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August 2023 Literary Gem: Barbie

(Spoilers included)

When I rebooted my website, I changed the Pick-of-the-Month to Literary Gem with the intention of showcasing literary gems of all genres. The movie, Barbie, at first glance, may not fit this intention, but it very much does.

My memories of Barbie dolls as a kid are fuzzy at best. I know I played with them. I vaguely remember having several of them, doll clothes, maybe a car or a house. I don’t remember if I had a Ken or not. Ken was an afterthought, not particularly relevant to my girlhood memories of doll play. I recognize that this movie’s target audience is primarily women like me, specifically women who grew up in the 80s and 90s. With this in mind, nostalgia runs high for my demographic.

I had high expectations, mostly because I love Greta Gerwig’s previous works (especially Little Women), but I didn’t expect this. It hit me, on so many levels. It was laugh-out-loud funny and gut-wrenchingly poignant. It touched me deeply, and surprisingly, touched my husband as well (his expectations were low and he went along with Barbie because of my emphatic insistence). We expected silly, light-hearted, and maybe a touch campy, a step away from the seriousness of life to the fantasy world of Pantone pink hues and Malibu dream houses. We left and talked deeper about the meaning and purpose of life, about our dreams and our roles than we would’ve imagined before we watched it. I figured a heavy conversation would be due after Oppenheimer, not Barbie, but I was mistaken.

Barbie’s existential crisis of what it means to merely exist, to what purpose she serves, and the drive to move forward is reflective of what many feel. I explore these ideas extensively in writing Magnolia in November, but it was different watching it on screen with live-action Barbie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. The matriarchal society in Barbieland isn’t perfect and watching Ken pine for Barbie was cringy at times, but it’s the very premise of little girl fantasy land. Most little girls fantasize about who or what they could be without societal restraints. Barbie’s history may have started out with controversy (unobtainable beauty standards, antifeminism, etc.), but I think that Mattel’s “You Can Be Anything” rebranding efforts makes up for it.

On a social commentary level, the movie does point out several explicitly uncomfortable truths. The board room of Mattel consisted of a room full of men in suits. These men, led by Will Ferrell as CEO, are charged with the creation of products for girls without any female representation at the discussion table. How many companies across the nation are composed of men at the highest levels of leadership while making products and services for women? For women who do climb up the career ladder to those prominent positions, how many have the voice to advocate for the female perspective, especially for the products and services that are directly marketed to girls and women? How many get to do so without getting dismissed as “weird” (or worse)?

Perhaps the most poignant social commentary scene was Gloria’s monologue (portrayed by America Ferrera): “It is literally impossible to be a woman,” Gloria tells Barbie. “You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.

“You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us,” Gloria concludes. “And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

This monologue does not require further explanation, merely acknowledgment that this contradictory pressure, this internal insecurity, and the universality of this experience, make it utterly relatable. Truth be told, this was one of the tear-jerker scenes for me.

As a society, we (both women and men) put ourselves and each other in boxes. Through the plastic and cellophane, through the throwback 1950s musical choreography, through the pink and glitter, through the spot-on casting (including Michael Cera’s portrayal of discontinued Allan and Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Weird Barbie), Barbie movie showcases the complexity and contradictions of society while a Barbie doll finds her humanity, a mother dually connects with childhood and adulthood, a CEO reaffirms his purpose, and a Ken doll finds self-acceptance (“I am Kenough.”)

I believe emphatically that great works of art (literature, art, music, dance, film, stage, anything, and everything) are great because it makes the receiver of the art feel human. The exploration of the human experience is not confined to genre or medium. I believe it is this raw nerve that makes some viewers want to see Barbie as political or a statement. Political or not, any art worth its salt makes a statement. It expresses something about the human condition and if it makes you feel anything, even something negative like scoffing disdain or outrage, then it has served its purpose. The failure of art is to make you feel nothing. The fact that so many people are railing about Barbie’s commentary on patriarchy and other subtexts (overt or underlying) is merely evidence of its success as a literary gem.


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