“I Don’t Know How to Feel”:
Untangling the Hypofiction of Barbie

Spoilers, duh.

Barbie is a lot of fun. It’s high-camp, daringly self-referential (and that’s saying something) social commentary with dance numbers and the most accurate joke about fascism you’ll find in a film in 2023.

But on sitting through the closing credits, as we are shown glimpses of all the varieties of Barbie referenced in the movie, from the classic to the discontinued, it is Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” that feels like the most moving moment of meta-commentary in the movie overall. “I don’t know how to feel”, she sings as the credits roll, and as my friends and I descended the surprising amount of stairs in Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, I didn’t either.

What was Barbie made for? It is a question that the movie as a whole attempts to answer, albeit with regards to the product rather than the movie in itself. But the latter question is hard to ignore.

The plot of Barbie is far from what I expected. Barbie finds herself malfunctioning. “Stereotypical Barbie” gains some new characteristics — specifically, cellulite and irrepressible thoughts of death. So she goes on a mission (with Ken reluctantly in tow) to close a portal across the gulf of space-time between Barbie Land and the real world.

Whilst Ken has his own adventure, ending up importing patriarchy back into the matriarchy of Barbie Land, Barbie’s journey is far more existential. At first horrified by our world, its topsy-turvy patriarchy and the complexities of being human, she comes to realise Barbie might not have solved feminism as she thought but nonetheless still represents an idea of female agency and empowerment, even if the history of that idea and its representation are as complicated as the human world she eventually decides to move to permanently.

All these twists and turns are hugely enjoyable. I laughed a lot, some of our group had a cry, and it was so overtly coded as a kind of trans odyssey across gender roles that the film’s parting joke — it is heavily implied that Barbie goes to get a vaginoplasty — was a fitting cherry on top rather than the sort of faux pas it might have been in any other context.

But for all the movie’s self-effacement — it even self-effaces that self-effacement at least twice — I wasn’t convinced the movie ultimately made sense as a vehicle for its own message (even if that message is precisely a questioning of the brand-message of Barbie). Maybe it was this pretzel-shaped jousting of its own reasons for existing that makes the film feel so strange. Barbie has an existential crisis, but maybe that crisis is more significantly Mattel’s. For all my enjoyment of the film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this feel-good movie about the complexities of human nature bled uncomfortably with a corporation relaunching its own identity.

When the first trailer for Barbie was released some eighteen months ago, I wrote a short post that quoted from Mark Fisher’s PhD thesis, specifically the chapter “Capitalism as Toy Story”. In the end, the film echoes Toy Story more explicitly than I imagined it would. The plot is very similar, but rather than toys having existential crises over their relationships with their owners, Barbie’s feelings and “irrepressible thoughts of death” seep into her reality by osmosis from the disenfranchised mother who starts playing with her — that is, it is the owners that have existential crises in relation to their dolls.

This reversal is significant. Fisher’s commentary on Toy Story considers how the agency ascribed to toys not only makes us feel good to watch but is transformed into a specifically Baudrillardian kind of ecstasy when we can play with the actual toys for ourselves. Fisher writes: “Ecstasy — which has an ostensibly inverse but effectively indistinguishable state, dread — arises when the subject is jacked into late capitalism’s network of cybernetic communications.” Whereas Toy Story balances these inverse states sublimely (both in terms of its storytelling and huge commercial potential), after watching the Barbie movie I was left with a peculiar dread above all else. It drew so much attention to this entanglement of ecstasy and dread that it was dread that overall came to dominate.

Truly, I can think of nothing more bizarre than the film’s premise, such that the dizzying complexities of political signalling by corporate entities counter-intuitively come to feel innately and naturally human rather than conniving. When Barbie’s real-world owner reflects on the difficulties of womanhood, listing the contradictions of patriarchal expectation, what stuck out to me was the comment that women must be intelligent and self-aware but not too much so as not to come across as manipulative. It is an existential girlbossing epitomised, such that every comment made about modern womanhood could just as easily apply to corporations themselves. It is as if Mattel is likewise thinking the same things about itself as a kind of sovereign entity. (See also: the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, which I happened to watch earlier this afternoon.)

This is where my discomfort lies, perhaps. When we say “the future is female”, to what extent does this also mean conflating womanhood with late-capitalism’s own modes of strained production? To what extent is this self-effacing critique of patriarchal capitalism also a making-female of capitalism itself? But for all its critiques of the modern world, capitalism itself is left untouched.

