This piece contains spoilers for Barbie (2023).
Editor's note: Scalawag stands in solidarity with the writers, actors, and others of SAG-AFTRA and WGA striking for fair pay and against wage discrimination.
During the peak of my childhood, my signature bedtime routine included being greeted by my Black Barbie princess bedsheets. It wasn't until much later into adulthood, thanks to Black Twitter, that I realized that countless other Black girls also had the same exact matching bedsheet and pillowcase combo growing up. It was one of those classic internet moments where we pondered the uniformity of our childhood, bringing back a simultaneous wave of nostalgia, laughter, and slight existential dread.
Barbie, in all her forms, was hands down the defining toy of my childhood: Olympic Skater Barbie, Generation Girl Barbie, Jam N' Glam Barbie, and the slew of career-centric Barbies. Mine all had one thing in common though: I only played with the Black ones.
Designed by Kitty Black Perkins and inspired by Diana Ross, Mattel's first Black Barbie doll, Christie, came onto the scene in 1968 and debuted in my playset in the late '90s. The shenanigans, storylines, and imaginative worlds I would conjure up were absolutely endless. My current affinity and expertise in storytelling has roots in the Barbie Dream House where I'd spend hours engrossed in worlds that I had created.
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Like me, millions of children playing with Barbie were being influenced by both the possibilities of our futures, thanks to Barbie having every conceivable profession ever under the sun. And as an abolitionist today, imagination is fuel.
We can also credit Barbie—and the billion-dollar corporation that birthed her—for perpetuating the restrictions and limitations on how we should look. Barbie's unrealistic body proportions ushered in some of my earliest memories of beauty standards policing our behaviors and self-image.
The iconic doll's legacy is complex and nuanced—and Greta Gerwig's Barbie blockbuster aspires to hold and tackle this through the film's self-referential and self-deprecating tone. Gerwig places Mattel's gendered capitalism squarely under the microscope, but its flimsy feminism falls short at a moment when the people who actually run Hollywood—the writers and actors—are striking because studios won't meet their demands of liveable, equitable wages.
Satire-laden from the jump, the pink fever dream that is Barbieland is built upon the premise that Barbie dolls' mere existence could successfully root out oppression brought on by patriarchal violence and gender inequities. In Barbieland, women navigate their own matriarchal society where Barbies lead every aspect of their communities across medical, legal, political fields and more. Meanwhile, the Kens in Barbieland do what they do best, serving as human accessories showering the Barbies with affirmations.
During an epic dance party full of glitz, glam, and synchronized choreography (I'm seriously impressed these A-listers were so in sync), Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) begins to question her own mortality and existence bringing the vibes to a (temporary) screeching halt. The next day, she's unable to carry out her usual flawless routine of getting dressed, making breakfast, and floating from her roof into her car. In search of answers as to why she's suddenly experiencing her first existential crisis, she meets with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) who informs her that each Barbie is emotionally connected to whomever is playing with her in the real world.
Therefore, Stereotypical Barbie will need to travel to the real world and find who's been playing with her to uncover how that person's emotional state is now impacting her, one of the film's driving plotlines. Hesitant at first, it is ultimately the fear of amassing more cellulite, a key indication that the real world is shedding her doll-like "perfection," that sends her and Stereotypical Ken (Ryan Gosling) on a journey to the real world aka Los Angeles. The anti-fatness within the cellulite cue is one of the first glimpses into the white feminism propping up the entire film universe: Barbie both claims to love and empower all women, including the full-size barbies scattered throughout the cast, but violently rejects becoming fat herself.
Barbie tracks down her owner at a nearby school, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who immediately bursts her bubble by chastising her and Barbies at-large for not only failing to end gender oppression and desirability politics in the real world but also for perpetuating and solidifying said oppression and capitalism's enduring legacy. Stereotypical Barbie's presence and existence has made it that much more difficult for Sasha and her squad to be girls in the real world.
With its limited feminist perspective, the film does not really stretch to interrogate the harmful, systemic structures like antiblackness, colorism, and anti-fatness that weaponizesStereotypical Barbie with what some call pretty privilege. But it does, perhaps inadvertently, illustrate how white women in particular navigate all worlds with it.
It wouldn't be a trip to the real USA without a cameo from the carceral state. As Barbie and Ken explore Venice Beach, they both immediately get arrested by LAPD twice, first for battery when Barbie punches a construction worker for catcalling her, and then for theft when Barbie and Ken fail to understand that they need to actually purchase their new fits. Though a brief scene overall, it's telling that Barbie, a toy who models a white woman, and the rest of the precinct are able to laugh off the back-to-back arrests, a nod to the ways conventionally attractive white women are able to escape the harms of incarceration due to desirability politics.
In Da'Shaun Harrison's Belly of The Beast, desirability politics "determine who gains and holds both social and structural power through the affairs of sensuality, often predicated on antiBlackness, anti-fatness, (trans) misogynoir, cissexism, queer antagonism and all other structural violence." Harrison emphasizes that to occupy a body that is Black, disabled, and fat among other marginalized identities is to constantly reckon with a lack of social capital that leads to being policed across every facet of our society. It means experiencing policing by state actors like police officers, judges and ICE, governments who determine housing and employment access, and medical professionals who determine quality of care and access to medications and procedures.
Sasha, who is firmly Gen Z, calling Barbie out for failing to reckon with these politics, is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this film could have done to criticize Barbie. But it's still energizing to see a young person of color on the road to understanding the intersection between desirability politics, policing, and structural violence The kids are more than alright.
