The Eerie Silences in Barbie and Oppenheimer

This article was supposed to be about using creative practices for deep processing and high sensitivity, but my thoughts kept turning to the Barbie movie instead. The two are related, but I’ve not found a clear thread yet. I’ll try and find it as we go…

This may contain spoilers.

“Do you guys ever think about dying?”

– Barbie

There is an eerie silence when Barbie admits her thoughts about death. It felt similar to the silence in Oppenheimer, when the frantic rush climaxes, and the atom bomb is successfully tested in New Mexico.

It looks different but the silence in both cases is a confrontation with reality.

Confronted Through Silence

Robert J. Oppenheimer lost his influence once the Manhattan Project was completed and the bomb was successfully tested. He had what it took to create the bomb, but despite misgivings about its implications, the genie was too big for him to put back in the bottle. In this silence, we feel a confrontation with a contradiction. It speaks to us of the terrible things we have unleashed in pursuit of safety, truth, and progress.

On the other hand, Barbie discovers a messy sense of agency and influence when she and Gloria confront the contradictions in the heart of human existence. The silence is a sharp intake of breath at the moment when Barbie asks a question which has, until now, been successfully repressed in this fantasy realm.

Gloria, who returns to her childhood Barbie in the real world, expresses forbidden thoughts, fears, and regrets through the toy. As such, Barbie experiences a confrontation with reality and is forced to address it because it can’t be hidden here. Cellulite, flat feet, and bad breath mean she is not long for this fantasy world. She will soon find herself living in the mountains with Weird Barbie. Unless she finds the child playing with her and undo whatever is causing this existential rupture.

The silence in Barbie represents a universal contradiction that sets up Gloria’s monologue at the end. This quiet moment is a loud and violent whisper.

Never Good Enough

This is the antagonism at the heart of Barbie and why it’s strange that the narrator intervenes to tell the filmmakers that the feelings Barbie is experiencing about not being good, intelligent, or pretty enough would be more believable if it wasn’t Margot Robbie saying it. Isn’t that the point? This lacking feeling is universal. Inescapable. Beyond any of us to overcome.

Every new iteration of Barbie is a reminder of the failure that comes from trying to represent humanity through symbolic forms of identity. We always fall short of what we are supposed to be.

True belonging emerges through the realisation that no one truly fits, because we are all subject to this nag of alienation. It comes to us all, even though some can run or hide from it more easily than others.

Gloria even points this out when she attempts to rally Barbie in this moment of existential despair, “It is 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.”

Barbie and True Belonging

The point at the heart of this movie isn’t that if we change how things are on the surface (add another Barbie to represent another group or swap women for men), we can fix the world. Or that if the world was ruled and run entirely by women, everything would be perfect.

The movie is a question about how we are expected and encouraged to engage with the irrepressible thoughts of death and desire that underpin human subjectivity. How do the external systems and internalised ideological stories try papering over the cracks of contradiction and lack in all of us…including Margot Robbie.

This applies to everything. Doubts creep in for everyone—fear, ageing, and falling apart. No one escapes it.

Falling From Fantasy Into Reality (and vice versa)

The move between the real world and the dream world of Barbie Land takes you to a place without emotion, ageing, or contradiction. A fantasy without frailty, degradation, or need. Everyone is quenched, clean, and energised despite the lack of running water. Nothing grows, withers, or dies.

Gloria returns to her childhood Barbie as a way to comprehend her confrontation with lack in the real world. She draws new versions, like Cellulite Barbie and Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie. Perhaps as a way to reconcile her relationship with her changing reality and the dawning sense that maybe you can’t be anything you dream of after all.

It doesn’t matter how many Barbie dolls you create, something will always be missing or unrepresented. Something within that takes you outside the symbolic perfection of the fantasy. Every new doll is another reminder that you’re not enough.

It’s a confrontation with how we are allowed to be lacking human subjects.

Filling The Lack in Different Ways

His exposure to the real world gave Ken a language for his sense of lack. And it provides a way to try filling it. Until this point, he has been defined by what he is missing. It’s Barbie and Ken, yet Barbie is distant and inaccessible. His subjectivity is dependent on the existence and presence of Barbie. But Barbie has rejected him. Kids playing don’t use him as more than an accessory to Barbie. She therefore doesn’t need him.

But this sense of alienation shifts shape when he reaches the real world and sees how things are there. He is impressed by the men riding horses and the fact that people like him are in positions of power and influence. He checks some books about “Patriarchy” from the library and returns home to turn Barbie Land into Kendom.

It is important that rather than realising his independent subjectivity and sparking an emancipatory revolution, he just embarks on a project to transfer power from Barbies to Kens. Barbie Land already operated on the same structure as patriarchy, so nothing changes beneath the surface of difference.

Ignoring the contradiction expressed through the verses of Push by Matchbox Twenty, the Kens paper over their sense of alienation by pushing people around and renaming the world in their image. As they sing the song’s chorus on the beach, their angst is underpinned by their own irrepressible thoughts of death (insignificance, rejection, not being needed), which are subsequently turned outwards onto the world around them and onto one another.

It’s not Barbie and Ken. It is Barbie, and it is Ken.

There is a pleasant ambiguity when Barbie visits the gynaecologist at the end. We see someone ready to reveal the embarrassing hidden parts of herself (literally the parts that have been smoothed from existence) and confront something at the very core of what it means to be human. The desire, lack, and imperfection that drives the most powerful, terrifying, and beautiful expressions of human creativity. The part inaccessible to even our brightest machines and most knowledgeable artificial intelligence.

The Thread

Did you see the thread between creative processing and the Barbie movie? I think I’ve found one.

“Do you guys ever think about dying?” Maybe literally. Maybe not. How do you process your relationship with the real world? With the experience of life as a feeling, thinking, lacking subjective human being. Where do you go with your deep thoughts and feelings? How do you hold, process, and let them go?

We are often encouraged to paper over and ignore these cracks that confront us with life’s messy imperfections and contradictions. To distract and escape reality through consumption, “finding ourselves” in symbolic forms of identity, and following those who will tell us how to become pretty, spiritual, intelligent, strong, brave, witty, virtuous, wealthy, enough to belong to a tribe.

Developing a creative processing practice allows us to place these impossible fantasies back in their box. To ask the forbidden questions and ponder the unponderable thoughts. To play with what it does and doesn’t mean to be human. And to bring perspective to the sense of alienation, we ALL feel as lacking conscious beings.

Life is more fun and playful when we connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us, as lacking subjects. When we allow ourselves to feel that stuff, think the things we’re not supposed to think and laugh/cry/get confused about it together.

Creativity Anchors Us In A Wonky World

Creativity is not about the product. It’s a conversation about what it means to be human. To be imperfect, lacking beings, expected to be many contradictory things. Creativity anchors us in a wonky world that language cannot fully grasp. It allows us to explore the contradictions at the heart of our human subjectivity.

It’s why artificial intelligence will never fully replace human creativity…because human creativity isn’t a product, it’s the essence of who we are when we confront those contradictions.

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