Photo by Jed Cullen/Dave Benett/WireImage

The banality of Barbie

Glossy social commentary does not reflect the facts

Artillery Row

When I was a kid, I cut the hair off my twin sister’s Sindy doll. After the act, I explained one of our dolls needed to be sacrificed to create the “Ken” boyfriend figure. She clearly wasn’t sold on this. Since our Ken had boobs and a limited wardrobe (maybe I was ahead of my time), his debut was short-lived. This madeleine moment flooded back to me during a matinee viewing of Barbie.

Set in the Mattel equivalent of Malibu, director Greta Gerwig’s dolls live in a feminist utopia. There are black, brown and white Barbies and, for good measure, a wheel-chair-bound Barbie and a fat Barbie. Most Barbies however are slender and agile, and all are rich, living a lavish pink-hued lifestyle. In this girly Shangri-la, the female dolls can be who they want. Barbies are ambitious about top jobs such as doctors, lawyers and even U.S. President, though none have babies or balance work with childcare. Still, Barbieland is a hashtag be-kind idyll where every doll is agreeable and nice. Kens feature too, but their only function is to admire all the beautiful Barbies.

The film was about as deep as a Barbie swimming pool

Things start to take a downturn, however, when “stereotypical Barbie” — bright, breezy and blonde, played by Margot Robbie — begins to experience an existential crisis. Stereotypical Barbie starts to worry about death. She notices cellulite on her thighs, and her beautifully arched foot turns flat. Things get worse when, via a magical time-space portal, Barbie and her companion the hapless Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) are transported out of Barbieland and into the “real world” of normal people. Here their roles start to reverse: “Barbie feels anxious,” says narrator Helen Mirren, whilst “Ken feels amazing”. Pumped up by an abundance of male role models, Ken feels like he can achieve anything. Meanwhile, Barbie becomes worried and full of self-doubt. Men ridicule Barbie and treat her as a sexual object.

The blame for Barbie’s reversal of fortunes is placed squarely on “the patriarchy”. Lest viewers be in any doubt, the word is uttered ten times. For my money, there wasn’t a whole lot that was very entertaining in this silver-screen gender studies seminar. My fellow audience members — mostly five- to eleven-years-old adorned in pink — didn’t seem terribly amused either, save for the slapstick scenes. I tell a lie. Directly behind me, one precocious 12-year-old did forcibly pant out a few peals of laughter, loudly explaining their logic to her otherwise silent, popcorn-munching pals.

The gags may have been “meta” (or in plainer language, didactic and knowing), but for all its moral messaging, the movie wasn’t artfully edifying either. As a lighthearted vehicle for explaining womanhood’s woes, the film was about as deep as a Barbie swimming pool. As the saying goes, if you’ve only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only explanation for the human female predicament is “the patriarchy”, then everything looks like men are to blame.

Barbieland is depicted as a heavenly nirvana where only the women are go-getters. The Kens, in contrast, are happy-go-lucky, handsome beach bums. When the roles are reversed, the Barbies become brainwashed by the patriarchy and sapped of their agency.

In the actual flesh-and-blood real-world (unfashionable to say), women strongly prefer men with money and power. There is a pretty good reason for this: it’s called sexual selection. Our female ancestors were far from submissive suckers. The successful ones sought males a-flush with resources — turns out the odds were better for their offspring to survive. Reader, these winning humans were our forebears. In the modern world, such female preferences persist today. Studies examining dating apps show women place a much higher premium than men on social status. In one recent study of 1.8 million online daters from 24 countries, women universally preferred men with more education and higher incomes: profiles with what psychologists call “resource-acquisition ability” were 2.5 times more likely to be deemed desirable by women.

In Barbieworld, female dolls are lifelong friends who always have each other’s backs; in the film’s fabricated “real world”, it is purely the “patriarchy” that produces nasty feelings of female worthlessness.

Reality refuses to fit pat narratives. Women are not saccharine do-gooders who (if men weren’t corrupting them) would put the “sisterhood” above all else. Evolution ripped ancestral scars on human behaviour that, to put it politely, would not exactly make DeBrett’s. In the competition for high-quality mates, our ancestors vied with each other both to promote themselves and inflict damage on rivals: males competed against males and females against females.

Female-on-female bullying is increasing, not diminishing

Vestiges of these ancient behaviours are apparent today, even arising where there is a mismatch between our ancestral environment — the place where the traits evolved — and our advanced modern-day societies. In the workplace, intrasexual competition is rife. Women bully other women twice as often as men who, research shows, have a greater overall tendency to be equal opportunities jerks. The nature of bullying also differs. Compared with male punch ups, and male-on-female sexual harassment, female bullying tends to be more relational — focused on icy cliques and social exclusion, gossip, and malicious rumours that severely harm careers. Women are also much more likely to experience “incivility” or lower intensity bad behaviour from their female than male coworkers. These varieties of hostile female behaviour are typically blamed on the legacies of “the patriarchy” — written off as women copying men who were their seniors. However, national surveys conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in the U.S. demonstrate that, as women take up more employment and top jobs, female-on-female bullying is increasing, not diminishing.

The “patriarchy” also fails to explain less visible expressions of shadiness. Evolutionary psychologists predicted female-on-female aggression would increase when women ovulate or are pregnant — and that’s exactly borne out. Far from women defaulting to a sympathetic sisterhood, when female oestrogen levels are higher, bitchiness surges, too: in the competition to keep mates close, women rate other women (but not men) as much less attractive. In Machiavellian manoeuvring for male mates, the so-called fairer sex may sabotage other women’s physical attractiveness. Even today, this plays out in subtle but sneaky forms of derogation. Amongst females of the same level of attractiveness — where sexual competition is more intense — professional hairdressers are liable to cut off more of their clients’ hair.

Biology is far from destiny, as evolutionary psychologists are hoarse from pointing out. The messy thumbprints of our Stone Age minds certainly can and do influence modern social mores, though. None of this serves to pardon the baser aspects of human conduct, offering no blueprint, no moral guidebook and no excuses — for men or women.

If Hollywood really wanted to offer a filmic parable, with some clever “meta-level” gags or even some belly laughs, Mattel’s Barbie was a missed opportunity.

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