While Barbie might feel incredible in box office numbers or record-breaking stats, for all its flaws there is a strong mythos fuelling the film through – Isabella Vega explores the deeper meaning of Greta Gerwig’s latest feature.
Greta Gerwig is a spiritual artist. Whether she identifies as religious or spiritual doesn’t quite matter. Her art has an uncanny ability to pierce through the veil of unrelatability of what we see on screen, moving audiences deeply. The profound emotional intelligence and divine motifs that Gerwig wove throughout her previous films Lady Bird and Little Women, gave way to great potential for spiritual work when Gerwig would adapt the story of the world’s most iconic and oft-regarded vapid doll, Barbie.
Barbie begins within an Eden-esque paradise known as Barbieland, where every inch of the dolls’ lives functions in perfect synchronicity, and everyday is “the best day ever”. In Barbieland, the houses have no walls – concepts of shame or nudity or secrets are unknown to its inhabitants, mirroring the creation myth of Adam and Eve, who, before gaining knowledge of their consciousness, neither felt naked in themselves or about each other, because the concept has no meaning in a world where there is no self, just a hive mind of people who do and act the same. While there are distinctions in Barbieland (President Barbie, Lawyer Barbie, Physicist Barbie and many more), at their core, they are all Barbie – same parts, same thoughts, same lives.
Barbie’s awareness (Margot Robbie plays “Stereotypical Barbie” specifically) of her mortality is what starts her journey, but her awareness of her body and the space it takes up, her true “nakedness”, amplifies it.When she and Ken arrive in the real world, the pair, clad in bright, campy, '80s-esque clothes, roller skate down the beach. While men high-five and fist-bump Ken, seemingly for his ability to be the man who is with Barbie, Barbie is ogled at and visually defiled mercilessly. The distinction between people’s reactions to Barbie and Ken are an obvious reflection of real-life gender disparity and the objectification of women, but also speaks to the Adam and Eve creation myth. Adam was created first, while Eve was formed from his rib, interpreted by many as Eve being an extension of Adam, and only adding to his “value” as a man. This applies to Ken’s status as Barbie’s “accessory” in Barbieland, but for Barbie herself in the real world, seen only as a “trophy” for Ken to show off.
Once Barbie realises how her body is perceived in the real world, she immediately feels uncomfortable and confused. She has no definition for this concept, but stumbles over her words to try and make sense of the feeling, pointing out that she is acutely aware of her body, and how other people are reacting to it. The sense of nakedness sits deep in her chest and wide-eyed gaze, and the fear is palpable – she feels aware and conscious of herself for the first time, leading her to recoil and want to cover up (only leading to further harassment from two misogynistic police officers). While this scene is uncomfortable to behold, as many audience members have surely felt this non-consensual objectification, it is the first moment in the film where Barbie knows what it is to have a self that is fully her own, and can not retreat back into the safety of the hive mind that she perpetually existed in. Barbie is now an individual, with a body that is all her own, in all of its strangeness.
As Barbie tries to find the girl who is playing with her, she finds herself sitting on a bench, looking out at a park. As she looks around, she sees for the first time, flashes of humans in various states of being – a couple looks lovingly at each other, a woman walks her dog while playing with her daughter, a man hides his head in his hands in unmistakeable anguish. If it’s true that each one of these humans is an island, then the connectors that make them a continent is Barbie’s empathy.
This empathy was always there – but that empathy was not a necessary state in Barbieland, where Barbie is everyone. The idea of self was contained within the multitudes of the community – no doll is truly completely unique, and no doll has a need to cultivate an interior life. Here, the magic of being human is living in the wondrous and melancholic first-person, feeling and experiencing everything individually, but doing so together. Barbie feels what others are feeling for the first time, which scares her but makes her feel whole in a way she never thought she could feel.
Barbie ends this scene of reflection by looking up at the trees in the park, a shade of green deeply foreign to her but somehow the most calming sight she’s ever experienced. Suddenly, I’m looking up at the big oak that covered my childhood backyard, lying in the grass, wondering about the breeze and what my mother is making for dinner. It’s a scene that is pantheistic in its simplicity, where every single part of the branch can be a small God in its own right, and somehow everything becomes a miracle.
At the film’s emotional climax, Barbie is led to a white heaven space by Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie. After Ken’s resounding lesson in learning to be an individual man without Barbie, she is left to wonder what she is, if she can even return to Barbieland having known the real world, and what it means to be human. If she even knows what she was made for. Ruth gently guides her to this room, where she bestows upon her a gift: the idea of a choice.
In this heaven-like space, Gerwig shows us her God. A God that gently takes you by the hand and tells her that the road ahead is hard, but worth it. A God that is kind, and benevolent, and tells you that the ache of being alive is just a new colour that adds to the kaleidoscope of living. A God that’s walked through the same trials and unnervingly difficult tribulations that you have, who tells you to look to them for hope that you will get through it, and to hold on to the rope she left behind when she traveled in your worn-out shoes.
Gerwig usurps a studio’s insistence on spoon-feeding and lets the audience sit with Barbie in every newly fledged dimension of her body, heart, and soul, as the colour of the back of your eyelids flashes behind her. She inhales and takes the hands of her God, seeing, once again, the trees of our childhood, peppered with people experiencing birthdays, christmases, new years, or just celebrating the magic in an ordinary day. Barbie’s God gifts her with the divine sight of seeing how her life will pan out before it does, the pain and joy all wrapped into one, and allows her the choice, which she takes willingly and excitingly. Barbie chooses to live the full spectrum of what it means to be human, to have a self that is fully unique and actualised, to live in the aching wonder of humanity. That, to me, makes Barbie a spiritual work of the most necessary calibre.