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Critiquing the Body in the Mirror
Barbie may be pure fantasy. She is also a mirror that reflects us right back to ourselves.
I will admit, I drank the perfect, Pantone #219 pink Kool-Aid: I went to see Greta Gerwig’s Barbie: The Movie, a film I’ve been drooling over since the first leaked images hit the Internet last summer, followed by sizzle reels and promos and some of the best and most immersive marketing we’ve seen in ages. Barbie: The Movie promised absolutely everything: The candy-coated colors, the larger-than-life fashions, the princess-pop music, the sun-drenched dream houses, the nostalgic references to long-forgotten Barbie accessory characters (by way of Midge, Allan, and Skipper), and the stirred memories of play and imagination and the child-like belief in a brighter, happier world. Of course, in keeping with our collective, decades-long cultural obsession with Barbie (the doll), the criticism of everything Barbie represents was not far behind the excitement and, despite the film itself revolving around and subverting those same criticisms, the mixed reviews of acclaim and offense tell us a lot about how we as a society feel about women and their bodies, how we feel about our own world, and about the discomfort we feel existing under the weight of expectations and broken systems.
Let me say, I recognize that the message of Barbie: The Movie was not designed with me and my experiences as its core audience. This is a film that very much centers women and girls, especially those who grew up playing and dreaming with Barbie, and their experiences in a world that demands that they be everything to everyone while also being expected to never challenge the unfairness, the double standards, or the patriarchy that make it impossible to feel like they are ever enough. That being said, I was a little gay boy in the 1990’s who had anxiously collected and nervously protected a box full of Barbies, Kens, Skippers, Kevins, and Kellys, a fold-out pink dream house, a pink Corvette, and all the little plastic brushes and high heels and sunglasses you could ever want. Barbie was avatar for my invention and imagination, an exploration and celebration of femininity, a sandbox of fantasy, a make-believe land where I could decide my own stories and gender roles (you would be surprised at how many of Barbie’s outfits you can squeeze Ken into) and play out scenarios of adventure and friendship and love (my Barbies were indiscriminate). Barbie’s well-documented ability to be undressed (see Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”) also gave way to some of my first expressions of nudist wondering, Barbie and her entire cadre of naked friends perched by their plastic pool or strewn across my backyard. My Barbies went places, enacted dreams, and fulfilled curiosities for me that no Barbie commercial had suggested. While I fully understand that my experiences with Barbie were not the undergirding of this film, I picked up that both Gerwig and Mattel appreciate the impact that Barbie has also had in the lives of countless gay boys and men—Allan, Sugar’s Daddy Ken, and Earring Magic Ken siding with the Barbies in the great battle to defend Barbieland from the Kens was a welcome nod.
For about as long as Barbie has been in production and stocked on store shelves, she has drawn criticism for just about every reason, from every perspective, from both the most conservative and most progressive corners of society. She gives girls dangerous ideas of independence, of living an unmarried and self-fulfilled life, she encourages promiscuity, and she shows too much skin, is too vain, too commercial, according to some. For others, she oppresses women and sets back the feminist movement by embodying outdated stereotypes of femininity and unrealistic standards of beauty, achieving things no real woman could ever achieve, encouraging consumerism and insecurity. Not unlike actual women in the real world, Barbie has always been too much and not enough. She’s too thin, she’s too curvy. She’s too “woke,” she’s too regressive. She achieves too much, yet she could never actually achieve any of those things. Given the reality of the world we live in, it is disingenuous to imply that Barbie has been the true oppressive force in women’s lives and not, you know, the patriarchal world in which she was created, the societal limitations beyond which she was created to allow young girls to dream. Barbie was, after all, a homeowner and an astronaut before women had the right to a credit card or an abortion. The criticisms of the doll and of the film may have some truth to them, sure. Certainly idolizing the stereotypical beauty standards that this tall, thin-but-curvy-in-all-the-right-places, white, blonde, blue-eyed doll represents a quandary. This is at least somewhat remedied by Barbie’s increasingly diverse cast of friends, some black, brown, or white, some short or tall, some thin or stout, some in wheelchairs or with prosthetics, some with curly hair or straight hair, some that are… mermaids.
