Discover more from The Crumb Dungeon
Immediate thoughts on Barbenheimer
Part II: Barbie
(Spoilers, of course)
It’s Funny! (Really): The film got some genuine laughs out of me multiple times! In fact, the very opening homage to 2001: A Space Oddyssey in which the little girls are iroining their pathetic baby clothes was super clever and set the tone really well. I knew I was in for a good time and was ready to laugh. A couple of other scenes struck out as well. In particular, I was floored by Ryan Gosling’s song-and-dance number, the Matchbox 20 “Push” group serenade by all the Kens, and Michael Cera killing a man with a shovel after yelling “I’m Alan! I’m Ken’s buddy! All of his clothes fit me!”
One of the rather odd upshots of the film is that because Barbie was the protagonist who had to go on her hero’s journey, she frequently plays “the straight man” along with the other Barbies. Consequently, that makes Ryan Gosling’s Ken (and, to a certain degree the other Kens as well) the funny, comic relief. This is not to suggest that Margot Robbie doesn’t have any good funny lines, but what tends to stick in my head at least are her more emotional beats rather than anything that had me roaring. One exception, of course, is Margot Robbie’s “Do you guys ever think about death?” in the middle of the opening dance number. Really good stuff.
All in all, though, I was really pleasantly surprised by the humor and I thought the film did a good job of making a quirky, campy experience.
The Look: Perhaps more than even Oppenheimer, I thought the set design and costuming was quite good. Barbieland looked like a plastic playset and had this kind of trippy feel, in part, I think, because of the selective use of green screen at certain parts. I don’t have much to say about the parts filmed in “the real world” other than to say that movies always make LA look much nicer than it is in real life.
One thing that I thought was rather odd was that the film originally seemed to set a boundary between the magical, fantastical world of Barbieland and the every-day reality of the Real World. However, that distinction is thrown out the window as soon as we enter the Mattel headquarters—there, for some reason, we’re back in the realm of the magical and where ghosts can rent out a floor to cosplay as the Oracle and be grandmotherly. I don’t understand why they made that choice (other than, of course, to underscore the fact that Mattel is a magical place), but it wasn’t too distracting.
The Cast: I really liked that it seemed as though everyone was just having a good time on the set. Ryan Gosling, in particular, really seemed to give it his all and showed off his chops as a comedy actor. Margot Robbie was, of course, fantastic and I don’t think anyone could have done as well as she did, and America Ferrera was also quite good (though, I didn’t care much for the child actor that played her daughter—sorry!). The supporting cast of Barbies and Kens weren’t anything exciting to write home about, but they did a decent enough job of being odd and plastic to where it worked well with the film.
The Bad (exactly what you’d expect from me):
Most of what I have to say is just stuff that you could have figured out before setting foot in the theater, and although this section is much longer than the “good” section, I don’t want to give the impression of harping on the movie for failing to be what I thought it could be. I especially don’t want these criticisms to be contrasted with the Oppenheimer review where I didn’t take any serious political/critical stance, but only talked about the more formal elements that struck me in the film. In other words, I don’t want to produce any of the annoying Twitter—sorry, I mean X.com—discourse that I mentioned there in this post. I really did enjoy the movie on the whole, and I think the positives outweigh the negatives. But because it’s much easier to be critical and because I have a little more knowledge of feminist theory than I do of nuclear physics, I’ve allowed myself more room to be critical. In any case, nothing that I’ll say should be surprising to anyone.
Superficial Feminist Critiques, Shallow Political Outlook, and Gender Essentialism: Anyone who has read even one book on feminist thought will find nothing new or interesting being developed in the film—anyone who got as far as second wave feminism will find its approach hamfisted. Furthermore—and bear with me, I know this is pedantic—the criticism itself can’t get past the importance of ideas. It is, in other words, a feminist criticism that’s very much trapped in a kind of naive idealism.
