I went to watch Barbie on the opening weekend, like every other person on the planet. I dutifully wore some hot pink, but in retrospect it transpired that I was also bringing the Kenergy. I had my leopard-print coat draped over my shoulders, channelling his wonderfully high-camp mink. Thank god the film was directed by seriously credentialed Greta Gerwig, because how else would I explain — to myself or anyone else — that I am now literally a Barbie fan girl, aspiring to live my best life in my Barbie dream house while also maintaining the fanciful illusion that I might be a serious person not susceptible to taking lifespo from a plastic doll with improbable limbs?
If, in some parallel universe, you’ve missed this cultural juggernaut, the short and the tall of if it is that somehow the Barbieverse, where permanently happy and empowered plastic women live in a perennial Beyoncé video and run the world, meets the real real. Barbie develops a problem not even Dr Barbie the podiatrist can fix — she becomes flat footed; her floint (the classic position of her foot, both flexed and pointed) is flattened by the sheer weight of the actual-what-the-f*ck patriarchy.
The moment of truth, the cri de coeur, the turning point in the film, where the flat foot of real life meets the existential despair that could, understandably, grind down a woman’s spirits and result in all our inner Barbies lying face down on the floor in a state of disrepair, questioning everything, is summarised in a resounding speech delivered by America Ferrera. She is the Gloria of the film, the “every woman” of the real world, the striving multitasker juggling home, a dysfunctional work environment, a Duolingo-obsessed husband, and an angry teenage daughter, while still carrying the ghost of Ugly Betty just beneath her hard-won surface polish.
She looks at the quivering plastic mess that is Barbie’s id and gives the speech that wakes up all the sleeping Barbies who have been overcome by the sudden onset of Ken’s newfound bromance with the patriarchy.
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary. But somehow we’re always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but you also have to be thin… You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women, because you’re supposed to be part of the sisterhood, but always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged.
"So, find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off… I am just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so other people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”
Hear hear, sister. But what is to be done?
At the risk of sounding like a Grinch invading the Barbie feminist trope, what are Barbie’s real choices? Things don’t look so fabulous in the real world and the flat foot is getting me down. All the women presidents we were holding up as brilliant examples of “girl power” have resigned in the past year. All the reproductive rights are being mopped up by brigades of angry, righteous, fire-and-brimstone conservatives. Ancient men want to run for second presidential terms despite clear signs of dementia, which is not even early onset but just on time for the age group in question, and ageing oligarchs continue to bomb the sh*t out of their neighbours because they need to swing something and it may as well be a projectile missile.
You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off… And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.
And don’t get me started on the Taliban or the great return of the morality police in Iran after the season of protest. No, things are great, Barbie should totally come and join us in the real world. Because what really matters is that plastic surgery and interventions to inflate various body parts, including but not restricted to your breasts, your butt, your cheekbones, and your credit-card debt, are all on the rise. The incremental growth of the “beauty” industry should tell us something. But what?
I am just as much a victim as a perpetrator. I practise mindfulness every day and then I stand in front of the mirror questioning every sign that my body and my face are caught up in the inevitable passage of time. In Barbie, the incomparably beautiful Margot Robbie (even Helen Mirren’s sardonic voiceover is forced to point out the inevitable irony in the casting), dressed in her cowgirl hot-pink extravaganza, sits down on a park bench and, in the midst of her brush with reality, meets an old woman who has clearly never met a plastic surgeon or botox needle she has liked. This old lady is untrammelled by the trappings of modern aesthetics and ageing.
Martha Stewart (whose recent foray onto the cover of Sports Illustrated did more for airbrushing, both surgical and back at the editing suite, than anything for the idea of pushing the needle on what 82 really looks like) she is most certainly not. The tech titans working on immortality medicine are equally death-defiant. If old age as an inevitable function of the human trajectory is still so existentially challenging, especially with the onset of the Insta-life, where nothing is as it seems, then the little exchange on the bench is both poignant and totally delusional.
Robbie, in the great flush of her perfect beauty, looks over at the old lady and says, “You’re so beautiful.” The old lady answers beatifically, like a Zen sage of some halcyon place untrammelled by any of the social constructs plaguing the rest of us, “I know.”
Still, I am a Barbieliever. It’s got to mean something that even the most perfect doll in the world has a little brush with the flat foot that besets the rest of us mere mortals and chooses to go with it.