Every woman, at some point in her life, has lived in Barbieland.
I was there too, and I remember it well. Picture me, reader—a lonely little girl with perpetually busy parents, with only her riotous imagination and a gaggle of (knockoff) Barbies for company. Seven years old, with a body I had not yet begun to starve, and a face I turned toward the world without shame, for I had yet not been taught that its imperfections were imperfections. I was invincible. I felt no fear, and neither did my Barbies, who robbed banks, performed open heart surgery and baked cakes with great aplomb, in four-inch stilettos all the while.
Seven-year-old me wore hot pink leggings under rainbow tutus and beaded necklaces, and thought (nay, knew) that I looked like a million bucks. My Barbies, too, wore whatever they wanted, for it never entered my little head that they could not. They could do anything, be anything, and so could I.
I had a Ken doll too, I think, though he mostly lay face-down in some forgotten corner. Like the boys in my real life, he was a pleasant non-entity who lingered at the peripheries of Barbieland, something to giggle over now and then, but lacking the vital force that made Barbie Barbie.
Then, I grew up. I left Barbieland and entered the real world, where the rose-coloured paint began chipping off my glasses. The halcyon days of my infallible girlhood had irretrievably disappeared, and would never again be anything more than a hazy pink memory, a time when the world did not seem to have jagged edges. I also realized, to my alarm, that the boys of my youth had lost their sweetness and innocence. Somewhere along the way, they picked up an ugly ability to hurt and degrade, and for the first time, I felt a kind of visceral fear that would over time become all-too-familiar, channeling into an acute awareness of my femaleness, and its vulnerability. Through their eyes, I gained a new understanding of my body, the body that once ran wild through gardens and became bloody and bruised as I scrambled up trees, a body that ate well and took up space without second thought, as a thing. It would never be mine again—not really.
These days, I’m no longer invincible. I’m not even happy, really. The crushing weight of it all—the realization that I am imperfect, and the regret from having made more mistakes than I ever thought possible, the perpetual inadequacy of never feeling pretty, or smart enough, the knowledge that I have hurt and caused harm to others, hatred of my own flawed, mortal body—has taken its toll. I can’t do this. I can’t go on, I think, often. I don’t know how to be a woman, how to be a person. I give up.
And all the while, Barbie, my childhood comrade, seems to sneer at me. She is no longer a symbol of glittery pink girl power but a reminder of my inadequacy. With her thousand-megawatt smile and four-inch waist, her countless careers and glossy hair, she represents an ideal of female perfection that I will never achieve. Bitch.
My story of leaving little-girl-Eden and reckoning with the complexities of being an adult woman is a universal one. It’s every girl-turned-woman’s story, more or less. And surprisingly enough, in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), it’s Barbie’s story as well.
In Barbie (2023), the titular blond doll (played by real-life Barbie, Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland—a matriarchal utopia where nothing ever changes, and every day is pinker than the last—when she begins to experience some very human emotions: anxiety, insecurity, fear of death. And so she ventures out into the real world, where she is quickly harassed, objectified, and told to get back in her box. She cries, fails, feels lost. It is a poignant allegory for the growing pains young women experience as they struggle to create their own identity, and find their place in a world that is confounding in general, and hard on women in particular.
But then, Barbie rallies. She grows. She looks at an old woman sitting by her, her face crinkled and creased with time. You are so beautiful, she says, crying. Barbie realizes, as we all do at some point in our lives, that to be human is to experience pain and transience. You feel sad, inadequate, and wonder about your place in the world. You lose your physical beauty, and inevitably die. But to be human is also to love, to experience the wonder and joy of being alive, to be real in every sense of the word.
Barbie realizes that she can never return to the pink, plastic wonderland of Barbieland now. It was a child’s paradise, and a world of infinitely greater complexity lay beyond its painted horizons. She must grow up, must accept that being a real person in the real world is both a beautiful and terrible thing. She must choose the joy with the sorrow, the knowledge that she will die with the privilege of being alive, the wonder of being a woman with the injustice and violence she will face as a result of her womanhood.
And despite the sense of limitless possibility she felt in Barbieland, Barbie realizes that she cannot, in reality, do and be anything. But she doesn’t have to. Her worth as a human being does not originate from exceptional accomplishments. She does not need permission from some divinity to be human, or need to prove herself in order to be worthy of her womanhood. She does not need to be blonde, hyperfeminine Stereotypical Barbie, or Astronaut Barbie, or President Barbie. She can just be. She can be Handler-comma-Barbara, a real, perhaps even rather mediocre woman, with foibles and flaws, who wears Birkenstocks and who needs to see the gynecologist sometimes. She is allowed to simply exist, and carve out her identity along the way. For such is the messy, mundane miracle of being a real person.
Barbie (2023) is a complicated movie, and like its divisive blonde namesake, will mean different things to different people. Much will be said about it. That it’s too feminist and not feminist enough. That it only weakly critiques the rampant capitalism of its parent company, Mattel, a critique that is promptly invalidated by Mattel’s use of the movie to aggressively market its brand. There will be valid criticisms, and intelligent think-pieces, and sharp analyses about it.
I have neither the eloquence nor the desire to produce any of those. What I do wish to express is that, to me, Barbie (2023) was a beautiful Bildungsroman that felt uniquely relevant to my own transition from girlhood to womanhood, from childhood to adulthood. I felt incredibly moved by it, and like many other pink-clad women in the audience, I cried watching it. Seeing this intimately familiar and distinctively female experience reflected on screen felt cathartic and validating. And most importantly, I found Barbie (2023) to be a fundamentally hopeful movie, one that has infinite empathy for Barbie herself, and for every little girl who once resided in Barbieland with her, before stumbling out into the real world on unsteady feet.
When the film ends, Barbie is okay. She is messy and human, but more or less, okay. And maybe, just maybe, I will be too.