9 minutes

American Girlhood Culture Is Really Strange

In the 2000s, male artists routinely excavated the popular culture of their boyhood for imaginative repurposing in their art. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay traces the lives of two men who become comic-book creators. In Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, two boys find a magic ring they use to take on superpowers; the title itself evokes the fictional fortress of Superman. Back then, I remember feeling that the equivalent was not possible for women artists, that the popular culture of American girlhood (horses, dolls, gymnastics) was still considered silly, juvenile–impossible to recuperate as adult art worth taking seriously.

Greta Gerwig seems at last a counterexample. Her entire career as a filmmaker has, in a sense, been a campaign to make art of girlhood materials. Her 2019 film, Little Women, remakes the 19th-century girlhood classic, rendering it freshly urgent for a 21st-century audience. (“I’ve been angry every day of my life,” Marmee, the saintly mother of the novel, says in Gerwig’s version.) Her directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), captures the angst of a 17-year-old girl’s coming-of-age in all its granular reality.

And now here is the Barbie juggernaut. Barbie dominated the box office on its opening weekend, grossing a stunning $155 million: a post-pandemic high, and the biggest opening for any feature film directed by a woman. Grown-up art about girlhood really can be an economic and cultural powerhouse. In the past week, women I barely know and women I have known for years have texted me their excitement about the film–and then shared their response, which has been in many cases the same: They loved watching the film, and yet more than one felt oddly disappointed by it.

Perhaps this is because, as the critic Dana Stevens noted in Slate, Barbie “never completely resolves the paradox at its heart”: The movie purports to be critical of Mattel while being enthusiastically sponsored by Mattel. The constraint is so obvious that Gerwig tries to turn it into a joke. The plot hinges on the conceit that all the Barbies mistakenly believe that their existence has turned the “real” world into a feminist paradise. Gerwig knows that no one wants to watch a hectoring film about how the doll is bad for girls’ self-image. So she subversively jokes about the insidious side of corporate culture while visually celebrating the Barbieness of Barbie. In this way, Barbie really is, if not a wholly successful film, certainly a powerful monument to the strangeness of American girl culture, which remains impoverished in its vision of what young girls are and want.

At once a commercial for a toy and a delicious romp through the pleasures of childhood play, Barbie sits uneasily at the intersection of reality, fantasy, and critique. It is joyous, winking, frothily cinematic. There are lavish costumes, deftly choreographed dance numbers, and aesthetically sophisticated visual puns. Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, is wryly known as “Stereotypical Barbie”; blond and perfect, she showers and drinks without ever getting wet, walks on her toes, floats down from her bedroom to the street as if held by an invisible girl’s hand. The script is peppered with genuinely incisive and funny skewers of gender stereotypes. A key moment in the plot involves the Barbies allowing the Kens to “sing at them” while playing guitars; the preposition is pure genius.

Like many women before it, Barbie tries to be many things to many people. One trailer’s tag line was “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” The line gets at the challenge here, adjacent to the one Stevens identified: How do you make a film for an audience that remains fiercely divided about the material you’re writing about?

This conflict, one might say, is precisely what forces Stereotypical Barbie out of her dreamy pink home on a quest to understand a series of strange phenomena: cellulite, cold showers, melancholy. We meet Barbie in Barbie Land, where women rule, literally. There is a Barbie president; there are nine Supreme Court Barbies. Kens are reduced to supporting roles. They wait for Barbies to kiss them, notice them, long for them. But when Barbie begins having relentless thoughts of death, she and one of the Kens, played to deliciously banal perfection by Ryan Gosling, enter “reality.” It isn’t the paradise she expected; men ogle her and a girl calls her a “fascist.” As reality’s reality dawns on Barbie, she articulates a set of feelings at once amusingly framed and horrifying to witness: “I feel … ill at ease,” she says. “I’m getting undertones of violence.” (Cue women squirming in the audience.) Meanwhile, Ken is radicalized by his experience: He likes the attention he gets. He sees a new world, one where men are not second-class citizens, and returns to Barbie Land to brainwash the Barbies into serving the Kens. The former Supreme Court justices are now cheerleaders.

