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I Said I’d Make a Woman: Barbie and the Pygmalion Paradigm


I Said I’d Make a Woman: Barbie and the Pygmalion Paradigm

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I Said I’d Make a Woman: Barbie and the Pygmalion Paradigm


Published on August 28, 2023

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures
margot robbie in barbie
Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Hi, Barbies.

So, the pinkest movie of the year is a box office hit and a cultural phenomenon, nabbing over $1 billion at the box office and securing the title of “biggest opening weekend ever for a non-superhero movie, sequel, or remake.” (And yeah, that’s a handful of qualifiers, but still…) Amid the slurry of boys-punching-type-films that mostly make up the superhero genre, the success of such a surpassingly girly movie feels refreshing—which, indeed, was one of the hooks of Barbie’s remarkably successful marketing campaign. The grand roll-out managed to pull off the coveted magic trick of making the film it promoted not just look fun but feel like obligatory viewing. For when a movie studio pulls into the public square and promises that mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig is about to set off a glitter cannon, who can afford to look away? Take my money! Take it twice!

Still, though Barbie’s success may feel unprecedented in our current cultural moment, the story of Barbie herself that Gerwig chooses to tell—that of a doll’s decision to become a real woman—actually has thousands of years of precedent in a story model that pervades multiple genres of film and literature, though is especially at home in tales of magical realism and science fiction: the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.

[Spoilers ahead for Barbie (2023)]

Most famously transmitted to us by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (as a staggering number of myths are), the story is of a young prince of Cyprus and sculptor who so reviles all women’s “ample natural faults” that he prefers the company of a woman of ivory, a statue he has personally crafted. Through the power of the goddess Aphrodite, to whom the isle of Cyprus was of special importance, Pygmalion’s wish that his perfect statue be made flesh and brought to life is fulfilled, in which state we must assume she is able to provide Pygmalion with significantly better companionship.

Or is she?

While Ovid terminates his version on the simple note of a romance consummated, what appears to have animated this story’s longevity in subsequent adaptations is the suspicion that Pygmalion or a man like him would never be able to stay satisfied with any real woman, even one whom he had the privilege to literally design to his exacting specifications. Every girl eventually falls off the pedestal. Naturally, many retellings and adaptations explore not just how impossible a Pygmalion is to satisfy but how psychologically fraught that challenge is for the woman called upon to live up to an impossible standard.

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The Fragile Threads of Power
The Fragile Threads of Power

The Fragile Threads of Power

And this is very much what Gerwig’s Barbie is about. Barbie, designed as a product to represent the feminine ideal but naive to the real world’s complexities—having only existed heretofore in Barbieland, a matriarchal society of ambiguous metaphysical connection to our own world—journeys to Los Angeles in search of answers as to who or what is causing her to experience “irrepressible thoughts of death” and cellulite. After the requisite series of misadventures, what she finds is Gloria, the adult woman who has been nostalgically playing with her daughter’s discarded doll, who articulates to Barbie, and by extension the rest of us, the cognitive dissonance of trying to be the “perfect woman,” the balancing act of being beautiful and accomplished while remaining non-threatening and humble, etc.

“And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then… I don’t even know,” Gloria concludes.

To be clear, I do not mean to argue that Gerwig is taking the Pygmalion myth as her primary paradigm in this movie—or even that she was thinking of it at all. The more direct influence for her Barbie’s choice to become Barbara Handler, a real woman, in spite of all the trials and discomforts and inevitable end of human life, is much more clearly influenced by Wim Wender’s 1987 Wings of Desire (one of the thirty-three films Gerwig lists as an inspiration for her work on this movie in an interview with Letterboxd). Still, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, any story of the crafted ideal woman meeting reality will always resonate with the Pygmalion type in how it comments, intentionally or implicitly, on those ideal feminine standards.

So, as an exercise in fun (and gaining some grounding in the conventions and variations we may see in the story of the designed woman), let’s take a brief walking tour of some examples of writing and film that adapt or employ the Pygmalion trope. Then we may return to Barbie with fresh, discerning eyes and compare her to the other girls.