For example, after the incredibly didactic dialogue on the double bind given by America Ferrera, the Barbies explain the patriarchy as a kind of brainwashing. In Barbieland, this brainwashing is the result of having no natural immunity to patriarchal ideas, creating a bizarre parallel between ideas and viruses: just as the virus corrupts the body and causes it to be ill, so the idea of the patriarchy corrupts social relations and causes women to become subservient to men. In a parallel turn, the solution to the Barbies’ problem is, in the first place, to heal and inoculate each other with a series of consciousness raising sessions (just as one heals and inoculates the sick body), and then to seize power by…sigh…voting in a new constitution. The overall message here is, of course, that the same affliction that has befallen the Barbies is the same affliction that affects us in the real world too. All we that we have to do in order to defeat the patriarchy is to just tell each other about how unfair practice x, y, or z is and once enough people know about it we can, uh…vote on it. (This isn’t even second wave feminism! This is just first wave stuff!). The problem, of course, is that that hasn’t ever worked. In fact, having come from the Real World, America Ferrera’s character knows this—she knows that other women know what she knows because she frequently stresses that the things that Barbie finds strange are things that real women understand quite well. So, the solution proposed ends up being this neurotic repetition: it didn’t work last time, but this time…when we can say the right things…
At the same time, the film treats men’s role in creating and supporting the patriarchy with a surprisingly gentle hand: the reason Ken brings these ideas into Barbieland is because he’s bound in an interpersonal relationship with Barbie in which he lacks an identity. Barbie is and can be everything, and Ken is just Ken and does nothing. It’s his Luciferian twist—his desire to be recognized by the Big Other—that motivates the creation of Kendom, and, that, at the end of the day ends up being a kind of maintenance of a certain kind of libidinal economy. One is given the impression that if Barbie was just nicer to Ken and helped him find meaning in his own life, then all of the problems could have been avoided. Now, I’m of the general opinion that feminism is not the discipline of putting men down and that both men and women need to be included in its construction (after all, the patriarchy hurts men too!), but this was, I think, too conciliatory. I quite like that Barbie recognizes that her world can’t go back to being the way it was before, nor should it be one in which half of the population of Barbieland is just superfluous, but one in which a new social order is established. Yet, her solution is a puzzling one, and one that, I think, just belies the political limits of this kind of corporate feminism: namely, her suggestion is that the don’t think of themselves as “it’s Barbie and Ken” but “it’s Barbie and it’s Ken.” Having recognized that the two are deeply, interdependent and that their social life is a result of navigating their interdependence, Barbie just suggests something akin to “what if we were just equally independent.” In other words, after developing the thesis that the very core of the problem is they can’t be equally independent because one’s independence is always contingent on the recognition of the Other, we just retreat once again to the same neurotic repetition.
Finally, the film’s sexual politics rest on a firm notion of gender essentialism: on the one hand, there are women (including trans women) and they have a certain essential psychology that defines them, and on the other hand, there are men who have an equally essential psychology. There’s variation within each group but the whole movie is driven by the fundamental differences between men and women and how “too much” of one side’s influence ends up being a bad thing for the other. The upshot of this essentialism is, of course, that the best we can hope for is, once again, a kind of detente between the sexes in which each learns to compromise with the other and to live around each other. There is no overcoming, no transcending these difference to create something new, but only the eternal male and female. This, again, is just a bourgeois liberal politics.
This kind of essentialism was most obviously on display during the marketing and soft social-media blitzes that accompanied it. Everyone knew that simply going to the theater required dressing up in pink and presenting very femme, and while this very practice can be read in queer terms, the vast majority of what I saw at least, was of traditionally femme women going full-throttle femme. In other words, it appeared to me as a kind of pseudo-reactionary reclamation of “traditional femininity” which involves pink bows, special outfits, and so on. This phenomenon also seems to map on to another surprising phenomenon that I was made aware of yesterday: when one measures the Barbie and Oppenheimer ticket sales by state, Barbie sales dominate the conservative South. In fact, the Barbie/Oppenheimer distribution bears a very strong similarity to maps showing the political distribution of the 2016 election. Now, this might be a coincidence, and, to be honest, the map itself might just be fake. But if it’s not, then at least one plausible explanation is that Barbie would be especially popular in precisely those places in the US where people are very much concerned with gender essentialist politics.
[This, for what it’s worth is also at the core of the whole Barbenheimer phenomenon. Were we not aware that the precise mismatch between these movies is summarized by “Oppenheimer is for boys, Barbie is for girls! What if we saw them back to back!”?]
