human becomes her: the apocalypse of Barbie
After all, we're not dead–we're just having an existential crisis!
Walking into a car rental agency, I caught a conversation between the ladies at the counter mid-sentence: “—and when she becomes human—”
“Who’s becoming human that wasn’t before?” I asked, puzzled, as they both turned to face me.
“Barbie! Have you seen it?”
I had seen it. And this was the fourth conversation (in as many days) that I’d stumbled into with people who really wanted to talk about Barbie.
The past year, I’ve been to the theater roughly once every two months, and I’ve never seen so many showings of a single film sold out. As many have noted, it’s been a long time since such a (seemingly) universal pop culture phenomenon. And since Barbie is an original film (and not a sequel, prequel, or remake), its success is a much-needed breath of fresh air for the flagging film industry.
Much has been said about Barbie. Indeed, if your main threads of interest lie at the place where popular culture and social dilemmas cross (like mine), it might seem like the only thing anyone is talking about—women and men, high-brow and low-brow commentators, viewers of good faith, bad faith, and no faith alike.
I’m no film expert, and as much as I love movies, I wouldn’t consider myself a cinephile. (I’m just a guy who overthinks things.) The problem with analyzing Barbie is that, in my humble opinion, there are few parameters by which to judge it appropriately. Despite that, I went into the theater fully intending to watch analytically.
Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig, and Ken Gosling are making a live-action film about a plastic toy doll. The very idea seems conceited. How exactly will they pull this off? I don’t think I even hoped it would be good—what hope can you have for an experiment? I wanted to see how it would play out because that’s where the glory lies—in the attempt, not the production.
But what a production it is! I was happy and humored throughout the film, and just out of the screening, I told my friends, high on Kenergy, I’d give it an 8 out of 10. I still think it’s an 8ish out of 10.
It’s not a perfect film, but its highs are high, and its lows are forgivable on account of ambition. The ending stretched thin, trying to cover too much too fast without going deep on any single aspect. (If it had done so, it would have made for a weightier conclusion but too long of a runtime.)
More culture and movie chats?
The epigraph to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is from Louisa May Alcott: “I’ve had a lot of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” Gerwig’s new film, a portal fantasy in which Barbie travels from Barbieland to the Real World, rips back a jolly tale and exposes the many troubles behind the hot pink facade. If you’re invested in The Discourse, I don’t need to recount those troubles here, nor the multitude of assessments on how Barbie addresses (or fails to address) those troubles.
I applaud Barbie for so brashly tackling sexism, the patriarchy, women’s equality, etc. The movie’s impact would have been lessened if it tried to hide its “message” under its plot and pretend it wasn’t doing what it very obviously wants to do. At least we can trust Barbie because it doesn’t hide its hand.
Another scene from Gerwig’s Little Women comes to mind. When Jo takes one of her stories to a printing house, the publisher (after drawing long slashes across several pages) tells her, “People want to be amused, not preached at—morals don’t sell nowadays.”
Barbie is amusing and preachy. Morals are selling!
Speaking of selling, let’s talk about the popularity of the film. Sure, Barbie was hyped beyond belief, like many films before it; but this is the first time in a long time that hype met reality. It’s easy (for me) to dismiss whatever the latest cultural craze is as just a fad. Partly it’s my disposition; partly it’s growing up in a subculture that viewed whatever The Culture was going crazy over with suspicion at best or being of the devil at worst.
But we’re sitting through a genuine cultural moment. Everyone has seen Barbie or wants to know if they should—and has strong feelings about whether they did or didn’t (or would or wouldn’t) like it. (One writing acquaintance says Barbenheimer has us all caught in “existential analysis loops.” Has your experience been different?) It was the first time my MCU-head guy friends and my horror-and-romance lady friends went to the theater together. That’s very cool.
We’d be remiss to ignore the present. Part of loving our neighbors is genuinely and interestedly engaging our culture, even if it means paying attention to things we’d typically ignore. Like I told my fellow homeschooled siblings, “We’re embracing the culture just this once.”
Barbie can’t escape the shadow of Gerwig’s other works. In Lady Bird and Little Women, she demonstrates a knack for crafting idyllic tragedies—worlds of messy internal conflict and external distress that nonetheless feel attractive. But in Barbie, she tears apart the attractiveness of the world she builds. Barbieland isn’t feminist paradise.
(Gerwig’s skills live loud in the seamless anti-linearity of Little Women, by the way. She’s giving Nolan vibes.)
The big takeaway from Barbie (its moral, if you will) is its unveiling of the unhealthy social constructs in which men and women are forced to participate in order to be valued. In this way, the movie is an apocalypse in the etymologically-correct sense of the word: from Greek meaning to uncover or reveal.
Barbie pulls back the scab of a society that says women must be pretty, flawless, and pretty flawless. That society is Barbieland; that society is also the Real World. Stereotypical Barbie’s realm collapses at minor inconveniences and she’s willing, at first, to do what’s necessary to quickly restore the structure that has given her definition.
