For Promising Young Women: A Smidge of Midge
By Eliana RozinovOctober 12, 2023
[a]n elephant, a ponderous house,
a melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
As someone who has spent the greater part of her twenties reading, writing, and teaching about “what women want,” it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that Plath’s loaded and awkward lines were “metaphors” for pregnancy. Perhaps it is because, both in and outside the academy, we don’t discuss the burdens of pregnancy often enough. Those who are expecting are supposed to express gratitude instead of resentment, to keep quiet when they have thoughts and feelings that go against the grain of their fertile but “delicate condition.”
Yet this poem is not only about the difficulties of pregnancy but also about the work of metaphors themselves. For Plath, there is an inherent violence in the psychological and physiological machinations that attempt to transform an embodied experience of distress and discomfort into a “bundle of joy.” Through metaphors, women who can afford to bear and raise children are elevated as icons of virtue, while those who seek welfare for their babies, or do not want to become mothers, are castigated for their apparent vice.
Shortly after leaving a screening of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), I began thinking again about metaphors for pregnancy and its discontents. To say I was initially disappointed with Gerwig’s portrayal of the pregnant Midge doll (Emerald Fennell) is an understatement. I raged, calling out “justice for Midge” the entire ride back from the theater with friends, who were relieved to drop me off at home. Several days passed before I recognized that my disappointment went beyond Midge’s characterization as the odd doll out. It had to do with the way her pregnancy becomes an extended metaphor for the one thing that women are “born to do” yet often have no agency over. It is no coincidence—and no joke—that Gerwig’s Barbie ends in a gynecologist’s office. But it is not Midge who gets an appointment. The film ends, as it begins, with the birth—and rebirth—of Barbie.
“Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed,” narrator Helen Mirren declares in Barbie’s opening lines, little girls could only do one thing with their baby dolls: pretend to be their mothers. That all changes on the day that Mattel’s Barbie, a gargantuan, plastic figure, rises from the desert debris, dressed in the same pinstriped body suit as the German call girl, Lilli, that inspired her creation. Whereas Barbie dolls came to line the shelves of every Toys“R”Us in the United States, “[m]en got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties […] or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.” Yet Lilli’s history lingers in every one of Barbie’s arched footsteps as she walks towards the Dreamhouse, and that lineage has even greater implications for those dolls unable to reside within its rooms. If Barbie can become anyone and anything in the utopia of Barbieland, it is discontinued, pregnant Midge who poses an exception to this rule.
Mattel’s termination of the Midge doll is bound up with a number of social anxieties. Before we can engage with the cultural totem of Barbie, we need to face the gendered, sexualized, and racialized dilemmas behind what makes Midge so taboo. What does this doll, destined to be a mother, tell us about the limits and possibilities of child’s play? What do her presumably immaculate conception and seemingly endless gestation reveal about carrying a fetus to term? And how does her physical appearance affect her ability to access proper prenatal care in the “real world”?
Curiously enough, Gerwig had at one point intended to include an end credits scene of “Midge in Labor.” From the looks of this deleted clip, in which Helen Mirren interrupts a team of Dr. Barbies and a Ken assisting with Midge’s delivery, audiences would have been roaring with laughter. But perhaps the point here isn’t so humorous, since in both this abandoned scene and the final version of the film, Gerwig withholds what, exactly, Midge is destined to bear. If Midge gives birth to a baby doll, it remains unclear how hers would differ from those that the little girls ultimately smash to pieces in the film’s introductory scene.
In Gerwig’s paradise of perfection, Midge is presented not only as an outcast but also as an afterthought. “Hey Midge! Never mind!” Lizzo jokes at the end of the film’s opening “Pink” song. The voice of Mirren picks up on the story of Midge’s abandoned production, asserting with tongue in cheek that “a pregnant doll is just too weird.” And on his visit to Barbieland, Mattel’s CEO (Will Ferrell) shrieks in horror when he realizes that Midge is still standing with her hands on her swollen belly, just as the company left her, behind the picket fence of her modest home.
The CEO’s reaction is especially ironic in light of Midge’s corporate origin story. In many ways Mattel’s most “stereotypical” doll, Wisconsin native Margaret Hadley Sherwood began on a conventional path. She first appeared on the toy scene in 1963, marketed as Barbie’s bestie. Since Midge’s freckled face was not as pretty as that of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie, and sales were going down, Mattel decided to spice things up in the early 1990s by adding Alan to the mix. “Wedding Party Midge” was produced in sets with her soon-to-be husband, best man Ken, maid of honor Barbie, and some flower children.
