In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Margot Robbie plays the titular character as a kind of young, sheltered woman whose world is thrown into turmoil by sudden thoughts of death. As elements of human reality seep into Barbieland, patches of cellulite appear on her plastic thighs (in Barbieland, there is no death and certainly no cellulite). Later, having departed Barbieland for the real world, Barbie sits next to an old lady on a bench and declares how beautiful she is. In Gerwig’s movie, the real world with its achy, breaky, wrinkly people is almost as unreal as Barbie’s pink plastic paradise. Wrinkles and cellulite figure as the physical counterparts to the emotional messiness the film associates with the profundity of the human condition, a cloying world filled with flesh and feelings.
“I am not sure anyone has invented old women yet, but it might be worth trying,” Ursula K. Le Guin declares in “Introducing Myself,” a performance piece from 1992. In Space Crone, a new collection of sometimes polemical and often hilarious fictional and nonfictional writings on feminism and gender by the late science fiction author, the figure of the crone appears in various places in the context of discussions of gender roles, women’s writing, and feminism.
In the essay “Space Crone” (1976), Le Guin imagines a spaceship visiting earth that can take only one exemplary passenger back in the hopes of understanding the human condition. Though she expects most people would suggest sending a young man, Le Guin would prefer to send a woman over sixty, ideally someone just randomly pottering around Woolworths. Le Guin argues that this wise woman with little formal education has spent her life working hard at “small, unimportant jobs . . . like cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, selling little objects of adornment or pleasure.” Now her feet ache. She imagines that the woman would be reluctant to act as an emissary for the human race, yet insists that only she has “experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition.”
Le Guin consistently emphasizes the unglamorous and undervalued work quietly pursued by the crone. Such activities, she argues, should be classified as art. In “What Women Know” (2010), she admits that her early fiction focused on male characters engaged in typically masculine activities, but that the women’s liberation movement — alongside her own experience of raising children — prompted her to question that emphasis: “Why are war and adventure important while housekeeping and child-rearing are not?” The short story “Sur” (1982) describes an Antarctic expedition undertaken by a group of South American women who published no accounts of their adventures and left no footprints in their wake, evincing Le Guin’s interest in showing “the backside of heroism,” while her “Bryn Mawr Commencement Address” (1986) discusses the need for writing by women that explores what “happens in the other room,” the room beyond men’s experience.
While other pieces in the collection were written when Le Guin was in her seventies and eighties, “Space Crone” was published when Le Guin was in her late forties, a response to her experience of menopause. The crone is the product of a profound physiological transformation that allows her to “become pregnant with herself, at last.” But Le Guin’s interest in “vulnerable, violable” bodies rejected “sexual reductionism” and biological essentialism: “When I say the middle of the body I don’t mean balls, prick, cunt or womb.” “Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)” (1976/1988) discusses her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which she describes as a thought experiment in how class, sex, kinship, work, and war might look on a planet without “physiological sex distinction.”
The patriarchal myth of the “great dummy statue goddess A Woman” described by Le Guin has something in common with Barbie: “Thighs forever thin and shining hair and shining teeth.” Although this vision of “Woman” may never grow old, she is surrounded by seething droves of little old ladies who threaten to topple the youthful structure: “old women live in the cracks, between the walls, like roaches, like mice, a rustling sound, a squeaking. Better lock up the cheese, boys.”
At the end of Gerwig’s film, Barbie chooses reality over fantasy. The existing world, for all its inequities, is ultimately celebrated as the site of emotional depth, whereas Le Guin invented fantasy worlds to imagine how things in this world might be otherwise organized. She insisted on the need to redraw existing maps, to invent new languages, to envisage different social structures and forms of relation: “We have to rewrite the world.” In a foreword to anarchist environmentalist Murray Bookchin’s The Next Revolution (2015), Le Guin — then well into her eighties — addressed herself to young people seeking “intelligent, realistic, long-term thinking” to guide them in struggles for social change. Follow the crone into the spaceship. She might help to point the way.