Barbie Contra Finitude

by Yanis Iqbal Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 16 minutes (3919 words)

Photo source (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The plot of Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023) begins with Barbieland, a matriarchal utopia where Barbies enjoy perfect lives while Kens struggle to capture the former’s attention. Barbieland appears untouched by the complexities of human relations, such as sexuality. For example, at the end of a dance party, Ken says to Barbie, “I thought I might stay over tonight. We are boyfriend and girlfriend.” Barbie replies, “Why? To do what?” to which he lightheartedly responds, “I’m actually not sure.” Therefore, Barbieland is a realm of innocence and purity, where Barbies lead immortal lives with a jovial, ever-same tranquility.

However, this eternal ebullience is disrupted when, at a dance party, Barbie’s mind is invaded by thoughts of death. She is soon afflicted with bad breath, cellulite, and flat feet. Weird Barbie, a disfigured doll, advises her to find the human being who has been playing with her in the real world if she wants to return to normalcy. Barbie discovers that it was Gloria, a Mattel employee and the mother of teenager Sasha, who unintentionally triggered her existential crisis by playing with Sasha’s old Barbie toys. Gloria describes herself as “a boring mom with a boring job and a daughter who hates me.” In order to escape this pathetic state, she started making drawings of Barbie. However, these drawings quickly became “sad and weird.” In her words, “because I couldn’t be like you, I ended up making you like me.”

Meanwhile, Ken, who had accompanied Barbie to the real world, learns about patriarchy. Upon his return to Barbieland, he allies with other Kens to institute a patriarchal order where Barbies are relegated to roles such as girlfriends, housewives, and maids. Gloria’s speech on women’s cognitive dissonance under patriarchy succeeds in reminding the Barbies of their previous position in Barbieland. Regaining control of their world, Barbies realis of their world, Barbies realiztagonism that internally splits each one of them.  s in the structured operations of its inner ce that they were wrong to exclude Kens and other unconventional dolls. Barbie, on the other hand, decides to become a human being in the real world, and the movie concludes with her first visit to the gynecologist.

Barbie’s reception has been characterized by a liberal perspective that considers finitude – the humble creativeness of communitarian and identitarian affiliations – to be the best way of living. Commenting on the last scene of the movie, Callie Ahlgrim writes:

Despite the bodily horror of womanhood – periods, pregnancy, pap smears – we find relief in community. Going to the gynecologist is one of those in-jokes that we share, the kind of thing you love to complain about. Commiserating eases the psychic pain. The line is made even more potent in the context of Barbie’s journey. Earlier in the film, she didn’t even have genitals! She gave up her plastic life in Barbie Land, where every day is a perfect day, for something we take for granted: to have a body that swells and shrinks and bleeds. She has realised that change is what makes life worthwhile, that aging is a gift. So if a trip to the gynecologist is the price she has to pay, she’ll do it with a grin (2023). 

The liberal consecration of finitude has clear theological overtones. Cathleen Kaveny waxes lyrical about how the “broken uncertainty of the postlapsarian world generates opportunities for human beings to exercise their agency in cooperation with God” (2023). The ultimate fact of death lends an essential precarity to our relationships, forcing us into the hard labor of sustaining commitments. For Kaveny, Barbie’s message is no different from the one preached by Christian theologians, for whom “it is better to be an imperfect, finite human being than an angel” (2023).

The interpretation of Barbie as a liberal tale about finitude is reliant upon a reactionary philosophical gesture. Death is posited as a vital power that has the capacity to transcend any particular life. Our lives are mere expressions of the formless creativity of death, which, like an invisible god, exercises its infinite authority in a reverse manner: not as the direct management of everyday affairs but as the passive limitation of everything. Mortality is turned a One-term possessing “constitutive power,” with individual lives figuring as “constituted configuration” (Badiou, 2002: 66). “Death is the only proof of life. Finitude is the only proof of the transcendental constitution of experience…there operates in the background a secularized, or sublimated, God, over-existing puppeteer of being” (Badiou, 2002: 66). Alain Badiou explains this as “the axiomatic admission of a term that has the power to transcend the states that deploy, or unfold it, so that any singularity of being is only thought with precision in the finest possible description of the single act which both constitutes it and relates it to the One, of which it is a transitory mode” (2002: 66).

