Reviewing the film, Barbie, Leslie Jameson depicts her young daughter’s first wish for a Barbie doll as a kind of fall from grace, or is it a fall from Greece? “I worried that her desire for a Barbie would signal the end of an era: her two-year fascination with the goddesses of Greek mythology,” Jameson says. She has something of the same worry for us, as a culture. What spaces of pure, positive high cultural self-imagery will Barbie deprive us of? Writing in The New Yorker, no less, Jameson casts director Greta Gerwig as an “artist interrogating the same compromised structures that underwrite her ventures in the first place.”
In my book A Feminist Theory of Refusal, I too turn to Greece for inspiration, enlisting an ancient Greek tragedy to make the case for a feminism that rejects the purism of Utopia and works through compromised structures, rather than abandoning them. In Euripides’ Bacchae, women successfully abandon the city of Thebes, leaving their children and households behind to celebrate their sororal freedom elsewhere, in a place called Cithaeron, where they worship Dionysus (Bacchus) who inspires their getaway. It is all one big party, and the bacchants have everything they need: ample food, water, safety, rough equality. So, why, I ask, do they later leave Cithaeron and return to Thebes? Utopia is awesome, is it not?
It is, but King Pentheus comes from Thebes to spy on them and this shows the bacchants that they will never be left alone to enjoy their autonomy. They triumph over the intruder but they learn nonetheless that as long as Thebes goes on being Thebes (patriarchal, oppressive), Cithaeron will not be allowed to be Cithaeron (free). Fugitive spaces like Cithaeron are threats to normative orders like Thebes. So the women give up on Utopia and go home, hoping to create change in the real world. The play is a tragedy, so they fail, but the arc of their refusal remains instructive, thousands of years later.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie follows the same arc. Barbie begins as a kind of Dionysian figure, whose arrival on the scene inspires young girls to smash the dolls of maternalism and let their imaginations run wild. Over the years, as Barbies multiply, through capitalist production not bio-reproduction, they join together in a parallel world that is a sort of Cithaeron. Every day is Barbie day in Barbieland, where women run everything confidently, and the Kens of the world are an afterthought, if they are given thought at all.
But Barbieland’s sort-of Utopia is penetrated by something that comes from the city, first noted by Stereotypical Barbie, who is suddenly disturbed by dark thoughts and strange existential fears. She learns she must go to the city to re-secure Barbieland’s autonomy and protect it from such intrusions. Instructed by a queer “Weird Barbie,” who was played with “too hard” in the real world, conjuring not just feisty girls but violent others, Barbie sets out on her mission.
The film, Barbie, poses the Bacchae question of how things leak through from one world to another. In Barbie the cause of the leak is a mom (America Ferrara) who loves Barbie but whose repressed artistic ambitions infiltrate first the doll and then her world with motherhood’s “ugly feelings.” But another leak also occurs. It happens by way of Ken, who stows away and then insists on joining Barbie, who doesn’t want him (Pentheus-like, he hides and invades her space). Ken becomes the source of a contagion of incel patriarchy (which his Penthean demand shows he was prone to already), raising the question: who has been playing ‘too hard’ with Ken? Ken picks up the disease of patriarchy in the city & brings it home to the sisterhood of Barbies, who have no immunity, and so it spreads, like wildfire.
Barbieland is only a “sort of” utopia because of Weird Barbie and Alan, the discarded queers of the straight world who of course know everything, including how to feel their feelings. They may be plastic but they are not straight. Or, better: not being straight, they understand the promise of plasticity, which carries all kinds of surgical possibilities. Are they the true heirs of the (other) Valley of the Dolls, that scene of destruction that sets things off in the film?
At the start, the little girls, living in a kind of greyscale roteness, are led by Barbie’s arrival to smash their baby-dolls in a violent bacchic refusal of maternity. Colors follow, but then, when the alternative turns out to be heterotopian plasticity, the film responds with a Pinocchian quest for realness, the kind that is not just an escape from, not just a negation of, what is rejected. That is when Barbie becomes a figure questing for something else, not safety or autonomy, or a wall. Call it FREEDOM, the kind attainable only as feminist pleasure. In Pinocchio, becoming-real means the telltale nose of the wooden puppet will be transformed into a different erection. In Barbie, becoming real is figured as – what else? – invagination.
But it comes with a thoroughgoing, if sometimes sly, rejection of the heteronormative couple form that bleeds so easily into patriarchy. While Barbie is in the gynecologist’s waiting room, the suburban car with the suburban family of America Ferrera waits for her outside. The mom has just told her teenage daughter that the man who taught her to drive years before was not the girl’s father — a white American husband who communicates in bad Spanish with his deep and preceptive Latina wife — but a former lover. Even this good family, with a good enough father and a good enough husband, is not safe from female desire. This is why Barbie is a Bacchae; and the city it returns to is ours.
*Bonnie Honig never played with Barbies, but maybe she should have. She is author of A Feminist Theory of Refusal (2021) and Shell Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump (2021).