Et in Arcadia Ego, Barbie
For all its musical numbers, plastic, pink, and absurdity, Barbie is an unexpected and insightful look into the modern psyche. The film accurately identifies modernity’s universal anathema—death—as that which stuns and liquidates a life of superficiality.
The movie begins with scenes from Stereotypical Barbie’s life in Barbie Land, a pink utopia of “authentic artificiality” where every day is perfect and everyone is best friends. Perhaps most unbelievably, though, there is no competition between the Barbies. All of them are high-achieving, beautiful, and sincerely excited for each other’s success. This lack of competition and jealousy is perhaps due to the fact that they do not have to vie for male attention. The Kens adore the Barbies, and the Barbies do not have to give a second thought to the Kens.
Tellingly, one only has to look to Twitter to see that the line, “Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him,” is one of the most famous from the film. The dream of men as incessant in their adoration of women has ubiquitous feminine appeal. This dynamic was intentional in Barbie Land. In an interview with Vogue, director Greta Gerwig commented, “Barbie was invented first. Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”
As the movie begins, all is well in Barbie Land for Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie. That is, until she mentions the abominable. Barbie stops her extravagant world in its tracks by asking, “Do you guys ever think about death?” From then on, her life is disrupted. She wakes up with morning breath, her showers are cold, her feet are flat on the ground, and she falls off—rather than floats down—from her balcony. She experiences, for the first time in her life, discomfort.
It is introspection that shatters the hyper-feminist mirage of Barbie Land because it is precisely the lack of any interior life that characterizes Barbie and all those who seek to emulate her.
Struggling to embody her role, Robbie told Vogue that in order to play her character, she was advised to listen to a podcast called This American Life about a woman who never reflects on her own life. Robbie said, “You know how you have a voice in your head all the time? This woman, she doesn’t have that voice in her head.” It was this woman whom Robbie channeled while playing Stereotypical Barbie.
The theme song for Barbie Land, “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, demonstrates this lack of interior life. It is the only song on the radio in Barbie Land, and it is what Stereotypical Barbie listens to as she begins her journey to the real world. The song is a celebration of superficiality and a life lived without asking any meaningful questions.
The song begins, “The best thing you ever done for me / Is to help me take my life less seriously / It’s only life after all.” It belittles the idea that life has any meaning, and it posits that the key to happiness is living an unexamined life. Each verse discusses different sources of potential knowledge, including the Bible, and says that each was as unsatisfactory as the rest. The true answer to any existential questions which one may have is to just not ask them because “it’s only life after all.”
However, through Barbie’s travels in the “real world,” she comes to understand that this view of the human person, one which turns a blind eye to the reality of death and a higher call, is ultimately unfulfilling. After witnessing suffering, strained relationships, and aging in the real world, Stereotypical Barbie returns to Barbie Land with an understanding of the beauty to be found in that suffering.
After her return to Barbie Land, “Closer to Fine,” is answered by one of the more popular songs from the film, Billie Eilish’s existential ballad, “What Was I Made For?” This song is played during the movie’s emotional climax, when Stereotypical Barbie is given the choice to return to Barbie Land or to become a real woman.
During this scene, Eilish describes Barbie’s experience of the emptiness of the life idealized in “Closer to Fine.” The song asks, “Looked so alive, turns out I’m not real / Just something you paid for / What was I made for?”
Before she makes her decision, Barbie is reminded that “Humans only have one ending.” Namely, death. Before Stereotypical Barbie can choose to enter the real world, she must know fully what she is accepting. She is shown a montage that communicates that, were she to become human, she would have to embrace not only the guarantee of death, but that of pain and suffering, too.
Finally, when the montage is over, Barbie chooses the life of pain and suffering. This would not make sense were it not for the song’s vocalization of Barbie’s realization. After asking the question “What was I made for?” over and over again, finally there is an answer: “Think I forgot how to be happy / Something I’m not, but something I can be / Something I wait for / Something I’m made for.”
The film again subverts audience expectations at its end once Stereotypical Barbie has entered the real world. The audience watches as she enters a tall building, presumably for a job interview, perhaps with Mattel. However, she is not at the building to enter the workforce or to become a CEO; she is there to see her gynecologist.
This last scene serves a primarily comedic end, but it is funny because it is unexpected. Here, Barbie is telling the (chiefly feminine) audience that entering the real world and being truly happy requires embracing that which makes you female. Just as Stereotypical Barbie does not succeed in the real world by trying to change it nor by becoming a “girlboss,” but by becoming a real woman—something that is much more than skin deep.
Barbie, whether or not it intended to, told audiences—over $1.38 billion worth of them—that life is not worth living if you abandon who you are to an “authentically artificial” life of surface pleasure. It explicitly said that you were made for happiness; to be truly happy you will have to face and embrace suffering. A superfluous life is not ultimately fulfilling, and, even then, you cannot escape the reality of death. It stands at the ready, prepared to stop your artificial world in its tracks by its mere mention. So embrace it, because Et in Arcadia Ego, Barbie.
This is College Barbie, and her dream house (BP) is currently under construction, so for now she lives in Zahm (definitely Mojo Dojo Casa House vibes). At college, she learns political science and hangs out with all her closest friends—literally every single person on campus! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Barbie Promo
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