Cultural commentators have had a lot to say about Greta Gerwig’s smash summer movie, but no one I’ve read has considered Gerwig and Baumbach’s clever script as a post-modern take on a classic doll story like Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First One Hundred Years (1929). (Shown to the left.) The first was Richard Johnson’s The History of a Doll (ca. 1780). The heroine Charlotte could not move or be heard by people, but she could describe and comment upon her experiences to the reader, from being carved from a tree branch to passing through several owners’ hands. After surviving many accidents that required extensive restoration of her face and body, she was eventually burnt up in a fire. Although apparently lifeless to her owners, she is much at their mercy, as if she were a servant or an enslaved person: her lack of agency is central to the plot.
Barbie’s origins are more glorious than plain old Charlotte’s. The little girls on earth caring for their baby dolls when they see her descending like a goddess from the heavens. They are so enchanted by the prospect of a far more glamorous and empowering plaything that they immediately cast aside the dolls and heartlessly smash them to bits. A less violent version of this scenario with a fairly happy ending plays out in Brenda’s “Victoria-Bess,” in which a beautiful expensive doll rules the nursery until deposed by an even more fashionable French one. Ordered by her fickle, spoiled mistress to be thrown in the trash, a charitable relative rescues the humbled Victoria-Bess and has her presented as a Christmas present to a poor girl in a hospital.
But this Barbie behaves less like a doll than an autonomous being that is not exactly human. While the first shot is of a Mattel doll, the subsequent footage features Margot Robbie, who flirtatiously lowers her shades and winks. What is that gesture supposed to mean? A signal to not to overthink the ride on the hot pink roller coaster? But the cracks and inconsistencies reveal some interesting angles on Gerwig’s game.
After Barbie’s feet flatten, the patch of cellulite appears on her thigh (surely impossible on hard plastic), and the thoughts of death pop into her head, she is advised to consult the oracular Weird Barbie, a victim of rough doll play, from whom she learns that her old owner must be messing with her. While the director acknowledges that doll play comprises savagery, she roller blades around the possible plot implications of the Barbies being subject to the whims of Real World owners. If Weird Barbies constituted the underclass, then mobs of mangled, neglected dolls like the one led by the Bad Doll in Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer, might periodically roil Barbie Land. If most girls’ nights were stopped dead by outbursts of existential angst, then the Barbies would all be in analysis and there would have to be a health care system. The truly flawless Barbies would have belonged to collectors, museums or extremely meticulous kids. They would constitute the ruling class, which would disturb the benevolent, egalitarian administration of Barbie Land’s vacuous perfection.Without any memories of having been a child’s plaything, Stereotypical Barbie has to seek in the Real World the complete stranger who transferred anxieties to her and disrupted the rhythms of an rosy eternal now. During Barbie’s adventures in the Real World, she is perceived neither as a doll or a human being all of the time: her status may fluctuate according to the situation, but her affect never changes. When she crosses the border into Venice Beach, she passes for human in spite of her outfit—which didn’t seem especially outré for La-La-Land–when a random bystander gives her shapely bottom a big smack. The Mattel suits have no trouble identifying her as the doll that has to go back in the box, yet she can run like a gazelle in the painted-on bell bottomed pants that lace up the front through the corporate head quarter’s labyrinthine corridors.
Reunited her owner and daughter, they all return to Barbie Land and set the things which have gone so terribly wrong back to rights with the Mattel suits in hot pursuit. After quelling the Kens’ abortive insurgence and restoring the matriarchy with only a few gracious concessions to the rebels, Stereotypical Barbie expresses the desire to be a real girl in the Real World. She turns for help to Ruth Handler, the marketing barracuda behind the brand in her final incarnation as a sweet old bubbe who listens sympathetically over cups of tea. This stand-in for a fairy godmother cautions her creation that humans get only one exit, but ideas live forever (presumably “Girls can do anything”). If Barbie truly wishes to be flesh and blood, i.e. sentient with a vagina, she, like Dorothy Gale, has always had the power to make her dream come true. Without a dramatic wave of a wand that transforms plastic to muscle and bone, the doll-being formerly known as Stereotypical Barbie leaves her dream house for Los Angeles, slips her flat feet into pink Birkenstocks, and is dropped off at the gynecologist’s. And that’s all, folks. No promise that she’ll live happily ever after.
For over a decade, a succession of creative teams tried to bring Barbie to the big screen, but crashed, and burned. Margot Robbie was sure no one would finance the Gerwig-Baumbach script. A successful director of small-budget Indie films who was ready to break the glass ceiling, Gerwig has to have known what side her bread was buttered on. One way of keeping the plate with the Mattel logo up in the air was to avoid dark aspects which have always been present in doll stories. Her claim that the movie had to be “totally bananas” could be interpreted as a palatable but slippery justification for furiously whipping the mixture to a froth and never letting it deflate. The poster boys for patriarchy had to be paper tigers. The Mattel executives are more bumbling than the Keystone Cops, the Kens too disorganized to remember the all-important constitutional vote, and Stereotypical Ken satisfied by the stale old Tinseltown line that being yourself is the key to happiness. And the paradise of Barbies? It’s a stretch to take seriously President Barbie, Dr. Barbie, Diplomat Barbie, etc. when they were brainwashed as easily as if they were bimbos (they are styled like them too). Gloria’s rousing oration has no relevance to the powerhouses of Barbie Land, none of whom have offspring to complicate their lives. It’s really pitched to feminists and tired moms in the auditorium and to me it sounded more like a prompt to cheer at a pep rally than a serious statement about the difficulties of modern women’s lives. Given the silliness of almost everyone Stereotypical Barbie meets during the film, it is hard to envision the advantages of trading one condition for the other. Writer Barbie or exhausted executive assistant? Unlike a doll in a traditional it-narrative, Stereotypical Barbie has told audience members too little about her thoughts and feelings for them to understand her dramatic change of heart.
With a billion dollars and counting in profits this week, Gerwig doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for any of her creative decisions. As eye-poppingly imaginative as the script and art direction was, more substantial ideas might have been mixed in with the fun for viewers to think about after they left the show. Perhaps the film could be compared to a very elaborate doll house presented to a young girl, which the Edgeworths observed in Practical Education (1798), may not be able to hold her attention long:
A furnished baby-house [ i.e. doll house] proves as tiresome to a child as a finished seat is to a young nobleman. After peeping, for in general only a peep can be had into each apartment, after being roughly satisfied that nothing is wanting, and that consequently, there is nothing to be done.