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Friday, July 21, 2023

Barbie's Hidden Post-Feminist Message

Spoilers ahead!

Greta Gerwig's Barbie is a very entertaining movie, and is surely the least-flawed feminist manifesto you'll ever find in summer-blockbuster format. The film has a few minor problems and two major ones -- one of which just might be the film's hidden post-feminist message.

The Matriarchy in Barbie Land (BL) starts off as a powerful satire of our Patriarchy. The gender roles in BL are a complete (though sexless) reversal from the power structure that feminists say obtains in the Real World (RW). The indictment of RW Patriarchy is all the more effective because the Barbies innocently find the Matriarchy unremarkable, while the Kens are only vaguely frustrated at having their worth determined entirely by the Barbie gaze. (Gerwig made sure to use "gaze" in the script here.)

There are a few noticeable flaws in the script, that could have been fixed without undercutting the powerful Galt-like speech that Gerwig speaks through her self-insert character Gloria (ably played by America Ferrera). The two most obvious:

  • Gloria's husband is a throwaway character, with maybe 3 uninteresting lines in 3 unimportant scenes. In this film he's the dog who didn't bark, a Chekhov's gun loaded with blanks and never fired. His only purpose in the film seems to be to blunt potential criticism that Gloria's speech is that of a bitter single mom. But his character didn't need to be so glaringly irrelevant. A few minutes of well-used screen time for him could have established that Gloria's indictment can still be validly issued from inside a normal marriage.
  • Ken returns to BL after experiencing Patriarchy in the RW for at most a few hours. He then is able to effortlessly conquer BL off-screen using just the idea of Patriarchy. This gives Patriarchy far too much credit, even considering how innocent the Barbies are. But perhaps the alternative would be problematic: if Patriarchy uses mechanisms instead of magic, then its actual workings would have to be examined, and Ken doing actual work might give him agency and sympathy. Still, other alternatives can be imagined, e.g. Ken returning with patriarchal cultural media. If Patriarchy works like a magic wand, then critiquing it becomes harder than necessary.
A much bigger problem with the film was one on which Gerwig felt forced to hang a lampshade: pretty privilege. That topic is brushed off with a fourth-wall-breaking one-line admission by the narrator that Margot Robbie is still very pretty even when she thinks she isn't. Mattel knew better than to open that can of worms, which is avoided for the rest of the movie. There are attractive plus-size Barbies and attractive wheelchair Barbies, but there is no analogue to Ken's homely friend Allen (inevitably played by Michael Sera).  The topic is almost encountered at the end of the film, when a smartly-dressed Barbie says "wish me luck" as she bounces toward what we're to think is her first job interview in the RW. What viewer could possibly question how a Margot Robbie look-alike will fare in the job market? But mid-brow feminism doesn't want to grapple with subjects like pretty privilege or height privilege. The first rule of Victim's Club is: never admit any privilege or responsibility, because fighting injustice might be harder if we address inconvenient truths. Target the easy wins, because the ends justify the means.
Unlike so many films aimed at youth, Barbie's villains were not villainous because they were businessmen -- they were villainous because they were men.  The script inadvertently gives a stirring defense of capitalism at one point. When Gloria suggests marketing a new normal/average Barbie -- prettiness level unspecified! -- the Male CEO summarily dismisses the idea. But when a Marketing Man computes that this product would be very profitable, Male CEO instantly endorses the idea. Gerwig here seemingly admits that dollars are not only colorblind but also gender-blind.
The only jabs at capitalism in Barbie were some throwaway lines plus a boardroom stuffed with men who -- like every man in the RW with a speaking line -- were 100% caricatures. (And like the Kens, they were admirably diverse. Gerwig can't be expected to oppose sexism and racism in the same film.) By the end of the film, Mattel's image is rescued by the ghost of Barbie's dead inventor. Indeed, the whole movie can be read as a cleverly subversive way to co-opt feminism to defend the Barbie franchise from feminist criticism.
And this gestures toward the true flaw -- or true genius -- of the film. Simplistic anti-feminists will complain that the film demonizes and caricatures men, but our culture's norms have many problems worth criticizing -- and "Patriarchy" is a useful handle onto many of them. Gloria's speech makes a one-sided but powerful critique of those norms. Unfortunately, its effect can be seen as undermined by the climax of the film, when the Barbies overthrow Ken's newborn magical Patriarchy and completely restore the Matriarchy. But under Matriarchy 2, the Barbies are fully conscious of the gender asymmetry -- and they admit out loud that they just don't care. By a Straussian reading, this could be the film's true post-feminist message: women are not only just as good as men, but also just as bad.

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