Neal Milner: A Barbie Aged By AI Tells A Too-Bleak Story Of Getting Old - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

For a far more upbeat view of the challenges and adventures of aging, go see the Barbie movie.

Editor’s note: This column contains spoilers about the Barbie movie.

Recently, not one but two Barbies have appeared. The one that everyone knows about by now is Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film. Movie Barbie.

The other, which I doubt you ever heard of, is an AI-generated photo of an 83-year-old Barbie, reproduced by a company that makes personal alarms for the elderly and distributes a blog about aging issues.

Pensioner Barbie. That’s what they call her.

This article published by the personal alarm company and others tries to use Pensioner Barbie to, as they say, “normalize” conversations about aging.

In fact, their discussion does the opposite.

Barbie the movie, on the other hand, is an excellent way to learn about aging. It makes you think. The AI-created Pensioner Barbie simply makes you cringe.

When it comes to learning about what it means to grow old, beware of the experts.

The article circulating on the internet sees aging only in terms of sickness and loneliness — deficit-speak. It succumbs to Specialist Temptation, focusing on their self-proclaimed expertise and ignoring everything else. You’re a malady specialist? Look for maladies.

And boy do they ever.

“We all get older, and it’s nothing to fear,” the article says.

And then it goes on to describe Pensioner Barbie’s life only in terms of exactly what we fear.

Here is the article’s description — better yet its diagnosis.

“After a lifetime of wearing high heels, Pensioner Barbie now suffers from chronic foot pain and poor posture as well. At her age, Barbie has a one in two chance of having at least one fall each year.”

She has “deteriorating eyesight and development of cataracts has also impaired her vision, meaning she can no longer drive her iconic hot pink car.”

And the worst of all: “With an empty chair in the background, it’s also assumed that lifelong heart-throb Ken has also passed away, and Barbie is likely struggling with loneliness.”

Adding to that doom scenario is Pensioner Barbie’s gaunt appearance, as if she’s tried to keep the “cute figure” she had in high school except that after a lifelong effort she’s lost her curves.

Good lord. This is not Pensioner Barbie’s life. That’s her medical record. She has no life here outside her tchotchke-filled room.

She appears to have no future and for that matter no back story. And of course, there is no way of telling what she’s thinking.

Just sitting there waiting for her Meals on Wheels delivery so she has someone to talk to. Devolved, depleted and lonely. She’s devolving rather than discovering.

Focused older 80s male patient consulting with doctor via computer video call. Senior man looking at laptop screen, talking to therapist cardiologist online, older generation using modern technology.
Pensioner Barbie focuses on the list of possible maladies of old age as if it were the full story of aging. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/2020)

That’s not normalizing aging. It’s oversimplifying aging, stigmatizing it and scaring the stuffing out of someone who wants to understand the life of her uncle in Florida. Or for that matter, a middle-aged woman who has learned to live with cellulite but now discovers she can’t really wear high heels anymore.

Pensioner Barbie is a conversation stopper. On the other hand, in terms of aging, Barbie the movie is a conversation starter.

Considering what you probably know about the awesome Barbie phenomenon that’s often referred to as “The Barbie Industrial Complex”, this probably surprises you. You know, Barbie and Ken, umpteen kinds of Barbie dolls, Mattel’s multi-billion-dollar Barbie sales, first-order feminism, second-order feminism.

Who knew?

Well, Greta Gerwig, the film’s co-writer and director, sure knew. Aging sets the movie’s tone.

Gerwig begins her discussion of aging with a brief moment — less than a minute –- that she says was absolutely central. Soon after arriving in the real world, (I’m jumping ahead here), Barbie sits on a bench next to a very old woman reading a newspaper. There were no old people in Barbieland, so this was a new experience.

She tells the woman, who is played by a 90-plus-year-old actor, how beautiful that woman looked. I know, the woman calmly says. Can’t say whether this woman had flat feet or not, but she certainly is comfortable in her skin.

It’s a light touch that nevertheless is so important to Gerwig that, as she tells the New York Times writer Willa Paskin, the moment is a “transaction of grace.”

There had been talk of cutting that scene. “If I cut that scene,” she said, “I don’t know why I’m making this movie. If I don’t have that scene, I don’t know what it is or what I’ve done.”

The Barbies in the film’s Barbieland live in a lovely pink world where there is no death or aging and where you never have to wonder what you’re meant to do. Forever young, forever beautiful, forever without genitals, forever the same.

And of course, you live forever.

But hints of mortality appear. Some signs are just the kind of thing you’d expect Barbie to freak out about. She discovers cellulite on her thighs.

But another sign, which is so extraordinary that she does not even know what to call it, is that Barbie begins to have irrepressible thoughts about death. Leakage from the real world is causing this Barbie pollution.

Long story short, Barbie has to go into the real world, in this case, Los Angeles, to fix the leak. In that world, she discovers, nothing is the same, nothing is the way she assumed it would be. It’s for the worse, particularly the relationship between men and women.

She returns to Barbieland. Ultimately, through the counsel of an old woman (Rhea Perlman playing Ruth Handler, Barbie’s real-life creator) Barbie chooses the uncertainty, disruption, and complexity of living in the real world.

Which means that ultimately she will die. Barbie chooses to become fully human even though that choice, as it is for all of us, means she will devolve into aging and ultimately death.

Barbie chooses sickness and death because it’s worth it compared to living in a “perfect” but bland, simplistic, predictable world. She wants to engage with the world on behalf of herself and others.

Paskin calls Barbie’s choices the movie’s “brazen magic trick. Barbie is no longer an avatar of women’s insufficiency, a projection of all we’re not; instead, she becomes a reflection of how hard — but worth it — it is to be all that we are.”

That also applies to growing old and for men as well as for women.

As far as we can tell, Pensioner Barbie has given up working hard. She doesn’t have the capacity. Pensioner Barbie stays in her room.

But real aging is every bit about working hard, partly because you are diminished, so the parts don’t work like they used to.

But also, because challenge and adventure remain a key part of an old person’s existence.

Get her off her chair and away from that spooky chair next to her, and Pensioner Barbie could very well be reading on the park bench alongside Barbie’s 90-something woman, then chatting with her about today’s events as they walked slowly on their flat feet and low-heeled shoes to Starbucks.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: Hawaii Schools Should Embrace AI Technology As A Tool

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great article about aging and the different ways that society thinks about it.

sleepingdog · 1 month ago

Thank you for that gorgeous photo. The calm and concentration on the lovely faces is really beautiful. The variety of kimonos suggests further stories. Credit?

Mauna2Moana · 1 month ago

Thank you for that great article full of whimsy, insight and hard truths.

Carabein · 1 month ago

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