That Alan was only looking at Ken inside the wedding box did not preclude Mattel from conceiving of the “Happy Family” set in 2002. Thus came to be “pregnant Midge,” who was sold with a detachable magnetic stomach and a kernel of a baby. Now, this girl-next-door was everything she was supposed to be … the only problem being that, in this new edition, Alan was nowhere to be found. Gerwig’s Barbie is particularly well attuned to the queer underpinnings of Midge and Alan’s plastic relationship. With “Allan” (Michael Cera), spelled differently from the “Wedding Day” doll, sidestepping Midge the entire film, it remains ambiguous whether they are even together.
In response to disapproving reactions from parents who found it inappropriate for Midge to be pregnant and on her own, Mattel remade Midge yet once more, this time with a wedding ring welded to her finger and a cardboard cutout of Alan with their first-born son Ryan on the box. The story goes that the couple went on to have several more children, including one daughter, Nikki, and another named Cassandra (to whom we will turn shortly). In this doll’s house, Midge remains no better off than Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, but for Mattel’s creation, there appears to be no exit.
In Mattel’s 2012 animated series Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, the ghost of teenage Midge returns to visit Barbie in Malibu. Everything in this episode, called “A Smidge of Midge,” is cheerful and colorful—except for Midge herself, whose black-and-white figure is meant to elicit a character from an old movie “behind the times” of Barbie. The racial ambiguity of animated Midge’s slender figure, however, has far-reaching implications for the actual doll, who was sold, while pregnant, with both black and white “skin.” Despite Mattel’s perpetual efforts to diversify its dolls, the company, as Ann duCille puts it, makes “blackness simultaneously visible and invisible, at once different and the same,” and Midge continues to embody this intersectional dilemma.
In her book The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (2000), Anne Anlin Cheng reminds us that the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education was reached in part through a doll test in which “African American (and other ethnic) children,” presented with a range of black and white baby dolls, chose to play with those that looked least like themselves. Through a makeover by Barbie in “A Smidge of Midge,” Midge is definitively cast as white-skinned and rosy-cheeked, a move that—coupled with her contemporary cultural representation—entails a much more disturbing racial problem than the adult doll’s shelf life. In the Dreamhouse, Black pregnant Midge gets no room of her own, is readily discarded by Mattel, and is ultimately rendered invisible.
But there is more to Midge than meets Barbie’s blue eyes, and Midge herself helps us to see beyond the superficial matters for which Barbie stands. Later in “A Smidge of Midge,” Barbie reaches for a fallen cupcake, and Midge stares in wonder and astonishment at the way she can bend down. Midge laments that, unlike Barbie, with her perfect performance of Elle Woods’s famous Legally Blonde “bend and snap,” she herself is not “fully articulated.” She attempts to bend her body like Barbie, falls down, and hits her head. But this is not the only instance when Midge falls. For the figure of Midge is first characterized as a “fallen woman” after she becomes pregnant. Given that the only words she says in Gerwig’s Barbie are “Hi, Barbie,” animated Midge’s limited degree of motion thus extends through pregnant Midge’s silence in the live-action film.
In this “paradise,” it therefore seems meaningful to pose Billie Eilish’s question—“What was I made for?”—to Emerald Fennell, the woman who plays Midge.
Like all casting choices in Gerwig’s films, Emerald Fennell’s playing Midge is no accident. Each “Barbie” speaks, metaphorically, to the uniqueness of the actress who plays her. Gerwig has said in multiple interviews that Barbie was inspired by stories she read in Catholic school and college about John Milton’s Paradise Lost and coming to consciousness. Fennell, who produced the second season of Killing Eve and who played a young Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown, evidently knows a thing or two about Eve’s afterlives and the lure of temptation. In Barbie, Midge’s state becomes a kind of idyllic counterpart to Eve’s punishment for eating the forbidden fruit, which in the Book of Genesis, as in Milton’s rewriting of it, God seeks to “greatly multiply / By [her] conception” and painful delivery.
If Midge were to describe her condition, what would she say? And who in Barbieland would believe her? In her 2020 directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, Fennell explores various shades of what it means to “believe women” through another mythical figure. Her protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) shares a name with Cassandra, a priestess in Greek mythology cursed by the God Apollo to utter truths that no one believes. He places this curse upon Cassandra after she refuses his advances. In Homer’s Iliad, Cassandra foresees the fall of Troy, and, doubting her, the Trojans are practically beaten by a dead horse.
