“It’s Literally Impossible to be a Woman”
The basic idea of Barbie is that Mattel wants more money. Wait, that’s the raison d’être. The basic idea of Barbie is that the unexamined life is not worth living. Or maybe it’s that Barbie is a useful conceit for the perpetual man/woman question. Or maybe it’s that whenever anyone imagines a fem-topia, everything is pink, and maintained by cheerful female maintenance crews. Or maybe it’s that Greta Gerwig still wants people to read Proust. Or maybe it’s a study of which direction mimesis travels. Or maybe it’s that feminism didn’t fail women, women have failed feminism. Really, it could be a lot of things, so we’ll just have to do our best.
Barbie analogizes Ken in Barbie Land to Everywoman in reality. He is not the main attraction and the world is not built for him; therefore, he lacks definition, purpose, and security. Tracking this setup can become demanding. Barbie and Ken must travel from Barbie Land to the real world to correct problems that typically arise between Artificer and Artificed. Throughout this quest, the viewer is translating Ken back into Everywoman and checking the analogy for holes. The viewer is also laughing a lot; appreciating the costumes, sets, and songwriting; and being surprised at the weight of the rhetoric. Barbie is almost as much work as Tenet.
However, Barbie can easily function as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged do for the freshman conservative. Adherents of popular feminism get pretty pictures, Easter eggs hidden in plain sight, and humiliated villains. America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, unites faithful characters and viewers in a protracted, oafish tirade, which lays out the flummoxing directions under which women live (be pretty but not too pretty; succeed and speak up but don’t be pushy; have kids but don’t talk about them; have a career but take care of people, etc.). Her thesis is, “It’s literally impossible to be a woman.”
How a theater full of literal women could receive this as their creed and battle cry is a healthy question. But Barbie is not just asking questions, it’s begging them. Gloria proposes Ordinary Barbie as a solution for women feeling that they can’t win, but that requires us to know what ordinary means. The idea appears simple. The historical Barbie, critics argue, is so gorgeous and accomplished that she discourages girls. An Ordinary Barbie would let girls know they are fine as they are.
But would it? In reality, many ordinary goods are exactly the problem. Praise any achievement or attribute that not all women have (good grades, clean living quarters, a friendly demeanor, straight teeth), and a noisy subset of women will condemn this praise precisely because not all women have a claim on it. Their howling is simply the obverse of Gloria’s tirade.
Barbie learns that telling girls they could be astronauts who rock a bikini made some girls feel bad. The new method is to tell every girl in a bikini that she looks great, and every girl who enrolled in Chemistry that she’s smart, and so are all the girls who didn’t enroll in Chemistry. The solution to hurt female feelings is to change desirable traits from absolute, intrinsic qualities to forensic ones. For beauty to be granted by nature, cultivated by discipline and recognized by observers is mean and not fair. Plus, beauty can be sort of complicated and in the eye of the beholder and or something? We can clean up that complexity by handing judgments on beauty over to the beheld, who are now licensed to declare it by fiat. Everyone who wants to be beautiful can inform us that she is.
Some people—bad people—might wonder if this kind of beauty has all the meaning of a seat on the Supreme Court in Barbie Land. But the worst of Barbie is what it quietly fills in to answer the question of what is ordinary. We must all profess that the doctor with long red hair is as beautiful as any Barbie, even those competing several divisions below Margot Robbie. Although it’s nice to see motherhood beautifully depicted and openly praised, treating motherhood as a lifestyle choice makes a child into a Barbie accessory. Barbie’s exclusion of marriage and fathers from its approval of child acquisition makes any intended tribute to motherhood into a travesty. And although there are some relatable frustrations in Gloria’s litany of grievances, the action item is to applaud and parrot the tirade for any women who aren’t as aggrieved as they could be. Women, do you feel down sometimes? You need to understand that you’re actually hopeless!
But we’ve all been smelling these ideas for a while. Barbie does not introduce new departures from good and reasonable thought, it simply gives audiences the fun of reviewing and ratifying them. The wide acclaim for Barbie reveals that the public is thoroughly catechized, and enjoys the occasional buddy check or pep rally. It’s fun to see one’s beloved dogma all dolled up and slaying.
It’s also important for unbelievers to understand this dogma as it is really held and practiced. Barbie Land looks nothing like the alt-world we would expect from the architectural firms of Millet, Butler & Firestone, or Chu, Lewis & Srinivasan. Instead, it imagines that what women would really love is living someplace where they always look great, are surrounded by happy friends, fill their days with shindiggery, and don’t have to worry about hard stuff. Feminism proper struggles to reconcile itself with the expressed preferences of normal women, many of whom would love a long trip to Barbie Land.
Likewise, when the Kens take over Barbie Land, their version of a perfect world includes a lot of nonsense. More confoundingly, the Barbies are fine with it and adapt to Ken rule with perfect feminine agreeableness. Kenworld without end is only interrupted because a few angry zealots infect the Barbies with discontentment and suspicion. Now remember that Ken is Everywoman, untangle that analogy and draw your own conclusions. Either the feminist schema has some structural flaws, or Greta Gerwig thinks it might, or both.
Barbie has problems, and some of them are doozies. But we’re being ridiculous if we can’t also recognize that the movie is very funny, and that fun gets poked hard at both Barbies and Kens. G. K. Chesterton, in Alarms and Discursions, writes:
[There] are the two eternal jokes of mankind. Wherever those two jokes exist there is a little health and hope; wherever they are absent, pride and insanity are present. [One] is the idea that the husband is afraid of the wife.
I have heard that there is a place under the knee which, when struck, should produce a sort of jump; and that if you do not jump, you are mad. I am sure that there are some such places in the soul. When the human spirit does not jump with joy at [this joke], the human spirit must be struck with incurable paralysis . . . . There is hope for the idle and the adulterous, for the men that desert their wives and the men that beat their wives. But there is no hope for men who do not boast that their wives bully them.
The people of God must stand in statu confessionis against the feminist heresy; anything that threatens souls isn’t funny. But God made us for each other. For relationships to function, good humor about our own susceptibility to sex-specific silliness is invaluable. When Barbie counsels Ken to figure himself out without reference to her, she’s just wrong. Radical individualism and self-identity is the way of misery for both men and women. We are all defined by being a son or daughter, and likely also brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother. This undertaking is a lot better as a comedy of errors than a star-crossed tragedy. If you can’t find anything to laugh at in Barbie, Oppenheimer is the comedy for you.
Finally, as a test panel for the current state of the female hivemind, Barbie is informative. Most women don’t think or live like lefty female journos on Twitter. They bring guys drinks, they like babies, they forget to vote. And more than once during Barbie, the ironic tint is such that a variety of subtexts are plausible. Barbie has had her awakening, but at this point in history, are we sure she isn’t also a bit red-pilled? Did Erica Jong write the last line, or Mary Harrington? Chicks, man. What are they ever really saying? What are they ever really thinking?
Image Credit: Unsplash