Unraveling the Secrets of the BarbieverseReading Time: 7 minutes
I tumbled down the endless, electric-pink rabbit hole of contradictory logic and quantum theory that is Barbie World. Here’s what I found., The secrets of the Barbieverse.
There’s a moment in the Barbie movie when Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon, explains the process by which a Barbie can pass out of the Barbie dimension and into the human world. It involves multiple vehicles, several outfit changes, and most importantly, suspension of disbelief mixed with a giant heaping dose of incuriosity:
‘Best if you don’t think about it too much,’ says Weird Barbie.
On this front, Weird Barbie is correct: It is best if you don’t think about it too much. Not just because it makes no sense, but because trying to make it make sense is a pathway to madness.
For those who haven’t seen the Barbie movie, a crash course in the fundamentals of Barbie World physics: Barbies live in Barbie World, which exists in conversation with, but on a separate plane from, the human world. Every Barbie in Barbie World is an avatar for a real-world Barbie doll—’We’re all getting played with,’ Weird Barbie explains—but Barbie consciousness is strictly confined to Barbie World. The Barbies neither know nor care what you’re doing to their plastic bodies in the real world—unless a human does something to pierce the veil that separates the two worlds, in which case the Barbie she’s playing with will begin to experience strange glitches in the Barbie matrix.
In the movie, that veil between worlds is pierced by a mom who’s having a sort of midlife crisis; in Barbie World, the Barbie she’s playing with (played by Margot Robbie) is suddenly plagued by thoughts of death, flat feet, and cellulite. This also appears to explain the plight of Weird Barbie: Weird Barbies aren’t born weird, the movie explains, but they become weird from being played with too hard.
The movie’s writers (Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach) all but beg the audience (using Weird Barbie as a mouthpiece) to avoid even trying to understand this. To contemplate the metaphysics of Barbie World—which may or may not be more like a Barbie multiverse—is to tumble down an endless, electric-pink rabbit hole of contradictory logic and quantum theory until you no longer know what’s real. And at the bottom of that rabbit hole? A revelation:
There’s not just one Barbie World.
If every Barbie in Barbie World represents one physical Barbie doll in the real world, the population of Barbie world should be about 1 billion. Instead, Barbie World is so small that all Barbies who live there, including the president, can reliably be found in attendance at every social event. Additionally, there are no Barbie duplicates. Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie is the only one of her kind, as is Weird Barbie, even though, by Barbie World logic, there should be hundreds of them—to paraphrase The Dark Knight, in Barbie World, you either die a mint condition collectible or you live long enough to see yourself become a Weird Barbie.
In short, the Barbie World of the movie seems both too small and sparse to be the only one; surely, it has to be one of myriad (if not infinite!) Barbie Worlds.
This theory initially seemed comforting to me: Among other things, it meant that there might be a Barbie World out there in which the Kens are not homeless and doomed to a life of miserable subjugation. (Also, if we’re being entirely honest about it, it also implies the existence of at least one world full of nudist Barbie-Ken polycules who spend a lot of time mashing their nude plastic blobs together, which is what my Barbies did in their leisure time.)
But the moment I solved one metaphysical mystery of Barbie World, half a dozen others cropped up in its place. For instance: According to the Mattel executives in the movie, prior to Robbie’s Barbie showing up, only one denizen of Barbie World (a Skipper) had ever successfully crossed the border from Barbie World to the human world. But considering how easy it apparently is to pierce the veil between the two worlds, this seems truly unbelievable, even by the movie’s own tortured logic … unless there are multiple human realities too.
What if Barbie World exists in conversation not with the real world but with a real world, one of thousands, if not millions?
And what of the bridge between Barbie World, the self-contained ‘real world’ of the Barbie movie, and the real real world in which you are reading this article about Barbie metaphysics? The movie nods at this two-way pipeline in its second act: Ken imports patriarchy to Barbie World, which in turn begins exporting Ken-themed merchandise to the human world. But the real real-world version of this is brain-meltingly complicated: Now you can buy a commemorative Barbie doll that represents the Stereotypical Barbie of Barbie, as played by Robbie. (Even the specificity of this arguably makes her anything but stereotypical.) You can buy the movie’s President Barbie, who comes wearing a ballgown and beauty pageant–style sash emblazoned with President: ‘She’s all set to lead Barbie Land with both grace and style!’ the ad copy exclaims, while offering zero explanation of just how she ascended to the nation’s highest office.