Metropolis (1927)

Hey, you like Art Deco? Well, have I got the film for you.

Directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, if you have not experienced this classic of German silent film then you have probably at least seen its poster featuring the movie’s famous fembot. Created by the evil inventor, Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge), this android is not only constructed to be a beautiful woman but is modeled on two preexisting, idealized women in the story. The first is Hel, Rotwang’s lost love, and the second is Maria (Brigitte Helm), the angelic prophetess of hope to the oppressed workers in this futurist industrial dystopia. By stealing Maria’s face for his creation, Rotwang coopts her influence and seductive beauty in an attempt to destroy Metropolis.

For a film to which a fembot is so pivotal, however, Metropolis really has very little interest in gender as a topic per se. The laborers and capitalists who make up the opposing sides of the story’s conflict are all men—save for Maria, who is on the workers’ side but not a worker herself, as far as we can see. What’s her day job? We simply do not know.

Lang and von Harbou use gender symbolically instead. Andreas Huyssen (who also makes the Pygmalion connection) argues that the movie attempts to illustrate the dangers of technology by projecting onto it the “specifically male view of destructive female sexuality.” Thus: fembot.

Another reading of the film could be made about the particular threat the robot poses to women by pointing out that Rotwang’s construct undermines Maria’s ability to control her own precarious image—a very timely point in our current moment of fast-advancing AI imitation tools—but this would be centering the perspective of Maria as a character more than Lang invites. He mostly prefers the perspective of his protagonist, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), whose frequent bouts of phantasmagoria allow Lang to indulge in wild imagery.


The Stepford Wives (1972)

A book that feels quite necessary to mention in proximity to Lang’s Metropolis, Ira Levin’s work of feminist horror is very conscious of how it portrays gender. It relates the story of Joanna, a wife, mother, and professional photographer, as she investigates her suspicion that the submissive wives of Stepford, Connecticut, who all mysteriously drop any personal ambition upon moving to the town, are somehow being brainwashed by the local male population. She discovers that, much like Maria, the Stepford wives have not been hypnotized or brainwashed but fully replaced by look-alike robots. In Stepford, there is not merely a single mad scientist or loony sculptor driving this plot but a whole host of Pygmalions! They even have a club.

Published during the period of second-wave feminism and the rising Women’s Liberation Movement, Levin’s satire of idyllic suburban family life dramatizes the same dynamic we observed in the original Pygmalion myth—the notion that men, given the option, would prefer the fake woman they can control to the real one imbued with the “natural flaw” of, let’s say, willfulness. Or, as Michelle Arrow puts it in her own review of the novel, “a man would rather kill his wife and replace her with a robot than commit to equality and recognise her as a whole person.” The book has twice been adapted to film (first in 1975 and again in 2004) and is a great option for a late-summer read, especially if you felt that the “Kens take over Barbieland” sequence in Barbie was not long or unsettling enough for you.


Pygmalion (1913) and My Fair Lady (1956)

While it is an explicit adaptation of the old myth, George Bernard Shaw’s play does away with any of the messy-but-fun metaphysics of having a man literally create a woman via weird science or magic. His Pygmalion, Henry Higgins, is instead a professor of phonetics—and a self-aware but unrepentant misogynist—who bets that he can teach elocution so well that he can pass off Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle as an aristocrat. That student-teacher relationship becomes fraught when Higgins, contrary to his understanding of himself, becomes attached to Eliza, and when Eliza, who has successfully cultivated an upper-class aesthetic yet retains a lower-class background, realizes that she suddenly belongs nowhere. It’s a work that marries neatly its themes of the precarity of women’s status and the hollowness of British class signifiers.

