Mattel Films’ first cinematic release, Barbie, has already been a blockbuster success. Released July 21, 2023, it cost an estimated $145 million to make, with a marketing budget of $150 million. It’s raked in over $1 billion. Not bad! And sales of the doll and related merch and licensing deals are going to push revenue much higher. It seems destined to rescue the doll’s declining sales. Imagine my astonishment on learning that Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz isn’t in it for the money.
“The risk was that people outside of Mattel would think that we want to make movies in order to sell more toys... And I was very clear that this is not about selling toys. This is about creating quality content, creating an experience with societal impact that people would want to watch. We’ve been selling toys before we made movies, so we’re not dependent on that.”
— Ynon Kreiz ( Quoted in Variety)
As far as having a societal impact, they seem to have hit a nerve. Conservatives are apoplectic. Not to be missed is Ben Shapiro DESTROYS The Barbie Movie For 43 Minutes, in which he sets the iconic doll on fire in a trash can. But conservatives aren’t the only ones who are critical of the film.
My initial take was that it was an incoherent jumble of sexism tropes, a farrago of feminist cant. Suspending one’s disbelief isn’t enough here, one must tie it up and lock it in the basement. That made it a disappointment, a missed opportunity. Giving writer and director Greta Gerwig the benefit of the doubt, perhaps her reach merely exceeded her grasp. Barbie, I thought, would be a forgettable flop, a regrettable waste of 114 minutes.
Then came the deluge of gushing reviews on social media making me realize it had struck a chord. And that’s what makes it more than just a bad movie. To pick apart the movie’s nonsensical plot and other faults would be unkind; I leave that to others. But the adulation it’s received can’t be explained merely by its savvy publicity campaign, and that is interesting. I can’t get past the fact that thousands of women are showing up at theaters wearing pink before they’ve even seen it. Their opinion is predetermined; the film is there merely to confirm it.
The first thing that struck me was the feminist volte face on Barbie. Here’s something that captures what used to be a common feminist take:
“… studies showed that the probability of a woman having a body shape like Barbie’s is less than 1 in 100,000.
Simply put, the feminist critique of the Barbie doll is grounded in the notion that dolls such as Barbie reinstill the oppression of patriarchy and the detrimental aspects of capitalism in the most dangerous manner in the guise of child’s play.”
Battleground: Women, Gender and Sexuality
Is feminism now embracing Barbie after stiff-arming her for decades? The reason this is confusing is that there are really two feminisms in play here, the second-wave feminism of the 60s-80s and third-wave feminism from the mid-90s onwards. It would be tempting to think that third-wave evolved naturally from second-wave, and that therefore they’re consistent with each other, but that’s not the case. Where liberal second-wave feminists wanted the freedom to reject gender roles, or dismantle gender entirely as an oppressive social construct, third-wave feminists branched off in the direction of critical theory, postmodernism and queer theory, embracing a multitude of intersectional genders. That ideological orientation is significantly different than what had gone before.
Before the postmodern turn, Marxist, socialist and other radical feminist theories saw power as an intentional, top-down strategy by powerful men in patriarchal and capitalist societies, but the advances of second-wave feminism made this conception somewhat redundant. While boorish men with patriarchal assumptions continued to exist, it became increasingly untenable to view Western society as genuinely patriarchal, or to see most men as actively colluding against the success of women. Postmodern Theory offered an opportunity to retain the same beliefs and predictions—male domination exists and serves itself at the expense of women—while redefining them in terms diffuse enough to be a matter of faith requiring no evidence: social constructions, discourses and socialization. The Foucauldian idea of a diffuse grid of power dynamics that constantly operates through everyone through their unwitting uses of language fit the bill perfectly.
— Cynical Theories (2020, Pluckrose & Lindsay)
Before continuing I’ll say a word about my own feminism. For most of my life I would have told you, unapologetically, that I was a feminist. That men and women were equal and should be treated as such was blindingly evident, and since I understood equality to be the central tenet of feminism, I was a feminist. As a boy I understood this in biological terms: men and women were interdependent, and the whole human species would come to a screeching halt without either, so the idea of one sex being superior to the other was idiocy, like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Later I came to have a deeper understanding of history, psychology and politcs that informed my feminism, but I never encountered anything that challenged it in any fundamental way. And in those terms, I still haven’t. But that’s second-wave feminism.
Second-wave feminism’s Barbie-critical viewpoint does make it into the film in Sasha’s (Ariana Greenblat’s) humiliating rebuke of Barbie in the school lunch room. But either it’s left dangling there, or we’re supposed to believe Sasha matures and adopts the supposedly more sophisticated third-wave point of view. Or does Barbie’s humiliation contribute to the epiphany that she’s not perfect?
For second-wave feminists the doll instills unrealistic, detrimental ideals in impressionable girls, and that’s a bad thing. For third-wave feminists, the film instills and reinforces third-wave feminist ideology—behind the façade of a light-hearted movie—and that’s a very good thing. Third-wave feminism’s triumph is total. It dovetails perfectly with Mattel’s rebranding effort, taking Barbie from second-wave nemesis, to third-wave icon.
