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A Review of the Barbie Movie: The Confusion Postmodern Feminism


Stereotypical Barbie from the Barbie movie

Source: Auralcrave


On the big screen, the scene opens with a wasteland in which little girls in plain dresses play with baby dolls and other toys related to tasks and roles traditionally associated with motherhood. A narrator explains that little girls had once been given only the toys related to this role of motherhood. The scene is depressing; the little girls look sad, reserved to adopt their societal role. Then Barbie appears, towering above the girls in a tightly-fitted bathing suit. Her hair is immaculately done. She wears sunglasses, and her expression evokes confidence. The scene ends with the little girls' awestruck stare, facing upward at a new way to be a woman. Then they violently destroy their baby dolls.


This is a synopsis of the opening scene of the recent Barbie movie. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, this synopsis may appear at first surprising. Isn't this just a movie about dolls? It may surprise you to learn that the latest Barbie movie has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was the highest-grossing movie of 2023 with a global box office of about $1.4 billion. Aside from this, it has generated much controversy and discussion. Perhaps one of the most famous reactions came from Ben Shapiro, famed conservative political commentator, who, prior to his lengthy review of the movie, filmed himself setting fire to a Barbie doll. Others praised the movie for its brilliant humor and social commentary.


I've sat on writing this review for a long time, in part, because I've wrestled with how to approach it. Greta Gerwig's Barbie is thick with ideology and politics. As I left the movie theater after my first viewing, I was astonished by how overtly the movie presented a feminist ideology. At the same time, it was apparent to me after a first viewing that Barbie's plot was hopelessly confused; certain events and lines in the movie suggest an unease of the writers with the discourse of modern feminism and its ties with corporations that stand to profit off that discourse. After a second viewing, in which I was able to take notes as I watched, some of those initial impressions were crystallized, and now I think that I have a pretty good understanding of what's going on in the plot.


This review will be split into three parts. First, I will review the movie as a movie. That is, I'll discuss the aspects of the movie that anyone who would review a movie would discuss, such as the direction, screenwriting, acting, story and writing, etc. Second, I will give a short presentation on the history of feminism in order be clear about the ideas with which the Barbie movie interacts to prepare for the third part. Third, I will review the ideology of Barbie, as I think that this warrants its own section of a review. Here, I will present perhaps the main thesis of my entire review of the movie: the Barbie movie is an internecine criticism of second-wave feminism by later third-wave or postmodern feminism. This is my interpretation of the movie's plot that, I think, explains some of its most crucial, interesting, and frustrating elements.


Spoiler warning for all aspects of the movie's plot ahead!


The Barbie Movie as a Movie


One of the most interesting aspects of the reactions to the Barbie movie in American culture was the connection between praise for the movie and praise for the movement the movie is supposed to have supported. I haven't heard so much applause in a movie theater since I watched God's Not Dead with my youth group in high school. It is a loud, colorful, musical romp that, for two hours, assumes - like the cheesy Christian movie - that the viewer agrees with the worldview it presents. For people who agreed with that worldview, it seems that criticism was unacceptable. One recent negative review lamented the possibility of criticism from the culture for saying that the movie was bad.


That connection between support for the movie and support for the "cause" was further reinforced with the recent Oscar nominations that skipped over Margot Robbie for Best Actress and Greta Gerwig for Best Picture, yet, hilariously, nominated Ryan Gosling for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Ken. The perceived snub was taken to be a confirmation of the movie's overall worldview and message (whatever those are, more on that below), in spite of the fact that Greta Gerwig, a relatively little-known director prior to the release of Barbie, directed the highest-grossing movie of the year (higher-grossing than The Super Mario Bros. Movie!). It was so easy, for some reason, for our culture to attribute her success to her trailblazing courage as a woman and to attribute her failure to the patriarchy, an inconsistency that the review linked above points out is ironic and short-sighted:

"Every time a woman fails to win an accolade doesn’t mean failure for womanhood. Surely women aren’t so pitiable as to need a participation certificate every time we try. We’re well beyond the point where a female artist can’t be criticized on the merits and can’t be expected to handle it as well as any man."

With that in mind, I suppose I'll have to do the unacceptable: the Barbie movie is not good. Let me explain what I mean. It is a well-produced, well-acted movie with an all-star cast. The set design, especially for Barbie Land, is great. It was fun to see Stereotypical Barbie, at the beginning of the movie, sipping from a life-sized plastic toy version of a milk carton and "eat" plastic food. Many of the mechanical aspects of the movie are exactly what you'd expect of a well-produced, big-budget summer blockbuster. In that sense, many of the scenes are pleasurable to watch just to see what the set or costume designers had come up with.