Sasha, in particular, causes Barbie to spiral even further into her existential crisis. Stereotypical Barbie's entire worldview collapses and she nosedives into questioning everything, especially herself. If she's harming the very same people (like Sasha) she seeks to empower, what's the point of being pretty and "perfect"? Portrayals of existential crises in popular media often emphasize how it impacts the individual and their reactions to it vs. spotlighting the the structures and systems (i.e. white supremacy, capitalism, antiBlackness, policing) that lead to the crisis. Zeroing in on the interpersonal instead of the systemic level allows these structures to continue to be invisibilized and therefore, continue to remain untouched and unchallenged.
Unsurprisingly, Barbie questions and blames herself rather than interrogating the systems at play that have created the conditions she's just now learning about. This is white feminism in a nutshell, but aside from a throwaway line when Sasha calls Stereotypical Barbie "White Savior Barbie," the film fails to interrogate feminism through the lens of intersectionality—in fact, white feminism becomes the hero.
In the midst of being distraught, Barbie learns that Gloria (America Ferrera), who is Sasha's mother, has been playing with Barbie and navigating her own existential crisis, which is the reason why Barbie is now experiencing hers. Barbies are only a reflection of whatever mental state the person playing with them possesses. What bonds Barbie, Gloria, and Sasha is their understanding that it's impossible to be the "perfect" woman or girl and the ever-present identity crisis that follows. The goal posts move when it comes to ideal body shape, demeanor, and societal aspirations. Adhering to the rules and policing of American/Western femininity is a challenge—one that is set up to fail and made to constantly live in the fear of the consequences of inevitable failure. And while Barbie is wrapped up in herself, Stereotypical Ken went back to Barbieland to stage a patriarchal coup inspired by his time in the real world, where he finally saw men in power.
Though Ken is introduced to us as loving Barbie, it's clear he feels unseen and unaffirmed by her and resents her for it. Interacting with execs at Mattel in Century City, California, Ken relishes in the fact that men run the real world. He heads back to Barbieland without Barbie and convinces the other Ken dolls to take over and rule Barbieland like men do in L.A. (and beyond). Citing being tired of the labor that comes with holding all the responsibilities in Barbieland, the other Barbies easily fall in line under the new Ken regime. Barbies who were once President (Issa Rae), doctors (Hari Nef), physicists (Emma Mackey), and writers (Alexandra Shipp) are now overly submissive maids and housewives. If only patriarchy and traditional, cis-centered gender norms were this simple and horse-centric (a running joke in the film).
What Barbie does get right about gendered systemic oppression is that it's something that was created, and thus can be destroyed. It is Gloria's soliloquy about these concepts that end up saving Barbieland from the Kens' wrath.
With the help of Weird Barbie, Allan (Michael Cera), and other discontinued Mattel dolls, Gloria and Sasha are able to snap the Barbies out from under the Kens' trance by reminding them of their inherent worth and purpose and turn the legion of Kens against each other. The Barbies regain their control over Barbieland and Barbie and Ken apologize to one another and admit how they failed one another. Though all is now right in the Barbie World, Barbie remains unsure of herself and meets with Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), the inventor of the original Barbie doll. It's this meeting where Ruth names for Barbie that "humans make things up like patriarchy and Barbie" and "it's uncomfortable to be human." Barbie, affirming that she wants to be human, responds with "I want to make meaning, not be the thing that's made" and "I want to do the imagining." Taking it a step further, patriarchy, white supremacy, antiBlackness, and policing are all systems that were invented. There was a world before these systems which means there can be a world after them and without them—and it's one worth fighting for.
As the masses headed to theaters for the long awaited "Barbenheimer" double header, hundreds of thousands of actors, writers, and other entertainment workers have been striking to win higher compensation when working on shows for streaming services, to prevent AI from replacing workers, and to gain better benefits and protections all around for entertainments workers today and the workers that are coming up behind them. Like Stereotypical Barbie, it may seem like Hollywood is experiencing its own existential crisis right now. However, the spotlight is shining brightly on the systems, corporations, and billionaire executives who are to blame.
"This is not a sweeping biopic of a beloved figure, but it's clear that we want it to be." Barbie may have no point other than highlighting the irony of the astronomical public value assigned to the entertainment industry compared to that of its creators.
Barbie's place in my childhood nostalgia and pop culture at-large forces me, as an adult, to return the nuance and tension I had to hold when playing with my Christie dolls growing up. This film perfectly encapsulates the larger-than-life, imaginative universe that the doll makes possible and encourages us to build in our own worlds. I'm also holding that the film comes to us at a time where Hollywood's storytellers and worldbuilders are organizing for what they are justly owed while Mattel reportedly spent $100 million on marketing alone and made $155 million at the box office during its opening weekend. It comes at a time where late stage capitalism and corporate greed is ushering in an accelerating climate crisis, skyrocketing housing costs and other structural harms that I constantly consider and reckon with as an abolitionist.
Barbie is both resurging into our lives for those of us who consider the toy doll our favorite, while introducing the plastic icon and her cultural contribution to the harms of desirability politics and white feminism to a new generation of children, like my fave Sasha mentions. My abolitionist politic and my pop culture enthusiasm remind me that Barbie returning to the zeitgeist fills me with excitement and confirmation that the systems we are fighting against are intact and have a hold on the stories we consume through popular media.