on Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig

Our toys are talking to us. Fulfilling the childhood fantasy of dolls that return affection, speak back, or even come to life, recent films have seized upon the timeless fascination with the secret lives of dolls and brought us as viewers back to the many places where we abandoned the companions we claimed to love: nurseries and daycares (as in John Lasseter’s Toy Story [1995] and its later installments), workshops (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio [2022]), and sun-baked beaches (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter [2021]). These dolls that we as viewers have grown out of, given away, or simply misplaced come back to remind us of the ways in which our care sustained (or failed) them, to remind us of who we were as children, caretakers, playmates, friends, and—most especially—parents. 

The impulse to read our doll play as indicative of our parenting skills and instincts is not surprising, considering that it has been an objective of toymakers since the toy and doll industry took off in the nineteenth century. While earlier versions of dolls were far more likely to resemble adults, the mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in the popularity of the baby doll and, relatedly, in using dolls to inculcate maternal skills. According to Max Von Boehn in his essential 1932 study Dolls and Puppets, baby dolls came into vogue in 1855, when they were displayed at the Paris world exhibition. Baby dolls, which encouraged playing at nursing and dressing, built upon nineteenth-century discourses surrounding motherhood as dollmakers sought to design dolls that would form ideal future mothers. Victorian children’s literature further emphasized the link between doll play and a child’s future success as a parent. In Margaret Gatti’s children’s book Florence and Her Doll (1865), Florence’s mother chides her daughter for changing her doll too slowly, telling her “if you were dressing a real baby, it would be likely to take cold.” But as Victorian dollmakers imagined a prescribed narrative through interacting with their dolls, children (and adults) used play as a way to reimagine these set narratives. As Maggie Tulliver shows us when she furiously hammers nails into the forehead of her wooden doll in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), children could just as often use dolls to unsettle societal expectations. 

In her unapologetically pink and delightfully plastic Barbie, Greta Gerwig initially apparently offers an escape from such nineteenth-century expectations and the need for subversive play. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie), about whom the inhabitants of Barbieland appear to orbit, lives confidently in the belief that she, as an adult figure and career woman, has liberated girls and women from the expectations of motherhood. But when someone begins playing with her in the real world, Stereotypical Barbie begins experiencing the player’s negative and all-too-human emotions as they merge into her consciousness, changing her mentally and physically. Out of a horror of developing cellulite and facing the physical indignities of aging, Stereotypical Barbie decides to embark on a journey to the real world to find this person, help them, and thus preserve herself from the natural and inevitable evolution of the human body. Despite abhorring the body’s physical reality, what Stereotypical Barbie expects when she meets the women and girls who once played with her is gratitude for the role she played in their lives and the possible narratives she believes she opened to them. She remains blissfully unaware of other oppressive narratives that her plastic form has created and perpetuated. 

The film’s opening scene both affirms and satirizes Stereotypical Barbie’s assumption that she has freed women from the prescribed narrative of motherhood. In a revision of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), little girls lovingly carry baby dolls in a distant landscape. “Since the beginning of time,” the narrator (Helen Mirren) announces, “since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls.” When a giant version of the very first 1959 Barbie doll in her iconic swimsuit appears towering above them, the girls look up with wonder, reach out tentative hands, and then begin smashing their baby dolls with abandon. The destruction is at once cathartic, irreverent, and ridiculous. The absurdity of the carnage wrought upon the dolls, of nonsensical statements such as “since the beginning of time,” and of the visual references to 2001, imply that the film is more aware of Barbie’s complexity than Barbie is herself. It is not factually accurate that girls have played with dolls since the beginning of time, that only girls have played (or continue to play) with dolls, or even that baby dolls—a relatively recent invention—were the first kinds of dolls to exist. In making these statements within its satiric opening scene, the film both solidifies and breaks the myths surrounding Barbie, playing with the idea of Barbie just as many children have literally done with the physical versions of Mattel’s beloved doll. 

And so, despite the emphasis on Barbie as homeowner and career woman, Gerwig’s Barbie presents a complicated message about the relationship between doll play, Barbie, and mother-daughter relationships. This nuance is inherent in Barbie’s material history. Despite her many iterations, Barbie has famously never been a mother herself; Mattel did produce a pregnant best friend, Midge, played in the film by Emerald Fennell. When the Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) journeys to Barbieland to bring back Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), he is repulsed by the sight of Midge, claiming that he thought Mattel had discontinued her. Despite Mattel’s distancing of Barbie from the realms of motherhood, the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler (played in the film by Rhea Perlman), also inextricably tied the doll up in her personal history as a mother when she named the doll after her daughter, Barbara Handler. Barbie may not present as a mother to children and may appear too adult to play the role of baby doll, but she is also a physical representative of a mother imagining—and in a way playing with—her child. 