Meanwhile, the establishment of Kendom demonstrates that men, too, get locked into social constructs—pillared by physical strength, corporate power, authority trips, insidious bromanship, and romances with tilted power dynamics (among other stuff)—from which we draw our sense of worth and status. I’m not making excuses for the patriarchy, but if a particular construct is all one knows, any alternative feels bad and can be easily dismissed as “beating up on men” (causing some to buy Barbies and burn them in protest).
Barbie isn’t pro-woman/anti-man. It’s anti-establishment, anti-structuralist. It says the constructs that we’ve bought into as men and women are so not cool. Our worth isn’t found in the status given to us by society or by the opposite sex. If we relate to and are in relation with others—a community, a society—as we should, that’s wonderful! But that isn’t the meter of our value.
There’s something about some of these structures that is just, you know, “Somebody make me stop!” That’s sort of, I suppose, the feeling behind Ken. —Greta Gerwig1
We are more than nodes in a social network. This pandemic of worthlessness will persist until we realize that the battle is forever lost on the field of social climbing, status-seeking, beauty standards, and comparative aesthetics. We are, and that is enough.
Dare I say it? Barbie, as far as it goes, teaches imago Dei. Nothing makes us worthy, not what we do or what power we have, beyond our status as ensouled bodies bearing an expression of divinity. Oh, God, if we could get that…
Re: Is Barbie for kids?
A theme that’s emerged in Gerwig’s commentary about the film suggests she’s uncomfortable with the idea that some things are for kids and other things are for adults. (She’s mom to a four-year-old and an infant.)
I don’t really have a strong sense of, Here’s stuff for kids; here’s stuff for adults. I know there’s stuff that is more heady, but when I look back at my viewing experiences as a kid, it was often the things that were just beyond me that were the most compelling, because they felt like a little window into a world that I was emerging into.2
She recounts her mom taking her to see Gypsy in a burlesque club when she was five and the commemorative book they bought afterward.
There are these strippers wearing old-timey stripper outfits with sparkles, and I loved it…
I remember just studying the pages where all the strippers were, because I thought they were so beautiful. I didn’t have any sense of them being objectified. I just loved that they wore these beautiful, glittery outfits and big headdresses. There’s probably a ton of memories I have like that.3
As adults, we often take our awareness of the world and project it onto the little ones among us. But children not only have the eternal appetite of youth but some of that prelapsarian innocence as well (up to a certain age). They don’t know about objectification until we pass that knowledge on to them. This, of course, is hard not to do: children may not be expert articulators of deviancy, but they are experts at noticing things adults think are bad and want to keep hidden. Children are as anti-gnostic as they come: bare skin isn’t evil until we express our own ambivalence and misgivings about its display.
I don’t know where I’m going with this except to say kids seeing Barbie is probably fine. It’s a very “ears who have ears to hear” kind of film (for kids and adults). When most kids read, listen, or watch, they process what they’re able to process, store up what they’re curious about, and leave the rest by the wayside. There are plenty of anecdotes of adults rewatching stuff from their childhood and going ohhhhh when they finally get the jokes their parents laughed at.
We idolize youth a bit too much. On the one hand, we assume children are too easily corruptible and need our complete and utter protection from every shadowy suggestion. (We don’t give kids enough credit.) On the other hand, (some) adults seem afflicted with a backward-facing purview, wishing to maintain both the physical beauty and intellectual innocence of youth long past the time when neither should be desired. A third hand is that sect which wants to expose kids to all manner of indecency and coarseness as a fete to their freedom or whatever.
Our world groans under the weight of the knowledge of good and evil (including the dynamics of the patriarchy, gender inequality, physical decay, etc.): adults don’t have the luxury of ignoring that knowledge or hiding away from the effects of it. But kids will blink and miss it, or notice it in ways useful for future analysis.
As pleased as I am that Barbie is what it is, I don’t want us to need this movie again. In the film, Barbie-creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) tells Stereotypical Barbie, “Humans have only one ending; ideas live forever.” Well, the ideas unveiled in the film need to die. If the next generation’s Barbie-esque film references depressed women watching 2023’s Barbie for the seventh time before falling asleep, then we’ll know the needle hasn’t moved.
Mattel (and Hollywood), however, are poised to capitalize on generational and societal discontent, seeding the ground with items from its toybox. Mattel Films VP Kevin McKeon recently spoke about plans for a Barney film:
We’re leaning into the millennial angst of the property rather than fine-tuning this for kids… it’ll focus on some of the trials and tribulations of being thirtysomething, growing up with Barney—just the level of disenchantment within the generation… It would be so daring of us, and really underscore that we’re here to make art.4
That’s not as good as he’s making it sound.
The ladies at the car rental asked if I thought there would be a sequel to Barbie.
No, I said, because a sequel would only dilute the power of this movie, this moment.
They laughed. “When has Hollywood ever listened to that?”