Once death has been labeled as the all-encompassing source of human power, freedom becomes a matter of enlarging a natural potential that is already contained within ourselves. Badiou labels this ideology as “democratic materialism,” in which the exclusive existence of bodies and languages becomes the defining feature of human life (Reinhard, 2023: xxii). Languages are required to be adequate to the affirmative life-force represented by our mortal bodies. It is in the nature of bodies to invent forms of life and it is the duty of languages not impede or harm this creative capacity. This structure of the Two entails a norm of compatibility and harmony, wherein languages are asked to establish a stable contract with the natural possibilities of the body of enjoyment. As Badiou puts it:

[T]he contemporary world talks about nothing but harmony, as, for example: “Let’s get in tune with ourselves, let’s feel good about ourselves,” and so on. And everything should be OK, our bodies should be well nourished, entertained, not too bothered by what’s going on in the world outside, etc. And so, with a more or less contractual language and bodies that are more or less free to enjoy as they please, things can be fine (2023).

In this conception, freedom becomes a matter of adjustment between bodies and languages such that the continuity of the body’s internal effects, it naturalness, is sustained: “what makes a decent, normal life possible is the fact that bodies aren’t seized by languages to such an extent that they are irremediably alienated from what they’re capable of” (Badiou, 2023: 330). Seeing Barbie through the lens of democratic materialism is possible only through an affective response that is blind to the disruptive radicality of truths and thus wants to believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity.  The viewer is never unsettled in this kind of affective atmosphere. On the contrary, they strenuously strive to reduce Barbie’s chaotic journey of self-transformation into a legible script of self-discovery – her metamorphosis into a human being is framed not as a radical break but as the acceptance of the natural fact of death that is always-already there.

Since democratic materialism takes the world to be transcendentally constituted by death, nothing new can emerge. The subject – as the embodiment of the vitality of death – “takes the place of place itself,” uniting so fully with the essence of reality that “even its absence as an actor in that scene portends neither a loss of presence nor the absence of the consciousness that lets it “know” itself” (Edelman, 2004: 34). In the retroactive story-telling performed by democratic materialists, the mortal Barbie was always there, though in an unconscious form, as the “space of perception” itself (Edelman, 2004: 34). This fantasy is founded upon the certainty of death: people will die even when we are dead, and this very fact serves as a way to construct an immovable structure that can’t be tampered with. Badiou remarks: “Death is that whereby, beyond the derisory being-multiple of living individuals, the existence of life affirms itself. Every time that a living thing dies, what is silently spoken is: “I, life, exist.”” (Badiou, 2002: 65).

If we refuse to believe in the permanence of the structure of death, a different affective response is provoked than the one that feels satisfied at the natural freedom of mortal bodies. Virginia Walcott writes that the writers of Barbie “could have made this a movie explicitly about childhood and imagination, weaving an emotional tale about growing up, ignoring the negative effects of her reign, but they decided to make it about the product, not the humans who loved it” (2023). Instead of directly talking about the vagaries of humanness, the movie opts for “circuitousness” (Walcott, 2023) – the truth of human subjectivity is revealed through a doll world whose workings are unknowable. As Walcott notes:

[H]ow do we even know what Barbies would act like? What research do you do to create their world? Isn't their life up to the owner, the person playing with them? To which the director said, yes and no. I will also remind you that this isn’t an actually answerable question. There are no giant hands moving them around (as one Barbie comments, “No, what? That would be weird!”), the line between human world and doll world is gloriously and strangely vague, and ultimately we just don't really know how it works. Even Weird Barbie, the wisest and most exiled in Barbieland, has all the answers but no explanations. No one really asks, either, because it's
make-believe. And isn’t that kinda how it felt as a kid? (2023)

The intense absurdity of a child’s mind when they play with a doll is mirrored in the arbitrariness of the doll’s behaviors in Barbieland. Rather than being a clear-cut story about the positive value of human finitude, Barbie represents the absolute contingency of a world wherein dolls don’t follow their pre-established scripts. Barbieland doesn’t really make sense because it is an absurd fiction, and this very fact is “darkly backwards and strange” (Walcott, 2023) to the civilized sensibilities of our finitist commitments. Barbieland is innocent not in terms of the purity of an immortal realm but in terms of a hysterical childishness and naivety that keeps growing without any respect for the conventions of meaning. As Barbieland is unsettled by Barbie’s thoughts of death, we are invited to ponder upon the “unsteadiness of quality and meaning in something” (Ligotti, 2010). Things which had seemed stable become separate from our world, appearances without a designated place. “You feel confused as you stare at them. What are they? What is their nature? Why should there be something rather than nothing?” (Ligotti, 2010). For the viewer, Barbie asks the question: ““What now?” a voice from the other side of being seems to say. And what if you should look at yourself – the most everyday object there is – and feel at a loss to attach a quality and a meaning to what is being seen or what is seeing it. What now indeed” (Ligotti, 2010).

