The Barbie movie as a work of remembering: Some psychoanalytic thoughts

Disclaimer: Firstly, it cannot be overstated that when speaking of sexuality, sexual difference, femininity and masculinity, particularly in psychoanalytic languagethese terms refer to how someone identifies and orients themselves within societal power structures; it has nothing to do with biological mechanisms. Secondly, this article contains spoilers. 

Stripped of all its jargon, gatekeeping and problematically explicit terms, psychoanalytic theory is at its heart concerned with two fundamental experiences: death and sexuality. Or, put more succinctly, the psychoanalytic task is to understand how our sexual drive’s proximity to death mediates our relationship with ourselves. Surprisingly, given how Barbie’s quest for ‘realness’ begins with thoughts of death and ends with a trip to the gynaecologist, this same task seems to be at the heart of the Barbie movie.

Firstly, I think that the Barbie movie is yet another Hollywood-style superficial take on feminism where girl power will solve all our problems, and all is well so long as corporations repackage our criticism in a self-referential format. However, there is something to be said for how Greta Gerwig provided such a poignant depiction of the role superficial gender norms play in mediating and ‘structuring’ our relationship to sexuality and mortality.

For psychoanalysts and Barbie alike, sexuality and mortality are a package deal
One of the most foundational – and problematic – psychoanalytic theories is known as the Castration Complex, which Freud introduced in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905). In its simplest form, he argued that children are not born with an innate understanding of sexual differences. Instead, it is something we learn, and that discovery is typically a traumatic one. Later studies affirmed Freud’s finding that this typically occurs around 3 – 5 years of age.

This experience is ‘traumatic’ because it introduces a split into our experience of ourselves, which we experience as our first-ever loss of a previous self or perspective. Or, as Pietro Bianchi so perfectly put it in his article Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Phallus (But Were Afraid to Ask Barbie): “The castration complex introduces a new register of experience; the child is not so much aware of the existence of a real anatomical difference, but only of the fact that reality is traversed by an absence. Hence, precisely because it concerns the presence of a loss and a radical imbalance in existence, sexuality is, for psychoanalysts, fundamentally connected to death.”

Freudians then argue that following these initial ‘traumatic’ discoveries, we enter a period known as ‘latency.’ Our turmoil and difficulty are repressed and worked through unconsciously during that time. From 6 until 12, if we are lucky, we too will live in Barbieland, where everything seems to make perfect sense. During this time, we know there is a difference, but there is a gap in our knowledge such that, just like when Barbie asks Ken what he wants to do when he stays over, we are ‘actually not sure’. However, at around 13, our body undergoes various physical changes, which will bring these latent, infantile complexes back to the forefront of our experience.

Barbie as a metaphor for puberty
Once puberty arrives, we – like Barbie – suddenly find ourselves bored and tormented by an awareness of loss or death, as in Barbie’s case. For Barbie, these thoughts lead to the collapse of order in her world: her milk expires, she falls off her house and her shower is suddenly too hot. But most important of all, her feet flatten.

In other words, something about her body, that which defines her as Barbie in everyone else’s eyes, has changed. In our own experience, that ‘something’ is often how our changing bodies mean that people stop perceiving us as children. Instead, we are teenagers now, and we must figure out what that means. Once again, we are faced with a loss, and we, too, must venture into the ‘real world’ to figure out what that loss means.

From that vulnerable position, Barbie will find a sense of ever-increasing unsafety, which many of us in a feminine position come to find in that place between loss and change. Whereas Ken, led by a stereotypically male mix of competition, loneliness and drive, finds patriarchy as an anchor to hold down his experience of loss and uncertainty. As the movie progresses, the ‘saving Barbieland’ plotline is a poignant echo of adolescent gender relations, which leads Barbie to learn. If she wants to feel like herself, she has to leave Barbieland behind and embrace that which the real world offers; a ‘real’ life defined by a sexed body and a mortal existence. Her excitement over such a ‘gift’ makes it clear that this movie cannot spark the next feminist revolution, nor is it designed to. Instead, it is akin to when Andy had to give his toys away at the close of Toy Story 3. We grew up, so Barbie had to, too.

However, all that being said, I do think that the movie’s success could well speak to a larger change we are seeing in the tools we give children to meditate on the anxiety between childhood and adulthood. In other words, it invites us to look at the actual practical use of gender norms and ask: is there something else that could serve the same symbolic function but would not force young boys to feel the need to push patriarchy to feel seen? Or, even more importantly, would not force young girls to venture to Venice Beach because of some cellulite?

Written by Molly Fitz