By aligning her protagonist with this mythical figure of doubted insight, Fennell takes as her point of departure the fall of such a promising young woman. An objectified and abject “Weird Barbie” of Fennell’s own making, Cassie wears fake blonde extensions and heavy makeup, and slurs and stumbles while feigning intoxication. After dropping out of med school, Cassie devotes her nights to testing, then confronting, seemingly “nice guys” who, in private, try to take advantage of her. Her vengeance for much of the film is nonviolent and nonverbal, cunningly enabling her perpetrators to come to terms with their own actions. Cassie’s tireless efforts to expose these “promising young men” stem from her desire to vindicate a promising young woman on whose behalf she acts—her best friend, Nina, who was gang-raped and subsequently took her own life.
Promising Young Woman and Barbie are tied together not simply by the Cassandra myth but by the reality of what happens when men try to get lucky—and try to get away with it by pushing patriarchal privilege to its limits. Both films were produced by LuckyChap Entertainment, and so Gerwig’s “Barbie” (Margot Robbie) also happens to be a producer of Fennell’s film. Midge and Cassie thus encounter each other in a kind of multiverse of feminist horror and pain.
Whereas Barbie begins in a metaphorical “paradise” and ends with Barbie’s transformation into a kind of “new Eve,” Promising Young Woman displays how readily paradise is lost when women are stripped of the right to speak of the pains inflicted upon them. The film constructs a strict and seemingly uncrossable barrier between two gendered hellscapes: for women, hell is being raped; for promising young men, it is being told you’re a rapist. Yet the latter is not simply the result “[o]f Man’s first disobedience.”
It was determined that Adam, who may well be considered the first promising young man, could not live without a promising young woman by his side. While Eve is created from Adam’s rib, she crucially awakens apart from him. Eve recalls how, naked and alone, she wandered “to look into the clear / Smooth lake, that to [her] seemed another sky.” It was there that she thought to see a woman smiling back at her, echoing her words. Only upon meeting the “[l]ess winning soft, / less amiably mild” Adam, whose “gentle hand / Seize[s]” her own, does Eve learn that the woman in the water was herself. But what if it really was another woman?
When I taught Paradise Lost last semester, a brilliant student asked me how things might change if Satan was a woman whispering in Eve’s ear; I told her that was a story for her to write one day. Now I realize that the exchange my student craved to see in Milton’s work is the very thing that contemporary women screenwriters like Gerwig and Fennell are making possible. While the figures of Midge and Cassie evidently do not share the same experiences, they come to reflect the truth behind each other’s silence in uncanny ways. The landscape of what Orlando Reade fittingly calls “Greta Gerwig’s Paradise Lost” can therefore be another vantage point from which to view Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.
For Gerwig and Fennell, “paradise” is not a question of a woman being created for a man, or even a man (Ken) for a woman (Barbie), but a place where women may coexist in friendship and solidarity. If Midge is made for Barbie, Cassie’s acting on Nina’s behalf demonstrates the lengths to which a woman will go in order to avenge her best friend. By the end of Promising Young Woman, Cassie sacrifices herself to hold accountable those men who hurt Nina. Cassie foresees her own destruction, even plans for it, submitting a record of her disappearance to the police before she is smothered to death by the chief perpetrator of Nina’s assault.
It would, however, be too simple to draw a manifest connection between the phrases “I’m just Ken” and “Boys just being boys,” between the “Mojo Dojo Casa House” and the cowboy-themed bachelor party that Cassie attends in disguise at the lodge. And it would be reductive to perceive Cassie and Midge as battered and broken dolls. For there is more to these promising young women that remains unsaid.
In the final scene of the film, Cassie signs both her and Nina’s names to a prewritten pink text message to another man implicated in Nina’s attack (a man whom Cassie had come to trust but who ultimately deceives her). The word “woman” in Fennell’s title is an homage both to the friend whose promise and youth were usurped before Cassie’s eyes and to those who are yet to share their stories. These stories “of the day” and “of the years” echo, as in the encrypted “Angel of the Morning” song by Juice Newton with which the film poignantly concludes, in the question of a “baby.”
That “baby” is the last word in Promising Young Woman before the end credits makes it all the more unsettling that, on Gerwig’s side of “paradise,” it is Midge, perpetually pregnant with Cassandra, who barely speaks at all. It is precisely in their pregnant pauses—and the myths of Eve and Cassandra that inhabit them—that the stories of Midge and Cassie become “human, all too human.”
“In the intimacy of its everyday proximity to things,” Diana Fuss writes in the introduction to the 1996 edited volume Human, All Too Human, “the human registers the shock of its own synthetic nature.” The question of the human (“What was I made for?”) can therefore only be answered by coming to terms, as Gerwig’s Barbie does, with why we treat persons like things, and things as persons. In Barbara Johnson’s contribution to Human, All Too Human, she coins the term “muteness envy” to suggest the way women’s objectification is indelibly linked to their silence, writing that there are “two things women are silent about: their pleasure and their violation. The work performed by the idealization of this silence is that it helps culture not to be able to tell the difference between the two.”
