We Are All Weird Barbie

Updated: Aug. 10, 2023

She’s not just a doll we tortured. Weird Barbie just might help us understand who we really were—and still are.

For 64 years, Barbie has been an obsession for millions of little girls. Toted from house to house in tiny, shiny vinyl briefcases, our Barbies swapped outfits, condescended to Skipper, went on dates with Ken(s), adventured across beanbag chairs in their dune buggies, visited random pretend horse farms and had sleepovers.

We played Barbies together … but we destroyed Barbies alone. Many of us did unspeakable things to our dolls involving scissors, colored markers, microwaves, pilfered lighters and kitchen matches—but we did so behind closed doors and in musty-smelling basements. Like a small-child Fight Club, the first rule of Barbie mutilation was that no one talked about Barbie mutilation.

Until now.

Suddenly “Weird Barbie”—embodied by Kate McKinnon (with weed-whacked hair, marker-covered face and legs in a permanent split) in Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster movie—is trending on TikTok. Now, the floodgates have opened about the ways we once vandalized our Barbies’s bodies, and we’ve realized that this universal kid activity may hold a lot more meaning than we ever thought.

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Just how weird was your Weird Barbie?

To the tune of Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” and the voice of actress Rhea Perlman, intoning “Take my hands … close your eyes … now breathe” in the film, multitudes are showing off their own Weird Barbies.

In addition to Barbies with “cool” haircuts, there are decapitated Barbies. Bloodied, mummified and limbless Barbies. Barbies whose heads have been jammed straight onto their legs. Barbies who have become one with a beer can, a clarinet and a dinosaur toy. Other TikTok favorites include a Barbie fashioned into Pinhead from Hellraiser and another donning a long gown, completely covered in red paint, like in Carrie. Yet another was turned into a horrifying starfish of limbs with a head plonked in the center. (“We used her as a tree topper one year,” the Tiktokker notes.)

Letting our freak flags fly

@sinmineral i love beer can fairy #fairy #barbie #barbieland #weirdbarbie ♬ original sound – Billie Eilish Home

At first, the flood of mangled Weird Barbies may seem distressing. Many of the folks showing off their hacked dolls take the opportunity to apologize to Barbie. But hold up: Just as McKinnon’s Weird Barbie is essential to the movie (no spoilers here!), sharing stories of Weird Barbification is helpful in processing our collective ambivalent feelings about the popular doll and about ourselves. We needn’t apologize for that.

There’s something powerful about looking at the ugliness we sought as children but thought we were supposed to hide. Tiktok’s Weird Barbies are a lot more unnerving than the movie’s Kate McKinnon, who despite the punky ‘do and scribbled-on face, still looks like Kate McKinnon. Sharing and laughing about what we did to our Barbies is a legitimate way to let our freak flags fly. Secrets can be as corrosive as the chemicals some of us burned our Barbies with.

@vanorossi JOLLI-BIE 😭 #jollibee #philippines #barbie #barbiemovie ♬ original sound – Billie Eilish Home

In A.M. Homes’s groundbreaking, super-creepy 1990 short story “A Real Doll,” a boy becomes obsessed with his little sister’s Tropical Barbie. When Barbie complains that her feet hurt, the boy sees that his sister has been gnawing on them.

“On her left foot the toes were dangling,” Homes writes. “And on the right, half had been completely taken off. There were tooth marks up to her ankles. ‘Let’s not dwell on this,’ Barbie said.” The boy admires the fact that Barbie doesn’t hold a grudge against his sister (and hopefully won’t hold one against him, given that he does even worse things to Barbie). “I liked the fact she understood how we all have little secret habits that seem normal enough to us, but which we know better than to mention out loud,” he thinks.

Tiktok is now saying the quiet part out loud. Those Weird Barbies are a response to our culture’s desire to pretend that children don’t experience anger, longing, curiosity and unexplained desires to chomp on Barbie feeties.

Celebrating the weirdness together

The out-loudness is part of the joy of the film too. Barbie has become a billion-dollar blockbuster because people want to see it in theaters. They want to dress up and share an experience. The sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term “collective effervescence” for a community’s emotional response to coming together for a ritual that helps unify the group. (Another current example: Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, which evoked such a potent collective response, it triggered actual seismic activity.)

Getting together for a rare ritual, Durkheim posits, is exciting, a break from the day-to-day monotony of life. In this case, the rare ritual is a comic movie that centers girlhood and womanhood without sneering at it and focuses on an ultra-feminine toy that many of us have ultra-complicated feelings about. Barbie serves as a totem, Durkheim’s term for a symbol that represents a larger whole. Barbie symbolizes our childhood innocence and the loss of that innocence. She stands for our anger at patriarchy and capitalist excess and our conflicted desires to look cute and buy stuff.

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The movie is stuffed with bizarreness and safeness at the same time. Fittingly, Mattel is releasing its own limited-edition Weird Barbie doll, which resembles Kate McKinnon but lacks her unhinged line readings and wild-eyed, manic, splay-legged animation, because it’s, you know, an actual Barbie doll. Which is exactly the kind of cash-grab commodification that represents the movie’s attempt to have its pink cake and eat it too.

Weird Barbie—the one made by kids with scissors, not the one being marketed to us by a toy conglomerate—shows us we’re not alone in our human complexity. And that’s thrilling. When we’re celebrating Weird Barbie, we feel collective effervescence: shared sensations, shared joy, the shared thrill of being seen and understood. We’re vulnerable together. As Durkheim put it, “the sentiments aroused in us by something spontaneously attach themselves to the symbol which represents them.”

We are all Weird Barbie.