Photo by: Xinyi Song // Unsplash

Barbie’s Burning Heart

Surprised by the Barbie movie, Carie shares what struck her in the film.

Spoiler alert! I totally ruin the end! Watch the movie first!!

I arrived at the Southeast Family CL Vacation fresh off the boat where I had been isolated from the normal cultural happenings for all of June and July (I’m in the Navy). So when my friend Whitney started telling me the story of her family going to see a movie, I missed the title and was getting more lost by the minute. Pink, glitter, existential drama, what movie is this? Barbie? Is it a movie? I didn’t know we had transitioned culturally to “The Year of the Barbie Movie”, but Whitney was so excited, and I was not. Barbie? Ya, not for me, thanks. Mine was a perfectly unreasonable position given that Whitney and I make a podcast each month on movies, books, and music, and her taste, especially concerning what I will like, is impeccable. At her urging, and with plenty of skepticism, I watched the trailer she pulled up on her phone. It was exactly as bad as I thought until the music screeched to a halt with the line, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” followed closely by the Morpheus stand-in offering the choice between returning to blissful ignorance or finding out the truth of the universe. And Barbie wants to take the Blue Pill! Her first instinct is to choose to ignore what is happening, hoping it will resolve itself if she just stands still and lets it pass. Whitney was right: this is a movie right up my alley.

I went to see Barbie with some friends from my School of Community and a new friend from work: three men and two women in total. I laughed at all the funny parts, which make up most of the movie, and I was continuously caught off guard by how intelligent, surprising, on point, and enlightening it was. We came out of the theater with questions and observations that deepened and multiplied all summer.

The first thing that struck me was the introduction to the movie which illustrates the advent of Barbie within the whole history of how little girls learn what it is to be “woman”. It shows how dolls historically have been replicas of future children (“babydolls”), nurturing a desire and providing a shadowy practicum for motherhood in young girls. And then Barbie arrives on the scene: literally larger than life, perfect hourglass figure, rocking high heels in a bathing suit, and trading eyeglasses for sunglasses. The response is not just admiration, but the literal shattering of the previous paradigm. The movie then cuts to a brilliantly executed Barbie Land: pinpoint plastic perfection. For anyone who has ever sipped imaginary tea or been handed a teacup “brimming with brew” by a very earnest little girl, the whole opening sequence in Barbie Land is raucously accurate. Yet there’s an immediate problem. If Barbie can go through her whole day without having to actually look at anything — not the mirror, the toaster, the road, or her neighbor — because everything is perfect (and therefore perfectly predictable), there can be no surprises. As she does her morning routine all the Barbies greet each other, but without even the appearance of a question. It’s all “Hey, Barbie!” and never, “How are you, Barbie?”

Inside all the upbeat dance music, though, the chord of unease is already present: “My heart could be burning/but you won’t see it on my face…lately, I’ve been moving close to the edge.” It’s amid her nightly, choreographed, girls rule dance party that this “burning heart” tips over the edge and the first real question of the movie erupts: “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Even Barbie is taken aback at her own question; she doesn’t know from where it came, but it is so out of place in that diamond dazzle that it stops the music and makes all the Barbies stare at her. It’s interesting that this question, which doesn’t seem to actually be hers, seemed liable to get lost in the myriad storylines unfolding in this film. Yet it is inextricably linked to the tension between ideas and reality. The tension between what lasts forever and maintains its “out of the box” smell and that which changes, grows old, becomes wise, suffers, and dies. It’s this profound unease that roils up in every satirical montage, that strikes at the heart of the matter and causes that “achy but good” sensation that gets Barbie walking down a path in which she ultimately discovers herself to be particularly human and not stereotypical Barbie.

What I like the most about this movie is that no one was right in the end. Everyone discovered something that they could only see by living – including me sitting in the theater and then in the experience of discussing this with my friends, or anyone who has actually seen the film. If you watched the trailer, you heard, “humans only have one ending; ideas live forever”, and if you’re like me, you understood that the movie was advocating for the latter. Ideas trump humanity because I don’t want the “best day ever” to end; I don’t want my limits and the limits of others to win the day. Yet, the unease of Gloria – the mom nostalgically playing with her daughter’s old Barbie – that broke through Barbie Land’s bubble and propelled Barbie into the Real World ultimately becomes Barbie’s unease.

It’s a profound unsettling that asks a question Barbie Land can’t answer: Who am I? What am I made for? It’s a human question that demands a human answer, which is where Ruth, the creator of Barbie, enters to show her perfect, plastic, fantastic idea what it means to love and, therefore, to be human. Ruth takes Barbie’s question seriously and gives her the real deal of being human: “and then you die.” Barbie is undeterred. She wants to do the imagining and not be the imagined. She wants to be part of a people that makes meaning rather than just the thing that is made. We, who are trying to recover the awareness of our original dependence, might quake at those “meaning making” words, but Barbie is talking about being an object, a plastic plaything, and she wants instead what’s real. She asks Ruth for permission to be human, assuming her creator controls her (which makes sense since her previous bout of “irrepressible thoughts about death” came from Gloria, her owner), and here we get the most truly maternal response: “I don’t control you any more than I can control my own daughter.” It’s a statement of freedom, a mother’s freedom in front of her child’s freedom, and so is full of love and not resignation or resentment. Rather than passing judgment over Barbie’s desires (pro or con), Ruth reframes the whole scene, “I always knew that Barbie would surprise me…I hoped for you like I hoped for her [Barbara, her own daughter].” The little, old, hunched woman takes the hands of tall, stunningly beautiful, forever young Barbie, and shows her all the light, the mess, and the suffering of being human.

Barbie has seen enough to follow, and so takes a step not too long for her disproportionately long legs. The very first scene seemed to smash all the “traditional values” of womanhood and femininity and replace them with a new hope for girls wanting to take on the world and mold it into the stuff of their dreams. It might even seem that Barbie’s desire to be human was rooted in her ambition to make herself instead of being made, to throw off gender norms and shape the world according to her ideal. But these first glances seem too shallow if we consider the final scene. On her first day as a bona fide woman we are shown a glaringly clear place to start as Barbie keeps asking these questions: Who am I? What am I made for? The place to start is her own body, which is now the body of a fully human woman. Gloria drops her off at the curb, in her business casual garb and cute, but flat, sandals, and wishes her luck. For what? A job interview? Nope. Her first stop as a woman: the gynecologist.

Carie, Jacksonville, FL