That being said, the macrostructural elements of the movie do not come together to make a coherent whole. Any literary creation, whatever its medium, has microstructural elements whose combination come together to make a whole creation, whether that creation is a narrative, painting, sculpture, etc. Vincent van Gogh's famous "Starry Night" is made up of brush strokes of varying lengths, thickness, color, etc., but those pieces come together to make the whole painting, which evokes haunting feelings of melancholy. The macro-elements are dependent on the micro-elements, but the whole fails to come together if they micro-elements cannot be combined well.


This is the problem with the Barbie movie. Its plot - and there will be more on this below - is hopelessly confused and self-contradictory. Because, at about the halfway point of the movie, the message of the plot is lost, the jokes fail to land. Barbie succeeds to be quite funny until Stereotypical Barbie and Ken make their way into the real world, and from there on, the jokes become tired and predictable. There is a reason for all of this that has to do with the movie's ideology, but it doesn't make for pleasant watching.


Let's take a moment to talk about the comedic aspects of the Barbie movie. One claim commonly made in our culture today is that comedy is subjective. Some people find a joke funny; others don't. I disagree with this claim. What makes a joke funny is its proximity to truth. It is when the truly absurd in life is revealed by a joke that we react involuntarily with laughter. Because of this, we can say that truth is funny. If a joke has no connection with reality, then it cannot be funny. If there is any aspect of comedy that is relative, it is the fact that people have different conceptions of what's true. The Barbie movie often failed to be funny to me because, by the latter half of the movie, it was presenting as true a worldview with which I fundamentally disagree. Others might have found the latter half hilarious. Because of this, my criticisms of aspects of the movie cannot be divorced from my disagreement with its core philosophy, with the assumptions it makes about the world and viewers. I viewed the Barbie movie like the atheist would view God's Not Dead. Greta Gerwig didn't have someone like me in mind when she wrote this script.


In spite of this, my claim is not that the Barbie movie is just "bad for me." It is a bad movie precisely because its core philosophy is false. What is that philosophy? Let's now move on to the ideology of Barbie by first discussing the history of feminism.


A Crash Course on Feminism


The Barbie movie is an openly feminist movie. Especially in its third act, with the famed America Ferrara speech, the movie's plot is shaped by a feminist identity politics. Because of this, to understand its plot requires an understanding of feminism, which has traditionally been divided into three waves. Usually, we're described as being in the third wave, though some scholars see an emergent fourth wave of feminism in the works. One source for this section is a helpful short article by Martha Rampton, a professor at Pacific University, for Pacific Magazine on this topic.


The first wave of feminism is traced to the late-19th and early-20th centuries with attempts to secure equal rights and opportunities for participation in society by women. Out of this social movement came the push for suffrage, or the right to vote, for women, as well as a push for political activism among women. When conservatives call themselves feminists, I've found that they often have this sort of feminism in mind. By far and above, most people agree with this brand of feminism, though even in this movement, one can see hints of a larger critique of the cultural institutions in which women found themselves. In embryonic form, we can see the beginnings of a larger critique of the social structures that feminists would later argued resulted in their oppression.


With the second wave of feminism, feminism associated itself with a larger critique of the social institutions within which women found themselves. Whereas the first wave's ends were primarily political, the second wave sought to upend social conventions about womanhood. It is here, from the 1960's to the 1990's, that we hear of women as an oppressed class as a matter of social structure. Thus, Marxist language and categories are intertwined with second-wave feminism. Its goals included the legalization of abortion (as a matter of women's rights) and the broadening out of conceptions of a woman's role in society. One less recognized aspect of second-wave feminism is its ties with technological innovations of the time, namely, safe feminine care products and the birth control pill. These 20th-century inventions made it more possible than ever for women to live and work outside the home. Thus, the image of the "career woman" supplants the image of the mother as the height of womanhood in second-wave feminism, a point made explicitly in the first scene of Barbie. The Barbie doll, first introduced in 1959, presented this transformed image of women to little girls.