Silence, Brand!: All of the previous criticisms, I believe, rest on the fact that this is a film made by the Mattel corporation to sell toys. As such, the film cannot surpass its capitalist framework. Even if Gerwig and Baumbach could have written a truly radical feminist critique by focusing on a commodity, that film simply wouldn’t have been made. You just can’t have a film that is critical of the very structures that underpin and reproduce the conditions that feminism criticizes and at the same time show off Chevy’s exciting new line of electric vehicles. The material systems of production and reproduction cannot be altered even within the fantastical context of the movie because they cannot be taken to be alterable outside of it. Indeed, the question of what can be altered within the world of the movie speaks to the limits of what the current ideology permits.
Consider: at its core, the film is about finding one’s place in the world, embracing one’s individuality (even if that individuality is ‘to be ordinary’), and reframing one’s position in the world so as to bear a better relationship to it. It doesn’t ask “why is America Ferrera so miserable?” Instead it plays on certain ideas about the “imporant things in life” and yokes them with the product that’s being sold. Barbie mediates the relationships between mother and daughter and helps them repair their standing with each other (America Ferrera’s character to her daughter) just as Barbie mediates the relationship between the self and one’s image of the self (America Ferrera to herself). The meta-narrative, driven by nostalgia and supported by the interminable end of history, is that we know ourselves and each other not through our interactions and the relationships we build with each other, but first and foremost through the things that allow us to have such interactions and relationships. This is precisely the mystification that Marxists so frequently talk about and that is a central pillar of the capitalist mode of production.
Within this mode of production the horizon for possibilities is limited. As stated, you can’t change the social relations that underlie it which might, for example, suggest that Barbie or Chevy or whoever are corporations with interests antithetical to yours and mine (or whose interests coincide with yours only to the extent that it’s profitable). But you can change the thoughts and ideas in your head about how you relate to them, and how you relate to yourself and to others through them. At the same time, you can also fold in a cynical awareness of the endeavor that the corporations are a part of. Thus, you can make Will Farrel the doofus CEO who roams around with his hapless gang of executives; you can have them acknowledge that all the C-level execs are men; you can have Helen Mirren point out that the idea of Margot Robbie “feeling ordinary” is absurd; you can have Rhea Perlman play the ghost of Ruth Handler and stress how different she is from the product she created. All that can be done because none of it makes a difference because none of it suggests anything more than a shrug of the shoulders, a “ain’t that weird” recognition of reality, and a kind of cynical knowledge that you’re being marketed to.
Hence, why the feminist analysis ends up being shallow, why the political vision is limited, and why we see a kind of reactionary gender essentialism run through the project. A radical critique of all these things would require a radically different outlook, and what’s needed to sell products is an essentially conservative one.
(To be clear, I don’t think this is a unique fault of the film Barbie—for the same reasons you can’t have the G.I. Joe movies offer a radical critique of masculinity, or the Transfomers movies offer a radical critique of, say, climate change)
On the Whole:
3.5/5 (and two bags of soda). Okay, despite the long discussion, it really was not bad! I mean, I can confidently say that I enjoyed most of the movie. It really was fun, and, unlike Oppenheimer, I can see myself putting this on to watch again once it comes out on VOD. To be honest, I don’t think the film lives up to the hype and I think Greta Gerwig has done better work in developing serious themes in the infinitely better Lady Bird, but as far as movies made about children’s toys go (and there are a LOT), it wasn’t a bad couple of hours.
At the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say that the real winners of Barbenheim are the ad teams for both films who somehow managed to answer the question “Why should I spend money to see a movie this weekend?” with “Well…what if you spent money seeing two films?”
I suppose a more charitable interpretation is to say that this solution does work in Barbieland because the people that inhabit it aren’t people at all, but simply dolls. Fair enough, but then the very connection between the doll and the real world (a theme that is consistently stressed through the film—playthings and the real world are in a dialogical relationship and both influence and inform each other) is completely broken. Why not just have Barbie go around and press some imaginary factory reset button on each of the Barbies rather than talk them through the reality of their new situation?
Just imagine that tomorrow Ken wakes up and what felt like an epiphany “I am Kenough” now seems hollow. Suppose he still feels like he has no purpose or can’t find it. Would this not result in his regression back to the time in which he felt some purpose?
Kens are much less psychologically distinct than Barbies—their interests all seem to be centered around horses, beer, mini-fridges, and mansplaining. That’s fine. I thought those jokes were actually funny, so I’m not harping on that, just pointing it out.