The Barbie Movie Review Diametric
Two more opinions to add to the pile
A few years ago I sorted through all of my social media and systematically ignored or blocked anyone whose posts didn’t enlighten or entertain me. Since then, my net anxiety has gone tremendously down, and my enjoyment of the platforms has gone noticeably up. So when the Barbie Movie came out, I figured I’d just skip it and read what my friends thought.
I now present to you two sets of commentary on The Barbie Movie’s cultural messaging as perceived by two interesting people. One is Elizabeth Jack, the cute bisexual poly post-woke Ohio school teacher who writes the Egalitarian Jackalope blog, which is largely a Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) focused publication which critically analyzes and in some cases debunks general feminist narratives with data. HWFO has referenced this blog before. The other is Dorian, a “based” Eastern European dude who represents fairly well the zeitgeist of an emerging cluster of rationalists who are bending more positively towards traditionalism without necessarily going Full Moldbug.
Elizabeth’s Barbie Take:
Alright, maybe I’m late to the party, but I finally ordered a stiff drink and sat down to watch Barbie. My homework assignment was to watch it with both competing narratives in mind (“Ken Takes the Red Pill and So Should You” vs “Another Unimaginative Girl Power Flick”), and try to figure out if I could make a stronger case for one interpretation or the other. I can see why this movie is called a Rorschach test. There’s a lot of evidence for both, so much so that it feels a little disjointed at times, so whatever it is you’re looking for, you’re going to find it somewhere in this story. I don’t know what the writers’ actual intention was, but I’m going to describe what I saw when I watched it.
I’ll start by saying that there WAS a lot of really lazy “corporate girlboss” style feminist rhetoric, but what I couldn’t help but notice was that it was JUST the rhetoric. The actual events that transpire are much more nuanced than that, to the point that the story itself often undermines what’s being said in the script. And let me tell you, it’s fascinating.
Come on a journey with me, my internet friends. (Spoilers, obviously.)
When we meet our hero, she’s not a good person. She’s superficial in her interactions with others, she’s obsessed with beauty, and she’s deeply identitarian. All her friends are women, seemingly by design. “Every night is girls’ night.” Her entire purpose is about supporting women in particular, representing women in particular, helping women in particular. Which is fine, but it’s her entire identity, and to the exclusion of any meaningful kindness toward her male comrades.
To boot, she’s really cruel to Ken. She’s supposedly his girlfriend, but she blows him off at every opportunity and sometimes even borders on verbally abusive. At one point she literally tells him, “you can leave now.” They’re not arguing. He’s just asking to stay and hang out with her, and she’s telling him to go fuck himself.
Barbie is an unambiguous asshole.
That and her entire society is an honest-to-goodness matriarchy. It’s even stated outright in the film that kens are not allowed to hold positions of power. I don’t even think they can have jobs. (Ken’s job is “beach.” Apparently he’s pretty good at it.) If they were trying to criticize an irl patriarchy with a women’s empowerment story, having the woman characters as the oppressors of a gendered power structure is an odd choice. Ultimately, this context makes it pretty hard to sympathize with a lot of the women, including the protagonist.
After traveling to the Real World, Barbie gets to experience a semblance of balance – especially compared to her home world, men and women are relatively equal. She’s pretty horrified by the whole thing because, to the very privileged, equality looks like oppression. Ken thinks it’s a patriarchy because all he’s ever known is matriarchy, so when he sees at least some men getting acknowledged, respected, or loved, at least some of them holding important positions in society, he makes the sweeping assumption that men run everything.
However, there is no patriarchy in the Real World. All the patriarchy tropes are there, but they are immediately subverted as soon as they come up. Every supposed example of patriarchy is undermined by unexpected writing decisions and glaring tone conflicts, like the audience is being deliberately fed the characters’ cognitive dissonance from their point of view:
1. A lot of the catcallers are honestly pretty wholesome and affirming, juxtaposed strangely with the rude cops and the guy who actually hits Barbie. Then we’re back to wholesome when the construction guys are completely accepting of Barbie and Ken’s weird doll anatomy. (“I don’t have a vagina.” “That’s fine with us!”) This back and forth is a jarring contrast that I have a hard time reconciling with a simple patriarchy narrative.
