Barbie is a Good Movie Made Great by the Fallout that Followed
by Allen Farrington and Julia Tourianski
Barbie has generated as many takes as a Kubrick film, except they’re all bad. It’s asserted to be a podium for women’s rights yet it simultaneously doesn’t measure up to any authentic progressive goals. It’s a misandrist, virtue-signaling mess, yet a sophisticated, pandering commercial. Barbie is somehow frothing feminist propaganda but also a vapid dog whistle to approved female norms. Cultural commentators on both sides of the political spectrum either misunderstand this film or are purposely shoving Barbie into their audience capture box.
We can’t be sure, but if this was anticipated by writer and director Greta Gerwig, it’s nothing short of brilliant; these commentators have misunderstood her joke, the punchline of which is their misunderstanding of the joke.
The typical mainstream outlets took the bait (The Guardian and Variety) but even more hysterical are the reflexive takes of conservative talking heads. Ben Shapiro called it “one of the most woke movies” he has ever seen and uploaded a 43-minute “DESTRUCTION” of the film to his YouTube channel. Piers Morgan got himself all hot and bothered, warning his viewers that, “Barbie’s message is that the only solution to all this dreadful patriarchal state of affairs is obviously for women to rule the world, and preferably to do so on their own without horrible men to ruin it.” Matt Walsh lamented it, “bombs innocent families with feminist propaganda,” summarizing his own analytical method in declaring, “I don’t need to watch Barbie to know that it’s bad.”
Please, someone, get these hoodie merch suggestions to Matt Walsh: “I assume, therefore I know,” and “I seethe, therefore I’m right.”
Walsh bases his analysis on the Variety article cited above and argues the message of the movie is the object of its satire rather than the satire itself, conjuring up a circular meta-hilarity the reader owes it to themselves to experience. Even the Wall Street Journal got in on embarrassing themselves, claiming, “its script is like a grumpier-than-average women’s studies seminar.” We thought the right can meme? Their takes about this movie are just as humorless and stale as the left’s, but far funnier because they more densely missed the point.
Barbie is the most caustic critique of contemporary “feminism” that has ever been remotely popular, never mind a box office hit. Its producers combined one of the most culturally powerful pieces of intellectual property with the weight of a major Hollywood studio to trick just about everybody into watching a brilliantly self-aware and admirably nuanced social commentary. Laced with first-rate acting, and stunning aesthetics, Barbie could have stopped there. Instead, it went in a direction that those willing to pay attention are still surprised by; it held an empty pink mirror frame to itself and laughed, then muffled the laugh with layers of relentless absurdist and slapstick humor.
What’s even funnier is that Barbie isn’t actually about Barbie. The character of Barbie is used as a guide through a narrative that’s actually about other people. This should be obvious since she’s literally a doll, and that’s what dolls do: they’re avatars, and we use them to live out our potential narratives. Barbie takes us on a pink snowmobile ride of both validating and invalidating the experience of everyone she encounters, including men. The biggest irony of the film is that the character that’s repeatedly referred to as inconsequential (Ken) is the necessary counterpart to Barbie, has a less-forced character arc, and conveys insightful cultural commentary from the masculine perspective.
Even knowing where to begin with our analysis is tricky given one is tempted to walk through every single scene and point out the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that apparently wasn’t perceived by these reviewers. The lengths to which the movie goes to signpost itself as satire makes any misunderstanding in this respect embarrassing in the extreme. For example, the opening sequence is a shot-for-shot remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey suggesting that the original Barbie doll literally changed the course of history for girls and catalyzed their evolution to a higher state of womanly consciousness. Do they believe this is serious? Or do they just not get the reference? Impossible, we know for a fact there are no Zoomers employed at the Wall Street Journal.
An exceptionally devastating interpretation of the plotline is that the movie is not-so-subtly arguing that the “real world” is an oppressive patriarchy, salvageable only by Barbie-esque girlbossing. There are many clues sprinkled throughout the movie of just how much of a false ideal this is. Just over midway through the film, the fourth wall is broken to treat the audience to a commercial for the “new depression Barbie” who, “spent 7 hours today on Instagram looking at her estranged best friend’s engagement photos while eating a family-sized bag of starbursts,” and who, “is going to watch the BBC’s Pride And Prejudice for the seventh time.” Again, what do they think this is making fun of, exactly? The Patriarchy, or women themselves?
