and a place.
But “gender,” as it is so often used today, loosely and nigh-indefinably, floats far above all these fleshy and time-bound limitations. “Gender” is unmoored from sex, a pure concept to be played with in Barbieland by girls too young to imagine actual sexual intercourse, and played with on Tumblr by just-barely-sexually-awakened girls too sickened by early porn exposure to imagine womanhood as a happy ending. What better way to fend off existential dread and the demands of maturation than to block the development of those pesky sex organs with a life of their own, always threatening to force you into an identity that’s not an idea but a very fleshy fact?
“Humans only have one kind of ending, but ideas live forever.” The trailer highlights this line from the film as if it was obvious that Barbie would choose to remain an eternal idea in the minds of little girls and the women they become. But that’s not what the movie itself reveals. Barbie chooses the human ending: sexual maturity, followed by aging and death. The Barbie movie is the reverse of that Salvador Dali-esque portrait of the un-woman above. She starts out as a neutered, plastic, non-sexed feminine stereotype that is purely conceptual, and by the end she gains real functioning female genitalia.
The movie symbolizes this transformation by showing that Barbie’s original existence is dry and lacks the “water of life.” In Barbieland, the ocean is fake, the cups and milk cartons are empty, no water comes out of the shower, and Barbie never cries. But Barbie gets increasingly “juicy” as the story progresses. She spills water on herself, learns to drink tea, learns to cry (“First I got one tear and then I got a whole bunch.”), and she eventually accepts the whole inner wet-works of embodied womanhood.
What some young women in our culture are fleeing from, Barbie consciously chooses to step into, with tears, with no illusions, and with an acceptance of her own mortality. Instead of a flight from being female, instead of a rejection of the body, Barbie says “yes” to real life that is sexed, all the way down. That’s why Barbie becomes “Barbara,” a particular individual woman instead of a concept. That’s why she gets a last name, “Handler,” placing her in a family tree with parents. That’s why she gets a vagina and a uterus, as she enters the stream of mothers prior to her, embracing her own maternal potential.
But Barbie was only able to walk into this concrete embodied womanhood with the help of three mother figures. For a doll that appears to “have it all,” the one thing she lacks is a mother, someone to guide her out of her static immaturity and into a changing future.
Pretty Uncomfortable, and Yet Marvelous
The first mother figure Stereotypical Barbie encounters is Weird Barbie, who basically forces her out into the Real World even though she’s anxious about it. When Barbie begins to feel overwhelmed by rejection and confusion, she encounters an old woman on a park bench. Gerwig considers this brief scene between them to be the heart of the movie: when the powers that be asked her to cut it, she said, “If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.” A tearful Barbie sees an elderly woman for the first time in her life (since everyone in Barbieland is forever young). Surprisingly, she’s not horrified by old age or scared of it. “You’re beautiful,” Barbie gasps with gentleness and tears, as the old woman laughs, “I know it.”
She is old and happy, which means she is wise, which implies she has cultivated virtue. Barbie is given a vision of a womanly future that is self-accepting without being self-consumed, that is beautiful with wrinkles and gray hair and sagging skin, rather than “beautiful” through Botox, plastic surgery, and hair dye (which is the Barbiefication of real women). Having been pushed into the Real World by Weird Barbie’s insistence, she’s now lured further in by seeing up-close the culmination of the human life cycle and finding it (finding her) lovely after all.
Barbie finds her most transformative mother figure in the Mattel building as she’s fleeing male executives eager to put her back into her box. She stumbles across a room—a cozy kitchen—in which the ghost of the original Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), resides. Ruth gives Barbie a cup of tea, a listening ear, and good advice. “Being a human can be pretty uncomfortable,” Ruth says with a wrinkly and knowing smile, “and isn’t that marvelous?”
Ruth reappears near the film’s close, to offer Barbie once again the choice between fantasy and reality, between plastic and flesh, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and sexual knowledge. Ruth says, “take my hands, close your eyes, now feel.” She gives Barbie a vision of what it is to be human: it’s all about relationships, with women, with men, with your children. It’s living, laughing, playing, crying. It’s family and friends and aging and, eventually, death. It’s feeling—but not feeling as self-directed, identitarian, hopelessly politicized navel-gazing: it’s feeling as an embodied, relational existence. The pains are real but so are the joys. Barbara’s choice becomes obvious in the movie’s mic drop final moment: “I’m here to see my gynecologist.”