2. Ken asks for jobs and handouts, tries to benefit from the patriarchy he thinks he’s a part of, and comes up laughably empty handed every time.
3. The women in this world aren’t depicted as downtrodden or oppressed. There is a woman doctor who looks baffled by Ken’s expectation that doctors are men. And Ferrera’s character has a high profile design career where she answers directly to the CEO of the company – women are shown being successful in their careers, and no one attempts to stand in their way.
4. The male CEO is challenged for his maleness, but he doesn’t have nefarious intentions, isn’t a money grubbing monster, and honest to goodness wants to help women and girls.
5. The word “patriarchy” appears 11x in the script (not counting book covers), and given who’s saying it, it’s not clear that we’re ever meant to take it seriously.
- The daughter, Sasha, is a comedic caricature of zoomer-era tumblrism. She uses words like “fascist” and “appropriation,” but incorrectly. The message of the story isn’t likely to be in her mouth. You’re meant to see her as a kid who has no idea what she’s talking about.
- Ken and Barbie use this word repeatedly, but they’re dolls and a major source of comedy in the film is centered around their obliviousness to how humans and their gender politics work.
- The office worker tells Ken that the patriarchy isn’t gone, “we’re just better at hiding it,” but this is immediately after telling him that men have an active disadvantage in the hiring process. These two claims are mutually exclusive.
6. Characters often remark on a Supreme Court, which is a weird focus, since our Supreme Court irl is about as close to 50/50 as it’s possible to be. They’d focus on literally any other public office if they were trying to illustrate a glass ceiling. It’s possible these characters are meant to look out of touch.
7. Ruth says “Humans make things up, like Barbie and Patriarchy.” This was one of the most surprising lines in the film. I danced a little in my seat. I did not expect anyone to look dead into the camera and tell us patriarchy is made up.
So there’s arguably not a patriarchy there at all, but Ken is convinced, and not realizing that there’s an alternative to matriarchy or patriarchy, he returns to Barbieland and foments a Frankly Completely Valid Revolution Against Gendered Tyranny.
I mean, given the context, I’d do the same thing. Get it, Ken. Smash the Barbiarchy.
By the time Barbie gets there, he’s instituted an Unimaginative Gendered Revenge Dictatorship that isn’t any better than the previous state of things. I guess people are actually talking about their ideas and interests rather than just how pretty everyone is and how we are on a beach right now, but it’s still a system of gendered oppression. It’s still a bummer.
That said, I was pretty disappointed that, even after seeing how unhealthy and fucked up the Kenarchy was, Barbie, Sasha, and Gloria still had their little girls-club-huddle trying to figure out how to kick the uppity kens back to second class citizenship and restore the status quo. Instead of, you know, equality. This moment was a wrecking ball for what little sympathy I still had for these characters.
In spite of this, our protagonist does get a growth arc. There are a couple of moments in this process that really stand out to me. One is when she’s sitting on a bus stop bench in the Real World, and the camera pans to an unknown man, sitting across a park from her with his head in his hands. We never learn anything about him, or what has him so distraught, but the camera hovers on him for longer than expected. It’s an oddly emotional moment that Barbie shares with him from a distance, like she’s realizing for the first time that boys can be sad, and that this is a thing she can care about.
The second happens while Barbie shows her human friends around Barbieland. She points out the Dreamhouses where she thinks all the barbies still live, and Gloria replies, “Where do the kens live?” Barbie looks so disappointed in herself when she says she doesn’t know. This really seems like the moment she starts to question her assumptions.
She’s not “redpilled,” as she’s still more than happy to help her girlfriends go back to Barbiarchy, but moving forward she does start to pay attention to what Ken actually has to say, the fact that he’s a feeling creature who suffers and she’s played a role in that suffering. She hears him out and gives him a genuine apology, which was honestly pretty beautiful.
It seems we're truly meant to empathize with the kens – their disposability, their invisibility, and their desperation for love. The fact that they are only valued through their value to women. The kens are given a genuine message of empowerment: they are valuable as individuals, with or without women’s approval. I was pretty surprised to see the movie so openly acknowledge some of these social issues that only MRAs have been willing to talk about up until this point. (I’m waiting for Salon or Huffpo to publish some cold take about how this whole movie is a propaganda piece for incels.)
