Barbie was a lot of fun; some sharp gags, pacy, well-acted, gorgeous to look at and managing to tread a delicate line between rallying for female empowerment and detailing how patriarchy does as little favours for men as for women.
I’d noticed the controversies around the map that got the film banned in Vietnam and the casting of Hari Nef, but nowhere have I seen mention of what gave me the most disquiet: The reaction to the pregnant Barbie. She causes immense revulsion, both at the beginning where we meet the whole parade of Barbies and towards the end, where the ‘I thought she’d been discontinued’ gag is repeated. Twice, as dear Lady Bracknell observed, looks like carelessness.
You could forgive the first time – after all, this is a make believe world, where the dolls have no reproductive organs anyway, but in the last section, man-baby boss Will Ferrell journeys from the ‘real’ world to Barbieland. He literally shudders in horror when he spots her, while she grins inanely in the background, a cavalier dismissal I found disturbing. He is backed up by his collection of suited drones, their dark formality deliberately jarring with the colourful sunshine world where all the Kens do ‘beach’ as their employment.
It was particularly odd, not only due to the film bending over backwards on the diversity front, but because the mother-daughter relationship was a recurring theme throughout. The plot is driven by Margot Robbie’s quest to find her ‘owner’ Gloria, (whose thoughts of death are being transplanted) and her attempts to reconnect with her daughter. Gloria longs for the former closeness with her child but is being firmly rebuffed by the truculent teen. Not only that, but our main character meets ‘Ruth Handler’, who explains she created Barbie, giving the doll her daughter’s name.
The squeamishness around sexuality is overturned by the end, as Barbie moves to the real world and announces herself – Barbara Handler – ecstatically to the receptionist at the….and she can barely control her excitement…gynaecologist. So, it seems we’re all ok with the concept of sex and even that of motherhood, but the state between the two is unmentionable…?
What about the other two misfits in the film – Weird Barbie and Allan? They are both wholeheartedly welcomed into the brave new world at the end and find their place, but not our pregnant Barbie, who goes by the name Midge I discovered. Midge the doll was NOT a success in the 60s, the ‘ugly sidekick’, with her detachable bump and her supposed promotion of teen pregnancy, despite being married to Allan and in her twenties – how could this happy family fall foul of conservative America?
I wondered if there was more to it than met the eye and a friend alerted me to the article about Barbie’s friend Midge, particularly intriguing to me as I have red hair and my family nickname is Midge! It appeared this April, stating pregnant Barbie and Allan are the only two non Barbies to feature on publicity posters. I can’t remember if she’s mentioned by name in the film, because far from having a story arc, I don’t think she ever appears as more than a maniacally waving distant object.
What is peculiar is it’s implied from ‘Midge’s’ inclusion on the posters that she would feature more in the film, but she doesn’t, which is at odds with the article’s prediction of fans’ excitement about her prominence. I don’t think she even speaks. Despite the gynaelogical gag and notions of diversity and inclusivity, it seems Barbieland, in life and in this film, can only accept woman as wide eyed innocent or as settled mother past her prime. It doesn’t actually give them true autonomy over their bodies and the messy, but empowering, business of pregnancy, childbirth or new motherhood.