Barbie Is Right: Heterosexuality Is Goofy

This Barbie essay was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, movies like this one would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work. This piece contains spoilers.


I knew Barbie wasn’t going to be an explicitly gay movie, even if the pre-strike press tour included a lot of broad anecdotes about “the LGBTQ+ community” influencing the film. Would I have loved for two Barbie dolls to air kiss? Sure. But it would have been a flash-in-the-pan thrill. Short of making Barbie a movie inherently about the world’s most famous doll discovering she’s a dyke, I don’t think any grab at visible, overt queer representation in the Barbie movie would have actually felt all that meaningful to me. It would, like some of the press tour talking points, just feel like a checked box. But what Barbie — and specifically Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s script — does do is actually way more thrilling than a thrown-in scene of two Barbies canoodling the way my own dolls did years ago. Barbie makes a farce of heterosexuality.

In Barbieland, Barbie has a great day no matter what, but Ken? Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him. We’re used to narratives about straight women hinging their self-worth and identity on men, but by flipping the gender roles of that dynamic here and making the straight man’s identity dependent on a woman’s attention and approval, Barbie does something more than just highlight the ridiculous and limiting nature of external and internalized misogyny. It exposes heterosexuality in general as a wholly goofy enterprise. Ken desperately wants to stay the night in Barbie’s Dreamhouse. To do what? He isn’t even sure. He’s just, essentially, pre-programmed to want this, pre-programmed with straight desire.

Perhaps one could adopt a queer reading of the relationship between Stereotypical Barbie (the film’s protagonist, played by Margot Robbie) and Gloria (the human Mattel assistant responsible for Stereotypical Barbie’s malfunctions, played by America Ferrera), but stretching a film of romantic love over them would be, well, a stretch. Romantic love doesn’t really have a place at all in Barbie; even the primary Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) puppy-eyed obsession with Barbie isn’t love so much as devotion — devotion, again, that’s conditioned and unquestioned until he ultimately breaks free of it at film’s end and realizes he can exist without being sutured to Barbie. So, no, even though they do indeed sing along in the car to Indigo Girls together, I won’t hyperbolically render the Barbie/Gloria relationship as Secret Girlfriends in the way I know it can sometimes be tempting to do as a lesbian viewer when two women so much as look at each other for half a second too long on screen.

That said, I do think there’s something queer about Barbie/Gloria in the sense that their relationship is impossible to define in normative, fixed terms. When they simultaneously realize that Gloria’s doll sketches — inspired by her loneliness, thoughts of death, and general feelings of being unmoored in life — are the thrust of Barbie’s malfunctions, Gloria says “you came from me” while Barbie says “I came from you,” in unison. You could call it a parent/child or creator/created relationship, but it’s more complex than that. Barbie is a literal manifestation of Gloria’s fears and insecurities. They’re bound together. When I think back to the ways I played with Barbies as a closeted lesbian, it’s easy to construct a narrative that I wanted to be Barbie; it’s harder to explain the truth, which is that I wanted Barbie to be me, that the plastic dolls felt more like an extension of my limbs than like toys to arrange and pretend with. Gloria doesn’t just project onto Barbie; she sires her. It’s not romantic, but it sure as hell is intimate.

But regardless of how you choose to interpret or project onto Barbie/Gloria yourself, my favorite thing about Gloria is that she also embodies the film’s implicit mockery of conventional heterosexuality. When Gloria is first introduced — as an overworked, under-satisfied mother whose teen daughter is growing away from her — I assumed she was just another iteration of the Tired Single Mom trope. I was, therefore, delighted by the reveal she does have a husband and he’s just useless! He has exactly two scenes in the movie, and in both, he’s poorly practicing Spanish using a language app. He doesn’t even notice his wife and daughter have absconded to Barbieland. He’s not a bad man or bad husband; he’s just there. Barbie and Gloria clearly don’t need men and their arcs center other forms of love — self-love and the love between a mother and daughter — rather than romantic love. It’d be easy to call heterosexuality the norm of Barbieland and Barbie; to me, it’s a punchline. The reveal of Gloria’s husband is literally played for laughs.

And yes, while there are no openly queer dolls walking around Barbieland (in case that’s the whole reason you’re reading this piece), there are plenty of homoerotic double entendre and visuals to the film. There are even discontinued actual queer-coded Ken dolls who appear briefly (including “Sugar Daddy” Ken, which yes was a real thing). Ken, trying to prove himself to Barbie, argues with the other Kens he’s jealous of and challenges them to a “beach off,” the Kens all saying they’re going to beach each other off, and yes, it’s on-the-nose, but that’s what I love about the humor here. Even this Straight Posturing is soooooo gay. Straightness in Barbieland is cringe. It’s easy to feel bad for Ken throughout — not because Barbie won’t look his way but because he is so programmed to believe that’s all he needs that he can’t even imagine anything else.

This Dyke Barbie is tickled by the ways the Barbie movie makes fun of straightness, even if it never tips all the way into proposing something else. Sometimes, heterosexuality is just so silly! Even Stereotypical Barbie thinks so.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Having seen it and hopefully seeing it again on Sunday, ok, [SPOILERS] I 100% think Barbie is a lesbian, but I don’t think her endgame was Gloria. I think the greatest ship sailing is Barbie/Weird Barbie, who is obviously running a queer commune over there in those pink mountains of forgotten toys. But that’s just one femme’s opinion!

  2. Still think it would’ve been a more effective skewering of heteronormativity if they’d had stereotypical Barbie and the weird Barbie team up and fall in love!!

    Or at least better than the “aren’t men wackkky” gender commentary we actually got

    (Sorry Greta, I still love you. I blame the studio execs and Mattel sponsorship!)

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