Monday, August 21, 2023

The Barbie Movie: Existential Crises and Patriarchy

I don’t post very often about the movies. Honestly, I’m not a big moviegoer - I prefer live theater. But there are exceptions. My brother and I go with our kids to every Minion movie (and wear our shirts), and when something particularly interesting comes out, I will either go see it or stream it later. 


This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate movies. I have always loved Hitchcock, for example, and I love soundtracks and cinematography techniques. I just don’t go to a theater that often. 


Even more rare is when I see a movie I decide warrants a blog post. This blog is mostly about books. There are exceptions, however. (I’ll list my other movie posts at the bottom.) 

 Hey, always remember to bring your day-glo roller blades...



There are three reasons I went to see the Barbie movie. 


First, my three older kids went to see it with friends, and strongly recommended I watch it. That by itself is enough. I make an effort to read stuff they like too, as regular readers of this blog will note. I think an important part of maintaining connections with children as they grow to adulthood is to share experiences and ideas. It is all too easy to expect that the fairly one-way cultural exchange small children have with their parents will continue. It won’t. It has to become two-way or it will wither. Also, my kids have fascinating taste, and I have never regretted taking their suggestions. 


Second, after the movie came out, all of the theobros got their panties in a wad over it. And when the worst, nastiest, most bigoted people hate something, well, that’s a recommendation. The fragile men-children of Christian Patriarchy can’t handle anything that challenges their delusional view of their own natural superiority. Certainly this movie did. 


Third, a number of friends who read this blog kept pushing me to write about the movie. I guess I have to keep my public happy, right? 




I will say, I had a good time watching it. While I’m sure kids will find things to like, the movie is so full of Easter Eggs for the grownups that one has to assume that people of my age are the intended audience. And there are some definite double entendres that went over the head of my youngest. 


It seems pointless to rehash the plot. If you haven’t seen it, go ahead and go see it, probably before reading further, because I cannot avoid spoilers. If you have seen it already, then you have no need of a plot summary. 


I also must note at the outset that I certainly missed a lot of references in this movie. For two reasons. First of all, I am a cis-het male, raised in the 1980s. I didn’t play with Barbies, so my knowledge of them is primarily from the ubiquitous advertising. Second, our family didn’t really do Barbies. Or really even dolls that much. (The child who played with them the most was my brother - but we called those G. I. Joe action figures rather than dolls.) In fact, we just naturally gravitated toward stuffed animals. My kids have done the same. And also to stuffed vegetables and fruits, and even stuffed STIs. So, in brief, Barbies were never a big part of my life experience. 


On the other hand, there are a LOT of other cultural references in the movie that my wife and I did get. And which I had to explain to the younger generation. 


It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point that the Barbie movie is about feminism and patriarchy. It isn’t a subtle movie - it isn’t intended to be. Things are over-the-top in the same way that Barbie stuff is aggressively pink and plastic. It’s satire at the level of farce. And that’s not a bad thing. It can be quite effective to use a bit of exaggeration in parody to make a point. 


And yes, there are definitely some preachy moments. I’ll mention a few. 


What the movie also has, though, is a well-thought-out plot, effective characters, and an entertaining execution. 


Here are some of my more or less random thoughts about themes and scenes from the movie. 


First of all, Ken is a (mostly) sympathetic character. He has a real point that he is essentially an accessory - not much different from Barbie’s car or dream house. She doesn’t even know where he spends the night. 


There are some zinger lines in the movie about this. 


“Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”


“Yeah, because actually my job, it’s just Beach.”


And the poor guy can’t even get Barbie to himself on occasion: every night is “girl night.” 


“I don’t have anything big planned. Just a giant blowout party with all the Barbies, and planned choreography, and a bespoke song. You should stop by.”


The concept, of course, is an inversion of the objectification of women. Ken has been objectified - he is pretty arm candy for Barbie, but never taken seriously. Just like women are treated by far too many men, even now. 


The thing is, what Ken really wants is to be important to Barbie. To be valuable for who he is, not his relation to her. Which, honestly, is what all decent men really want. (Not necessarily to be important to a partner, male or female, but to be valued.) 


And of course, this too is what women want. It is pretty close to a universal human longing and desire. 


Ken, however, like males in most societies past and present, end up taking a highly dysfunctional approach to meeting his emotional needs. 


I think Weird Barbie is correct that Ken and the rest of Barbie World lacks immunity to Patriarchy, and that is why Ken goes totally gaga over the idea. He sees only the advantages (and a perceived cure for his own deprivation back in Barbie World), but none of the disadvantages. Those show up later in the hilarious “war” scene. In a world based on status and hierarchy, no one is truly safe. 


And this leads into what I thought was a genius use of a metaphor. 


When Ken embraces Patriarchy, he chooses as its symbol….wait for it…..HORSES. 


So, what might be going on here? It isn’t just an excuse to put Ken in increasingly ludicrous faux “Western” outfits - although that is a bonus. 


