Barbie and Ken and Nothing in Between

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Critic’s Notebook

For one trans viewer, Greta Gerwig’s hit offers both a too-pat idea of gender and a complex view of humanity.

A woman with a pink headband and another woman in a pink-checked dress stand next to men in brightly patterned shirts. The background is a pink beach.
Emma Mackey and Margot Robbie as Barbies, and Simu Liu, Ryan Gosling and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Kens. The movie has little room for anyone outside that binary.Credit…Warner Bros.

This article contains spoilers for “Barbie.”

In Barbie Land, there are Barbies, and there are Kens. For every Barbie (in this case Margot Robbie), there must be a Ken (Ryan Gosling) who supports her, props her up and longs to exist within her gaze. Are there other dolls who live here? Yes, but they are on the edges, either because they are discontinued models (like Ken’s friend Allan, played by Michael Cera) or because they were created as second fiddles to Barbie (beloved, long-suffering Skipper).

This binary has existed since the alternate universe’s founding in 1959, when the first Barbie doll went to market. It is a gender-swapped version of our own world’s hierarchy. The director Greta Gerwig’s smash hit “Barbie” is an opportunity to introduce a presumably younger audience to basic tenets of feminism (patriarchy, double standards for men and women, the male gaze, etc.) in a funny, candy-coated context. But as Barbie and Ken move from their world to ours, the story grows more complicated, yet its depiction of gender remains rooted in the overly simplistic vision of Barbies and Kens.

Using them to provide a baby’s first feminism course makes perfect sense. After all, this duality is drilled into us as children early and often. Think of the very toy aisles that hold different products for boys and girls. Children themselves know which toys are “meant” for them, and they also know there might be harsh reprisal from peers or authority figures should they play with the “wrong” ones. In 2023, a caring parent would probably say that it’s OK if a boy plays with Barbie or a girl with G.I. Joe, but that allowance itself props up a pat view, one that “Barbie” feeds into.

As a trans woman who writes and thinks a lot about film, I found the movie’s approach both deeply frustrating and strangely resonant. Yes, the film does well by trans people in some regards, especially by casting the trans performer Hari Nef as Doctor Barbie and giving her plenty to do. She isn’t just on hand to score “we love trans people!” points. Yet the film’s story line and its politics set up a kind of pure distillation of womanhood that seems specifically rooted in the cisgender experience and affords little room for anything outside a rigid understanding of gender.

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The film gives Hari Nef, second from right, plenty to do as Doctor Barbie.Credit…Warner Bros. Pictures

Nontraditional dolls can exist in Barbie Land but they have to be created through play, as happens with Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who has unnaturally chopped-off hair and marker drawings all over her face. Perhaps there are nonbinary dolls in Barbie Land, if children came up with them, but Mattel seems unlikely to manufacture such a doll anytime soon.

As an alternate universe, Barbie Land is one thing, but its facile vision continues to be the film’s primary model for how the world works on our plane of existence. You could imagine a version of the film’s two-worlds setup that explores the split between how Barbie Land approaches gender and our own society’s much more complicated relationship to it, replicating the way children think in more nuanced ways about these ideas as they grow up.

In practice, it mostly amounts to some quick scenes depicting how patriarchy functions in reality before Ken imports it to Barbie Land and disrupts the social order. There isn’t room for a Barbie Land with Barbies, Kens and a spectrum encompassing every point in between.

Several trans women I know object to the film’s final line, in which Barbie, now a human, goes to a gynecologist. In this critique, the ending suggests that genitalia equals womanhood. I don’t agree with that reading; the final 15 minutes are about the thorny weight of being human, a state of reality that necessarily involves, for example, gynecologist appointments.

I still understand why the line bothered the objectors. Trans people have been reading ourselves into narratives that don’t directly involve us as long as there have been stories, and this has happened with “Barbie,” too. Some nonbinary viewers have found common cause with Allan, a good-hearted doll who exists outside the Barbie vs. Ken duality. He eventually rejects the premise of the patriarchy and helps the Barbies defeat it.

Yet when the movie reaches its climax and the Barbies have retaken their world from the Kens, they return to the old divide, resubjugating the Kens and installing themselves as the good and just power.

At times, “Barbie” seems interested in the idea that this whole binary has been constructed for them by others. Thus that system is deeply broken and unfair to both Barbies and Kens. The characters know that they have creators at Mattel, that their world and its divide has literally been made by someone else and is fundamentally false. Instead of pushing against that, though, they prove largely willing to exist within it.

Fighting the creators might prove too difficult, and at any rate, it wouldn’t allow Mattel, which produced the movie, to sell more toys. Trans people understand too well that one way society pretends to accept us is by marketing to us, but “Barbie” doesn’t even bother to do that.

And yet part of me did find a lovely mirror of the trans feminine experience in the last 15 minutes. The war for Barbie Land over, Barbie realizes that life there is restrictive and false and that she wants to live in our world, with all its chaos and complications. She chooses to become real with the assistance of Ruth Handler, the woman who created Barbie in the first place. (Handler is played by Rhea Perlman from “Cheers,” which is a cosmology I can get behind.)

The moment reminded me, deeply, of when I realized how artificial my time trying to live “as a man” had been. When I came out, a lifetime of emotions and experiences I had been holding at bay flooded me, and I realized what it meant to be “real,” or, to put it another way, to be human. Humanness is inherently messy, and as the film embraces that messiness, it finds space outside its dualities, space where trans people can thrive.

The film’s finale suggests that our lives as humans are united by fundamental truths that supersede all of the false binaries we have constructed to imprison ourselves. As Barbie realizes, to be human is to accept that we are all born, and we all die. Hopefully along the way we find people and things that give our lives meaning, yet that meaning doesn’t arrive automatically. We must find and embrace it for ourselves.

You are, as Barbie reminds Ken, not your girlfriend or your job. You need to be Kenough on your own.

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