A Fable For Our Times
Ruth Handler (1916-2002) was the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who settled in Denver, Colorado. One day she observed her daughter Barbara playing with her paper dolls and she noted how she gave them adult roles. At the time, almost all dolls were representations of infants and so Ruth spotted a gap in the market. A trip to Europe and an encounter with a German toy doll called Bild Lilli convinced Ruth that there was a gap in the market. Mattel, the company that Ruth had formed with her husband Elliot Handler and their business partner Harold Matson launched the first Barbie doll at the American International Toy Fair in 1959. It was an instant hit and over a billion Barbie dolls have now been sold. Over a hundred dolls are sold every single minute and a Barbie Dream house is sold every two minutes. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘Barbie’ film has already taken 1.44 billion US dollars at the box office.
On the surface, Barbie is a sleek, plastic and vacuous manifestation of modern capitalism. Her ubiquity and superficiality renders her unknowable. She is a blank canvas upon which girls can project their growing understanding of the world….or is she? Barbie has been held responsible for many of society’s ills. The unrealistic body shape of early Barbie dolls no doubt fueled the anxieties of body conscious girls. Anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia have all been attributed to Barbie’s malign influence. Of course, her enduring commercial success has been, in part, due to her ability to evolve with the times. Whereas once Barbie was a beacon for the American Dream, she has become a living (or nonliving) embodiment of inclusivity and diversity. Mattlel’s website leads with the rather lofty and slightly nauseous claim that, ‘Barbie recognizes the importance of representation and is committed to doing the work to inspire the next generation’.
It is easy to dismiss Barbie’s new love of diversity and exploration of gender politics as a cynical marketing ploy on the part of Mattel. Barbie’s decision to move with the times was driven by commercial pragmatism rather than an ideological awakening. Consequently, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed ‘Barbie’ the movie. Admittedly, my expectations were low; I was expecting a couple of hours of saccharine dross. I was not expecting an intellectually stimulating meditation upon gender politics. I was shocked to find Barbie’s existential angst both relatable and moving. The sight of Ken grappling around in a matriarchal world devoid of a sense of purpose is positively Shakespearean in terms of its tragic pathos and comic scope. Early on, Ken rather forlornly states, ‘Yeah, because actually my job, it’s just beach’. Within Barbieland, Ken has lost his sense of identity and he has no perception of himself devoid of Barbie. We are told that, ‘Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him’. Ken and his fellow dolls are struggling with a sense of purposelessness and wonder what it really means to be male. They are perplexed and world weary or, as the Germans would say, experiencing ‘Weltschmerz’.
Important roles within society are taken by women and the men are left to flounder. The male dolls are both banal and inane but, in so being, they touch upon the contemporary debates about toxic masculinity which, in its most ugly manifestations, includes the bile-filled diatribes of Andrew Tate, incels et al. Ken’s tragedy is that he knows something is wrong. He is able to both dissemble and emote, but he does not possess the intellectual power nor the creativity necessary to make a success of life within a postmodern paradigm where a power transfer has occurred. Ken lacks resilience and suffers a lack of motivation. Helen Mirren (the narrator) informs us that, ‘There are no multiples of Allan. He’s just Allan’. Allan’s singularity and the singularity of other discontinued and sometimes controversial dolls stands in glorious contrast to the numbing ubiquity of Ken dolls.
I believe that the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir would have been proud to have scripted this film. It is an artful and satirical comedy worthy of the great eighteenth century satirist Jonathan Swift. It is an eloquent and slick film packed with surprisingly sophisticated ideas. For instance, Ruth laments that, ‘We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come’.
There are few monologues in ‘Barbie’ but one is delivered by Gloria, a female employee at Mattel, who helps her daughter Sasha save Barbie Land from a patriarchal takeover initiated by Ken.
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. 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 behaviour, 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. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”
Wow! The male characters in Barbie have no such moments of self-realisation yet they are equally conflicted and struggling within a world that they do not understand. Of course, there is a good deal of role reversal between the real world and Barbie Land. Critics will point to a simplistic and dichotomous exploration of gender roles that lacks nuance. There is some truth to this but the carefully nuanced debate that occurs within the pages of a learned journal finds little resonance with the lived experiences of ordinary men and women. We should not ignore popular culture or discount its potential to serve as a starting point for the important conversations that we should be having.
Of course, you could just go and enjoy Barbie on its own account but for me that would be to miss a valuable opportunity. The film should urge us to think deeply about the roles we want our children to assume as they grow towards adulthood. Without giving too much away, what emerges across the film is reason enough for us not to despair about the future of humanity.
Headmaster of Rossall School