The third wave of feminism is traced to the late-20th and early-21st centuries and is associated with an increasing skepticism about what constitutes womanhood and an increasing consciousness of the marginalizing forces within feminism as a movement. Perhaps most formative in the explication of third-wave feminist philosophy is the philosopher, Judith Butler. Her philosophical project was to "denaturalize" sexuality and gender by removing its ties from biology. By removing its ties with biology, third-wave feminism is associated with a deepening ambiguity about what constitutes a woman and what women ought to seek for their liberation in a patriarchal society. The feminist of the third wave, as Rampton points out, may not even call herself a feminist. She may dress in high heels and wear a revealing outfit in order to feel empowered in her sexuality. As a result, third-wave feminism is intersectional, endeavoring to include women of marginalized race but even transgender women. Many of the current conflicts among feminists - for instance, between Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and trans-supporting feminists - have to do with how ambiguous sex and gender really are and how inclusive the movement ought to be. Because of this ambiguity, however, the "goals" of third-wave feminism are less clear than ever.


With this brief overview in mind, it's time to consider the ideological context into which the Barbie movie speaks and which it assumes is true in order for its plot to work. It is clear that the movie has some sort of feminism in mind, but what is it?


The Confusing Ideology of the Barbie Movie


The title of this section is intended to indicate the direction into which I'm moving. I do not think that Barbie is very clear in its ideology, and this lack of clarity seriously affects its ability to present its message compellingly. In this section, I will discuss each of the three acts of the Barbie movie and argue for the following thesis about its ideology: the Barbie movie is an internecine criticism of second-wave feminism by later third-wave or postmodernist feminism.


I see the first act of the Barbie movie as the initial presentation of Barbie Land and the problem Stereotypical Barbie faces prior to going to the real world. In the first scene, the idol of Stereotypical Barbie - this towering, beautiful visage of womanhood as independent and unmoored by biological or societal constraints, free to do as she feels - is presented as the ultimate solution to the oppression of women. The inhabitants of Barbie Land live in a perfect fantasy world in which women have all the power and the men (or the Ken dolls) vainly compete for their affection and attention. Barbie Land is the imaginary converse of the feminist understanding of the real world. It is plastic, cheap, and unreal. Likewise, the inhabitants of Barbie Land conceive of the world in the same way; they naively think that the introduction of the Barbie doll and of a radical new way of being a woman has solved every problem for every woman in the real world.


The first act of the Barbie movie dismantles this plastic facade by forcing Stereotypical Barbie to confront the anxiety and depression of a real woman in the real world. As it turns out, deconstructing social institutions and traditional norms did not a happy woman make. Thoughts of death invade her mind, and suddenly the plastic world she inhabits lacks the charm it once had. She cannot enjoy life with the other Barbie dolls because of the existential dread she's forced to encounter. Life, as it turns out, is more complex than an ideology.


The first act of the Barbie movie is, by far, the funniest and most interesting part of the movie. Greta Gerwig ingeniously dismantles the simplistic portrait of the world given to us by second-wave feminism and its goals and shows that it would never have the success that it sought. Why does second-wave feminism fail? It fails because the realities of life - invasive fear of death, the struggles of raising a teenager, hardships of coping with the tragedies and miseries of life - confront someone in the real world, whether or not they have a career (as America Ferrara's Gloria does). Reality forces Stereotypical Barbie, and the viewer, to confront the absurdities of such a limited class-based ideology. Because of this, the beginning of the Barbie movie is often compelling and very funny.


Some takes on the Barbie movie, especially conservative takes, interpret the movie as exposing the failures and absurdities of feminism. I suspect that these interpretations are primarily focusing on the first act and ignoring the rest of the movie. I say this because, just as Greta Gerwig is getting ready to assault the idea of restrictive ideology with the realities of the human experience, she jumps headlong back into another restrictive ideology by producing a version of the real world just as fake and plastic as Barbie Land.


I take the second act of the Barbie movie to include all of Stereotypical Barbie and Ken's time in the real world prior to the return to Barbie Land. Here, Stereotypical Barbie and Ken must confront the realities of human experience and its distance from their experience as live dolls. At first, this part of the movie is compelling. Stereotypical Barbie and Ken, dressed in ridiculous clothes, skate around Los Angeles while, for the first time, coming under the gaze of other human beings. Much of that gaze is unwanted. Stereotypical Barbie is cat-called and perceives this attention as threatening. Ken receives much of the same attention but, because it is the first time he has ever received attention, welcomes it. One of the observations of feminism is that the social realities that people must face differ based on sex. I have never been cat-called or received unwanted sexual attention from men, but my wife certainly has. One needn't be a feminist to recognize this or explain it.


