The Picture-Perfect “Barbie” Universe Is Just a Metaphor for Being Human

Barbie is many things: an adept demonstration of how the right director can spin something great from IP, a feminist empowerment tale bathed in pink, and a set piece for Margot Robbie to do some of her best and most nuanced work. It’s also a film that’s pure visual delight, with a hyper-specific aesthetic that’s a little deeper than just picture-perfect Dreamhouses and that specific shade of pink. In Barbie, the interiors act, just like the characters, both to celebrate specific archetypes for what they are and offer commentary on what they are, and why.

(If you haven’t seen Barbie and would like your movie experience unsullied by spoilers, please close this tab, go watch the movie, and then return to this at your leisure.) 

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In the film, Barbie Land, where Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) and all of the other Barbies and Kens live, is a slightly claustrophobic pink utopia in which the patriarchy as a concept never actually existed. Women are in charge of everything, including but not limited to the government, and also, on some level, their own lives. Kens, of which there are many, are merely sentient set dressing; they exist to be in service to Barbie and whatever she may need, and have little other agency. At this point in the Barbie promotional cycle, we’re all familiar with her various Dreamhouses, but to see Greta Gerwig’s take on a feminist utopia on the big screen is thrilling. Pink is neutral; it’s the dominant color in a world where every color is dialed up to a scream, and to see it all in aggregate is a visual delight.  

Barbie Land is essentially a retirement community suffused with empowerment that at first seems appealing. Without the pesky influence of men and their terrible taste, the Barbies are free to roam their landscape unburdened by outside opinion. Sure, everything in their respective homes is fake, from the orange juice in the fridge to the toothpaste in the bathroom, but because these Barbies are essentially concepts rather than real people, they’re content to exist in a world where everything looks as it should, but isn’t really anything at all. The swimming pools and beaches have no water. Every house is an open structure with no walls and no easy or sensical way to descend. (Barbies don’t ever use stairs, so when Robbie’s Barbie wants to come downstairs and get into her car, she simply floats.) The entirety of Barbie Land is meant to communicate freedom, but it is stifling in its own way. Its perfection is essentially frictionless, but the Barbies in Barbie Land don’t know anything else.

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While the interiors of Barbie Land are perfect and tooth-achingly sweet, there’s a slightly more sinister Barbie aesthetic lurking high on the hill, overseeing Barbie Land at a remove. Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), banished to the mountaintop because she was “loved too hard,” lives in a postmodernist mansion that is chaotic perfection. Jagged edges, psychedelic colors, and a layout reminiscent of Meow Wolf create a sense of distortion and imperfection: two key tenets of just being alive. Whereas in all of Barbie Land perfection is expected, in Weird Barbie’s house, imperfection is the dominant trait, and the closest thing to the real world there is.

The engine that drives Barbie is nothing more than a simple existential crisis: one day, Barbie’s irrepressible thoughts of death are simply too much to bear and so she must enter the portal into the real world to reckon with the many trials, tribulations, and heartbreaks of being human. In this instance, the real world is Los Angeles, specifically the grunginess of Venice Beach, where Barbie and her stowaway, Ken (Ryan Gosling), are met with two separate realities that they each must contend with alone: men are horrible to Barbie, and for Ken, the world is essentially at his feet.

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When the two doll/concepts are unleashed in Los Angeles and largely left to fend for themselves, there’s nothing to write home about in regard to their surroundings. The scuzziness of Venice Beach and Los Angeles in general exists in sharp contrast to Barbie’s dominant aesthetic, which remains extremely pink and effervescently optimistic, even as she learns that the real world requires both humanity and connection—two things she was previously unable to access. These crucial experiences are also lacking in the brutalist monolith that is Mattel HQ—an imposing skyscraper that, as set designer Sarah Greenwood told House Beautiful, is supposed to have one foot in the real world and another in Barbie Land.

The building is full of dark floors lined with rows and rows of gray cubicles, a dystopian take on the modern office environment that’s in stark contrast to the open-plan, airy interiors most offices strive for. Yes, this is meant to indicate that any corporate HQ is full of peons chained to their desks pushing papers and slowly rotting in the midst of their own futility and conformity, but it is also essentially a child’s rendering of what “going to work” might look like. This holds true for the boardroom, at the very top of the building, which features a heart-shaped conference table and overhead lighting, and a giant box that serves as a portal for escaped Barbies to return from whence they came.

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The interiors in Barbie Land are irrevocably altered about halfway through the film, thanks to Ken. While Barbie gets a hard lesson in being a woman, Ken teaches himself about patriarchy and brings his knowledge back to the others. When men’s rights culture comes to Barbie Land, the first impact is on the Dreamhouses. Ken’s knowledge of patriarchy came through some reading, most of which included books about horses and, ostensibly, the American West. The result is perhaps the most exciting part of the movie’s aesthetics, only because of how ridiculous it is. Ken’s patriarchal fantasy is a little bit like if Kanye West’s “Bound 2” music video met a dingy frat house: galloping horses on flat-screen TVs, velvet paintings featuring, yes, horses, Barcaloungers, pull-up bars, and general mess.

Perhaps it is my personal damage that led me to think some of these aesthetic touches are an improvement from the original homogeneity disguised in pink, but maybe there’s something there. Even though the pristine perfection of Barbie’s Dreamhouse is sullied by the detritus of disgruntled masculinity, the space feels complex and human: an apt metaphor for the journey Barbie begins at the end of the film (any further detail here would tread into spoiler territory) and a decent analogue for the occasional bravery of being alive.  

Top Image © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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