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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

Follow the Pink Brick Road

Updated: May 20

My expectation for the movie was low.

I never had a Barbie doll of my own, and I don’t recall feeling deprived. Back in the 70’s, I aspired to feminism, but I’ll admit it was a challenging mantle to wear in the rural, midwestern town where I was a young mother of two. I remember feeling guilty about buying a Barbie for my daughter, who really, really wanted one for Christmas. It didn’t ruin her. She turned out to be a wonderful, creative, feet-on-the-ground woman, in spite of her Barbie phase in childhood. For all of my adult life I’ve known about the problem of distorted body images and body shaming that has become endemic in our culture. We’ve all worried about the causes and how to find the cure. The harshest critics of Mattel’s Barbie claimed that this doll’s appearance on the horizon had a negative mind-altering effect on our children. They said the Barbie doll was responsible for the body dysmorphia our culture suffers.

The Barbie movie spoofed that simplistic blame of the doll with a droll homage to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which prehistoric apes encounter an extraterrestrial monolith, which accelerates their evolution. The apes suddenly use bones as tools for smashing things and as weapons of power. The violence of it sears into the viewer’s brain, but it is understood that the course of humankind is forever changed. Greta Gerwig's Barbie opens with a narrative voice (Helen Mirren) explaining that since the beginning of time young girls had been content to play little mothers to their baby dolls; that is, until the monolithic Barbie sparked a new consciousness. The young girls respond by smashing their old dolls against the earth, and we understand the message quite viscerally―the imaginations of girls have been negatively altered by their contact with Barbie.

The film then glides into a light-hearted satire, which has many poignant truths that linger on, wanting to be pondered. Greta Gerwig, as writer and director (with credit to her co-writer, Noah Baumbach), has given us an insightful look at our culture and at a more or less unconscious dynamic happening within our own psyches.

We learn that Barbie Land is a place at the end of the pink-brick-road where perfection reigns. It is where every imagined potential that defines success in our western culture has been achieved by the collective of Barbies. All with the same name, they differentiate from each other by their career title. ( ie. President Barbie, Pilot Barbie, Doctor Barbie)

It is an alternate world where the collective Kens are dimly aware of their subservient roles to the feminine hierarchy. As Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) puts it, “But it’s Barbie. . . and Ken. There is no. . . just Ken.” He exists only as an accessory to Barbie. He is nothing when he’s not seen through the female gaze.

Through the wide-eyed realizations of Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) we understand that Barbie Land exists in a symbiotic relationship with the Real World. She had been unaware that everything is opposite for women in the Real World. She didn't know that a patriarchal Real World has placed women in a role of subservience with only as much worth as the male gaze proffers.

The two worlds balance each other out in a compensatory way. The extent to which the pendulum of power swings toward the patriarchy in the Real World, it swings in an equal, but opposite extent toward the matriarchy in Barbie Land. Whenever that balance is altered in one world, it is felt as a disturbance in the other. This is, of course, how the plot thickens.

Barbie first becomes aware of the Disturbance in mildly unsettling ways. Thoughts of death seep into her mind, cellulite appears on her flawless skin and her high-heel-shaped feet flatten to the ground! Reluctantly, she embarks on her heroic journey to the Real World to put things in order.

Ken tags along and manages to persuade Barbie that he can help her set things right. But he is hardly a Samwise to her Frodo. Their paths diverge almost immediately once he comprehends the unfathomable power of male dominance in the Real World. He envisions it’s his destiny to take the patriarchy back to the other Kens, (which portends trouble in Barbie Land.)

As any fairytale will inform us, things will never be the same again. Barbie’s heroic journey is long and fraught with dangers, but there are always unexpected helpers to point the way.

Barbie does find the Real person, Gloria, who is mysteriously connected to her and together they pinpoint the source of the Disturbance. Gloria (played by America Ferrera) is drowning in a mid-life crisis. She had always been an optimist, inspired by her Barbie dolls, which, she explains, symbolized all the possibilities she aspired to when she was young. She’s had a hobby of drawing sketches for new Barbie models and has dreamt of working for Mattel as an artist/designer for dolls. In reality, Gloria has a menial job at Mattel and is going nowhere. Her talents and intelligence are overlooked, underpaid, and minimized. Gloria suffers depression and her adolescent daughter has been pushing away. Her hopelessness is reflected in her latest sketches of depressive Barbie models with cellulite legs and flat-feet. It is Gloria’s ennui and low self-worth that have caused the recent Disturbance.

