According to half a book I skimmed and a studied viewing of “Scooby Doo on Zombie Island,” a voodoo doll is a magical object which allows miniscule actions performed on the doll to reflect upon a real-world counterpart. Despite possibilities such a charm allows, it invariably returns to a giant pin.
Director and writer Greta Gerwig’s new comedy “Barbie” reverses the formula, a “doovoo,” if you’ll allow. Here the real world is inflicted back onto the dolls, all the anxieties of higher consciousness converging at once. It’s enough to make you miss pins.
“Barbie” follows Barbie (Margot Robbie) in utopian Barbieland, a realm adjacent to our reality. (This is like a woman named Mary living in Maryland, too fantastical to contemplate further.) Here Barbies of all sorts and stripes (albeit all named Barbie) live in matriarchal harmony, holding all the jobs and all seats of government. Only hot pink high heels strut the corridors of power. Their loyal Kens are too distracted in attempting to impress their Barbies to notice their own disenfranchisement.
Our Barbie’s Ken (Ryan Gosling) has an unrequited puppy love for his supposed soulmate. Puppy love is a proper epithet, for this Ken has the energy, mental capacity, and indeed the hair of a golden retriever. His existence in Barbieland is defined by loving Barbie, but she can’t see him as anything more than a friend. Couple this with the long-recognized anatomical deficiencies of Kendom and he is understandably questioning his lot in life. Here is the plastic Jake Barnes, the sun also rising on Barbieland.
Each Barbie has an “owner” in the real world, whose mentality reflects back in the prementioned “doovoo.” This is seen psychically or physically, one Barbie stuck forever in the splits by a rough playing little girl. This comes to roost as our heroine, once content as a Barbie girl in a Barbie world, is suddenly plagued by ruminations on death. This memento mori soon drags down the rest of life, as her shower grows cold, her food burnt, and her thighs covered in something called cellulite. The solution is obvious: go to the real world and tell her owner to cheer up.
Ken follows Barbie to the Real World, where each finds answers they weren’t necessarily expecting. The men are leering, the women jeering, and stores oddly expect you to pay for your clothes. But while initially seeking a remedy for her suffering, Barbie soon finds that she likes our world, warts and all. Perhaps the warts most of all. Barbieland is Eden, but what use is pleasure if you can’t compare it to pain? Forget reverse voodoo; this is reverse Genesis, where we cheer as our Adam and Eve chomp on the apple and learn of death.
Gerwig is aware of the parallels. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, she mentions that “Barbie is in a world where there’s no aging or death or shame or self-consciousness, and then suddenly becomes self-conscious — that’s a really old story.” Perhaps the oldest story. A Unitarian who attended an all-girls Catholic high school, Gerwig specifically credits that experience with informing the narrative choice.
“I think I always go back to those older story forms because I went to Catholic school and resonate with them.” Suffering as potentially redemptive is certainly a Catholic strain of thought.
Particularly touching is a scene where Barbie looks in wonder at an old woman. Our own world has grown blind, if not disdainful, toward the elderly. But to the plastic woman she is more than novelty; she’s beautiful. “Barbie,” like all hero’s journeys, returns our heroine back home. But it is the rare zero-sum quest where the crisis winds up being the solution all along.
But Barbie’s isn’t the only quest. We can’t forget Ken, even if most Barbies seem content to. While wandering about, Ken discovers the concept of patriarchy. To his brain, as smooth as his front, this just means a world where men are in charge and often upon horseback. To a man lacking purpose without a Barbie, and now lacking his Barbie, this sounds suspiciously like a solution. Barbie returns home to find that the Kens have seized control and established a beachhead of air hockey tables in the Barbie houses.
Some cultural commentators have charged that “Barbie” is “anti-men,” but this misses the wider message. The masculinity adopted by the Kens isn’t authentic, but rather a game of telephone from what Ken glimpsed during his brief sojourn. It’s a parody of masculinity, all brewskis and butt slaps, one formed into reaction to women rather than a wellspring of their own desires. It’s the philosophy of internet influencer Andrew Tate, where your self-worth only comes from the diminishment of the feminine. The Kens are still basing their sense of self around women, this time by dragging them down instead of building them up.
Eventually, the Barbies retake their home. A lazier film would end the commentary at that, but “Barbie” surprises by taking the extra step. Barbie knows that Ken isn’t malicious, that this push is just a fun-house reflection of their own treatment of the Kens. Not only does she forgive him, she agrees with him. Men are awesome! Men are so awesome that they are beyond defining themselves via women, needing neither their approval nor conquest to stay rockin’. Yet women are also awesome, and a feminism in reaction to men is just giving men the satisfaction.
“Barbie” opts for Swiss neutrality in the battle of the sexes. The genders are neither inherently at odds with the other or completely complementary; they simply are. You do not earn your masculinity or femininity in the societal performance of those roles. Which isn’t to say men and women can’t desire those traits — “Barbie” gives its blessing to those who do. As the creation of a benevolent God, whatever you do is already manly or womanly by virtue of being a man or woman. We are made in God’s image, which is just another way of saying we are all “Kenough.”