One of the main questions that the film asks, then, is about what happens when a mother goes back to playing with her dolls. What Stereotypical Barbie discovers when she travels to the real world is that the person playing with her and causing her to have cellulite and “irrepressible thoughts of death” is Gloria, a mother herself. This revelation explains why Stereotypical Barbie’s transformations are so thoroughly different from those of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), whose cropped hair, constant splits, and marked-up face are all recognizable as the results of being played with “too hard” by a child. Instead, Stereotypical Barbie’s changes through Gloria’s doll play are only the beginning of her development into personhood, which unfolds as she journeys back and forth between Barbieland and Los Angeles. This development reaches its peak when Barbie first meets Gloria’s daughter, Sasha, who tells Barbie to her face all the ways in which she has created and perpetuated patriarchal expectations for women. This is a deeply humanizing moment for Barbie as Margot Robbie’s face registers the sharp criticisms of an angry adolescent and she bursts into tears. In contrast, in a later scene, Robbie falls to the ground like a plastic doll in a fit of despair; in that moment, Robbie fantastically reminds us of Barbie’s artificiality as she encounters a new low. But in this scene with Sasha, Robbie calls forth Barbie’s authenticity, highlighting the moment’s relative importance and its more personal nature. Disillusionment, as Barbie discovers, is an important part of growing up, and she encounters it through the words of Gloria’s daughter, an experience that Gloria, too, must regularly undergo. 

Gloria’s doll play goes beyond initiating the breakdown of Barbie’s illusions regarding herself and what she’s represented to young girls, eventually reimagining a nineteenth-century practice of using dolls to rehearse acts of death and mourning. As foretold in those recurring thoughts about death, Barbie’s consciousness regarding the process of aging and human mortality continues to expand. In one of the film’s most vulnerable moments, Barbie sits on a bench and sees an elderly woman (Ann Roth) for the first time. Looking into the woman’s eyes, Barbie says, “You’re so beautiful.” Moving past her fear of flat feet and cellulite, Barbie recognizes beauty in that which she most fears, and through her connection with Barbie, Gloria, too, begins to work through her anxieties about growing older. In turning to a doll to help think through her mortality, Gloria actually returns to the nineteenth-century practice of using dolls to teach children the rites of death and mourning. According to childhood historian Miriam Forman-Brunell in Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930 (1993), the nineteenth-century presence and production of mourning dresses and coffins for dolls suggests that parents actually encouraged their children to hold funeral ceremonies for their dolls. By picking up Barbie to process her own thoughts of death, Gloria shifts the cultural practice of doll play from one meant for children to practice mourning rituals to one in which adult women express—and eventually come to terms with—their own mortality.

Stereotypical Barbie’s expanding consciousness and development of self eventually make her continued stay in Barbieland untenable. Barbieland depends, after all, on the fact that Barbie is an idea, not a person; all the Barbies in Barbieland are at once distinct and part of the collective “Barbie” who wins Nobel prizes, governs Barbieland, explores space, writes novels, and practices medicine. This plurality is apparently positive, since it is the source of Barbie’s ability to empower young girls; as Barbie gathers accomplishments and accolades, she embodies a wide range of equally possible narratives for women. As the film tells us, Barbie can be anything, so little girls can, too. But these achievements are ultimately as intangible as the invisible milk that Stereotypical Barbie pours into her cup each morning. The labor behind these professions is absent, and so the Barbies’ various attainments appear simply performative: for instance, while the Barbies insist to one Barbie that she wrote a book and is a celebrated author, the book feels imagined (we never see it), just as it would be in child’s play. 

Stereotypical Barbie eventually feels this absence, for, as she tells Ruth, the metaphorical mother of Mattel, she wants to become “part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made,” choosing to leave Barbieland behind for the real world. Barbie realizes that to exist in Barbieland is to live as pure product without meaning—that is, without the development of self that comes from the years of study and discovery necessary to become a Supreme Court Justice or prize-winning physicist. Her statement is also in part a disavowal of any role that she may have played in fulfilling the criticisms Sasha threw at her; according to Barbie’s statement, she has only been an object—a “thing”—that has fulfilled the objectives of others. But in putting forth this claim Barbie also undercuts the power that dolls have to create through play, a power that Gerwig—a mother herself—never forgets. As Gerwig said in a July 11, 2023, interview with Willa Paskin for The New York Times Magazine, “We create [dolls] and then they create us and we recreate them and they recreate us. We’re in constant conversation with inanimate objects.” Life in Barbieland may not produce meaning, but Barbie as idea—and as doll—does. 

What Barbie offers us, then, is not an alternative to understanding doll play as a test or practice for motherhood, but rather a deeper understanding of what motherhood might mean, both for mothers and their children. Through Barbie’s development of self, Sasha and Gloria’s renewed connection, and Gloria’s reconciliation with her life and mortality, Barbie demonstrates what a mother’s doll play is capable of accomplishing. Mattel markets Barbie and her varied career paths as a means for children to imagine possible future selves; this child’s doll play is complex, but, as Gerwig’s film illustrates, a mother’s doll play is even more so. At one point, Gloria admits to Sasha, “I started playing with [dolls] again,” and it is this return that makes doll play so powerful within Barbie. A mother’s play combines past, present, and future—the doll is who she thought she would become and a reminder of the child she once was, as well as a representative of the hopes and fears she has for her own children. The tenderness of this doll play proves transformative, and as Barbie embraces the possibilities and limitations of loving and aging, we hope that Gloria—and perhaps other mothers who turn back to their dolls in an effort to cope with the trials of adulthood—might do so too.


Barbie. Directed by Greta Gerwig. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2023.


Brianna Beehler, a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Southern California, is a 2020–2021 Mellon–Council for European Studies Dissertation Completion Fellow. Her work has recently appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature and is forthcoming in English Literary History.