I really expected to love “Barbie.” As someone with proudly lowbrow taste in movies, I normally adore a big summer popcorn blockbuster, and every millennial woman I knew seemed to consider it a pop-nostalgia masterpiece. So when I finally settled in to watch it this week, I wasn’t expecting high art, but I did think that I was probably in for a delightful couple of hours.
Instead, I left unsettled and frustrated: Something about the story seemed profoundly wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate what it was.
It wasn’t until I saw “A Mirror,” an excellent new play by Sam Holcroft at the Almeida Theater in London, that my objections clicked into place.
The play is set in a fictional totalitarian regime in which plays and literature are subject to strict censorship. That’s not because the government doesn’t respect the theater, a high-ranking censor named Mr. Celik explains to Adem, a young would-be playwright. Rather, it’s because it knows the power of stories to shape how people see the world, and to help them imagine how to change it.
Mr. Celik’s goal is to produce art that is carefully designed to limit the imagination: To present only the version of reality that the regime wants people to see, and to inspire only the feelings that it wants people to have.
But Adem keeps failing at that task. His plays, which remain hilarious as they become more and more dangerous, keep convincing his audience to engage with reality rather than overlook it.
In “Barbie,” the plot is incited when Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, starts experiencing glitches in plastic-perfect Barbie Land, where she and other Barbies live. Her feet go flat. She gets a tiny bit of cellulite on one leg. She has intrusive thoughts of death.
Weird Barbie, a wise sage played by Kate McKinnon with hacked-off hair and a drawn-on tattoo, informs Stereotypical Barbie that a little girl in the real world must be having dark thoughts while playing with her. “We’re all being played with, babe,” she asserts confidently.
So Barbie has to travel to the real world via a series of comically adorable conveyances, find her owner and fix what’s wrong. Otherwise she’ll continue to glitch, and even — gasp! — end up with cellulite all over her body.
It’s played for laughs, and I laughed, too. And the similarities with “A Mirror” are clear: Playful imagination can have serious consequences. But the stance “Barbie” takes on that seems to be closer to Mr. Celik’s than Adem’s.
The plot of “Barbie” implies that Barbie Land only exists in its usual happy form because little girls (and, it later turns out, adult women) have been having the correct thoughts while playing with the dolls. If they stop — if they start having thoughts of death, for instance — that threatens the dolls and their happy world.
Little girls, apparently, have been playing with Supreme Court Barbies without imagining the kinds of injustice that might need Supreme Court intervention, and with President Barbies without imagining the power that a president might wield.
But why? That seems to imply a far more limited kind of play than anything in the real world.
When children play, part of their fun comes from using their imaginations to work through their fears and try on borrowed bravery. Frankly, kids think about death a lot, and storytelling and play are ways to cope with those thoughts. This is probably why so many Disney movies involve a parent’s heartbreaking demise. And why “Bluey,” the beloved Australian cartoon whose portrayal of children’s play is among the most accurate I’ve ever seen, has story lines about children’s fear of abandonment, the needs of premature babies, infertility and the costs of perfectionism.
That kind of child’s play can have the same kind of consequences, on a smaller scale, as the theatrical plays Mr. Celik fears in “A Mirror”: It can prompt questions, inspire courage and convince people to try new things.
But the implication of the “Barbie” plot is that in its world, little girls don’t think about darkness when playing with their dolls. The movie never really wonders why.
No one, as far as the movie tells us, is constraining the way that girls play with Barbie dolls. Apparently they’re just keeping things cheery and light of their own accord — constraining themselves.
It’s just one of the ways that the overtly feminist movie seems to focus on the ways that women (and Barbies) internalize patriarchy, rather than on the violence that men use to preserve it.
In her widely praised, climactic monologue, America Ferrera’s character Gloria, a human-world mother and Mattel employee, decries the impossible pressures that make women “tie ourselves into knots so that people will like us.” That is certainly a problem. But as grim domestic violence statistics show, men also sometimes murder women for failing to conform to those impossible standards. They also pay women less money, and harass them at work. It’s not just an attitude problem; it’s also a power problem.
And part of the way that power works is by using women as window dressing for male authority — giving them the titles, just as in Barbie Land, but nothing more.
A few days ago, my colleagues reported that Ana Muñoz, the Spanish soccer federation’s former vice president for integrity, resigned after a year on the job after she realized that her male colleagues wouldn’t let her exercise real authority in her role. “I was just there for decoration,” she told The New York Times. “A flower pot.”
Female players in Spain told The Times that their male coaches and the soccer federation subjected them to humiliating control and verbal abuse. It also paid them vastly less money than it paid their counterparts on the men’s team.
But those women didn’t respond by tying themselves up in knots. Instead, they told the world their stories about their male bosses not giving them their due. And now they’re on strike, demanding better treatment.
As Mr. Celik says, a story can start a riot.
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