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Don't Worry, Barbie
Liberation without genitals.
One of the new wave of female directors collaborates with a blonde, celebrated A-list performer to create an odd feminist parable about a perfect retro-50s female, fantasyland. Which it turns out, is not so perfect after all.
As you probably figured out from the title, that's a description of Greta Gerwig's huge, critically acclaimed superhit Barbie—and also a description of Olivia Wilde's critically panned, moderate commercial success, Don't Worry, Darling (2022).
The films similarities are striking, but they do have some differences as well. Most obviously, Barbie is based on a hugely popular toy franchise. That’s probably one big reason for its massive marketing success.
It's also, perhaps, why Barbie is almost entirely sexless. Mattell gave Gerwig a lot of leeway, but an R rating almost certainly wasn’t in the cards. Don't Worry, Darling in contrast, is soaked in eroticism, not least in its numerous sex scenes. And while most critics and audiences prefer Barbie, I think Don't Worry, Darling highlights some ways in which a feminism without female erotic desire is a feminism with some major, and unexpected, blind spots.
What Does a Doll Want?
Barbie, as virtually all movie-goers are aware, stars Margot Robbie as the titular doll. Barbie lives in Barbieland, a toy paradise where every day is as perfect as every others. Barbie and her many friends (all named Barbie) are fully self-actualized; they pursue a wide range of careers and leisure activities with platonic, genital-less support from Ken (Ryan Gosling) and various other Kens.
The Barbies think that their perfect society has inspired women to happiness and success in the real world. But when Barbie begins to be afflicted with cellulite and existential thoughts of death, she decides she needs to travel to the real world to figure out what's gone wrong. There she learns that the real world has some problems (as you've noticed). Worse, Ken, who goes with her, learns about patriarchy, and thinks it's pretty neat. He brings male rule back to Barbieland—and it's up to Barbie and her real life ally Gloria (America Ferrera) to put things back to rights with (justly praised) fabulous pink outfits and (justly praised) feminist consciousness raising.
Barbie has numerous funny bits—it opens with a hilarious send-up of Kubrick's 2001, for example, and crescendos with a laugh-out-loud funny scene where all the Kens earnestly serenade all the Barbies by the fire ("Come in and let me play the guitar at you, Barbie.") each singing indie rock lyrics about their great depth and greater pain.
These clever and insightful gags don't ever exactly add up to a coherent plot, though—in large part because Barbie isn't exactly a person. She has no real motivation of her own. Her feelings of existential dread drop upon her from outside, and she spends most of the film attempting to rid herself of them and return to her former state of blank, posable happiness. The end of the movie stalls out as the scriptwriters try rather desperately to figure out what Barbie wants. She eventually decide that she wants to be human, and experience the joys of change and growing up.
It’s not a bad end…but it still doesn’t exactly feel like her end. The writers create an existential crisis; the writers resolve it. Barbie never exactly stops being a doll pushed here and there by the plot, as little girls push her here and there in her pink car. The movie drives her wanting, rather than her wanting driving the movie.
A Dream House, But With Sex
Alice (Florence Pugh) in Don't Worry, Darling does not have trouble with the wanting. She and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) embrace the stylish hedonism of 50s domesticity—drinks, parties, dancing, more drink, and lots and lots of sex, all filmed with lush saturation as Wilde's camera caresses every luxurious dress and sofa. Barbie showers without water and sips delicately at her empty coffee cup; all her pleasures are mimed. Jack, though, arrives home eager to devour a meal of steak and potatoes and gets distracted from those very physical urges by others, leading to a sensuous overhead shot of oral sex on the dinner table, as Alice thrashes around in her gorgeous dress, knocking tasteful dishes across the tasteful house.
Like Barbie, Alice begins to feel that something is wrong with her Eden. She starts to crack eggs with her bare hands; she sees visions of eerie cabaret dancers; and she spirals into paranoia and dread. Eventually, she realizes that she's in a simulation. Jack and she live in a near future, not in the past. Jack lost his job, and Alice was forced to support them both with her career as a surgical intern. Jack was resentful and unhappy, so he signed up for tech created by guru/self-help asshole Frank (Chris Pine.) Then he kidnapped Alice, erased her memories and made her think she was a happy 50s housewife. Their whole existence, even unto the oral sex, is just them lying in bed side by side, with AI goggles on, staring into space at nothing.