You, like me, though, may be more familiar with Lerner and Loewe’s musical version, which is itself a fairly faithful adaptation of Shaw’s original—with the exception of the final scene (changed in the 1938 film version of the play and then retained in the musical), which, to Shaw’s displeasure, implied the possibility of a future romantic relationship between Higgins and Eliza. It’s a small but thematically significant change from the original play, and one that some recent productions of the musical have reversed, letting Eliza walk away from the Professor in the final moments. Regardless of the ending, though, both play and musical effectively skewer Higgins’ arrogance in claiming that he “made” Eliza. Certainly, he taught her how to enunciate her words, but can he take the credit for those words being so insightful or cutting when she finally turns him down and walks away? (“No, my reverberating friend. You are not the beginning and the end.”)

And so long as I am giving myself permission to play favorites here, which (checks notes) I am, this version is the best one—as deeply indebted as it is to Shaw’s original, I do mean the musical, specifically the original Broadway production. Rex Harrison is giving a lifetime-best performance as the most stuck-up, unlikeable man in England and possibly all of Christendom. Julie Andrews’ clear, powerful voice is perfect for the character of Eliza. The number “Without You” is one of the greatest things ever to have happened, at least to me personally. As to how My Fair Lady relates to Barbie, there is real resonance between Barbie and Eliza as two women who both struggle to be content in a society that demands that they be accomplished and present a flawless facade. Also, name me a character from musical theatre who is more of a Ken than Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Hmm? Just try. (Please really do though. I’d like to hear what you come up with!)

If you want an extra dip of meta-irony re: creating the ideal woman, look up the little drama that occurred around Audrey Hepburn replacing Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza for the film version. Andrews gets the last laugh.


“Galatea” (1987)

One of Isaac Asimov’s George and Azazel stories; Asimov makes something of an obvious move here and inverts the gender dynamic of the original myth. This time it is the lady-sculptor Elderberry’s dearest wish that her statue, Hank, be made flesh—a wish that her godfather, the supercilious George, is able to bring about with the aid of his little demon friend.

Though, for that gender inversion, Asimov has remarkably little to say here about gender or heterosexuality—save that given sufficient wealth and vanity, a woman can be just as shallow as a man in what she wants in a companion or lover. It’s not the main point of his story, but it’s also not untrue. It’s just slightly disappointing coming from the author of the three laws of robotics, so seemingly primed to dig into the implications of creating minds and themes of control, especially in context of a gendered dynamic.

This is a petite comedy that builds to one bawdy punchline. Give it a read and see if the joke lands for you. Maybe you’ll like more of the George and Azazel stories. Or perhaps see Asimov’s other short story, “Feminine Intuition,” about a female-coded robot who is designed to be able to “intuit” information as all previous (male-coded) robots have not been programmed to do.


Life-Size (2000)

I have yet to see one of you jokers bring up this movie in the context of Barbie, and it is a disgrace. OK, sure, Kendall Myers talked about it on Collider. And Liz Arcury over on The Daily Beast—but there should be more!

True, Life-Size was a mere TV movie, premiering on the Disney Channel way back in March of 2000, but its premise and story are remarkably similar to Gerwig’s. The plot revolves around Casey’s (Lindsay Lohan) attempt to magically resurrect her deceased mother, leading to her accidentally bringing to life the totally-not-Barbie doll, Eve (Tyra Banks). Hijinks ensue as Eve, who comes complete with the personality ascribed to her in the Eve Doll marketing, struggles to cope in the real world. Baking is hard, and secretarial work requires one to actually be able to spell. Yet Eve’s misadventures are able to bring a smile back to Casey’s face and their friendship begins to resolve some of Casey’s self-imposed loneliness.

Notably, like Barbie, this is a story that centers the relationship of the doll and the girl she was made for, though in Barbie that girl has since become an adult woman. Unlike other Pygmalion stories that mainly feature a conflict between the male and female sex (with few adaptations, especially historically, looking beyond that binary), both of these movies poke fun at gender norms through the ideal woman’s interaction with the real girl.

