As a 90s child I played an instant classic computer game, Codemasters’ “Micro Machines”, a cute multiplayer tabletop racing game. It was an unusually tricky racing game in that the visual field from above is quite small / blinkering, leading to stop-start racing, because if someone’s dinky car drops off the back of the screen and yours reaches the front of the screen you win a point and a restart; you can also drive straight off the tabletop or hit any number of late-seen obstacles, for frustrating yet hilarious effect. As there were so many ways to crap out, each individual race rarely lasted longer than a few seconds.
Anyway, why am I talking about Micro Machines? Well, because watching Barbie felt like watching an improbably unbroken circuit of a Micro Machines race, never knowing what is just ahead. There were so many times when I felt Team Barbie had no right to make that bend, but goddamn, they did. Somehow the show manages to stay on the tabletop the whole time. Belief is suspended and merriment maintained.
Barbie is a movie that takes its dramatic and comedic risks (chief of many is an ending that could have been written by Germaine Greer), and that’s fun to see when so many movies are repetitions of previously successful formulae. Micro Machines is colourful and poppy like this movie, and both have cars that can somehow jump vertically.
Political, Often in Unexpected Ways
Politically the brand of feminism in the movie is not very radical, it felt a bit like consumer feminism. Luna Dolezal helpfully explains the term: “Feminist emancipation has, in recent years, been equated with having the ‘freedom’ to acquire certain goods and the ‘choice’ to engage in certain cultural and commercial practices” (Luna Dolezal). The movie was presaged by adverts for make-up, hair-curlers and such, and whilst the movie talks a lot about Barbie culture’s sexualisation and promotion of unrealistic beauty standards, it does so merely to acknowledge the perspective that Barbie dolls are harmful, rather than to reject them. It felt very different from my experience this prior weekend of visiting an anarchist commune where they were printmaking signs suggesting women should not buy clothes unless they had pockets, where I was accompanied by my “radfem” friend who was wearing a khaki boiler suit. People have talked about director Gerwig having “sold out”, although no one has been very clear about what pre-held political principles she put a price on. The movie is no volte-face, but rather a continuation of a conservative oeuvre with an upgraded budget. We see in the movie some banter about the makeup of the US supreme court, the implication of the movie is that having half women justices is equality, but it never ventures into the progressive territory of wondering whether the entire structure of the justice system should be reconstructed to fit a more woman-inclusive vision and indeed restructured around a version of ethics that incorporates women’s views.
Ken’s story arc was interesting and spoke a lot to “incel” culture, in the movie Ken is a frustrated virgin whose life goal is to spend the night with Barbie. Throughout my lifetime, the phenomenon of involuntary celibacy increased a lot, something like a quarter of young American adults does not have sex in any given year (whilst incels are culturally seen as men, a significant proportion are women, with incel forums often moderated by “femcels”). The conversion of dating into an online marketplace seems to be responsible for this rise in loneliness. I realized that my guy friend was holding back his tears at the end, caused by — SPOILERS — Barbie giving Ken the “we’re just friends” chat; lots of us have been through that chat, and as my friend said to me it’s all the more affecting as Ken was quite literally made for Barbie — END OF SPOILERS. With Ken’s journey, the movie seems to link the rise of idiot conservatism / Tate-ism to romantic frustration and heartbreak. Absurd bro culture can just be an elaborate cover for people who have Anfortas wounds (in Grail lore Anfortas has a wound that doesn’t heal because no one is compassionate enough to recognize Anfortas’ pain). Someone close to me has had a decade of therapy to deal with unresolved feelings after he fell in love with one of his friends and she gave him the “we’re just friends” chat.
Some of the cultural content felt a little dated for my personal experience, in my time and place, one of the features of “Kendom” (hopefully not a new BDSM trend) is women getting their men beers. If anyone in my circle asked their wife or girlfriend to get them a beer they would get a bottle smashed over their head. The same act of the movie relates to patriarchal Kens wanting “long-term long-distance low-commitment casual” relationships, which I understand is a dating experience for women fishing in a very shallow pool, but also was jarring to me, all my heterosexual guy friends are into committed cohabiting relationships. It wasn’t clear to me whether America or one of the writers’ minds was stuck in the 90s. Where I live, if a construction worker on a site harasses a passer-by, it’s an instant dismissal, yet that was far from the case when I grew up in the 90s.
Funny and Eye-opening
There are just lots of funny moments, silly things like seeing Barbie learn how to drink in the human world, in the world of child’s play no fluid transfer happens at the tea party when Barbie drinks. There are other comic registers, “Beach off” memorably morphs into the masturbation phrase “beat you off”, some bawdy fun that appeals to the juvenile prankster in us all. Ken’s musical number is equally hilarious and strange.
I did spend a good portion of the film thinking, “So this is what the allistic people are up to”, what I mean by that is that as an autistic person I usually feel like I can only learn socially by listening to people talk about their way of living, and a lot of allistic baggage goes completely unspoken, even under pain of death. This film is simply much franker than most, oversharing or catharizing with abandon. Gloria’s “twin tightrope” monologue, about women’s double bind experience of their role expectations, has gone viral since release, it has a lot packed in, some of it revelatory to me. Some of her concerns were also absolutely the same as men’s concerns, an example of how dialogue can lead us to realize we all share a lot in common. For example, Gloria mentioned a preoccupation with body weight, this is actually a huge issue for both men and women, the struggle when overweight to get dates and fashionable clothes, the assumption of laziness and stupidity. In an activist sense, a problem shared is a problem halved? Gerwig talked about how the whole set was crying when the scene was being shot, “I was just sobbing, and then I looked around, and I realized everybody’s crying on the set. The men are crying too, because they have their own speech they feel they can’t ever give, you know? And they have their twin tightrope, which is also painful”. Some parts of the Gloria speech and the hypothetical man-version of the speech are going to be very overlapping.
One part of the speech that struck me was “You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean”. My own view on that one is we change the meaning of being a boss to not contain meanness. Feminism shouldn’t be about women struggling to adopt toxic masculinity.
A Watershed for Women
Returning to Anfortas, it’s clearly not just “the boys” who have such wounds. A fifty-something woman came up to my brother in the park this weekend and hectored him about how as a man he had enjoyed opportunities which she had not (the possibility of being an astronaut was mentioned) and how much pain that caused her. This was a spontaneous post-Barbie outburst from a stranger, which caused him some confusion having not seen the movie. I have also pointed out to him since that conversation that the first astronaut of any gender from our country (the UK), was actually a woman, who is now sixty years old (Helen Sharman). I think that exemplifies how inchoate some of the rage against the patriarchal machine has been, but for all it may be inchoate, the emotion is legitimate, and a woman in her fifties genuinely would have had less opportunities. Once airing of these Anfortas wounds begins dialogue, compassion, reconciliation and progress are more possible.
For all its helter-skelter near cringe and inability to satisfy a radical agenda, it’s possible to see Barbie as a populist watershed movie for women in much the same way as Ang Lee’s (very different!) Brokeback Mountain was for the gay community. Certainly, this summer has seen a return to the times of old when movies inhabited the public consciousness, frankly, I was tickled pink to see a movie lobby heaving on a Monday night.