Discover more from Midlife Anti-Hero
Life in plastic is not so fantastic. Am I the only one who didn't L-O-V-E this movie? I have lots of questions and one theory.
I finally saw Barbie while lying on the couch in sweatpants last weekend.
As I tipped the Tate's chocolate chip cookie bag to my mouth to get the last crumbs, Barbie gasped at her encroaching cellulite. Soon, Weird-Barbie tells her, "You're gonna start getting sad, mushy, and complicated."
"No!" Screams Barbie and every woman everywhere. I should be happy, thin, and simple—like my Instagram feed.
Wait. That's just me?
Am I the problem?
Taylor Swift said she wrote the song Anti-Hero as a "guided tour through all the things I hate about myself." This is one way to watch the Barbie movie—a pink plastic reality tour of what women hate about themselves and why.
Yes! Patriarchy is to blame. But the dolls are doing it to themselves, too.
Barbie wakes up with a smile; her complexion is ever-lasting no-make-up perfection. She brushes her long blonde locks until each strand shines like diamonds bought with money she earned. All the other Barbies wave with admiration while performing their own candy-coated versions of a flawless #morningroutine.
I wonder what Barbie thinks when she gazes in her reflectionless mirror. "I'm perfect. I will never age. My outfits are perfect. My friends are perfect. And the men are —?" Barbie sighs—her morning breath like crushed mint and lilacs. Her mind is blank.
It's another beautiful day in Barbieland. The dolls are the best versions of their creator's idea of who they should be. They run the world, they're pretty, and they're body-positive (unless the body is pregnant or weird).
Is Barbie an aspirational lifestyle brand?
I thought of the trend to market feminism as Jessa Crispin described in her 2017 book, Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. "For too long, feminism has been moving away from being about collective action and imagination and towards being a lifestyle."
Barbie is one of the best-known brands in the world, but is she still aspirational? She "started out as a lady in a bathing suit, but she became so much more," the movie's narrator, the genuinely perfect Helen Mirren, reminds us. "Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything."
I reached for the cookies, pressed a palm to my wrinkled brow, and reminded myself to stop scowling.
Why was I so annoyed?
Barbie can be anything because Barbie isn't real. She doesn't worry about what other people think—they think like she does. She doesn't yearn to be desired because she's asexual. What's more, she doesn't struggle with balance or burn-out while striving to "have it all" because she will never have children or competition or (ugh) imposter syndrome.
"Turn to the Barbie next to you. Tell her how much you love her. Compliment her," commands President Barbie, and I can't help feeling that Barbieland is a giant pink circle jerk.
All the movie reviews and social media publicity had led me to believe the movie would represent a feminist utopia, but it was more of an upside-down world. The Barbies' lives are perfect because they have all the power. All the Kens can "beach off"—if only they had the means.
Isn't equality of rights, opportunities, and sexual freedom across ALL genders the goal of feminism?
Does Barbie hate men?
Maybe. She’s got plenty of reasons. If you're on social media at all, you can't have missed Gloria's (America Ferrera) monologue on the plight of women in the real-world patriarchy.
And a film critic in The Guardian did describe the ending as " effectively reducing men to pets."
Indeed, the movie's representation of patriarchy (and its downfall) is over the top. I suppose the point is to make a point, but I hate-watched it play out. I mean, what's with the horses?
To be honest, I found Ken pathetic. His lack of agency and self-awareness was as hard to swallow as the acid reflux from my sugary movie snacks.
Then again, it's not Barbie's job to fix Ken.
Is Barbie a hero?
The more I think about the movie's message, all wrapped up in plastic sets and ludicrous plot devices, the more I see this is not a typical hero's journey.
Barbie makes her way to the real world via car, spaceship, snow machine, boat, and rollerblades (if only she had a dragon), but she isn't on a heroic quest like Daenerys Targaryen set out to "break the wheel" (i.e., patriarchal rule) in Westeros or Scarlett, determined to save Tara.
Barbie's no hero. She lacks the requisite heroic qualities of courage, altruism, and empathy—because, you know, she's plastic. She's never lived a life that demanded anything from her. Barbie’s quest is selfish —to erase her self-doubt and smooth her ever-so-slightly dimpled thighs—to maintain the stereotypical ideal.
Move over Khaleesi. Step aside, Scarlett. Barbie is the new anti-hero—first-of-her-name, the stereotypical queen of the dolls, breaker of twisty-ties in plastic boxes, mother of none.
She's kind of a narcissist, like Scarlett, but we root for her anyway. They share these characteristics of classic literary anti-heroes.
Need for admiration— expressed by cute outfits and tiny waists.
Low amounts of empathy—Fiddle-dee-dee, Ken. "Every night is girl's night!"
Willingness to manipulate—Is Weird Barbie the new Frank Kennedy? Both characters are stepping stones to our anti-heros' ambitions.
Author's note: since this is my first post under the banner of "Midlife Anti-Hero," I want to clarify my meaning. A midlife anti-hero is complex, imperfect, and deeply skeptical about other people's expectations of who and what she should be or might have been. A midlife Anti-Hero rescues herself.
Margot Robbie described Barbie's growth this way. Barbie calls herself a "Stereotypical Barbie because she's already putting herself down." Over the course of the film, she learns to recognize these “parameters” and “break free” of them—in true midlife anti-hero fashion.
What about Ordinary Barbie?
I have many questions about the ending, and many conflicted feelings about the film overall, which I’m eager to discuss in the comments. But first, I have to talk about Ordinary Barbie.
Gloria (the movie’s real hero) pitches an idea for an ordinary Barbie. The kind of doll that just “wants a flattering top, and to get through the day feeling kind of good about herself.”
Okay, fine. But who gets to decide what ordinary looks like? But what’s flattering? How does she identify? Will there be trans, queer, or fat versions? What about an abortion-Barbie? (#FreeMidge)
Isn’t the goal of feminism for the entire spectrum of dolls to be considered ordinary? As in equal.
If the movie has a message for me, it’s this: We need an Anti-Hero Barbie. Because she is extraordinary, and no one’s going to put her in a box—not anymore.
Midlife Anti-Hero is a reader-supported publication. To receive weekly posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Help Yourself Reading Recommendations
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Based on her TEDx talk, a short, enlightening little book from a self-proclaimed “happy African feminist who does not hate men, and who likes to wear lip gloss and high heels for herself and not for men.” Find it here.
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Ada Calhoun
“So much of womanhood just hurts,” writes Calhoun (as if cautioning real-world Barbie). “Cramps, childbirth, mammograms, Pap smears, breastfeeding—not to mention eyebrow threading.” Find it here.
Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus
Not for nothing, Garmus was 65 when she published this, her first novel. While the men might have imagined the novel’s protagonist as a kind of “Chemist-Barbie,” Elizabeth Zott is a feminist anti-hero—true to herself from beginning to end. Find it here.
Hey Kitty …
Me: You’re beautiful.
Kitty: I know that.
Work hard. Be brave. Believe.