Another notable and exceptional feature of Life-Size is that Tyra Banks represents the rare Black woman to be cast in the Galatea-analog role. When designing the perfect woman, it seems, we’ve usually come up with a white one. This is not commented on in the film, of course, but it is metatextually interesting. Banks’ casting occurred near the peak of her stardom as a supermodel, when she had become the first Black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, GQ, and the Victoria’s Secret catalog. It is a feat that her star eclipsed the implicit expectation that Galatea—or Barbie—be white.

Both Banks and Lohan are charming in their roles, and their performances contribute most of what is fun about this movie, which is very by-the-numbers, especially in comparison to the wild ride that is Gerwig’s Barbie.

…To which it is now time to return:



I should duly note at the outset that this movie is very good. The comedic and emotional beats mostly land—if my theatre audience’s reactions are any metric to go by. And this is quite impressive given the sheer amount of stuff that the filmmakers hurl at us in quick succession: The structure and politics of Barbieland explained, thoughts of death, the mystical wisdom of Weird Barbie, the journey to the real world, two visits to the police station, Barbie getting called a fascist by a teenage girl, whatever is going on with the space-time continuum in the Mattel headquarters, a car chase through Los Angeles, then back to Barbieland again. Oh, and Ken. Just, everything that’s going on with Ken.

Gerwig and her cowriter Noah Baumbach deserve major props for navigating a balance amid this mess, and much love has already been showered on Ryan Gosling for his sublime turn as Ken, but a bulk of credit is also due to Margot Robbie as the lead. Her eyes often brim with a barely-suppressed manic energy that contributes a lot of the humor to the scenes of Barbie’s awkward interactions with real humans, but never undercuts our sense of her deep vulnerability that connects us to her as the movie’s heart. It’s a performance well worth seeing on the big screen, and it’s hard to think of another current star who could obviously carry off the same act. Young Glenn Close, maybe?

In contrast to how most versions of the Pygmalion/Galatea narrative unfold (especially those versions that literally feature a created woman, as Barbie is here), Gerwig keeps us with Barbie’s perspective from beginning to end. Funny as it might have been to have the movie center on the lives of Sasha or Gloria—and just have Barbie randomly appear one day, like Eve does in Life-Size, throwing a wrench into a previously-established status quo—instead, this is Barbie’s story, and it begins where she does. This is the crux, I think, of what works about Barbie’s comedy: The joke is never so much on Barbie for not getting how things work in the real world, it’s on us for how crummy things are here, especially for women, in contrast to Barbieland’s plastic paradise. That focus makes it all the more touching when, at the movie’s conclusion, Barbie chooses to live and eventually die in that crummy real world as Barbara Handler, a choice that affirms the film’s core message that you have permission to love yourself even as an ordinary person, even when things are hard. I might have cried a tiny bit.

And yet…

I want to reiterate that I said this was a good movie. Please, Barbie legions, do not trample me if I lightly criticize this film.

I bring up these references to different Pygmalion adaptations because they’ve helped me to realize what didn’t quite work about this movie for me, and that is this: for a story whose central ambition is about being “closer to fine,” as evoked in the repeated refrain of Gloria’s favorite Indigo Girls song, Barbie is a little hazy about what, exactly, is the obstacle to embracing that feeling. Yes, yes, it’s patriarchy, but structures like patriarchy cannot exist or be enforced absent human agents, and Barbie is surprisingly reticent about pointing fingers at any actual people. Finger-pointing is crass, you may say, but ladies! Abandon that feeling! That’s how the patriarchy gets you!

My Fair Lady has Henry Higgins. The Stepford Wives has the Stepford men. Who is Barbie’s Pygmalion, the one responsible for trying to control her and/or foisting unreasonable expectations upon her?