The feeling of excess invoked by Barbie escapes the binary schema of democratic materialism, in which there is either the happy finitude of the real world or the dead immortality of Barbieland. Any idea of eternity is excluded as senseless since life is equated with living on, with mortal survival, whose inherent precarity and fragility motivates human care and commitments. Here, the sole form of temporality that is allowed is “the idea of time as the continuous, ceaseless succession of ever-self-dividing now-points with a past behind them and a future ahead of them” (Johnston, 2014: 193). When time becomes a succession, it starts acting as a homogenous standard according to which other disjunctive temporalities are judges. Everyone is required to linearly move along with the fluid mobility of the contemporary age. The past, present and the future are configured as so many moments of the general historical transience of the world – individuals live, work and die, as they get absorbed into the comprehensive flux of becoming. But what if they resist absorption? What if the present no longer serves history by connecting the past and the future but initiates an act of disconnection? This is what Badiou calls the “separability of forms,” in which the mere passing of moments, the endlessness of change, is broken by an “eternal truth” that makes it impossible to carry on as before (2023: 304). Mari Ruti gives an insightful description of such instances of eternity:

Absorbing moments of creativity […] are characterized by a hyperfocused or elated state that temporarily makes us lose touch with the historical quality of human experience. No longer creatures situated on a personal continuum that extends from a past recognized as “ours” towards a hypothesized future – no longer creatures of either memory or hope – we fall into and embrace the immediacy of the present. Entirely immersed in the task at hand, we feel that we have been ushered to a place beyond time and self-reflexivity. The present takes up all of our experience, yet we do not feel in any way deprived or delimited, but are rather filled by an exhilarated sense of liberation and self-expansion; we feel vibrantly alive, connected to the deepest recesses of our being (2012: 26).

Thus, apart from the mobile finitude of the real world and the static infinitude of Barbieland, there exists another dimension, namely the finite infiniteness of human beings. Gloria’s life in the real world doesn’t fit into the characteristic dictum of democratic materialism, according to which bodies’ capacities should be allowed to be free so that they can enjoy freely. What we witness in her life is a crisis of enjoyment, her inability to feel satisfaction from the habitual goods of the world. That’s why she returns to dolls – an incongruent object in the life of an adult. The linear temporality of capitalist life, in which enjoyment is predicated upon the future satisfaction to be derived from the next commodity, is disrupted by Gloria’s stuckness in the past. This stuckness problematizes the democratic materialist insistence on a transparent relationship with our bodies. Gloria doesn’t revel in the imperfectness of her existential conditions. Her vulnerability isn’t assimilable to the endless creative potentiality inherent in human finitude. Rather, she looks upon her body as a source of distress, as an un-incorporable negativity that tears apart the semblance of harmonious relationality. Her drawings are about a Barbie who is witnessing the breakdown of her symbolic coordinates: “Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie. Full Body Cellulite Barbie. Crippling Shame Barbie.” Paul Verhaeghe calls this the “real of the flesh”:

The real body shows itself only in exceptional cases: for example, when depersonalisation occurs, which always amounts to some sort of desymbolisation. In such a case, a part of the body becomes unrecognisable because the signifier has been withdrawn from it. As a consequence, the subject is confronted with the real of the flesh, with something anxiety provoking and uncanny. The very same process can be recognised in hysterical revulsion: if the body (my own or another’s) loses its erotic investment (Freud), or its signifier (Lacan), then the hysterical subject reacts with disgust to this emergence of the real of the flesh (2001: 69).

In Barbieland, a similar dynamic of scission is evident. Barbie doesn’t just move from the deathly stasis of immortality to the chaotic force of life. Rather, she dies in a peculiarly excessive manner: her exit from Barbieland forces her to eliminate the previous identity she had. Before her transformation into a human being, she is asked what she wants, to which she replies, “I don’t know. I’m…I’m not really sure where I belong anymore. I don’t think I have an ending.” Uncertainty about the inherence of a final purpose is opposed to the comfortable homeostasis of a naturally given finitude. Barbie doesn’t posit death as the ultimate end. She doesn’t exist on the continuum of organic life, wherein people come to humbly accept death as the source of their limited powers. Barbie’s identity is located elsewhere, in an undead realm that is oblivious to the existence of absolutized foundations. “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning,” says Barbie. “Not the thing that’s made. I want to do the imagining. I don’t want to be the idea.” A pre-fabricated idea conveys the illusion that the world already comes with a meaning, which is just waiting for a subject to be deciphered. Barbie challenges this principle by expressing her desire to make meaning, which, as its presupposition, requires a world that isn’t made: it simply exists without any reason or purpose. It is this originary purposelessness of the world that encourages us to reject any naturalized grounds of existence, even if it is death, as in democratic materialism.