Easily one of the best scenes in the movie takes place when Stereotypical Barbie sits at a park bench and surveys the experiences of people all around her. These experiences include men and women of various ages and life situations, simply living. Then she looks to her side to see an elderly woman and realizes, with tears in her eyes, that this woman is beautiful. To have cellulite, to suffer, to be imperfect, doesn't mean that you lack beauty. In fact, the image of God can be seen in every person, and that is the core of the beauty of humanity. This is the only moment in the Barbie movie that can be described as sublime, and it left me with an initial impression of hope that a movie based on the supposed feminist accolades of a doll for little girls would actually break free from the constraints of that ideology to see that the human experience itself is something that all humans must encounter and that out of this experience comes all of the tragedies, ugliness, beauty, and grandeur of life. Had Ken been there to experience this moment with Barbie, this conclusion would have been inescapable.


But Ken wasn't there. While Stereotypical Barbie, a plastic doll, is first experiencing the world as-is, Ken is walking by large businesses and sees the respect afforded to men for simply existing. In other words, the real world is patriarchal, and this means that a man receives accolades and respect simply for being a man. Ken, a marginalized figure in Barbie Land, embraces this patriarchy in order to elevate his own status. He becomes obsessed with trucks and horses, stereotypical images of masculinity, and, in a hilarious sequence, tries to get various jobs without any qualification simply on the basis that he is a man.


Ken's embrace of the patriarchy can be taken in at least two ways. The first is as a misunderstanding. Ken embraces the stereotypical elements of the so-called patriarchy because, in his mind, it is the only way for him to gain social recognition and respect. The problem for him, of course, is that it doesn't work because modern societies are merit-based. Male or not, he cannot get a job that he is unqualified for. So, that he fails can be taken as an indication that the real world is not so simplistically patriarchal. The second, however, is that Ken rightly understands that the world is patriarchal and adopts this strategy because it is how men artificially elevate their own status. The scenes at Mattel suggest that the writers conceive of the real world in this way. Either way, the most important point here is that Ken will not be humanized in this movie in any way compared to Stereotypical Barbie. In fact, every male in the Barbie movie is presented as simplistic, plastic facades rather than as real human beings. This disparity deeply undermines any claim that the movie is anti-feminist and is insulting. The implication is that women have a capacity for humanization and nuance that is evidently unavailable to men.


There is a lot that we could talk about from the second act of this movie, but I want to focus on two main points. First, the plastic and unreal presentation of the real world, especially at the Mattel corporation, completely undermines the apparent purpose behind the first act of the movie. Though hints of sublimity are there, ultimately, the real world is presented as the converse of Barbie Land, a world run by men for men's purposes. This is why Ken returns to Barbie Land to implement the patriarchy there. Second, with rant of Sasha (the daughter) to Stereotypical Barbie about the damage done by Barbie to women in the real world, the third-wave critique of second-wave feminism is introduced. Gloria and Sasha confront Stereotypical Barbie with real women or girls and their real angst in a post-Barbie world. Telling women to get a job and spurn the high calling of motherhood doesn't necessarily make them happy.


I take the third act of the Barbie movie to include the return to Barbie Land and its transformation into the Kendom. This part of the movie furthers the plastic representation of the real world through Ken's attempt to remake Barbie Land after the patriarchy. The men take control of positions of power and subjugate the women to roles that support them in those positions. The women become thoughtless shills, giving themselves for the pleasure of the men and admiring them for their showcases of masculinity. From the beginning, it is presented as a fragile form of power. When Stereotypical Barbie first confronts Ken, his defensiveness suggests that little push would be needed for the whole structure to come down. Barbie, after an initial bout of paralyzed despair, receives the help of Sasha, Gloria, and Weird Barbie.


This brings us to the famed America Ferrara speech. I remember watching this scene in theaters and hearing verbal agreement and applause. Certainly, the speech expresses something of the social frustrations involved with being a woman today. This speech has proven to be a fruitful source of discussion between my wife and me. She resonated not with everything in the speech, but she did with some of it. When she asked me what I thought, I just observed that being a man in society likewise has its frustrations. Both of us agreed as well that many of these frustrations, which result from contradictory social expectations, are alleviated by having a sturdy foundation in your worldview. We are Christians, so we base our actions and expectations off of Scripture. This enables us to ignore that in the culture which contradicts what we believe to be true. For someone with no grounding in an objective moral standard, however, the social expectations are probably many, confusing, and frustrating.