Barbie gives us three potential options, but none of them are meaningfully identified as either the source of Barbie’s woes or the obstacle keeping her from feeling closer to fine. There is Ruth Handler, portrayed by Rhea Perlman, the original creator of the Barbie doll, who in the film haunts the Mattel corporate headquarters. But she is portrayed as a benevolent creator (albeit one with tax-evasion issues) who lovingly empowers Barbie’s final choice and does not interfere with her self-determination. There is the Mattel CEO, played by Will Ferrell, who ominously commands that Barbie be put “back in a box,” a fate that feels like a potent symbol for something but to which the film never returns after touching briefly on it in act 2. Ultimately, Ferrell’s CEO is portrayed as sincere about the goal of empowering girls through the Barbie brand—he is a misguided but not malicious force. And there is Gloria, who is responsible for Barbie’s feelings of gloom and cellulite, but not because she is too demanding. She and Barbie simply share a sympathetic bond. And what is causing Gloria to suffer from those feelings of inadequacy? That too remains a little abstract.

And there are the Kens, but their naive patriarchy, while hilarious, has little to do with the real-world version, nor is it directly connected to Barbie’s ennui, which starts long before Ken establishes his Ken-dom. In fact, the Kens’ coup is framed as the male denizens of Barbieland lashing out after having been taken for granted for so long, a problem for which Barbie extends them a sincere apology.

So, while there are antagonists, there is no villain in Barbie, some person who clearly embodies the problem that the movie identifies. That is not, strictly speaking, a problem. Not all stories need outright villains, and no one movie needs to do all things or be all things. But this one left me wanting a little more clarity and asking “what if…” about several of its ideas.

What if, for instance, our protagonist Barbie, like Eve before her, were Black? Would that have made her choice to leave Barbieland (which is not only a matriarchy but a paradise of racial egalitarianism) for the real world more fraught? Certainly, that joke about Barbie experiencing “an undertone of violence” in the male gaze would have landed a bit differently. What other forces would be stopping her from feeling like enough and loving herself? And would we have accepted a movie that came away with a similarly forgiving attitude toward those issues and obstacles?

And what if the Mattel CEO had been the villain, the main force that Barbie must break away from in order to self-actualize on her own terms? Would that have looked uncomfortably like an indictment of the Barbie brand and CEO—or perhaps of David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros., one of the studios against which the WGA is currently striking, and for whom Barbie has been a huge financial and reputational win?

But Barbie is their movie as much as it is Gerwig’s, and as such, though it may gently mock them, it cannot deny them by portraying Barbie’s hope for freedom as fundamentally in conflict with their corporate control.

Which—shockingly, I know—makes me think of My Fair Lady’s climactic scene, where we see Henry Higgins last-ditch effort to capitalize even on Eliza’s stunning capacity to conceive of a life without him, twisting her actions to feed his ego and his pleasure:

Higgins: By George, I really did it! I did it, I did it.

I said I’d make a woman, and indeed I did.

I knew that I could do it, I knew it, I knew it.

I said I’d make a woman, and succeed I did.

Eliza, you’re magnificent. Five minutes ago, you were a millstone around my neck, and now you’re a tower of strength, a consort battleship. I like you this way.

Eliza: Goodbye, Professor Higgins. You shall not be seeing me again.

One sees rather why George Bernard Shaw was so insistent that Eliza not return to Higgins after all that.

Barbie declines to portray exactly such a conflict, preferring to be a story about saying yes to life rather than saying no to power. But other stories do portray that “no,” declaring along with Eliza Doolittle that “art and music will thrive without you,” and we are the better for them.


Honorable Mention: Pinocchio (2022)

Before we go, one last recommendation. If Barbie left you hungry for stories about constructed people miraculously brought to life, the inevitability of death, being content with the best that you can do, and maybe, for some reason, making fun of Mussolini to his face, give Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animated version of Pinocchio a watch. I cried at this one too.

Bye, Barbies (and ciao, papà).

This essay was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being discussed here wouldn’t exist.

Kristen holds a master’s degree in Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies, but she also holds strong opinions on subjects in which she is not formally accredited. She reads. She is always trying to read more, MORE!

About the Author

Kristen Patterson


Kristen holds a master's degree in Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies, but she also holds strong opinions on subjects in which she is not formally accredited. She reads. She is always trying to read more, MORE!
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