Barbie and the Franken-Feminists: The recent films Barbie and Poor Things try to reinvent the woman—and fail. (Noah Millman, January 26, 2024, Modern Age)

There’s a lot of gleeful mockery of the overtly retrograde sexism of the manosphere, as well as the general idiocy of men, all deserving targets. But what was most striking to me about this vision of the corruption of Barbieland is not its sexism but its sexlessness. The Kens may have taken over, but they and the Barbies still don’t have the foggiest idea what they might have to do with one another. Ken still wants Barbie’s attention—but why? The corrupted Barbies now want to fawn over the Kens—but why? Ken’s transformation doesn’t transform the Barbies into sex slaves; it transforms them into simulacra of them, forms without content.

Is that true to the experience of prepubescent girls and boys? Perhaps. In our porn-saturated age, kids still don’t really understand what sex is, but they’ve usually seen quite a bit of it before they are ready to understand, and that does prompt a certain amount of confused playacting (playacting that can nonetheless become all too real). But it’s still deeply ironic that Barbie, a toy that was originally based on a German novelty sex doll named Lilli, not only doesn’t have any interest in sex but doesn’t seem to know what sex is.

What’s more notable, though, is that Gloria, who comes from the real world and has infected Barbie with her adult fears, doesn’t enlighten her either. Her much-quoted eleven o’clock number is a passionate rant about the impossibility of being a woman, which turns out to be the key to deprogramming the Barbies from their masculinist brainwashing. But it offers no explanation for why women might be vulnerable to male emotional demands, or, indeed, why Ken would be in Barbieland in the first place. It’s also striking in that regard that Gloria’s own husband is a completely useless appendage, that we have no view at all into the nature of her adult marriage. It’s more troubling still that Gloria’s daughter is largely an appendage as well; the director of Lady Bird surely knows how to portray a mother–daughter conflict, so the fact that Gerwig barely sketches one in here tells the audience something important about the nature of the project: that she’s primarily interested in peddling sentiments, ones that come prepackaged in a box just as surely as Barbie does.

Structurally, Barbie is a quest narrative. The hero’s quest, initially, is to save her home, but after accomplishing that Barbie questions whether it is truly home anymore. It turns out what she really needs is to become a real girl—or, since she’s fully grown, a real woman. That makes Barbie a variation on Pinocchio, but the wooden boy wanted to be real from the beginning (at least in Disney’s animated version of the tale) and had to earn that privilege by demonstrating courage, loyalty, and other virtues despite being easily distractible (as boys so often are). Barbie’s quest for most of the film has been the opposite: to avoid becoming real. It isn’t until the end of the film that she has her “aha” moment and reverses course. She gets her wish, symbolized by her first visit to a gynecologist—suggesting, for the first time, that being a woman has something to do with being embodied as one, that womanhood isn’t only a matter of either false or raised consciousness. But we never do find out what Barbieland’s enduring purpose might be or how Barbie’s journey toward real womanhood might connect with the journey that the entirely real girls who play with her must themselves undertake.

Hilariously, the quest ends with her receiving the capacity for sex.