A conflation of pleasure and violation occurs when the prospects of a promising young woman are rendered into a lament. People say, “Oh, she was such a promising young woman” until something stops her development, pregnancy being paramount among these so-called impediments. So too has been the case for Midge, as Mattel aborts its once-promising pregnant creation.
The possibility of a pregnant doll might be too weird or creepy to entertain, even by other dolls, but the figure of Midge belongs to a longer tradition of mystical pregnancy. While the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary may well be the mystical pregnancy par excellence, Midge’s “artificial insemination” may give us a different insight into Mary’s primal fear, which the Archangel Gabriel attempts to mollify before “The Holy Spirit will come upon” her.
For some Midge figures, the signs and symptoms of mystical pregnancy are felt as a direct result of abuse. In her 2019 memoir In the Dream House, queer writer Carmen Maria Machado discloses a poignant and painful phantom pregnancy she experiences through her girlfriend’s domestic violence. But pregnancy can also serve as a protective shield from abuse. In Japanese writer Emi Yagi’s 2022 novel Diary of a Void, protagonist Ms. Shibata tells everyone she is with child in order to avoid harassment in the workplace. In both Dream House and Diary, however, neither woman bears a baby; each is forced to carry a growing burden of pain.
But perhaps there is also a more productive, more generative relation between mystical pregnancies and mythical prophecies, one through which people of all genders and sexual identities might confront the truth behind their pain and pleasure. In Barbie and Promising Young Woman, the relationship becomes a question of the stories that Midge and Cassie carry within them. Neither Midge nor Cassie simply stands for one person but, rather, embodies the mise en abyme of those women who have been silenced. Midge brings questions of childbearing beyond the mere pleasures of the Dreamhouse; Cassie carries, and consequently dies as a result of, the violation of her best friend. One speaks only to be ridiculed, the other to be discredited.
Yet if Barbie and Promising Young Woman prophetically speak through what they are ultimately unable to say, it is because what cannot be denied continues to touch us through the power of their metaphors. The metaphors of interest here are not simply for pregnancy but for how metaphors, in their most literal sense, carry across from one figure to the next. In Gerwig’s and Fennell’s films, such imaginative renderings, like those of our childhood dolls, are not meant merely to be perceived through rose-colored glasses, nor reduced to matters of women’s and “men’s rights.” These metaphors are, rather, a means for anybody who has been, has raised, has loved, has lost, or will become a promising young woman to fill the empty glass from which Barbie drinks with new possibilities.
In Promising Young Woman, we see Cassie getting ready for a night out, watching a YouTube video showing how to get the perfect “Blow Job Lips.” Who plays the beauty influencer performing the demonstration? None other than Emerald Fennell herself. Fennell’s mouth directs us to no such illicit action but rather reveals, through the figurations of her cinematic creation, what happens when women’s lips are forced shut. And so, it seems only fitting to give Fennell the last word.
At the April 2021 Academy Awards, Promising Young Woman won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Fennell was the only woman in the category that year. As presenter Regina King introduced the nominees, she reminded the audience that Fennell “took time off from […] The Crown to write, produce, [and] direct” the film, which was shot in only 23 days, while she was seven months pregnant. “Girl,” King tells her, “you earned the title of that film.”
When Fennell rose to give her acceptance speech, viewers saw that this promising young director was visibly pregnant with her second child. Humbled to tears by the honor, she thanked the cast, the crew, and, finally, her firstborn son, “who did not arrive until a couple of weeks after shooting, thank god, because I was crossing my legs the whole way through.”
Emerald Fennell thus crossed over from the Oscar stage into Barbieland, where she came to stand for the unspoken realities of “what to expect when you’re expecting.” In her turn, Gerwig renews and revitalizes the meaning of Cassandra’s myth by carrying it forward through the body of Midge. The squandered potential, bodily violence, and enduring silence of Fennell’s Promising Young Woman becomes embedded within the “perfect” pregnancy at which we stare in disbelief. If the implication is that there is “a smidge of Midge” in every “promising young woman,” it remains for her to decide how exactly she would like to be fully articulated. In a shared prophecy, where a pregnant doll bodies forth the myth of women suffering in silence, Gerwig and Fennell give us a glimmer of a paradise regained, one where women speaking for and through each other can finally escape the doll’s house—if only to blow it down, once and for all.
Eliana Rozinov studies transnational modernisms, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality at Princeton.
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