You can even buy a Weird Barbie™, modeled on the doll from the movie, which creates the ultimate temporal paradox: If Weird Barbies become weird by being played with too hard, how can they also be born weird at the Barbie factory? Where does Weird Barbie™ fit into the Barbie World hierarchy? Does she merit more or less respect than the Weird Barbie who was, until the movie’s final moments, a creepy pariah relegated to a weird house on the outskirts of town? Do these special-edition movie Barbies inhabit their own bespoke timeline, or are their sentient avatars wreaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style havoc on Barbie World as we speak, manifesting like eerie copies-of-a-copy alongside the Barbies who inspired them?
At this point, I decided to bring in an expert for a second opinion: Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist who also works as a science consultant for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He didn’t work on Barbie (indeed, one gets the sense that no quantum physicists were consulted in the making of this movie), but he was happy to entertain my theories about the Barbieverse—and offer a compelling one of his own.
‘My sense from the movie was that it was almost like the platonic world,’ Michalakis says. ‘It was a many-to-one relationship: Even though you may have a million versions of the particular physical Barbie in the real world, the representation of all those million versions of that Barbie was Margot Robbie’s Barbie.’
In other words, what if I’ve been thinking about this all wrong? My expansive theory of the Barbieverse was nevertheless fundamentally confined by its rigid, one-dimensional starting assumption: that every plastic doll in the real world equals one individual consciousness in Barbie World. But what if the Barbies in Barbie World are more like Barbie archetypes, each one representative of Barbie not as a physical object but as a cultural concept?
While this theory doesn’t quite explain everything (I couldn’t help wondering what Weird Barbie would have to say about it), it’s at once satisfying and earth-shattering. In this view, Barbie World exists not as a parallel universe but as an interior one, suspended within the medium of human imagination.
And because it takes more than one person to change the concept of Barbie at a cultural level, any glitches in Barbie World’s matrix are reflective not of any one person’s individual sadness, or weirdness, or midlife crisis, but of our evolving collective understanding—conscious or otherwise—of what Barbie represents. Even the superficially feminist yet deeply dysfunctional power structure of Barbie World is ultimately a representation of the human yearning for a quick fix: Instead of building better, fairer versions of the systems that make up our social structure, what if we skipped that part and just manifested a matriarchy on top of the existing mess?
Michalakis points to Barbie World as the embodiment of this half-baked vision of progress. ‘Their version is, you still need to look super pretty, but you have a different skin color and a Nobel Prize—but you have no idea what you did to get it.’
Or you’re the president, with the pink Oval Office and sash to prove it. But how did you get elected?
‘It’s as if you teleport yourself to the answer, but you have no idea how you got there,’ he says. ‘And that’s the messy part.’
Indeed, it is messy—in a way that Weird Barbie would also no doubt advise us not to think too much about. And perhaps all these theories are their own sort of aspirational, dysfunctional ideal, designed to paper over the dark singularity at the center of the Barbie multiverse: that Mattel and Hollywood, in their thirst to create an eternal moneymaking symbiosis from box office to toy stores and back again, have unleashed a Jurassic Park–style monster reality that they don’t truly understand. Maybe somewhere in Barbie World, a Weird Ken who looks a little too much like a young Jeff Goldblum is pounding on a table and shouting, ‘Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should!’
And yet: The metaphysical conversation surrounding Barbie seems different from others like it in one crucial way. We don’t know, and may never know, who created our universe. But we know who created Barbie and, hence, Barbie World: We did. And when I ask Michalakis to explain the difference between a multiverse in which each reality lives adjacent to the others in space-time versus a multiverse suspended in the medium of the human imagination, his answer is amazing.
‘Honestly, at this point, they’re the same,’ he says. ‘What I love about my job is that we are trying to figure out what it means to not just go back in time but to go left in time. What if time is not one-dimensional, but we only know how to observe and understand it in this one-dimensional way?’
In other words, as long as we live in a world where our movement, and our experience, is confined by a linear understanding of time, the multiverse is a place we can only ever visit by imagining it, and sharing what we’ve imagined with others—in conversation, in stories, in movies—so that, for a brief moment, they can be transported there too. And while we may never fully unravel the metaphysical mysteries of Barbie World, we know where to find it, anytime.
After all, it’s been inside of us all along.
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