Speaking of The Patriarchy, when Ken encounters it in “the real world” he’s completely enthralled, to the point of misunderstanding everything. To him “patriarchy” is everywhere and is fantastic. He’s unshaken in this revelation when — in reality — he’s rejected from every single role for which he applies, with “man” as the only entry on his CV. And he’s undeterred in returning to Barbieland and, “explaining to [the Barbies], the immaculate, impeccable, seamless garment of logic that is patriarchy.” Later in this exchange with Barbie, in a line so over-the-top in satirical signposting you wouldn’t think anybody could continue to miss the message, Ken declares,
“If it weren’t for these technicalities like MBAs, medical degrees, and, I don’t know, swim lessons, I could have ruled that world.”
We would suggest a more enlightened reading of the plotline as follows: if the only context you have for evaluation is a ridiculous ideal then your assessment will dramatically overshoot. In Ken’s case, he only knows the absurd (and absurdist) matriarchy of Barbieland. Naturally, he falsely interprets the real world as a glorious patriarchy, even in the face of direct experience to the contrary. What this suggests about unidimensional feminist analysis operating on naïve ideals of womanhood, we will let the reader contemplate on their own.
The movie clearly paints Barbie and Ken at the opposite extremes of naïve idealism. In Barbieworld, women can effortlessly be anything and everything, and yet they’re perfectly interchangeable with one another. Men exist only to be “in the warm gaze” of the Barbies, and are more or less ignored. When conquered and reimagined as Kendom, the roles are flipped to the other comical extreme. All men embody a delusional fantastical masculinity and seem to have no purpose beyond living up to this stereotype. Women exist only to wait on and congratulate the pseudo-achievements of the Kens. There is a line in the film that points to this being a call-out for the surface achievements of feminism when it comes to the male struggle: “I’m a liberated man, I know crying’s not weak!” cries out Ken while concealing the fact that he’s crying. Touché.
In the end, the Kens’ arc is highlighted by an incredible musical act, where every movement is deliberate and every joke lands. The Kens steal the show and defy their inconsequentialism.
In the “real world” we find further dualities. Sasha (the daughter) and the (nameless) Mattel CEO embody the opposite extreme of cynicism, within which they represent resignation to victimhood and exploitation. In Sasha’s first appearance, she delivers a speech that superficially conveys a rad-fem excoriation of Barbie as a capitalistic exploitation of women. The irony is that, given her age and experience, she could not possibly have arrived at this view herself and is merely repeating what she has picked up elsewhere that she deems to be edgy enough to fit her early teenage rebellion-by-default. In perhaps the funniest line of the film, Sasha drops on Barbie that favorite insult of context-challenged leftists: “fascist.” Barbie runs away in tears, and next reflects on this bizarre exchange, “She thinks I’m a fascist!? I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce!”
The Mattel CEO represents the inverse of this cynicism: he goes totally over-the-top to signal his virtue du jour, whilst barely concealing the underlying motivation of appealing to everybody to sell them his product. Sasha is innocent but is desperate to come across as cynical, while the Mattel CEO is cynical but is desperate to come across as innocent.
Sasha’s mother Gloria on the other hand, encompasses absolute balance. Her movie-defining monologue could easily have been one-sidedly cringe in the hands of a less talented or more politicized production. Instead, it’s refreshingly sane. She never blames “the patriarchy.” Her speech eschews Sasha’s cynical victimhood and Barbie’s naïve idealism alike. It acknowledges the difficulties of the female experience while celebrating female agency. Gloria seems to understand that ideals are worth striving for, but not worth obsessing over because they can’t actually be reached. The more a woman mindlessly strives for perfection, the less human, and ultimately the less woman, she becomes.
Gloria’s realism is the glue that holds the film together. Recall that Sasha’s tirade does not reflect her own experience, the CEO’s worldview is highly self-deluded, Barbie’s various musings do not reflect anybody’s experiences, and that Ken’s experience is completely misinformed. Gloria’s experience alone is real, and she gives voice to this realness. Like her idea for an “ordinary Barbie,” she’s an ordinary person.
In being real, Gloria is necessarily a woman. Coming as a shock to precisely nobody, the narrative of Barbie highlights the perspectives and experiences of women, as encapsulated in Gloria’s monologue. But in order for this to be at all coherent, the movie and the viewer alike must subscribe to the foundational premise that men and women are different.
