Greta Gerwig, director of the film Barbie, formulates a reflective proposal on the postmodern environment of today’s society and some of its symptoms such as the slavery of the image, the culture of comparison that leads many women to feel that they are never good enough, or the harmfulness of presentism inoculated to the core in today’s society and particularly among young people.
Have you ever thought about death? After suddenly asking herself this question, Barbie enters an existential crisis that leads her to leave the pink, idyllic and successful matriarchy of Barbieland, following the advice of weird Barbie to embark on a journey into the real world in search of answers.
Although, finally, and with little interest, she allows Ken to accompany her. In Barbieland, women are independent and self-sufficient, while men are subjugated to submissive roles. However, when they arrive in the real world, the characters played by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling encounter an upside-down world, a patriarchy in which Ken finds himself mistakenly empowered and tries to export this model to the original Barbieland.
Enthusiastically, he even proposes changing the laws so that men take control and women become mere appendages. In order to avoid spoilers, we will not reveal all the aspects of a plot that goes much further than the simple battle of the sexes.
Although, it is fair to clarify that the proposal of the award-winning director, Greta Gerwig, which is sweeping the box office – in combination with a large-scale marketing operation – is not an harangue of feminism as some detractors of this film argue, it may surprise you due to its aesthetics or not be liked for the most diverse reasons.
In the proposal of the renowned filmmaker and based on her career – director and screenwriter of the version of Little Women (2019) inspired by the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott and Lady Bird (2017) that explores mother-child relationships – it is not possible to assume a premeditated incitement to hatred of men, but rather the opposite.
Gerwig, who wrote the script for this film with her husband Noah Baumbach, tactically dedicates the first part to offering a trophy-man image in a pompous and most trivial setting. She does it precisely, to propose a corrosive criticism a posteriori, a parody of the current culture of superficiality and the neurotic desire for perfection expressed in the constant comparison with idealized lives that can only lead to permanent unhappiness and contempt for one’s own life.
The American filmmaker is committed to overcoming stereotypes as revealed by the treatment of the “weird Barbie” represented by actress Kate McKinnon, who turns out to be one of the characters with the greatest influence in the film by accompanying the protagonist Barbie to overcome her existential dilemma. Gerwig uses the same firmness to question both patriarchy and exclusive feminism in the film that do not contemplate the recognition of the other or the demands for equality through mutual education between men and women.
With her cinematographic proposal, aimed especially at young girls, the director invites us to inhabit a more authentic and human world, anchored in reality, and, therefore, based on friendship and complementarity between men and women. It is something that Barbie and Ken do at one point in the film and, at the same time, the filmmaker and her husband did when they wrote the script together.
But, above all, Greta Gerwig plays with the typical tone of comedy to formulate a furious criticism of the fantasy worlds that social networks exhibit and that can only be inhabited by dolls, not by flesh and blood people. The director of Barbie calls on us, with the means of cinema, to accept the imperfections of the real world we inhabit, to not fall into the slavery of the image, but to seek full lives in which to pursue our dreams. In short, she grants full validity to the Socratic maxim: know thyself.
Along these lines, it is plausible to interpret the nod to Kubrick with the reproduction of one of the most memorable scenes from the cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In Barbie, a gigantic doll appears hitting dolls. “For me that sums up what Barbie1 is: a mother who looks at her daughter and tries to give her the ability to dream of more for herself,” said the filmmaker in one of the interviews promoting the film2.
She added in the same interview: “If I could convey only one thing to people it would be: you don’t have to earn your value, you are worth it, you are fine, because I don’t think that is the message that most people are receiving in the current moment, especially young women” alluding to the culture of comparison that leads many women to feel “that you are never good enough.”
The intricacies of the film lead to a paradox assumed by Greta Gerwig. While the Mattel doll, which has existed for sixty years, has been criticized by feminism for the stereotypes it perpetuates, today, social networks are a tool for promoting unrealistic standards far from real life.
We promised, at the beginning of the article, not to give too many spoilers. Although, it is convenient to refer to one of the parts of the film that best corroborates the thesis about the filmmaker’s proposal regarding overcoming the dynamic of confrontation between men and women. Ken confesses to Barbie that his life is meaningless if she is not by his side and it is she who encourages him to search for his identity, while she chooses to become human and return to the real world, adopting the name Barbara Handler. Her last name is not trivial, since Ruth Handler was the creator of the Mattel company doll.
In short, the characters of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star in a process of self-discovery that concerns each one’s own life in favor of a more authentic existence in the face of the current inertia, enhanced by social networks, towards idealization, virtuality , abstraction and putting self-esteem at the service of likes.
A key coordinate of Barbie and Ken’s life journey is that they do not take this path of self-discovery alone, but in the company of other characters who help them. As happens in real life, we forge our identity and become more intelligible with others who accompany us and guide us when we get lost, a reality that undermines the myth of autonomy and individuality.
It is necessary to point out that being in reality does not mean giving up or passively resigning ourselves to changing those aspects that suit us as human beings. With Ortega y Gasset, life is not given to us ready-made, we have to make it.
The question about death that triggers Barbie’s life crisis is, therefore, very pertinent to the plot of the film because it alludes to the harmfulness of presentism inoculated to the core in today’s society and, particularly, among young people.
Of course, Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay is courageous because, with our backs turned to death and living as if we were going to be eternal, it is impossible to ask ourselves some questions. For example, what we want our life to be like and who we want to become.
The question of death has nothing to do with having, but with being, and summons us to one way or another of living, which is what happens to Barbie and, later, to Ken. The filmmaker’s proposal, at least, particularly urges young people to question themselves in the face of letting themselves flow, a passive, blind and deaf exercise in the face of life that happens, in the expression of the film philosopher Stanley Cavell, on our feet and not on our heads.
Cinema, as Julián Marías3 said, is a laboratory to investigate human life, and opens us to an anthropological, ethical and bioethical experience that sponges our reality. Barbie is a film that refers to a world of dolls, but that calls for an adult reflection. It is worth watching and enjoying it this way.
Master in Bioethics
Catholic University of Valencia
- Director Greta Gerwig alludes to what inspired Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, watching her daughter play with dolls.
- Complete interview with Greta Gerwig at https://smoda.elpais.com/placeres/greta-gerwig-a-mi-madre-no-le-gustaba-barbie-la-miraba-con-recelo-pero-al-final -he gave in-and-he-gifted-me-one/
- Marías, J. (1990). Speech at the entrance ceremony at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. SCIO Revista de Filosofía, no. 13 (2017), pp. 257-268.