For me, this is the most interesting development of the story. It points to an entirely different approach. I wondered, “Why out of all the girls who grew up playing with Barbies, was Gloria’s depression affecting Stereotypic Barbie?” It is a wonderful conceit in Gerwig’s story. Just when we thought Barbie was the protagonist, it turns out the movie is actually about the development of Gloria, the woman who is at the core of the plotline.

Fairy tales can be understood on different levels. One level looks at the story as a symbolic commentary on the culture at large. (ie. One of Barbie’s broad themes is about the suppression of the feminine in a patriarchal culture.) Another level of a fairy tale looks at the intrapsychic dynamic, in which every character of the story represents a part of one person’s inner world. In this tale, a cast of characters in the Barbie film can be seen as various parts of one stereotypical Everywoman—Gloria.

Gloria is a person one can relate to. As a youngster her dreams were big and the possibilities were infinite. But her path in Real Life left many of her potentials behind; they were unlived, cut off from expression, and perhaps even unknown to her. We could say unlived parts of Gloria reside in her Barbie Land—an unconscious realm within her. Some of those potentials still carry the possibility for development, perhaps later in life. Other potentials may have become redundant—“discontinued”-- because they were simply too far-removed from the path she was destined to take.

Carl Jung notes that our dormant possibilities tend to remain in potentia as Shadow parts within the Unconscious. Shadow is not just the unwanted traits we’d like to be rid of; it includes any unlived potentials, some quite positive, within us.

Gloria’s psychological task in her “midlife crisis” is to go into that realm of Barbie Land in order to understand the problem. Many people on this type of a heroic journey find themselves in therapy for the first time in their lives. The story tells us that Gloria needs to find her voice and to name what has been wrong in her life. In a wonderful rant Gloria articulates how difficult it is to be a woman. It is only when she is able to find her voice that she breaks the spell under which the Barbies have fallen.

Barbie Land has a utopian, Garden-of-Eden innocence about it. There are no walls and no shame. But there is also no water of life flowing through it. There are no genitals in this realm, and therefore no creative expression will come from these potentials unless they are brought into the Real World. However we describe it—the principle of yin-yang, the joining of sperm-egg, alchemical coniunctio, the transcendent function—a creative potential comes to life when opposites come together.

Gloria describes her outer lived experience as a woman in a patriarchal society. Her unlived inner world is matriarchal to an equal degree. The spark of creativity is not possible in either of her worlds because of the polarized imbalance of power found in both realms.

Gerwig cleverly shows the suffering through Ken’s eyes. Perhaps we need to see the Kens in that underdog role in order to open our eyes to what happens to women in the Real World. Of course, the Kens are angry! Of course, they want to rule and make the Barbies suffer. The pendulum in Gloria's psyche swings to the opposite extreme before she finds her voice and a new balance.

The problem of a lopsided power structure is not fully resolved when Gloria first visits Barbie Land. We are told that the Barbies are back in power, albeit they show a little bit of new empathy for the Kens. Thankfully, Barbie Land will never go back to the way it was. The Kens have awakened from their deep sleep, and it seems they will no longer settle for “. . .and Ken” status. Hopefully the same is true for women in the Real World.

Will there be lasting changes for Gloria? It depends. Sometimes we visit our own inner Barbie Land as we would a vacation resort. We touch those wonderful potentials, feel rejuvenated and good about ourselves for a few days, but then fall back into old patterns.

Connecting with our Barbie potentials does not mean achievement of perfection. That bar, when it is sought, always moves beyond attainment. Both Barbie and Gloria must land somewhere in the middle. Barbie―an image of perfection―must become more “ordinary.” And Gloria must be able to say, as Ken does, “I am enough.”

The most heroic moment in any quest is when the hero/ine must make a choice—am I willing to settle for the idyllic-garden-of-Eden unconsciousness I had before, or do I choose the more difficult path of consciousness and creativity?

Without more spoilers, we come to the ending of a brilliant movie knowing that both Barbie and Gloria are more conscious now and transformations, (apparently), are happening within that will surely lead to something creative!

(No, I didn't buy it, she said somewhat wistfully.)

Links to interesting interviews:

Photos: Screenshots taken from internet video and movie clips. The Barbie movie is a trademarked Warner Bros. production.


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