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Everything and Nothing
The Barbie movie, Lilith, Eve, and all our gendered hopes and expectations
I was a child who destroyed my Barbies — popping Ken’s head off and cutting Barbie’s hair. I was constantly losing Barbie’s accessories; I even colored on her face. My older sister, Jessie, played with hers meticulously — the world neat and tidy and everything, every cup and tiny perfume bottle kept where it should be. I wasn’t allowed to play with her Barbie collection. Not that it stopped me — I was entranced with the perfection of Jessie’s Barbie world. But that never stopped me from destroying mine.
Barbie is a toy with which girls can create their own worlds and then destroy them. Paradise built and lost in every reenactment. Barbie director Geta Gerwig has noted the connection, calling Barbie’s world the inverse of the creation myth. “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,” Gerwig said. In Vox, movie critic Alissa Wilkinson adroitly points this out, analyzing the world of the Barbie movie as an Eden ruined by the knowledge of death.
I want to “yes, and” Wilkinson here. Because, as with Biblical Eve, there are two creation myths for Barbie. One is that Barbie was inspired by the German doll Lilli, who became an idealized Aryan pinup for soldiers. The other is that Barbie inventor Ruth Handler created the doll for her daughter, to inspire her. Barbie is both sex doll and a child’s play. The lurid and the holy, existing side-by-side.
Similarly, the book of Genesis recounts two creation myths. The first chapter of Genesis describes man and woman being created at the same time. The second chapter describes God creating a woman from the rib of the first man in order to give him a helper.
The two creation myths have launched myths of their own. In a Medieval Jewish text, the Alphabet of Ben Sira, the first woman, Lilith, was kicked out of Eden because of her sexual appetite and because she asserted her equality with Adam. Lilith then became a demon — a kidnapper of children, a murderer of men. The myth of Lilith found its footing in the Middle Ages, as feudal systems disintegrated and religious powers sought to keep hold. In these tellings, Lilith transformed from dark, tempting beauty to snaggle-toothed hag. In some tellings, Lilith collects the spilled sperm from the bedsheets of copulating couples and turns it into demons. In other accounts, she is the Queen of the Underworld, only vanquished by the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth. In still others, she’s a succubus who rapes men at night and turns their offspring into demons.
The journalist and filmmaker Lilly Rivlin wrote about Lilith in Ms. magazine in 1972, reclaiming her as a symbol of feminine power and connecting her to the divine goddesses and spirits mythologized by ancient gynocentric communities. Rivlin wrote that she’d always been repelled by the myth of Eve, calling her “that submissive blonde creature wiled by a snake, falling for a line.” In the article, Rivilin followed Lilith back through history, finding her in Gilgamesh and finally connecting her to an Assyrian spirit of the wind. She writes, “In following Lilith backward through time, I had sought a female archetype which is creative and self-liberating. I found the wind. My journey ended at the beginning — only the wind, moving upon the void (containing nothing and everything in it).”
Containing nothing and everything is what Barbie is expected to do. So, too, are women. In the movie, America Ferrera’s character perfectly captures this ambivalence with a monologue that begins, “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”
It’s that speech that (spoiler alert) eventually saves the Barbies. As Barbie says in the movie, "By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you've robbed it of its power” — and they are freed.
If only it were that easy.
Gerwig both wants to have it all and knows she can’t. She’s getting away with everything in a pink capitalistic machine, but she knows that the capitalist machine is what got us here. “Things can be both/and,” Gerwig has said. “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Of course, asnotes in her newsletter “The Unpublishable,” you can’t be the thing and subvert the thing. Capitalism is what sells movies. You can’t be successful at making a movie without also being successful at capitalism. And if you want your movie to subvert capitalism, you have to be so good at it that they let you do it, which means money. Which means capitalism.
We want our subversive Liliths in a world of Eves. So much is expected of us. We have so little to give. We have to do it all. We can do so little. We expect a blockbuster film by a female director (still so rare in Hollywood) to do everything. The movie wants to do everything. It has ambitions and hopes, too. And yet — as Gerwig winks at us through Ferrera’s monologue — it can’t do it all. It knows it can’t; it’s held down by the realities of life, and money, and, and — everything. But it’s trying. But, in a country where gender identity is increasingly policed and the rights of people with uteruses are being gutted, is trying enough?
There are more ways to be a woman than being a Lilith or an Eve. More ways to exist than just Barbie or Ken. In fact, that is what a lot of America’s “culture wars” are about — criminalizing the ways people express gender through bans on affirming care for trans youth, bans on drag shows, and book bans that target LGBTQ-themed books, even as more and more people identify as LGBTQ and find other ways to live and exist outside the heteronormative stranglehold.
I saw the Barbie movie in a theater in Iowa City on Thursday night. The showing was filled with middle-aged Midwestern women all dressed in pink. In the bathroom after, we all talked about how we cried during Ferrera’s monologue. One woman announced she wanted it tattooed on her labia. Another woman joked that if she did, no man would ever see it because they so rarely put their faces down there. Wine tipsy. Teary-eyed. We all felt seen by a movie that is both too much and not enough. A movie as deranged and complicated and tied to the machine as we all are. It wasn’t everything. But it was something. And in that moment, something was enough.
There have been many essays and articles and opinions about Barbie this summer. Barbie is feminist. Barbie is not feminist enough. Barbie is ruining women. Barbie is ruining capitalism. Barbie is saying something important. Barbie isn’t saying enough. Barbie is too woke. Barbie is making fun of the wokes. Barbie. Barbie. Barbie.
Barbie is the perfectly imperfect vessel of our rage and our fears, so often destroyed by children in play. That plasticine locus of our anxieties and dreams. Barbie can’t save us. But also Barbie can’t destroy us. She contains nothing. She contains everything.
In the bathroom after, we all talked about how we cried during Ferrera’s monologue. One woman announced she wanted it tattooed on her labia. Another woman joked that if she did, no man would ever see it because they so rarely put their faces down there. Wine tipsy. Teary-eyed. We all felt seen by a movie that is both too much and not enough. A movie as deranged and complicated and tied to the machine as we all are. It wasn’t everything. But it was something. And in that moment, something was enough.
I loved Anne Helen Petersen on Oppenheimer and Barbie.
Andi Zeisler on Barbie as a mirror.
Jessica DeFino on Barbie’s impossible beauty.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela on Barbie’s complicated status in culture.
Jessica Bennett and Susan Faludi watched the movie together. That seems fun. And from the essay, it seems like Susan Faludi is just as exhausted as the rest of us.