Alice is understandably horrified by her husband's betrayal. But part of that horror is that she is, at least to some degree, invested in the dream he's given her. Wanting is complicated. "I love you. Oh God," she says after Jack admits to the scheme. She's in a patriarchal hell where she's been gaslit, backstabbed, and assaulted. But even knowing what your loved ones have done to you doesn't necessarily make you stop loving them—just as knowing the 50s were an oppressive sexist nightmare doesn't necessarily make Wilde stop eroticizing it. The patriarchy has shaped what Wilde, and Alice, want. That's why when Alice escapes, the film ends abruptly. Patriarchy constrains and directs women's dreams, which means liberation is to some degree unimaginable.
If Women Don't Want, Men Will Do It For Them
All the events of Don't Worry, Darling are supposedly directed and controlled by Jack; he's the one who (with the help of the patriarchy software) has created the dream she's living in. But Alice's desires can't be wrapped up neatly in Frank's dreamworld. They break out—and watching her struggle to figure out all the things she wants, and figure out how she wants them, is the absorbing drama of the narrative. Frank keeps saying how remarkable Jack is, but it's obvious he's a boring nonentity with boring desires played (in a brilliant casting choice) by the lackluster Harry Styles. It's difficult to even look at Styles when Pugh is on the screen. Which is, clearly, the point.
In Barbie, on the other hand, Ryan Gosling as Ken all but steals the show. Margot Robbie is a very capable and talented performer. But she just doesn't have that much to do, because her character doesn't want.
But Ken does He longs for Barbie to pay attention to him, and he longs for her to love him. Early in the movie he begs her to let him stay over at her house even though he doesn't really understand how sex works. Barbie’s emotional crisis feels like a gimmick—a way to get the story moving in despite of Barbie’s utter self-sufficiency and content. Ken’s desire for more, though, is organic. Barbie goes on the quest to the real world because the plot tells her she has to (through the voice of oracular Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon)). Ken insists on tagging along because—like Luke Skywalker, or Bilbo Baggins or any number of male Hollywood heroes—he’s dissatisfied and wants more.
Ken's desire for more blurs into his desire for Barbie blurs into his desire for patriarchy. When he comes to man's world, he is stunned that people take men (especially white men, though the film doesn't really get into that) seriously. He's excited that government officials and CEO's are men; he's thrilled by seeing police officers on horses. Patriarchy is power, and power is erotic; it provides a structure and a meaning for the desires he barely understands. Ken is gross and dumb, but he's also got pathos. He's a secondary character, and he wants to be the star.
That want just about turns him into the focal point of the film. After he takes over Barbieland and loses control of Barbieland and explains, through song and dance numbers and earnest solos and much emoting, that he is sad and feels left out, Barbie even apologizes to him. She preferred to hang out with the other Barbies rather than spending time with him, and now she feels bad about it.
As a feminist statement, this is somewhat confused. Ken, after all, is an asshole. Does the movie really want to say that you owe asshole men your time just because they've decided they're attracted to you? It probably doesn’t want to say that—but it gets swept up in its own somewhat confused erotic logic. The Kenpologie carries all before it because Ken is the one with all the feelings and all the longing. The narrative, and the audience bend to that longing—to that male gaze, if you will—as if magnetized.
Standard sexist gender roles dictate that women aren't supposed to want things; they're supposed to be wanted. Don't Worry, Darling faced critical backlash in part because Styles was dating Wilde; male directors have famously cast women they find attractive as leads, but a female director doing the same was seen as distasteful. Keeping Barbie clear of erotic attachments is part of what keeps Barbie the movie so upbeat, and what keeps Barbie, the character, so perfect and noble. Unlike, say, Eve, she isn’t stained.
Erotic desires aren't the only desires, of course. But the de-sexualization of Barbie and her film seems entwined with the movie's difficulty in figuring out how to make Barbie want for herself. That creates a vacuum of narrative and character which Ken effectively, if inadvertently, fills. Say what you will about the decision to cast Styles, Don't Worry, Darling is not Jack's movie.
You Can't Have Liberation Without Desire
The last scene of Barbie shows the doll, now human, visiting her gynecologist for the first time. Barbie doesn't exactly want in the film, but she wants to want. Now that she’s anatomically correct, the film suggests, she may be ready to take center stage in her own narrative, and seek out a Ken, or a Barbie, or a career, or a hobby, that she desires for herself.
Wanting things is messy. It's selfish. It’s often confused. It’s uncomfortable and invites ridicule—as people ridiculed Harry Styles fans for wanting to see him simulate sex on screen. Barbie has a very casual relationship to plot consistency, but with its clean lines, bright colors, and happily ever after for all, it isn't really a messy movie. That may have something to do with its popularity. I still prefer Don't Worry, Darling though, and its portrait of Alice, a character who is wracked with so much wanting and rage and mess that she tears the world apart.
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