Never judge a movie by its marketing. July 2023 saw the height of the Barbie/Oppenheimer media phenomenon that took over the Internet as well as theaters all over the world. The contrast between the perceived content of the two movies releasing on the same day couldn’t be more jarring. The dark, somber tones of Oppenheimer signaled themes of conflict, death, violence, and devastation, completely at odds with the bright, light-hearted, and joyful aesthetic of Barbie, which seemed to promise mindless summer fun and other #justgirlythings. However, the Barbie movie is a unique investigation of death, mortality, and what it means to be “alive,” through the unexpected and bright-pink lens of girlhood. It explores how a “real” existence is possible only after the acceptance of death and all things morbid; and how these thoughts, though taboo, are shared universally by all humans, especially women in all stages of their lives.
Most women already knew that, though. Studies show that women report higher death anxiety than men, and they are also culturally conditioned to spend more time and money thinking about death, aging, and losing out on the “prime” of their lives. The opening scene of Barbie shows little girls bashing their dolls against rocks with unrestrained brutality. While it’s meant to show their rejection of the staid, old-fashioned “infant” dolls in favor of the newer and more versatile Barbies, it is also an accurate representation of how the imagination of little girls can find expression in angry and morbid ways during play, leaving their Barbie dolls headless, dismembered, grotesquely distorted, or rearranged in Frankenstein ways. In the movie, this leads to the formation of “Weird Barbie,” an eccentric and unnatural inhabitant of Barbieland, who doesn’t fit within the pretty and perfect norms. Yet, she is a part of it just as the rest, because “Barbieland” is not simply a fantasy world of mindless, plastic existence. It is built out of the dreams of young girls and their imagination of a utopia.
The dolls in Barbieland exist only as ideas, a reflection of their owners’ childlike and innocent understanding of life and death, which allows them to live monotonous lives of eternal perfection. However, the balance is disrupted when one Barbie is plagued with “irrepressible thoughts of death.” The anxiety about death and change is the catalyst for Barbie to leave the utopia in search of the girl whose negative thoughts in the real world are responsible for the disturbance. The thoughts of death not only affect Barbie by giving her flat feet and cellulite (markers of growth and aging) but also complicated emotions and feelings that make her more human. Faced with this crisis, Barbie’s first response is to find the girl and cheer her up, thereby putting a stop to her thoughts of death and sadness. It seems like the most obvious and acceptable plotline for a movie about a beloved children’s toy—using the power of friendship to defeat the “evil” of sadness and make the girl happy again.
And yet, the movie surprises again with its true goal. Barbie’s optimism and cheerfulness are firmly rejected by the teenage girl she approaches, who is too jaded by the real world to accept Barbie’s naiveté. Instead, the prejudices and the patriarchal standards of beauty and self-worth in the real world affect Barbie, making her self-conscious and anxious for her safety. For the women in the audience, it is a heartbreaking yet completely relatable depiction of their own journey from childhood to adolescence. For the first time, Barbie questions her own purpose and reason for existence and begins the very human search for meaning, aided by Gloria, the woman responsible for the irrepressible thoughts of death.
Death and other morbid thoughts are things that Gloria suppresses in the real world, which find expression only when she doodles and tries to play with her daughter’s old Barbie doll to heal her inner child. She tries to hide these “dark and crazy” emotions to appear like a proper mother and a happy woman, whose facade hides her dissatisfaction with her job, her life, and her strained relationship with her tween daughter. Though they were once close, she cannot understand her daughter anymore, and there seems to be an unbridgeable communication gap between them. Only by letting go of the facade of perfection and expressing those morbid and shameful feelings is she able to improve her relationship with her daughter, who relates to those emotions and appreciates her mother’s honesty. It helps her daughter to see her as an ally, just as angry and frustrated with the world as she is. It also helps the Barbies in Barbieland break out of the patriarchal regime started by the Kens, and helps them reclaim their power. Therefore, the solution lies not in fearing and avoiding thoughts of death and change, but in accepting them.
In a poignant conversation with Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, comes the final test. She reminds Barbie that humans have only one ending—death—while ideas live forever. If Barbie chooses to return to Barbieland and her old existence, she can live forever without pain or fear as the idea of “Stereotypical Barbie.” However, Barbie’s journey of self-discovery, which began with her anxiety about these thoughts, can only logically culminate in her acceptance of them. She chooses to be human and experience true life, with all its hardships and uncertainty and constant change, and consequently accepts her eventual death. As she puts it, she wants to be the creator, the one who creates meaning, instead of the object that is created. The scene is accompanied by the song “What Was I Made For” by Billie Eilish, which highlights the existential crisis that remains unresolved within most women until they get the opportunity to experience life on their own terms.
In a movie that deals with the crisis of identity women face under the arbitrary standards of patriarchy, it is a powerful act of agency by a character who is best known for being a helpless toy. Accepting death, aging, complicated negative emotions, and imperfections gives Barbie her own identity and true existence in the real world. She is now Barbara Handler—flawed, unremarkable, and anxious about her gynecologist appointment.
The recognition of death is what allows Barbie to see the transient and remarkable beauty of human life, and influences her choice to be a part of it. It frees her from a sanitized existence and helps her step into the real world, where her thoughts are her own, her potential is not limited by the boundaries of the idea she is meant to embody, and she has the power to make meaningful change. Just like any other woman.
Shreejita Majumder can usually be found typing away on her laptop, or spinning stories in her head while walking along the busy streets of Kolkata. Poet, artist, writer, guardian-of-sparrows, and plant-whisperer, her work has been accepted for publication in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, and reviewed in Locus magazine. She is fascinated by themes of memory, death, time, and personhood, and loves to explore these through her fiction and non-fiction works. You can find her on Twitter @ennuinox.