What Is Real?
The film shifts back and forth between the fantasy of Barbieland and the fantasy world of feminist ideology. In the film’s “real world,” all of Mattel’s buffoonish board members are men, and they want to put Barbie back in her box. But in the actual real world, five of Mattel’s eleven board members are women. None of this makes much sense, but then it doesn’t have to. That men usurp all positions of power is a matter of feminist faith, even when it’s manifestly false. For the already converted, the narrative’s incongruence with reality is inconsequential. It’s the dogma that’s authoritative. But this is just one example of such contradictions.
The tag line in the publicity poster sums up the the movie’s attitude toward men—and its appeal.
“She’s everything. He’s just Ken.”
Most women would instantly recognize that statement as sexist if roles were reversed, centering Ken and making Barbie an emotionally dependent afterthought:
“He’s everything. She’s just Barbie.”
But many don’t. Why not?
In Critical Social Justice (that is, in the “woke” ideology underlying third-wave feminism) there is a trope that only the oppressor group can be bigoted—sexism equals prejudice + power—and that creates a blind spot. The woke simply can’t see their own sexism, so it goes unchecked. Unchecked? More like celebrated! By defining away or disavowing anti-male attitudes the playing field is tilted. In this frame, anti-male sexism can’t exist, therefore it can’t be found in Barbie.
In Gerwig’s Barbieland the Ken’s are vapid, insecure, easily manipulated accessories. This partially explains Barbie’s complete lack of interest in men, although it also led some viewers to speculate that Barbie is, in fact, lesbian.
Barbie needs Ken like a fish needs a bicycle. But Gerwig’s Ken is a straw man. He’s perfect, in his own way, as a caricature of what third-wave feminism supposes all men to be. There are no positive male characters in Barbie—not in Barbieland, not in the “real world,” nowhere. Oh, wait. I almost forgot the very forgettable Alan (Michael Cera). He’s just Alan, too. Is he supposed to be a positive male character?
A common theme that cropped up online is that Barbieland is designed to be the opposite of the real world.
One Barbie fan commented on the turnabout like this:
“doesn’t feel great, does it? now you know how we feel. which is the point of the whole movie.”
She wasn’t the only woman to think the point of the whole movie was payback, and who resonated with it. Emotional retribution is hardly a subtle message. I’m sympathetic to the frustration that leads a woman to relish vicarious vengeance on the big screen. However, I question whether a strategy intended to make men feel “not great” is going to make things any better. If we reverse roles, is a strategy designed to make women feel “not great” likely to improve relations? No, it’s not. In both cases it contributes to the already considerable antagonism we’re afflicted with. It makes things worse, not better.
Culture War Barbie
Barbie is a powerful salvo in the culture wars; it’s also looking like a bastion for organizing other battles. But while Barbie strikes a blow for women, it’s also entrenching the ideology that sustains the war itself. This isn’t a film that changes minds. It’s one that reconfirms biases, caters to the base craving for vengeance, and inculcates the young or naive in a counter-productive and ultimately doomed strategy for social change.
A scant few weeks after its release, The 'Barbie' Movie Is Ending Relationships Left And Right, and ‘Barbie’ is becoming a new litmus test for dating men. At least, that’s what the headlines are screaming. Histrionics aside, it’s completely predictable that Barbie would make relating more fraught. The underlying ideology depicts the world as a struggle between oppressor and oppressed, and we’re all shoe-horned into our roles. It intensifies differences by design. Polarization isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of the social-change strategy, it is the strategy.
Insisting on binary thinking forces us to choose one ideological camp over the other. I imagine many people reading this have already decided which camp to put me in. What I hope, though, is that some readers might join me in rejecting that false dilemma. We can have a robust feminism that insists on equality without marginalizing, mocking and denigrating men. To achieve that we must reject the binary thinking that keeps us locked in an unwinnable battle.
Telling Ken to go off and work on himself is pretty high-handed! Of course, we all have to do our work as individuals. Barbie has her work to do, too. But individual work only takes you so far; the work of creating healthy relationships has to be done in relationship.
“To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue nonetheless to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles – desire, possession, love, dream, adventure – worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us – giving, conquering, uniting – will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.”
—Simone de Beauvoir
Finally, while America Ferrera’s impassioned monologue is eloquent and moving, it’s hardly anything new. Women have been pointing out the contradictory demands society places on them for a long time, and have every right to be frustrated and indignant over it. However, it would be simplistic to blame that all on men. Men, too, must navigate conflicting demands: to be decisive without being domineering, sensitive without being passive, assertive without being aggressive, strong without suppressing vulnerability… Not to minimize the challenges that are unique to women, but we’re talking about the human condition. Mitigating sexism isn't something that women can accomplish without men; and vice versa. Vilifying the opposite sex is not constructive.
So, that’s it. A missed opportunity to move beyond the increasingly fraught relations between the sexes. A movie that changes nothing substantial, but impels us more urgently in the ominous direction we’re already headed.