The extremities of the characters reinforce this: it’s hard to imagine a teenage boy delivering Sasha’s faux-radical assessment of Barbie’s impact on girls, nor would it be anywhere near as funny for a female CEO to rhetorically ask, “Do you think I spent my entire life in boardrooms because of a bottom line? No, I got into this business because of little girls and their dreams!” Likewise, the delusional extremes of Barbieworld and Kendom are not mirror images but are tailored to the sexes: for Barbies, the intrinsic motivation is to achieve as much as possible, with indifference to the presence of Kens; for Kens, the intrinsic motivation is to be as cool as possible, and to impress Barbies. Without real-world cynicism as to the differences between men and women, Barbies are tricked by Kens simply asserting their supposed dominance, whereas Kens are tricked by Barbies triggering their jealousy. Men doubt women; women only doubt themselves.
We’re surprised that conservatives aren’t latching onto and even celebrating this honesty. It’s something they’ve been screaming for endlessly and getting through to precisely nobody who didn’t already believe them. All it took was Gerwig lathering the message in hot pink and sprinkling in three hundred sarcastic usages of the word “patriarchy” to rope in little girls and woke women alike — demographics Ben Shapiro was oh-so-close to cracking. Barbie is also unapologetically pro-motherhood. Again, where are the conservatives celebrating this? Gloria’s arc and the “empowerment” Barbie catalyzes does not push her to climb the corporate ladder but to be a better mother. Given the cultural moment, this profound championing of gender realism and motherhood makes Barbie categorically reactionary.
To be clear, Barbie is by no means a conservative movie. We think it’s best described as a first-wave feminist movie with a dash of contemporary inclusivity and reactionary honesty. Its message is one of equality, but one that isn’t forced and that is mindful of difference; that rejects cynicism on the one hand and naivety on the other; and that realizes its pursuit will be a constant struggle, but that the struggle will be worth it. What’s funny in its own right is that we live in such stupid times that gender realism is reactionary and yet not conservative; we think this says more about the right than the left.
Beyond the movie itself, we encourage the reader to pay attention to Gerwig’s interviews and the precise way in which she uses the word “feminist.” And this is not to mention her extreme care to avoid telling the audience what they’re supposed to think, lest the range of objects of her mockery be let in on the joke. Thinking back to Lady Bird and Little Women, Gerwig’s first and second outings as director, one has to come away thinking, wow, Gerwig is a brilliant artist who wants to tell stories about women. To instead react with, wow, she must hate men, is frankly insane.
Barbie isn’t perfect. There are flaws to which we must draw attention given they sour even the above analysis. Some superficial disappointments include an out-of-place, obnoxious line about killing Native Americans with smallpox and pushing the joke about the weirdness of a pregnant doll a little too close to implying pregnancy itself is weird.
More substantively, the movie’s main issue is because Barbie isn’t really about Barbie, she’s artificially forced into the role of main character. There are obvious commercial reasons for this, but it doesn’t really work.
After Barbie has her character arc, she can’t just go back to being a perfect doll. Her arc was basically a series of jokes that carried the development of everyone around her. Once the joke has been told, the real plot of (for example) Gloria’s arc has nowhere else to go, so we spend fifteen minutes awkwardly tying up the loose ends that Barbie’s arc has created along the way. If it isn’t pushing the analysis too far, we actually think Gerwig was aware of this problem and tried to self-aware-flex her way out of it with the tangential non-explanation that “Barbie isn’t supposed to have an ending,” but it’s too clever by half. In trying too hard to satisfy, it does the exact opposite.
All in all, we think the ending can be disregarded as forced, sub-par, commercially driven writing unbecoming of the brilliance of the rest of the film.
And the rest of the film is brilliant. All its misreadings point to Barbie being a work of genius satire and to Gerwig being a superb satirist. One is tempted to conclude that the inability to detect satire is something of an intelligence test in and of itself. With AI all the rage these days, we feel compelled to note that this won’t work as a Turing Test due to its high fail rate by humans.
Barbie’s detractors reveal their myopic extremism; their resolute desire to condemn the other tribe’s creed in whatever guise it even seems to appear, regardless of nuance and impervious to satire. Barbie skewers all such unidimensional attitudes with its raw wit. Barbie uses its pink magic to both highlight and mock the pain and frustration of women, men, mothers, daughters, average people, high achieving people, the weird, the beautiful, the outcasted, and the stereotypical. If it has a prescription, it’s incrementalism in place of revolution. If it has a message, it’s that life is hard for everyone and that it’s okay to just be a normal person. It’s not that profound and it’s not trying to be.
Ken puts it perfectly,
“I’m just Ken and I’m enough, and I’m good at doing stuff.”
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