Barbie Has Always Been Hard to Interpret



It is not surprising that the new Barbie movie has drawn wildly opposing takes. For example, even commentators from the same conservative outlet loved it and hated it. Barbie has always been hard to interpret, the movie no less so.


The film has many hilariously creative moments, as one would expect from Greta Gerwig, director and co-writer (an unforgettable line from one of her earlier movies: “Remember, we’re all Christian here…or, at least, Judeo-Christian”). The many different Barbie versions Mattel has marketed make humorous cameos, although conspicuously absent are Talking Barbie© and Living Barbie©, with extra long eyelashes and elbows that bent. But “Weird Barbie,” a real world character of any Barbie-embracing household, gets an uproarious role.  When Barbie steps out of her heels and her foot remains on tip-toe, or when they crash the marvelous Barbie Car© by doing a graceful circular flip and landing on the ground upright, or when the cup stays empty as she “drinks” her tea, one is delightfully teleported back to the play of a child. The clever nostalgia throughout is likely what leaves many viewing mothers at times in tears.



The plot of ignoring Ken makes sense. For, as any Barbie-embracing girl with a brother already knew, it was not Ken that Barbie wanted to go out with. It was always the more masculine G. I. Joe. With his exo-hinge wrists and overt ball-in-socket joints, G. I. Joe made a far more interesting play. Because, as such sister had to eventually admit, he had far more degrees of freedom than either Barbie or Ken. Joe could actually sit on a horse.


Yet the new film could also annoy you. No attractive figure exists in Barbieland. All the Kens are weak and dumb, all the Barbies are vacuous and self-centered. Each is ready to exploit the other when they get the chance. The self-absorption continues through the end of the film, making all the dolls—despite their physical appearance—continually ugly. The movie is evenhanded in these characterizations, in BarbieLand at least. But in the film’s real world, the equal treatment breaks down. The audience is given a heroic woman in the mom. The dad, even when he does make an appearance, is a well-trained buffoon.


Little girls prepare for life through role-play with their dolls and the script intelligently reflects this. Yet this witty interchange between the play world and the real world is what makes the film, along with the doll, difficult to interpret. When Barbieland gets transformed into Kendom, are we getting what men actually want or a little girl’s view of what men actually want? According to the filmmaker, is the plan to fool the men by playing dumb in sports and feigning interest in their guitar playing what really works with men, or a naively feminine view of what works? Are men eager to fight each other or is that just an immature perception? (The guys’ dance includes a hysterical rock-paper-scissors move). Is it sermon or spoof? We cannot tell. Maybe the movie is making fun of how Barbie-users misinterpret things. Or maybe it is social commentary. At the age at which Barbie play happens (after the stage of caring for baby dolls), a girl’s world is about exclusively feminine adventures and relational role-play. Boys are usually inconsequential or just an annoyance. Just like Ken in the movie.


Mattel itself has always hid the ball with Barbie. As I pointed out here five years ago, they proudly chirp about empowering women with Spaceman Barbie and Mathematician Barbie but quietly directed their efforts to selling Domestic Barbie. Because they well understand how little girls actually play with the doll. The movie satirizes this along with other parts of the doll phenomenon.


But that is where the movie also stays. In childhood. The romp raises questions it does not answer, as Ms. Gerwig would readily admit, but it is because she cannot answer them. So, the movie is weak where it relies on feminism as a plot-advancing power. The speech that wakes up the Barbies to their oppression by the Kens merely expresses of the frustration that comes of living in third wave feminism. As Barbie puts it, “It is literally impossible to be a woman…tying ourselves in knots so that people like us.” That feeling resonates with so many women because it is true in a world where women are expected to be men as well as women. And the distinctives that women actually have and should have are despised. The daughter expostulates, “Men hate women. Women hate women. Everyone hates women.” Shouldn’t this make us question whether moderns have the wrong view of women? Instead the problem is identified, loud and clear, in having men in charge. The film is unwilling to question that premise.


The movie’s tired answer for Barbie as well as for Ken, which is no answer at all, is that you must find yourself, by yourself. Only you can say what you are. Certainly, the giving of yourself to and for the opposite gender should not be involved in that process. Again, departing from the Biblical understanding—that gender is formed and expressed in relationship—leaves the movie with nowhere better to go. Barbie admits, “I don’t have an ending.”


Whether the doll does or not, the movie does have to have an ending, at least at some point. So Ms. Gerwig, true to form, crafts one open to interpretation. {Spoiler} The last scene brings Barbie (now Barbara) to a gynecologist. What does that preach? It could be giving us one of two different Barbies.



First, one can see Barbie, after rejecting relationship (with Ken), making it clear that she will define herself without reference to any man, visiting a gynecologist to complete her freedom with unencumbered sexual liberation.




One can note how, after joking at the beginning at how Mattel swiftly discontinued Pregnant Barbie©, she is brought back to appear during the closing sequence cheerfully smiling. And when Barbie grasps her creator’s hands to find out who she is, she has a vision of babies and family life. She then is visiting the gynecologist because she recognizes that having a family is what her life is really about.


Something else.

Whatever the last scene’s meaning, children will continue to prepare for life by role-playing with dolls. Sadly, what this pastor has regularly to deal with are women and men unprepared for real life by the feminist conception that men and women should have identical callings and equal representation in all positions of so-called power. As fun as this playful game of a movie is, it will not help that problem.

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