Rather than get angry at what has happened to Barbie Land, Barbie is crushed. She stops wearing makeup and lies on the floor in despair, waiting for another Barbie to take the lead in fixing her society. And so the second half of the film tells the somewhat incoherent story of her evolution from thinking she is not “good enough” to becoming a woman bent on self-determination. In reality, she befriends a real woman named Gloria (America Ferrara), who delivers an impassioned motivational speech about how hard it is to be a woman in a world that demands contradictory things: to care tirelessly for your children but not talk about them too much; to act when action seems fruitless.

The challenge that Barbie, as a cultural object, presents Gerwig is how to mine the performative pleasures of clothes and dance numbers alongside the travesties of modern American culture while framing the story as if the two are wholly disconnected. She’s trying to show what it might really be like to go from a dream land to contemporary America, where Roe v. Wade has been overturned, parents don’t automatically get parental leave after the birth of a child, and most CEOs of corporations (including Mattel) are still men.

Barbie is at once radical and conventional. It is radical in its light indictment of the patriarchy: One of the very best lines of cultural criticism I’ve heard in ages comes when Ken says, “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses I lost interest.” (The movie might be best read as a brilliant portrait of aggrieved far-right masculinity.) It is somewhat more conventional in its vision of a dream girlhood and its idea of what Barbie is. And perhaps here is where Mattel’s influence is strongest. Despite the presence of Doctor Barbies and Supreme Court Barbies, Gerwig’s Barbies still largely conform to rigid beauty norms; a night of fun is a dance number in glittery and sexy clothes; and no conflict ever occurs, because the days are coated in a vapid gloss of fashion and pink plastic that corporate America has always been selling girls. This is the vision that led my second-wave-feminist mother to ban Barbie from our house. When my aunt gave me two for my fifth birthday, they mysteriously disappeared a few days later.

To some degree, this vapidity is Gerwig’s point: Barbie must leave Barbie Land, as all girls must, to confront a messier and more complex reality. And yet Barbie skirts the deep cognitive dissonance the doll inspires in many girls. Thanks to my mother’s ban, I played with Barbie only at friends’ houses. I recall finding the doll boring, because she was relentlessly tethered to our world and to the culture’s expectations for adult me, ones that didn’t yet interest me (boys, houses, Malibu). Instead of playing Barbie, my friends and I disfigured her so she looked like the film’s Weird Barbie (Kate MacKinnon), a doll with a 1980s punk haircut who’s out of step with all the others. Like the montage in the film showing what a girl did to Weird Barbie, we chopped off the doll’s hair down to chunky sprouts, turned her head backward, covered her face in green marker. In the film’s lingo, Weird Barbie is weird because girls have “played too hard” with her, a telling evasion. Weird Barbie is not weird because someone played too hard with her. Weird Barbie is weird, as Gerwig surely knows, because some girl used her to express all her frustration at the confection of materialism and reductive beauty norms. Weird Barbie wants to raze Barbie Land, not just help Stereotypical Barbie see reality for what it is.

Barbie is a fascinating moment in the ascendance of girl culture, a brilliantly twisty dive into the core of the contradictory scripts shaping what it is like to grow up as a girl in America. One of those scripts teaches that girlhood isn’t a space of imaginative autonomy but a kind of prep school for a conventional consumer adulthood that will be shaped by hair appointments, shopping, and a job. Despite the constraints she faces, Gerwig tries to invoke a more capacious script for girlhood at the film’s end, in a beautiful montage of girls playing around the world, in muted visuals that starkly contrast with the Technicolor Barbie world. If the film emerges aesthetically scathed, that doesn’t mean it is a failure. I left delighted by how much Gerwig had achieved through humor, and by the conviction that Barbie can only help make room for more films by women about women. The film’s tag line is right. One can hate Barbie and still be glad this movie was made, because here it is at last: a movie full of jokes for us, the women and girls in the room. In that sense, nothing about Barbie is silly or juvenile.

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