The unusual yet entertaining ‘Barbie’ movie hit the big screens recently and it is a celebration of hyper-femininity and also, the lack of it
Greta Gerwig’s attempt at the first live-action Barbie movie is an absurd exploration of profound questions ranging from womanhood to consumerism. There was widespread speculation regarding what the movie would be about. The trailer gave away little, the cast was careful not to disclose too much, and Gerwig herself kept the movie’s plot tightly sealed and shrouded in mystery. Like a little girl unwrapping her first Barbie box, the audience explored the surrealist satire on the 21st of July. Yet, if the question is posed once again to the audience – “What is the Barbie movie about?” you might still receive inarticulate mumbling.
It begins with the idea: once conceptualised, what becomes of the ‘idea’? Does it really gain sentience and choose to grow? Barbie when it was conceived was an anomaly; an idea that was supremely new and glamorous. But new and glamorous ideas are not immune to the blows of time and change. Over time, the Mattel dolls and its many ambitious iterations were more closely associated with the shallow, consumerist nature of modern-day femininity. A reduction of the woman into an empty-headed object of desire.
The film is a thoughtful history of how Barbie dolls were perceived. Since perceptions are ever-evolving and never absolute, so is the ‘idea’. If a doll representing a woman were to be burdened with a real female experience, what would happen to it? If it were forced to confront the debris of its own legacy, would the Barbie survive still? What does a Barbie stand for at this time, today?
Barbie was a break from the feminine dolls that dominated the market and minds of little and only allowed fantasies of motherhood and caretaking. The movie thus begins with a nod to the cinematic equivalent of evolutionary consciousness; The Dawn of Barbie enters a wasteland populated with children passing their days with endless household chores and mothering of baby dolls. She represents a much-needed yet alien version of an independent and attractive woman unrestrained by any maternal burdens, who owns a car, a house, and 250 different job titles ranging from a lawyer to astronaut –landing on the moon four years before Neil Amstrong himself.
In the sixty years of Barbie’s existence, womanhood has transformed dramatically. There has been much hoo-ha surrounding its intention for girls everywhere. Gerwig’s Barbie has recognised that the doll has never been free of a certain anxiety – the anxiety of being a woman. She addresses this, makes fun of it, and ultimately embraces it.
Barbieland is the manifestation of a truly feminine idea that doesn't require the confusing materiality of the Real World. Between Barbieland and the Real World, there exists a space where the idea and the real are no longer separated. The Barbie movie is constructed within this epicentre. It wonders where the idea ends and the real begins, it questions the separation itself and synthesises the two.
When Barbie ventures into the Real World hoping to understand her newly discovered symptoms, she is met with sobering realities; among the violence of ogles, harassment, and law and order she realises that the revolutionary idea that conceived her and her peers in Barbieland had left all the real women behind. In the chaos that ensues, she realises one more thing; the strangeness inflicted on her previously perfect lifestyle is symptomatic of womanhood. It was infantile girlhood that kept her safe from cellulite, tears and uncontrollable thoughts of death. In her encounter with reality, Barbie experiences what can most easily be recognised as puberty. Till this point, she remains as a projection of girlhood, and not quite a woman; her anxiety about not being pretty anymore, her sense of loss when Barbieland is corrupted, learning how to cry, recognising beauty in old age, and her existential crisis which leaves her feeling odd and un-belonging – all of these are Barbie’s inevitable initiation into becoming a real woman. Her life as a doll slowly begins to close its doors behind her.
Even as a doll, Gerwig never deprives Barbie of intelligence; she is more than capable of identifying double entendre despite her imposed innocence, she refuses to take Ken with her to the Real World because it will slow her down, and she intuitively knows that the executives at Mattel are not her friends and makes a run for it. Rationality is the dimension of womanhood many do not allow Barbie to possess, but what Gerwig weaves quite naturally into the character.
Despite trying to separate Barbie, the idea, from the Real World, it proves impossible to do so because the idea is a product of reality itself. Gerwig intends the audience to see how the burden of womanhood can weigh in a doll simply representing women. Ideas can defy ownership and control and take a life of its own. When repudiated by a sure-footed teenager about the debris of her legacy, Barbie painfully understands how she was complacent in killing the feminist dream. The ‘great idea’ that she personified, was at once both progressive and regressive. At that moment, she is just as tortured as the real woman.
The movie conveys this complicated and dialectical reality through very self-aware meta-commentary that comes and goes. The film is careful never to lull you in with its stylistically comforting palettes and performative quality – it consistently jolts you awake at every turn with a quirky comment about its ironic casting or a frustrating monologue elaborating on the contradictions of female existence. At times, the movie remains wilfully naïve precisely because of this binary between progressivity and regressivity. It is a thoughtful caricature of how much cultural significance a pretty doll can have on the self-image of women.
The binary can also be identified in the portrayal of Barbieland– a universe representing the ultimate feminine fantasy, where responsibilities and activities are undeniably better off in the hands of women and where men reside in the shadows due to lack of utility. Yet, everything about Barbieland betrays an evident artificiality, since it is ultimately a mature fantasy envisioned by children. The duality between the artificial and the authentic are at times indistinguishable at Barbieland, perhaps symbolising the nature of modern femininity itself- one that values the real and natural but is more comfortable with the artificial and the imposed.
While speaking of duality, we must talk about Ken; his exploration of ‘the self’ is riddled with a similar paradox. Ken has never been a concern to anyone in both worlds. Mattel executives don’t believe his waywardness is a threat, Barbie thinks of Ken’s existence in Barbieland as superfluous and even Ken recognises his erasure. (“Anywhere else I’d be a ten”, he says). Ken’s crisis is that he has always been an extension of Barbie. He is an accessory and an afterthought. One could make the argument that Ken’s treatment is the closest to that of the gendered oppression women face. Gerwig masterfully reverses the roles to make a subtle point. After years of neglect and a life resigned to the shadows in Barbieland, Ken feels seen in the Real World – the effortless visibility provided to men for no good reason. He crumbles at this dichotomy and asks Barbie the poignant question: “who am I without you?”
Ken's identity is deeply wrapped within Barbie’s, such as Barbie’s identity is deeply wrapped within those of real women. Gerwig unravels the complexity of relative identity for both men and women; of being defined in relation to one another and never independently.
Ultimately, Gerwig’s intention is to not simply humanise Barbie or feminise Ken, but to portray the complexity of identity within the discord of culture, society, consumerism, time and space. She drives it home that if Barbie is a doctor, an engineer, a teacher and a mother, she must also endure despair, loneliness, insecurity, and suicidal ideation because that is womanhood, too. Barbie is no longer a protected idea enclosed in a plastic box, safe from the distresses of female bodies. She was created in their image and hence, she must live as them, with their imperfections and anxieties.
Barbie is ironically humanistic and soulful and leaves one with introspective wonder. It embraces its most characteristic narrative tool –the binary – and somehow retains its humour with the serious, smart as well as silly, thoughtful as well as random and ultimately, reformist as well as conformist.