Barbie’s body is not the only criticism she faces, but it is the criticism that seems to be the most enduring and most central to our collective dissonance with her: How can we respect the diversity of human bodies, especially women’s bodies, while idolizing one specific, unattainable type of body? And what is at the root of this issue, truly? Is it that we don’t like how thin Barbie is, that she forces impossible standards of beauty on little girls and grown women? Or is it that we have had enough of these standards of thinness and beauty—enshrined in the perfectly-tanned plastic effigy that is Barbie—that women have been subjected to for generations? Barbie may embody those standards, but she did not create them. We did and we continue to do so. The attachment to—and discomfort with—these standards of beauty, the angst surrounding women’s independence, and the never-ending critique of women’s bodies all exist independently of Barbie, and yet Barbie bears the weight of our criticism. We collectively critique her body and her achievements, perhaps as a proxy for confronting patriarchal injustices, for mending our broken systems, for dealing with the root causes misogyny and sexism. Criticism of Barbie’s body does not resolve our societal discomfort with the body or our obsession with controlling and diminishing women, but it does further place women and their bodies under a kind of scrutiny that men and their bodies will never face to the same degree. Nobody can say, for example, that G.I. Joe or He-Man’s unrealistic bodies, achievements, and abilities have been so consistently or ravenously challenged as unhealthy representations of masculinity, and yet Barbie’s pencil-thin waist is decried as the downfall of the feminist movement. Maybe it’s not really about Barbie’s dress size. Maybe it’s about us.
I would argue that Barbie (the doll) is not popular because she is beautiful or thin or ambitious, but because she encourages children to see themselves in her, to play through her, to dream through her, to imagine themselves achieving anything through her. For the child, Barbie (the doll) is a mirror of their imagination and an avatar of their fantasy, perhaps also a means to role-play their understanding of the world they’re learning to live in—and perhaps therein lies some of the problem, since the world they’re born into is rife with problems. At a larger scale, Barbie (the idea) is a mirror of who we are collectively, of the world that we have created, but also of the world we believe ourselves capable of achieving, where women can actually be anything and everything they want. Perhaps she also represents a world with less inequality, where nobody wants for anything, where people get to enjoy life a little more, relax a little more, and realize their dreams. Some may see Barbie as solely a symbol of oppression, sexism, and rigid beauty standards, and certainly we are right to question and challenge those themes. But we are just as free to envision Barbie as an Olympic gymnast, a CEO, a renowned surgeon, an astronaut, a computer engineer, or even, if we want, a face-tatted eccentric or an occasional backyard nudist. That’s up to us. We may not like what we see when we look at Barbie, and maybe she is not perfect… but we are also not perfect, and if Barbie is only reflecting back at us what we already are, what we already aspire to, what we already believe ourselves capable of being, then perhaps our collective issue with Barbie is an issue with ourselves and says more about our own insecurities than it does about any actual problem with Barbie. It should not be lost on any of us that even she, perfection in plastic, can never be good enough, can never satisfy our demands of her.
Criticisms of Barbie (the doll) aside, Barbie (the movie) does a fantastic job of acknowledging and tackling the dual roles that women must play in our world: both everything at once, yet never too much. This theme is perfectly encapsulated in the monologue given by America Ferrera’s human character, Gloria, which you can read here. A related, secondary theme which is not so expressly conveyed in the film but which perhaps speaks to an even larger audience is that of managing all of the aforementioned pressures and obligations, while also trying to figure out who we are as real human beings existing in a world that is in such desperate need of fixing, that can feel hopeless and broken beyond repair. Even (or perhaps especially) the Kens in Barbieland struggle to understand their role in the world, but it is our main-character Barbie who most actively carries the viewer into the thick of this theme and out the other side, the final moral of the story seemingly being that it is better to live in the real world, to experience love and loss, and to contribute to making the world better than to remain stuck in Barblieland. It is, however, important to hold onto our imagination, our ideals, and our vision of a more perfect world while working towards progress, an idea which aligns with one of the key points of Bill Moyer’s book on social movements, Doing Democracy. In Doing Democracy, a book I have written about briefly as it pertains to the activism of the American nudist movement, Moyer highlights the importance of picturing how one’s own social movement goals fit into a larger world where other social movements have also succeeded, where the other issues of the world have also been resolved. I will stop myself short of claiming that Barbie (the movie) is, in its own way, a guide to successful social movements, but it does a fine job of enforcing the importance of our imagination (perhaps more playfully than Moyer expected) in treating the ills of society.
Take what you will from Barbie: The Movie. It may not be for you, and maybe there’s no need to justify one’s like or dislike of the film with a 2000-word treatise on its moral goodness or badness, but I do think there’s a conversation to be had around the themes of the film and of the doll herself, what she says about us, and what of ourselves we see in her (like it or not). Our criticisms and our praise, our ability or inability to identify with her, seem to me to be very revealing of how we feel about women, of our comfort in our own bodies, of our sense of place in the world, of our own insecurities and frustrations, and of our belief in ourselves and one another. What I am taking away from Barbie: The Movie is that shouting at the mirror does not change the reflection, critiquing Barbie does not change the broken systems and standards we see reflected in her, but dreaming of, believing in, and working towards a better, more just, more inclusive, and more colorful world might.