In a World of Barbies and Kens, What About the Allans?
This is a discussion of the “Barbie” movie. There will be spoilers beyond this point. Please proceed with caution (because we don’t want to be the ones who spoil you!)
“Existentialism thrives in that gap between what is and what ought to be.”
On the opening night of the “Barbie” movie, I threw on my collared romper. I’d ordered it from a men’s catalog along with a hot pink ascot that unfortunately didn’t ship in time. Still, strutting around in my tropical patterned one-piece, I felt like I was exuding “Kenergy.”
I was far from the only person to dress up for the occasion. Everywhere you turned there were strangers greeting strangers, saying a cheery “Hi Barbie!” or “Hi Ken!” as their outfits dictated. The night was highlighted in pink and the audience was animated, cheering and booing as the events of the film unfurled.
And the movie itself was impressive as hell. There were some artistic choices that were more than a little strange (the whole opening sequence comes to mind), but any movie that can topple the patriarchy through the power of musical theater is doing something right in my book.
Still, I left the theater feeling conflicted. When Barbieland was overthrown by Kendom, I thought I had the film figured out. The Barbies would realize that the Kens were being treated unfairly in the old system, and after tearing down Ken’s new patriarchy, Kendom/Barbieland would become, just, Land. World. Whatever, you get the picture.
It’d be a place that fit the Barbie/Ken binary with room to spare.
Spoiler alert (but actually if you haven’t seen “Barbie” yet, 1. You should, and 2. I’m impressed you’ve read this long about a movie you haven’t watched): this didn’t happen. With the help of a group of discontinued dolls and her real-world companions, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is dragged out of her depression. This group of outcasts then works together to reawaken the other brainwashed Barbies. Ken’s patriarchy falls and Barbieland is reinstated.
The Barbies are happy, the Kens are entering a period of self-discovery and enlightenment, and the movie ends with Stereotypical Barbie deciding she wants to try living in the real world.
Except… whatever happened to all those outcasts, without whom Barbieland wouldn’t have been reinstated in the first place?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about one of the discontinued dolls, Allan. His first appearance occurs during the Barbie/Ken roll call at the beginning of the movie. In a sea of “Hi Barbies!” and “Hi Kens!”, they all seem surprised when Allan is introduced. As if he isn’t there every morning with them. As if he isn’t also living a repeat of this perfect day in Barbieland.
And the way his introduction is handled is humorous. I know I chuckled at the sudden appearance of a new name. But it makes me wonder. In this film about being who we are, are we expected to laugh at the people who are different?
If the number of discontinued dolls used as punchlines is any indicator, the answer is “yes.”
There’s Midge, “Barbie’s pregnant friend.” While Midge greets Barbie with great enthusiasm each morning, Barbie shies away from her. Barbie, and later the fictional CEO of Mattel, comment about her presence being strange. After all, who would want to play with a pregnant doll? I mean, I would’ve as a child, but that’s beside the point.
Speaking of strange, it’d be remiss to talk about the Barbieland outcasts without giving a shoutout to Weird Barbie. If you guessed that Weird Barbie is used as comedic relief, you’d be correct! From her impressive contortions to her humorous interactions with Stereotypical Barbie upon their first meeting, Weird Barbie offers levity in the face of serious existential questions.
And, unsubtly, Weird Barbie literally lives on the outskirts of town. Her strange cottage ends up being the meeting place of the outcasts who eventually save Barbieland.
If Barbies represent cis women and Kens cis men, then these outcasts are everyone in between. Everyone who has access to some rights and not others because they don’t fit neatly into gendered expectations.
So, we have a bunch of outcasts on the literal outskirts of society. They help bring order in the face of gender-based conflict, and as thanks, their plotlines get dropped.
And Allan’s story arc perfectly illustrates this.
Allan’s singular, explicitly stated goal in this movie is to leave Barbieland as it is transforming into the Kendom. It is as Ken is overtaking the society that Allan finally seems to realize that, while facing similar difficulties before, Allan is not a Ken and he is treated differently because of it.
He begins his journey to the real world and fights off a group of Kens in the process, but the two humans he’s traveling with have other ideas. Deciding they can’t leave things as they are in Kendom, they decide to turn their vehicle back, taking Allan with them to deal with the Barbie/Ken conflict.
And that’s where Allan’s story ends. He doesn’t leave Barbieland. He doesn’t undergo a personal odyssey in which he finds himself. Or, if he does, the audience doesn’t see it. He is dragged back to overthrow one system that’s worse than the system that preceded it, but was never good to him in the first place. His purpose is served and he is forgotten.
And it reminds me of how terrible history’s memory is.
Time and again, marginalized communities are instrumental in large historical change, and time and again, their contributions are minimized, erased, or forgotten.
The outcasts continue to be brushed aside.
What hurts about “Barbie” is that as a piece of media, it gets so close to highlighting one of the biggest problems society is facing today. It’s the patriarchy, yes, but it’s also the idea of a matriarchy. It’s the fact that when asked to imagine an empowering and safe space for women, the best we came up with is a reversal of our current system with Barbies as the ruling class, Kens as second-class citizens, and Allans left out of conversations altogether.
As I see it, our society will never be fair if we continue to uphold binaries. Whether this be in gender, or race, or political party, pitting two groups against each other will always leave someone hurt, not least of which will be those who get used and forgotten in the process.
So this one is for the Allans. This is for the people who see media get so close to touching on their lived experience, only to veer off course. This is for the people who have to search for their own history because it’s not reflected in textbooks.
This is for the people for whom the choice between Barbieland and Kendom isn’t “Kenough,” who dream outside the lines of a World that isn’t binary.
Image via Barbie the movie’s Instagram