Hot Virtue: The Meaning of the Pride and Prejudice Easter Egg
While most of the movie’s romantic tension surrounds Barbie and Ken as “Boyfriend-Girlfriend,” we think the movie nods to the reality of what the vast majority of women really want by flashing a scene from the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) onto the screen as the characters imagine what an “Ordinary Barbie” might be like. Amongst other hilarious dolls in the new line-up, there’s “Chronically Depressed Barbie,” who not only cries all the time, but stays in bed watching Pride and Prejudice on repeat. This thirty-second Easter Egg is loaded with meaning: it’s a giant flag planted in the name of heterosexual marriage, the ideal mate-choice scenario, in which a woman is wooed and won into marriage and sexual union in the context of admiration, loyalty, love, and sacrificial devotion. It’s a story of “hot virtue,” in which a mutual confession of sin (his pride and her prejudice) precedes a mutual confession of love. It’s virtue as the prerequisite for intimacy.
We expect that most women in the theater watching with us have seen Pride and Prejudice at some point, perhaps multiple times (we certainly have)—and not out of depression but out of desire and delight. That brief clip was shorthand for traditional “heteronormativity” (cue mass Barbie gag for the coining of this unnecessary word), which has become increasingly suspect in a culture eager to affirm kinks of all kinds and worried that marriage perpetuates female oppression. Barbie thus nods to the Prince Charming story that little girls love, and that most women still love too, even though third-wave feminism scolds us for being so “backwards.”
And as much as we were originally hoping that Barbie and Ken might end up together, it’s clear why Barbie has to leave him behind: she wants to be a real woman with all the parts, while Ken—though “Kenough” on his own—is merely a toy. He still acts like a little boy and lacks (ahem) manhood. While Ken is cute, he’s neither virtuous nor hot. Women don’t want to be the Long Term, Long Distance, Low Commitment, Casual Girlfriend of a Ken. Most real women would rather be the wife of a real man.
Gray Is the New Pink
We realized in the car on our way home from the theater that the Barbie movie is one giant middle finger to transhumanism. It’s about how it is so much better to have sexual desire and sexual function than the opposite, despite the costs. Barbie reveals that sex is not an idea, it’s a physical fact with far-reaching implications, and that it’s ultimately naive to treat the human body like an idea, like a doll. So no, Virginia, it’s not better to be a gorgeous, sexless, ageless doll with a smooth bottom line than it is to be a fleshy female in a finite world with a life cycle and a menstrual cycle, bound by the laws of gravity and the inevitable pressures, disappointments, and limits of being human.
We think Barbie is the most pro-life, pro-vagina, pro-embodiment movie to come out of Hollywood in quite some time. And this is in spite of its over-the-top Hollywood trappings and the lame side story about “the patriarchy”—a story which amounts to, we feel, little more than the childish complaint that “boys have cooties.” It is the kind of sneer one expects from little girls who play with dolls, who neither like nor understand boys. Barbie satirizes both the matriarchy and the patriarchy as juvenile fantasies. Men shouldn’t waste their time being offended by it, because it’s a feeling, a prejudice, a caricature—not an argument. (No Real Men were impugned in the filming of this movie.)
Barbie is the story of a woman “leaning in”—not to the ideal of professional success, but to the real of relational embodiment that is costly. It’s an incarnation story. The Messiah “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:2-3). Barbie’s eventual willingness to embrace the loss of physical beauty, the likelihood of not being liked, the inevitability of tears, and the pain that comes from loving others and bearing their burdens—that’s not just feminine (nor is it just human): it’s divine.
Barbie’s incarnational message shows the goodness of being female and the beauty of growing old. It’s made by and for middle-aged women who need a laugh, and who need a reminder that life is good, that the trade-offs of motherhood are worth it, and that it’s okay to look old when in fact you are old. Gray is the new pink.
And if you’re anywhere upwards of thirty or forty or more (like we are), then it’s on us to give younger women a vision of seasoned inner beauty and contentment, and to provide those necessary nudges that help them face the real world. Such mothering, while it can include making space for the articulation of female frustrations (like Gloria’s monologue), should encourage women to re-examine the logic of the pain-fueled protest that “it is literally impossible to be a woman.” Yes, being a woman can feel sad, mushy, complicated, and uncomfortable, but to call it impossible is to give in to a view of womanhood as an achievement or a performance. But womanhood is neither: it is an embodied given.
Young women need hope just as much as they need sympathy; we believe that hope can be kindled by witnessing models of courage, virtue, connection, and personal agency in a world of inevitable suffering and limitations. Young women need help to see, like Barbie eventually did, what they are made for, and that even if life is tragic, it’s still glorious.