Sunday, August 06, 2023

Barbies Amongst Themselves: Or, What Happens When You Make a Film about a Commodity


Watching Barbie reminded me of two essays that I had not read in a long time, Luce Irigaray's "Women on the Market " and "Commodities Among Themselves". In those essays Irigaray considers to what extent Marx's theory of the commodity form can be used to make sense of the status of women in society. Irigaray's texts takes as its start the idea of a society founded on an exchange of women, an idea integral to structural and psychoanalytic theories of kinship. From this it is possible to posit that relations among women would have the fantastic character of Marx's brief foray into describing the world of commodities amongst themselves. 

It is precisely such a world, Barbie Land, that Barbie: The Movie opens. The only difference is that women, Barbies, in this world do not so much exist as things to be exchanged, as daughters to be given away as wives, but are defined by their use value, or, more to the point, their concrete labor. It is a world of Barbie doctors, presidents, supreme court justices, and so on--a Barbie for every career and full employment for all Barbies. Greta Gerwig's film taps into an aspect of Barbie that often falls beneath the image of the Barbie stereotype, or, in the world of the film, Stereotypical Barbie, and that is the myriad number of Barbies that have been manufactured with different careers, from veterinarian to astronaut. 

The Barbie stereotype of blond hair, impossible proportions, and pink, well everything, dominates our image of Barbie, it is what adults think of when we think of Barbie, so much so that we forget that for a lot of girls (and boys) who play with her she that is less a supermodel than the model for every kind of activity and career.  Whatever you want to be they have a Barbie for that. I remember once watching a relative's kid play Barbie and it was less a foray into a world of beauty and fashion than it was an hour of being a large animal veterinarian, giving check ups to horses. A far cry from the image of fashion and beauty that comes to mind when you say Barbie to an adult. The two sides of Barbie, the blonde and pink stereotype that adults think of and the various different Barbies of every career and hobby that kids play with, are the central contradiction of the film.

The Barbie pet care center

Barbie Land is that imaginary place where Barbies amongst themselves can be anything or anyone. There are Kens in this world too, but since this world is the world of children playing, no one really knows what Ken is for. Ken is more sidekick than boyfriend. (Pietro Bianchi has offered a great Freudian reading of this world of innocence). The Barbies in Barbie Land are aware of the real world, that it exists, and as far as they are concerned they have fundamentally altered it. An imaginary world where Barbie can be anything must in some sense produce a reality where kids can be anyone. It is the logic of meritocratic role models taken to its logical conclusion. All the world needs is the right role models for the world to change.


Trouble begins when stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) begins to have some very un-Barbie thoughts, like of death, aging, and cellulite. These intrusive thoughts must be the product of the kid that is playing with her so she has to go out into the "real world" to find this kid and fix things. This brings us back to the commodity form. The commodity, as Marx tells us, is both an exchange value and a use value, it is both something with its own properties, or in the case of labor, capacities, and with a value, a capacity to stand in for other commodities, to be exchanged. In the world of the film we get two sides of Barbie, there is the Barbie Land Barbie in which there is a Barbie that can do anything, and there is the real world Barbie, where Barbie is defined not by her capacities, what she can do, but by her appearance, what she looks like. It is on arriving in the real world that Barbie finds herself not as an object of little girl's dreams, but the object of male fantasies. (As A.S. Hamrah points out in this great roundtable discussion of the film, the patriarchy that Barbie is subject to is incredibly mild and gentle, more befitting a cartoon world than the real world). If I wanted to add another grad school reference, namely Jean Baudrillard, I would say that Barbie's conflict is less between use value and exchange value as it is between use value and sign value, between what Barbie can do and what she signifies, what blonde hair, impossibly long legs, and gravity defying curves signify. 

To put it back in Irigaray's terms, her capacities might define what she is capable of, but her appearance for men defines her place in society. As Irigaray writes, "just as, in commodities, natural utility is overridden by the exchange function, so the properties of a woman's body have to be suppressed and subordinated to the exigencies of its transformation into an object of circulation among men." Use Value/Exchange Value, the two sides of the commodity are dominated by exchange value just as women in society are dominated by the demand to be seen, and exchanged, by men. 

Upon arrival in the real world, Barbie and Ken learn that making Barbie role models for every career has not ended patriarchy. Barbie and Ken react differently to the persistence of patriarchy. Barbie is horrified and confused. Ken is happy and excited. Ken finds himself being respected just because he is a man. He immediately hatches a plan to bring the patriarchy to Barbie Land with the help of some books checked out from the library. 

(I thought for a long time about what this particular plot point reminded me of, a story where two characters have opposed reactions to the new world they are transported to, and eventually I thought of Time after Time, The film in which H.G. Welles and Jack the Ripper end up time traveling to the seventies. Welles is horrified of the lack of social progress while Jack the Ripper revels in the violence of the twentieth century. For sake of this digression, and because I really love that film, I include the following clip.)

Back to the film in question, and skipping several plot points, by the time Barbie discovers the source of her angst, an adult playing with Barbies and returns to Barbie Land it has been transformed. The Barbie dream houses have all been remade into Mojo Dojo man caves for Ken and the Barbies have abandoned their various careers as veterinarians and the President to dote after their Kens, bringing them snacks and beer. The spell of patriarchy is broken, however, when Gloria (America Ferrara) , the adult from the real world who has brought anxiety to Barbie, spells out the contradictions of being a woman. This speech is the thematic and emotional core of the film. Since I found the whole thing online, I post it in its entirety below. 

"It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass. You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people."

"You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining. You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault. I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don't even know."

The speech is a long list of the "too contradictory" situation of women in the real world. In the film this bit of wisdom from the real world restores Barbie Land, frees Barbie from the rule of Ken. However, the film does not connect the contradictions of the real world to the contradictory unity of Barbie as a commodity, a commodity with use value, all of Barbie's various careers from doctor to president, and an exchange value, her appearance. In the film there are two worlds, Barbie Land defined by Barbie's capacities to do anything, and our world, where Barbie is defined by her appearance, but it never really reflects on the contradictory unity of those two worlds, on the fact that while Barbie dolls can do anything they still have to look like Barbie. Making a movie about Barbie is strange endeavor because the logic of Barbie is the logic of Hollywood. It is a world where women can be scientists and superheroes, at least some of the time, but in doing so they still have to look like at least one of the varieties of Barbie. Ability is subordinated to appearance, use value to exchange value.

The film presents Barbie Land and the real world as two different realities, one dominated by the different abilities of Barbie and the other by the circulation of her appearance, but the reality of the commodity, of capital, is that use value and exchange value exists side by side even as they contradict each other. As Isabelle Garo puts it, 

"The originality of Marx’s approach attaches to the dialectical nature of his analysis of contradictions, which is no mere juxtaposition of opposed tendencies: the capitalist labour process is not alienating in one respect and emancipatory in another, but it interweaves these two tendencies at the very heart of the labourer’s individuality and of social relations."

Or, to put it back in the terms of the film, it is not that one gets to choose between a land where Barbies are recognized for their abilities and one that they are reduced to their appearances but they are always both. This is the too contradictory situation referenced in Gloria's speech. 

The fact that the film does not connect these dots connects brings us back to the question the film asks but does not answer, why has a Barbie Land where dolls can be anything not transformed our world where women are all too often reduced to being dolls? That the film has no reflection on the failure of its own world of role models is its real limit. All Barbie the movie can do is diversify Barbie Land, adding a few different body types and a little more diverse product line, but it cannot address the question as to why all the positive role models in the world have not changed patriarchy. Perhaps that question is for the inevitable sequel. 

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