Above, I made the claim that none of the men in the Barbie movie are humanized in the way that women are. This speech is a prime example of this for two reasons. First, the speech is utilized for an ideological purpose. It results in the "wokeness" that can free women from their oppression by giving voice to it. This speech is not an expression of the unique struggles that women go through, with an impression that there are likewise unique struggles for men in society. Second, never are the struggles of being men in society elaborated upon. The male characters in this movie are of two kinds: vessels of the patriarchy or useless idiot (I'm thinking here of Gloria's husband). Meanwhile, down to the unlimited variety of Barbie dolls, the nuances and complexities of womanhood are given center stage and then used for the service of a feminist form of cultural Marxism.


This leads me to the main point about the third act: it reinforces the narrow and unrealistic constraints of a narrow ideology by claiming that the solution to patriarchy in its representation of the real world will fix the patriarchy in Barbie Land. That narrow ideology just happens to be third-wave, rather than second-wave, feminism. This is why I interpret the movie as a critique from third-wave feminists of second-wave feminism. The first act suggests, without the context of the remainder of the movie, that ideological thinking cannot adequately capture the complexities and hardships of human experience. What matters is common human experience, not class-based thinking. The second act undermines that initial impression by portraying the "real" world according to group-based distinctions between oppressed women and oppressor men. The third act reinforces that ideological lense by showing how giving voice to one's oppression can mobilize the oppressed class to overthrow its oppressors, as if, at this point, we're quoting directly from The Communist Manifesto. There is almost nothing interesting or provocative at this point about the movie's plot. It's regressed to preaching to the crowd that already agrees with its ideology.


The end result is a power fantasy: women in power and men in subjugation. Then Ken dolls even request higher positions of power and are denied it. Under a feminist schema, the relationship between men and women is seen as necessarily oppositional. Because of this, there is no conception of a society in which men and women cooperatively work together to build a functional society (perhaps because such a society would require the primary institution in which they cooperate fruitfully: marriage and the family).


There is much more that could be said, but I hope that by now I've shown why I made the claim above that the various elements of the Barbie movie utterly fail to come together as a coherent whole. In spite of its initial promise in undermining the notion of ideological thinking, it ends up assuming that lens and creating a plastic and unrealistic representation of the real world. It fails to be funny because its presentation of the world is built on false premises. The end result is a confusing mess of overly-produced set pieces and musical numbers so postmodern that its hard to tell what the message is supposed to be. I'm not sure Greta Gerwig knows what she was going for. Whatever it is, however, it is not real. And because it's not real, it's not interesting, thought-provoking, or entertaining in the end.


Conclusion


Why write such a long review of the Barbie movie? Why care, as detractors may say, about a movie about dolls for little girls? It's a good question. How did a licensed movie about dolls generate so much discussion and controversy?


My answer is twofold. First, I want to help Christians make sense of this movie and its impact on the culture. The applause in the theater told me that many moviegoers had aligned themselves with its worldview. Many thought that the real world as presented in the movie was reflective of the real world. Good satire must reveal that which is absurd in reality. Though I, and others, think that Barbie is terrible satire, many thought that it was a brilliantly funny critique of the oppressive patriarchal society in which we find ourselves. Both for their own sake spiritually and for the sake of their ministry, Christians need to be informed about worldview and its representation in popular culture.


Second, I want to communicate a Christian take on and interpretation of this movie. There are many things I said, but there are also many things that I did not say. There are many parts of the movie that I did not discuss for the sake of space. My hope is that I've said enough to communicate something of a Christian stance on feminism itself. I haven't said everything I could say (for more on the ideology undergirding feminism, see my page on Critical Theory), but I've sought to interpret the movie's message and show how we can affirm some of the observations of feminism while not adopting its core tenants. Undoubtedly, some Christians will disagree with my take. They will say that I'm too hard on feminism or that I don't care enough about the plight of women in society. These are important discussions for us to have, so I'm up for having them in a spirit of humility and Christian love.


That's it for this post! If you enjoyed reading it, please like it and share it on social media for others to see it. Also, consider subscribing so that you can be notified of upcoming posts as they appear. Finally, if you'd like to join the conversation, you can comment below or reach I it to me via Facebook or email. Thank you for reading!

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