Barbie’s Dreamworld Is More Than a Political Battlefield, It's a Celebration of the Imagination.
by Jacqueline Knirnschild (Ohio, 26)
When I walked out of the Barbie movie, my hair was dolled up in fuchsia ribbons, but my understanding of what I had just experienced was low. The opening Space Odyssey satire had, admittedly, given me chills; the Dreamworld details were perfect—sparkly slipper heels, matchy- matchy bows and hats, a pink ambulance; and Margot Robbie was exactly how I had imagined Barbie to look when I was a little girl meticulously crafting my own Dreamworld. But, as soon as we left behind the crisp, dazzling fantasy for the vulgar grittiness of the real world, I was disappointed. The second half of the movie felt like a pink fever dream, and, initially, I didn’t know what to make of it.
Director Greta Gerwig seemed to be putting forward two competing messages. The first, that Barbie’s Dreamworld is a flimsy, superficial, consumerist fantasy that needs to be discarded in order to embrace the real, aka better, world. And the second, that Barbie’s Dreamworld is a matriarchal utopia worthy of saving from the obtuse cowboys of Kendom. But how could both of these ideas be true at the same time? How could Barbie’s Dreamworld be both a frivolous fantasy and a matriarchal utopia? Was Gerwig saying that matriarchy is a fantasy we need to discard in order to embrace reality?
Once in the real world, Barbie was shocked to be objectified by men and berated by the very teenage girls she had supposedly saved. At the same time, these experiences, along with observing people in the park and sharing a moment with an elderly woman at a bus stop, wiped away a bit of Barbie’s plastic sheen to expose the raw humanity within. This newfound humanity enabled her to resist the temptation to be put inside of a box, an obvious metaphor for the roles and expectations into which women are trapped, cuffed by the plastic chains of capitalism. “It’s been so long since I’ve been inside of a box,” Barbie said wistfully, showing how a superficial life, lived inside a box or Instagram frame, is tempting in its simplicity. It would be so much easier for Barbie to go back to living in a flawless world without any difficulties than it would be to embark upon a messy journey full of challenges and growth. Luckily though, she escapes the bureaucratic buffoons of Mattel and returns, more woman than doll, to the Dreamworld, with mom Gloria and daughter Sasha in tow.
But while Barbie had been discovering herself in the real world, Ken had been discovering the suits and ties, chiseled jaws, horses, and cowboys of toxic masculinity. Ken, who really just wants to love and be loved, becomes seduced by the promises of patriarchy. Like many lost young men today—I’m thinking of Jordan Peterson acolytes—Ken wants an easy path to success and love that doesn’t involve any actual work and that’ll lead him right into Barbie’s arms. He mistakes power for fulfillment and adoration for love, which is how and why he turns Barbie’s Dreamworld into a nightmare: Kendom.
When Barbie, Gloria and Sasha arrive, all the Barbies are subservient to the Kens, running around in maid costumes and serving them “brewski beers.” The pristine pink Barbie houses are overrun by horse montages and old western pub décor. To recapture their Dreamworld, aka their imaginations, the weird outcast Barbie—who represents the “used” woman who has adventured and “played” so hard that she is no longer desirable or wanted—gathers the discontinued dolls together to deprogram the rest of the brainwashed Barbies, who are under a spell that makes them believe a world in which they are mere objects of desire is better than world in which they are capable of desire. “It’s like a spa day for my brain—forever,” quips one of the Barbies, exemplifying how a compromised or stolen imagination can be tricked into thinking that easier means better.
The outcasts use decoys to distract the Kens, recapture the rest of the Barbies, break the trance, reclaim the Dreamworld, and live happily ever after. But wait, not so fast. Barbie then decides to leave behind the Dreamworld to “become a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.” This coming-of-age narrative shows that the Dreamworld is akin to childhood, which, though is often full of silliness, is, obviously, a crucial developmental stage. Childhood is when our imaginations run free, unbridled by the qualms of adulthood and political correctness; when we imagine who we want to become in the future. The last line, “I’m here to see my gynecologist,” is more than just a joke, it’s Barbie’s first step in creating her adult life, in taking ownership and agency over her body and herself. No more box and no more plastic blob genitals.
In past stories about women who break free from the box—think Daisy Miller, Anna Karenina, Lily Bart, Edna Pontellier, Lilia Herriton—the female protagonist always dies young and tragically. This death does not necessarily serve as punishment for her transgressions, but rather, could show that society, and the collective imagination, is not yet ready for such independent, free-thinking, creative women. Literary critic Tony Tanner writes that the transgressive, passionate female protagonist of the 19th century, like Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, can only die because “constituted as she is there is literally no place for her in society.” This type of woman would be utterly miserable in the repressive societies of the 19th and early 20th centuries and thus it was more merciful for the author to grant her death than to banish her to a zombie-like existence in a world that would never accept her as she is. At the end of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novella The Awakening, before Edna Pontellier walks into the sea and lets herself drown, a bird with a broken wing beats the air above, “reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” Patriarchal society had broken Edna’s wings so terribly that she couldn’t function in reality and felt it was better to let her soul “wander in the abysses of solitude.”
In Gerwig’s Barbie, we have a similar narrative: a doll who is performing her role in society begins questioning the nature of life and death, goes on a heroic journey, forms meaningful connections with others and, finally, steps out of the box. But then, instead of dying, Barbie helps keep the matriarchal dreamworld alive, which optimistically suggests that 21st century society, or at least the 21st century imagination, has progressed to a point in which the independent woman can survive, if not thrive. It also suggests that the only way she can thrive in reality is by first thriving and contributing in her dreamworld. The only way to overthrow the patriarchy in the real world is by first overthrowing it in our imaginations. The Barbie movie shows us that social change must first come from the collective imagination, which, yes, can be silly, fun, and frivolous, but is also a fertile ground from which feminism can spring. And by positioning Kendom as the ultimate villain, Gerwig is asserting that the creations of patriarchy, specifically modernity, capitalism, and uber-rationality, are the strongest threats to this imaginative soil, which is rich in humor, pop culture references and plenty of pink.
In having Barbie simultaneously transcend the Dreamworld and preserve it for current and future generations, Gerwig is acknowledging that although we must all grow up and put our dolls aside, the dream must stay alive. As America Ferrera’s character shows in the way she returned to Barbie for comfort even during adulthood, Barbie’s Dreamworld is a powerful, compelling, and fun fantasy; it is a collective imaginative landscape, that yes, may have originated from consumerism, but has evolved to be so much more and to mean so much more to generations of children, adults, daughters, and mothers. Barbie’s Dreamworld is a fantasy that deserves to be remembered, understood, and celebrated; it is a world where swimsuit models make up the Supreme Court; “strong female energy” is found at pink construction sites, and power is expanded by “holding both logic and feeling at the same time.”
Barbie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Warner Bros., 2023.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Dover Reader: Kate Chopin, edited by Susan L. Rattiner,
Dover Publications, Inc, 2015, p. 514.
Tanner, Tony. Appendix: Original Penguin Classics Introduction. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane
Austen, 1995, Penguin Classics, p. 380.
Jacqueline Knirnschild has cultural criticism published in Ninth Letter, Full Stop, The Cleveland Review of Books and elsewhere. She is an M.A. candidate in English at University of Maine and the Poetry Editor of BTWN Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @JacqKnirn.