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Human Events
Human Events
22 Jul 2023
Libby Emmons


NextImg:LIBBY EMMONS: The new Barbie movie is an anti-motherhood,
man-hating screed posing as a tale of female empowerment

My mom, Julia and I piled into a gypsy cab, the only car we could get in the pouring rain. My mom negotiated the fee with the driver the whole way down the West Side Highway as we made our way from her place downtown to Chelsea, where the Barbie convention was happening in a big warehouse. The room was filled with dolls presented like superstars, and we oohed and aahed as we walked around the room to see the history of the toy we loved so much. 

I had hoped that the new Barbie film would be something of a love letter to the doll that inspired so much fantasy and storytelling for me as a kid, but instead, the film is a tangle of grown-up daddy issues rebranded as empowerment. 

From the opening scenes of little girls bashing their baby dolls on rocks in a symbolic rejection of motherhood to the final scene where Barbie is so empowered and self-actualized that she visits a gynecologist for the first time, the film criticizes women's impulses toward motherhood, love and femininity and leaves the lead character standing alone in the real world with no friends, no husband, no children and only the medical industrial complex by her side. 

"Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed," says Helen Mirren disdainfully in a voice-over, "there have been dolls. But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls. The girls who played with them could only ever play at being mothers. Which can be fun, at least for a while anyway. Ask your mother." A massive Barbie, the original Barbie, stands as a monolith while the notes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" play. Barbie, the film posits, was the rightful end of the glorification of motherhood.

Barbie the movie, starring Margot Robbie, then sets out to define the doll, to define women, and to establish a way to create and find meaning without relationships, family, children, or love. There's nothing empowering about having no idea how to find meaning or make your life matter

The film doesn't love the toy, but hates it. The film doesn't love women or their feminine impulses, it hates them. And as for Ken, the film has no use for him and doesn't think women have much use for men either. In one scene, petulant, disaffected teen girl Sasha, says "Men hate women and women hate women, it's the one thing we can all agree on." 

Ken sings a song about how he doesn't exist outside of Barbie's gaze, and characters in the film say that "Ken is totally superfluous." 

The story tracks Barbie as she goes from a living doll in Barbie Land through a dimensional portal into the Real World, where she finds her person. While at first Barbie thinks that her person is a teen girl, and the film seems to hint at a storyline in which Barbie teaches the disaffected, surly teen how to play again, it quickly pivots to show that Barbie's person is in fact the teen's mom.

And the state of that mom is tragic. She's a single mother raising a teen girl with obvious anger issues. There's no father in sight. She works a corporate job with no room for advancement. And she's depressed. This mom is anxious, she fears the future, she laments aging, and with nothing in her present or future to give her any fulfillment, she's begun to play with Barbie dolls again in an escapist attempt to recapture any joy she once had.

In a conversation between the two, Barbie says, "I'm not pretty anymore… I'm not smart enough to be interesting… I'm not good enough for anything."

"It's literally impossible to be a woman," the mom replies.

I was obsessed with Barbie as a kid. My mom was decidedly not, to put it mildly. But she indulged me, and my friend Julie. I had a Barbie dream beach house and we kept it lashed to a wheeled dolly so we could drag it back and forth down the hall between Julie's apartment and my mom's. We played with Barbies for hours, imagining them in all kinds of scenarios, mostly romantic ones. 

Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig spoke to Good Morning America about the film, saying that while she played with Barbies as a kid, her mom was not a fan. Most of her dolls came to her as hand-me-down cast-offs from the neighborhood girls, complete with pre-cut hair, Sharpied-on eye makeup. Most of mine came from my mom on our intermittent trips to FAO Schwartz, New York's former toy Mecca, and they always came after intense negotiation. My mom didn't like the dolls, maybe she thought they were too stereotypical, too entrenched in gender roles, too pretty, too smiley, who knows. She wanted me to play with Transformers. 

"Don't get me wrong, Transformers are cool and everything, but I wanted Barbies. My mother's impulse was to try to push me toward "boy toys," she thought they were more legit than "girl toys." But I was all in on Barbies. I had Western Barbie that really winked, I had day-to-night Barbie whose outfit transformed seamlessly from the office to the nightclub with just a flip of a wrap-skirt secured with Velcro, I had black Barbies, white Barbies, swimsuit Barbie though never Malibu Barbie." And while playing with all of these, me and my friends talked about boys. Our eyes didn't shine with grand career plans when we thought about our future lives, but with fantasies about what our relationships would be like, what our home lives would be, and what it might be like to be a mom.

In my life, I had both. My mom was career-oriented to the exclusion of any real kind of family-oriented domesticity, while my step-mom stressed the importance of actually raising your own kids and staying home to make a home. They both considered themselves to be feminists, and if I'm honest, neither had much respect for the other.

Gerwig's film is trapped in this in-between as well. There's no respect for the toy, there's no love for it. And as much as the movie seeks to empower women, to elevate them to positions of power, to eliminate men, to diminish the concept of partnership, the film falls into the same problem that feminism does: it portrays a woman at war with herself, in a struggle against her own nature. At one point, Barbie says "you can be brainwashed or you can be ugly, there's nothing in between."

While the film has been touted as a feminist triumph, it could be more accurately described as a tale of Barbie's downfall. She goes from a woman who knows what she wants to a woman without a home, without friends, without family, searching for meaning, desperate to "be part of the people who make meaning," and trying to find herself in the barren depths of her own, neutered reproductive system.