August 18, 2023


Barbie: A Confused Postmodern Masterpiece (Tyler Hummel, 8/18/23, Voegelin View)

As the film depicts it, "Barbieland" is a functionally perfect matriarchy where women have total power and autonomy while Kens (men) exist to adore Barbies and find meaning in receiving attention from them. Upon closer look, though, this seemingly perfect matriarchy is no utopia--it just has the stereotypical appearance of one. When Barbie enters the real world to find the girl playing with her who is grappling with thoughts of mortality and depression, she realizes the real world is a patriarchy--which Ken loves and immediately exports back to Barbieland, turning it into Kenland, which leads to the climatic showdown between Barbie and Ken.

The divide between Barbieland versus Realworld ends up being surprisingly nuanced. The film doesn't resort to just depicting Barbieland as a perfect paradise while the real world is wholly bad. The divide is split along multiple separate and intersecting dualities--matriarchy vs. patriarchy, consumerism vs. meaning, sisterhood vs. motherhood, shallowness vs. authenticity. The shadow of existentialism looms over the film for the educated viewer.
All of these ideas coexist together because the film understands that this is the very real debate about what Barbie dolls represent in our own world and how the dolls represent very real debates and issues between human beings. There is no single answer to what is good or what is bad about Barbie. There is just the reality that Barbie fits into a very complicated world where, as one character puts it, "Women hate women, men hate women, and that is the only thing we all agree upon." Barbie dolls are both a negative reflection of female self-identity and a fun toy that millions of girls love to play with.

The film benefits from Gerwig's propensity towards existential postmodernism--rejecting narratives of good and evil and turning to the nature of the power dynamics at play between the sexes and how men and women act and live in the world they inhabit.

Barbie's opening offers one of its most contentious images--depicting a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey where young girls smash their baby dolls in the shadow of a towering Barbie, symbolizing the liberation of women from domesticity and their transition under modern corporate feminism. But the movie then offers a deconstruction of this idea. It is very clear that sexism and misogyny are real forces in the world, but Barbie wants to deconstruct and interrogate a larger picture of what it means to be a woman in light of those pressures.

The movie embodies both the positive and negative aspects to the idea of Barbie in the characters of Gloria and Sasha--a mother and daughter with inverse opinions and a bitter estranged relationship. The mother is a put-upon middle-aged woman working as a secretary at Mattel who likes to play with her old Barbie dolls to blow off steam while the daughter is an aggressively hostile high school girl who considers Barbie a tool to promote fascist gender stereotypes and capitalist excess. Fascinatingly, the movie doesn't actually take a side in this conflict but instead depicts the tension of these two ideas as a representation of the intense internal struggle that comes with being a woman and the opposing desires and pressures that creates. The movie holds up both motherhood and sisterhood as virtues, giving Gloria a massive soliloquy about how being a woman means you're never enough to please anyone because you're always failing to live up to the expectations of either virtue.

...than being dismissive of utopianism. 

Posted by at August 18, 2023 7:20 AM