Where are Barbie’s friends?

Heads up: this will not be spoiler free. I’ll retread some plot beats to establish context, but I assume you’ve either watched the movie or don’t care about spoilers.

Last weekend hundreds of thousands of people rushed to theaters to see the Barbie movie, myself included. With the biggest opening of the year, its uniquely 2023 flavor of post-modernism and whatever nth wave of feminism we’re on has prompted lots of discourse and hot takes. Is the movie feminist enough? Does it do enough to show how patriarchy and toxic masculinity alienate men from one another? But the question that nagged at me as I watched the Kens compliment one another and bask in their collective Kenergy was: why doesn’t Barbie have any friends?

It’s not that Barbie is a loner. She’s constantly surrounded by people in this movie. Everyone in Barbieland likes her, everyone comes to her parties, and she has Girl’s Night every night. But when she voices her existential dread, the party abruptly stops. She quickly bottles her feelings to get the party back on track. When her feet lose their iconic arch, everyone immediately jumps to trying to fix her. They’re not trying to stamp out her non-conformity — she’s just as distressed as they are! But no one sits with Barbie in her distress. No one tries to empathize with what she’s feeling. They’re focused on getting her right back to her happy, perfect self.

To do that, Barbie must leave the comfort of Barbieland to find the owner of her doll that’s projecting these feelings onto her and “fix” whatever problem they’re having. She must also avoid the corporate goons at Mattel who are determined to put her in a literal box and ship her back to Barbieland.. It’s a fun little twist on the hero’s journey: leaving the realm of fantastical plastic to trek to the world of our mundane. Once she accomplishes this, she can return to Barbieland without the risk of being a huge bummer to other Barbies.

Chart depicting the hero's journey.
This is a process that is famous for leaving people in the same exact state that they started in.

In an early 00’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-era Hollywood, Barbie would embark on this journey with a Bestie. A soulmate friend who is her opposite in personality but has her back in every way. They might even have a climactic spat where they part ways and end up reuniting when Barbie needs her Bestie at a pivotal moment. But in this heroine story, Barbie must go to the Real World alone. She even laments that she has no one to take with her. Sure Ken tags along anyway, but Barbie must manage his expectations of her attention in addition to the task she’s trying to undertake. Once he gets mesmerized by patriarchy, she’s left to navigate the world alone.

The cover of the book "How to Be Alone" by Lane Moore.
The cover of How To Be Alone by Lane Moore

This reminded me of a book I read earlier this year: How to Be Alone by Lane Moore. Despite the title, it’s less of a self-help handbook and more of a memoir by Lane with life lessons that she’s learned along the way. In it she talks about growing up with sitcoms and dramedys on TV showing off-beat families and rambunctious, loyal friends while her real life had familial abuse and aching loneliness. Even though she didn’t have a weekly recurring sidekick in her life to magically show up on her doorstep with ice cream and the cure to all her ills, she does take time to point out the kindness of strangers that got her by: the church women who took her in when she was homeless, the old woman in her neighborhood who refurbished and painted a desk for her, the landlord who surprised her with a men’s watch because “everyone deserves to have something to open on Christmas”.

In a similar way, Barbie relies on the kindness of strangers. They’re not complete strangers, but Barbie doesn’t know this. Instead, she has blind faith in the kindness offered to her. When fleeing from Mattel headquarters, she meets a woman she doesn’t yet know is her creator. They share a moment of serenity over a cup of tea — tea that Barbie doesn’t even know how to properly drink since she’s lived her whole life in a world of plastic fridges filled with pictures of food. But without even exchanging names, the woman gives her a secret way out of the Mattel offices. As she leaves the building, a woman pulls up in an SUV offering an escape. Barbie doesn’t know that this woman is Gloria, the person who’s feelings she’s here to “fix”, but she still takes the lifeline that she’s given.

And Gloria, played by Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants star America Ferrera, is also looking for an out. She’s married, she has a teen daughter, and she’s an executive assistant to the Mattel CEO. Everything suggests she’s a successful career woman with a husband caring enough to try to learn Spanish to impress her. But we don’t see her unwind after a long day with her husband, she doesn’t have a sassy coworker she gossips with, and she struggles to talk to her own daughter. Without anyone to turn to, she’s left to project all of her anxieties onto a Barbie, causing Barbie to have existential faux-pas in Barbieland.

This isn’t to say that loneliness and good Samaritans are anything new. But there’s a novel strain of pervasive post-post-modern loneliness. There’s a lot of explanations people throw around: the loss of churches as social centers, the loss of really any third spaces or community gatherings, social media being a highlight reel of only our ups and not our downs, a whole-ass pandemic. But the results are all the same: a lot of people terrified to be vulnerable to each other while desperately craving for someone to ask how they’re really doing. Funny people with thousands of followers shroud themselves in irony lest they commit the sin of Having A Sincere Thought. We joke about “how’s it going?” being the most disingenuous line of small talk because the only acceptable answers are “going good!” or “can’t complain” and if you say “it’s going” that’s code for “honestly I’m about to kill myself if one more thing goes wrong today” and then you’re afraid of being sent to Weird Barbie to get fixed.

And I know because – that’s me! This blog post is that exercise in desperately wanting to express my thoughts and feelings and not knowing what would be worse: if I post about it on Twitter and I get inundated with messages about how I’m the dumbest bitch alive or if the algorithm sees only 2 people like my posts on average and just buries the whole thing. But I see Ken frolicking among the other Kens brimming with Kenergy and I want that. I see Barbie go through this whole adventure relying on the grace of others and her unique experiences carrying her forward out of Barbieland and I want that optimism. Despite the pain, despite mortality, she chooses to leave the perfect Barbieland where every day is a party and no one cries to live in the Real World where people do cry and you need to pay for things with money and go to doctor’s appointments. She chooses to embrace the mess because she also wants experience the fullness of life.

By the end of the movie, it’s not clear whether Barbie has a bestie. As someone newly human, she relies on Gloria for transportation and their connection looks more like found family or sisterhood than friendship. But she has found someone who will share her existential dread and sit with her when she’s distressed. It’s easy to imagine how her story continues from here, not an epic hero’s journey but the stories of meeting people, forming bonds, and experiencing heartbreak. With the foundation that Gloria gives her, she can live the dream she told her creator. She can push herself to create things that resonate with people on a deeper, more authentic level. Hopefully this movie can push me to live more like a Barbie girl: willing to trust others and embrace the messiness of life. Now for the first step, making some doctor’s appointments.

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