Fisher talks about Baudrilliard’s concept of hyperreality to consider the ways that capitalism blurs fiction and reality to sell its own dreamwork. But when capitalist realism is already so totalizing, when the fictions of capitalism are already so all-encompassing, what is there left to blur other than capitalism’s own waning ideals?

This isn’t hyperreality but rather what I’ve previously called a hypofiction:

This is hypofiction. This is the contraction of capitalist space-time, rather than its technicolour expansion. It’s not nostalgia but hypochronia, in which old time pools under the surface of a disenfranchised generation not only old enough to remember the Old Days but mentally stuck there. Previous generations made this kind of film about specific “events” and eras — about the Swinging 60s, or the Roaring 20s, or even (perversely) about the chivalrous time of the two World Wars. Today, Gen X makes films not about the events it lived through, strictly speaking, but a more restrictive kind of capitalist event; it makes films about the things it used to buy.

For what purpose? It is hard to say. The obvious answer might be that these brands simply want to reinvigorate their IP. We have moved from product placements to product-protagonists, and so the self-mythologising function of capitalist dreamwork has fallen victim to its sense of signifying inflation too. Once upon a time, a Superbowl commercial would suffice; now you need a blockbuster. But still, the question is: why?

That previous post was scathing, aimed at bizarre forthcoming brand-movies like Air and Tetris, but Barbie — much to my surprise, for all its camp self-effacement — ultimately isn’t that dissimilar. Just beneath the daring meta-commentary on the brand’s flaws and complexities, which are supposed to lead us out to thinking about our own lives, I’m left feeling like it is Mattel the corporation that is ultimately humanised here. And I don’t know how I feel about that.

Perhaps that is because the line between Barbie Land and the real world, much as is the case in the movie, is blurred completely. But this identification with the emotive landscape of the movie is not so much the feeling of escape you expect from a film, which is then marketed to you outside of the cinema as a joyful continuation, but rather a certain sense of the uncanny that follows you out of the door.

In many respects, there is still a kind of continuation between dreamworld and real-world. I am now so much more aware, after having seen the film, of how its marketing echoes its message. “How does one acquire kenergy?” “How can I be more Barbie?” In Flatline Constructs, Fisher draws on the work of Sherry Turkle to explore how and why we imaginatively give agency to inanimate objects and how capitalism exploits that tendency, but in Barbie the overarching message seems to be that it is the toys that give agency to us. Barbie is flawed, Barbie is complicated, but so are we; Barbie is an idea, even a human ideal, and the surreality of such an ideal allows our imaginations to flourish so that we can build other, better worlds.

But at the same time, it does not necessarily feel like it is we, the consumers, who are being played with in this sense. We are still watching a corporation reflect on its own identity. Though the film tries to be a vehicle for questions of politicised existentialism applicable to all, these questions reflect back most profoundly on Mattel itself. And given all of the film’s marketing, it hardly feels like it has fully heard its own message.

Barbie is a multiplicity. There are many Barbies who are all Barbie. Barbie is a doctor, a lawyer; Barbie is president. But my favourite Barbie of the movie was Accelerationist Barbie.

“Patriarchy contains the seeds of its own destruction,” Stereotypical Barbie says as she plots to destroy Ken’s newly imported political reality. But it is also significant that Barbie ends up destroying herself, becoming Barbara Handler in the film’s final scene.

Is she still Barbie?

Barbie, as an idea, has no ending — or so we are told. Only humans die; our ideas do not. But is that strictly true? Are our ideas not just as vulnerable? Is that not the entire underlying anxiety of the film, fuelled by Mattel’s existential crisis in a changing world? Is this not a film that grapples explicitly with the perceived redundancy of a corporate entity? Does it not reflect the anxieties of all other corporate entities, many of which are also cashing in on the post-ironic postmodern relaunch of the product-protagonist blockbuster?

The anxiety left unexplored is that the wider world, rather than just the anxious subjects who inhabit it, is also choosing new ideas of self. These are not simply post-patriarchal anxieties but post-capitalist ones. It is seemingly in wanting to resolve this anxiety that Mattel got this film made, but if audiences are left not knowing how to feel, perhaps it because the resolve never really arrives, just an uncertainty that plagues capitalism far more poignantly than its humanoid avatars. If human life is complex and fraught with change, that is true of all things. The message left to make us feel better about ourselves is hardly successful at convincing us that Barbie-capitalism itself knows what it is doing, and humanising its products is no sure way to prolong its dominance.

All feels contingent. Barbie is not forever. Barbie is a stop-gap on the way to the new.

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