If we stick to the celebration of finitude, then Barbie’s decision to join those who make meaning can be misinterpreted in the form of a fundamental dualism: those who are in the real world are active meaning-makers, while those in Barbieland are passive, dependent Others. In its patriarchal iteration, the order of valuation was tilted in favor of the realm of ideas, while the reality of the earth was denigrated as a subordinate moment of heaven (Bottici, 2022: 105). What democratic materialism does is to reverse this normative hierarchy, so that natural bodies, instead of immortal souls, can be inflated into a totality with a positive value. In Barbie, this renewed ontological dualism is coded in terms of having or not having sex organs. Barbie’s act of going to the gynecologist is supposed to show that now, she, too, is subject to the painful vicissitudes of the natural world, within which she has to find her own finite path. Anatomy is made into a symbol of our natural powers, whose temporary pains ultimately round off to a good enough life. Kaveny puts it clearly: “I see Barbie as accepting responsibility for having a biologically complete female body that is both wonderfully strong and potentially fragile. The bodies of women in Barbie Land are plastic; they don't age, they don’t die, they don’t make love and they can’t make children. Embodied women in the real world do all of these things” (2023). Instead of being a marker of our creative finitude, anatomy is a reminder of humanity’s continuing link to natural contingency, which prevents a conflict-free relationship with our bodies. Our genitals are a symbol of humanity’s “'..anity'bol of that our genitals powers, whose temporary pains ultimately round off to a harmonic freissicitudes of ven if it iexcremental nature (born between urine and feces)[…] It is as if culture seeks to depict human […] life as noble. Yet the only way of believing this is to not think of the genitals […] since as soon as we think of them, we think of their location, and thus the noble thing literally turns to shit” (Ruda, 2016: 157).

Nature is not a God that allows the finitist flourishing of humanity but a kind of “shit” characterized by meaningless, arbitrary, and contingent processes. Far from being a meaningful whole, nature is an entity whose sole lawfulness consists in the structured operations of its inner contradictions, incompleteness, and contradictions. Insofar as nature fails to coincide with itself in a harmonic manner, it is an auto-effacing, self-denaturalizing dynamic that, by accident, gives birth to human subjectivity. As Alenka Zupančič writes:

[L]ife has no ground or source of its own. It is something that happens to the inanimate, it is an accident occurring in the inanimate (possibly due to its own inherent contradiction or inconsistency). It is not simply its other. It is an interruption, a disturbance of the inanimate, a gap appearing in it; or, in another viable speculative perspective: life gives a singular, separate form to an inherent gap on account of which the inanimate does not simply coincide with itself (2017: 97).

Democratic materialists affirm the natural condition of death as a universal principle that provides the grounds for the continuous extension of humanity’s powers. Like the patriarchal veneration of heaven as the guiding principle of existence, nature is converted into a God that enables the flourishing of humanity. Adrian Johnston dispels this myth by noting that both natural and cultural materiality are lacking in terms of fully functional determinative powers: “neither nature nor culture are up to the task of being flawless puppet-masters constantly pulling the strings of heteronomous human individuals, ensuring that each and every gesture is performed in accordance with a preordained choreography” (2008: 189). Barbie subverts any dualism between real world and Barbieland by foregrounding the universal antagonism that internally splits each one of them. Gloria’s alienation in the real world, Barbie’s thoughts of mortality in Barbieland – these represent figures lying outside the circle of natural life and biological death. They are outbursts of discomfort and non-belonging that throw a wrench into the well-jointedness of any finite world, thus paving the way for infinity.


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Badiou, Alain (2023) Images of the Present Time. Trans. Susan Spitzer. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barbie (2023) [Film] Directed by Greta Gerwig. UK: Warner Bros.

Bottici, Chiara (2022) Anarchafeminism. London: Bloomsbury.

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Johnston, Adrian (2008) Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Johnston, Adrian (2014) Adventures in Transcendental Materialism: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kaveny, Cathleen (2023) “Barbie Land and losing paradise: Theologian muses on this summer's blockbuster,” National Catholic Reporter, August 10. Available at: (Accessed 7 November 2023).

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Reinhard, Kenneth (2023) “Introduction to the Seminar Images of the Present Time”. In: Alain Badiou Images of the Present Time. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. xxii-xxxiii.

Ruda, Frank (2016) Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ruti, Mari (2012) The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within. New York: Fordham University Press.

Verhaeghe, Paul (2001) Beyond Gender: From Subject to Drive. New York: Other Press.

Walcott, Virginia (2023) “Come on Barbie, give us nothing!” Scalawag, July 27. Available at: (Accessed 5 November 2023).

Zupančič, Alenka (2017) What is Sex? Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Barbie Contra Finitude

Yanis Iqbal is studying at Aligarh Muslim University, India. He has published over 300 articles on Marxist theory, social movements, imperialism, educational philosophy and cultural criticism. He is the author of the forthcoming book Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia. 

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays   film and philosophy   greta gerwig   margot robbie   post-feminism   ryan gosling