In the end, while the barbies retake their kingdom, they offer the kens a few crumbs to shut them up, and our hero takes a step back. She’s not herself. She’s questioning her entire purpose, worldview, and identity, and ultimately decides to leave Barbieland.
She didn’t want to be part of the patriarchy, but she doesn’t want to live in a matriarchy either. She’s been outside the cave. She knows equality is an option, so she chooses to become human and go back to the Real World, which is much closer to equality than anything that’s happened at home.
At the end of the day, I don’t really think this is a “red pill movie” or a “blue pill movie.” What I saw was a story about the false dichotomy between matriarchy and patriarchy. The misguidedness of revenge politics when women try to inflict upon modern men what they believe past men have done to past women, the unnecessary contest between men’s and women’s needs, and the toxicity of one-sided narratives like Patriarchy Theory.
I wonder if this movie is meant to be a 2 hour Mattel ad that lampshades by pretending to be tongue-in-cheek about it. Or is it a clever, subversive statement about gender politics whose authors knew they could only convince a studio to produce it if they kept a veneer of corporate back scratching and feminist preaching to smuggle in what’s really being said?
Or it’s an intentional Rorschach test that was written with a plethora of conflicting messages, and whatever you see tells you more about you than it does about the movie.
Or it’s a dumb feminist cash grab that’s so poorly written that it repeatedly undermines its own message. Who can say?
Many viewers criticize the film as depicting men uncharitably, even problematically, and while I understand this complaint, I don’t think basically anyone is depicted charitably in this movie. It’s true that the male characters are all so stupid it’s a wonder they got their pants on correctly (Shoe0nHead compares them all to Zoolander), but most of the women are goofy ideologues, vapid bimbos, or just straight-up assholes. Some are all three. But I will grant that there are a few regular women in this story, and there really aren’t any regular men.
When I saw the righteous arguing over this film, I had to work to resist the urge to weigh in. I just kind of assumed that it was another Captain Marvel, but even more clumsy and ham fisted with its preaching. I’m really glad I held my tongue until I had actually seen the damn thing. Let that be a lesson to us all, I guess.
Finally, I was honestly really surprised at how much I enjoyed the ride. I definitely rolled my eyes at some stuff, but most of the time it was a fun movie full of bright colours and cartoon nonsense and funny jokes. I loved the Ken Fight. I loved all the jokes about how they’re dumb dolls that do doll things. It was funny every single time. And of course, I enjoyed the many homages to the way kids actually play with toys – little girls don’t brush Barbie’s hair and tell her she’s pretty. They set her on fire, cut her hair off, draw on her, and throw her off balconies. Given enough time, all barbies become Weird Barbies.
Some little asides:
- The moment where Ken finds his self-respect and throws Barbie’s words back in her face was delicious. 10/10. Better than sex.
- America Ferrera’s dumb, endless monologue about all the ways it sucks to be a girl is literally just a list of human universals and I rolled my eyes so hard I think I sprained something, but I take comfort in the possibility that she was intentionally written as an out of touch ideologue.
- I’ve always objected to the “Barbie’s body type oppresses little girls” rhetoric. It’s stupid, it misunderstands how beauty standards arise, and deeeeeply misunderstands how little girls play with dolls (see: “Weird Barbie”). I’ve also always thought it was pretty disrespectful to women who are actually shaped like that. It now occurs to me, after seeing it parroted by a group of tweens spoofing Bratz dolls, that this entire line of reasoning was probably a guerilla counter-ad by Barbie’s competitors.
- The women in Barbieland are obsessed with beauty, and the men are obsessed with gaining women’s approval and love, because these are the pressures placed on the respective sexes.
- Why the hell is this movie making fun of Sasha’s dad for learning a language? This joke really fell flat for me.
- The entire movie is weirdly segregated by gender. You almost never see anyone interacting with the opposite sex without some kind of conflict. They're up to their eyeballs in politicized gendered perspectives and they all need to touch grass. And so do most of the people talking about this movie.