I think director Greta Gerwig is doing something wickedly smart with this. Horses are a symbol of the American West, of course, and thus John Wayne and masculinity and individualism and all that. But come on, horses are at most gender neutral now, right? Or something tween girls love? 


So, what is the horse a metaphor for? 


What does Ken say? “Horses are just extensions of men.” 




What ELSE might we say function as “man extenders” in our society? 


Might it be, well, something else associated with John Wayne and masculinity and individualism and power? 




Guns don’t exist in Barbie World, of course - which is why beach balls and tennis racquets have to serve as weapons in the great macho war. Horses do. But what about in the real world? 


Just something to think about. 


After the Patriarchy self-destructs, Ken kind of comes to himself. I thought it was hilarious how he said the weasel words, though.


"When I found out the patriarchy wasn't about horses, I lost interest anyway."


Sure, Ken, sure you did. 


And hey, let’s talk about the Ken songs a bit too! 


The choice of Matchbox Twenty’s hit song, “Push,” was pretty spot on. One of those songs with problematic lyrics, even if they weren’t written with that intent, as Rob Thomas has explained previously. I think the lyrics do perfectly illustrate the connection of Patriarchy to domestic violence - something I have blogged about extensively over the years


Rob Thomas, by the way, loved the use of the song in the movie


[Also related: after a three-year Covid related delay, a couple of the kids and I got to see Matchbox Twenty in concert - they rocked it damn hard for a bunch of old guys.] 


One final thing about this song. As a musician (my main instrument is violin, but I also play viola, mandolin, guitar, bass, and drums), I was, of course, watching the guitar playing. To my surprise, Ryan Gosling was actually playing the right chords! The other Kens, though, looked like they had never picked up a guitar in their lives. 


Moving on to the other Ken song - which Gosling sings. (He was a Mouseketeer back in the day.) It is actually pretty funny and quotable. Here are the lyrics:


Doesn’t seem to matter what I do
I’m always number two
No one knows how hard I tried, oh-oh, I
I have feelings that I can’t explain
They’re drivin’ me insane
All my life been so polite
But I’ll sleep alone tonight

‘Cause I’m just Ken
Anywhere else I’d be a ten
Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde fragility?
I’m just Ken
Where I see love, she sees a friend
What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan and fight for me?

[Verse 2]
I wanna know what’s there to know
To feel the real thing
Is it a crime if I’m hot when I’m in my feelings?
And is my goal finally here or am I dreaming?
I’m no dreamer

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Can you feel the Ken-energy?
Feels so real, I guarantee
Can you feel the Ken-energy?
Feels so real, I guarantee

I’m just Ken
Anywhere else I’d be a ten
Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde fragility?
I’m just Ken
Where I see love, she sees a friend
What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan and fight for me?

I’m just Ken (And I’m enough)
And I’m great at doing stuff
So, hey, check me out, yeah, I’m just Ken
My name’s Ken (And so am I)
Put that manly hand in mine
So, hey, world, check me out, yeah, I’m just Ken
Baby, I’m just Ken
(Nobody else, nobody else)               


“A life of blond fragility.” “What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan?” 


That’s gold right there. But it only works because Gosling sells it. It seems sincere from him, even as the unintentional comedy factor of the entire scene is off the charts. 


But also, this really does sum up the Ken problem, doesn’t it? And the fragility that drives his descent into douchebaggery. 


Before I move on from Ken, I also wanted to point out the brilliance of the casting. Gosling is the Kennest possible Ken. He Kens so hard, he, if this is even possible, out-Kens Ken. He is the UberKen. And those outfits. Man, it must have been a real gas wearing those out in public. 


Gosling, after his appearance at CinemaCon 2023 in April:


“I have to be honest: I only knew Ken from afar before now. I didn’t know Ken from within. I doubted my Kenergy,” he said. “I didn’t see it, but Margot and Greta conjured this out of me somehow. One day I was bleaching my hair, shaving my legs and wearing bespoke pink outfits, and rollerblading down Venice Beach.”


That’s….so Ken. 

[Update: I totally forgot to mention Ken's Mojo Dojo Casa House - the repurposed Barbie Dream House. It is even MORE tacky than the original. And also, the name is like the ill-advised Taco Bell ad campaign, "Grilled Carne Asada Steak.]

I’ve sure talked a lot about Ken, particularly since this is a Barbie movie, right? Well, I think the reason why is that the story is as much about Ken as it is about Barbie, even though she gets screen time. And perhaps because she is the straight woman to Ken’s comedy. 


But let’s talk about Barbie as well. Perhaps we should call her Stereotypical Barbie. Her story fits a conventional arc: her happy static life is interrupted by unexpected problems, which she finds will require her to go on a quest to fix. In order to do so, she comes in contact with her creator/father figure, has a series of epiphanies, and in the end returns home changed and able to bestow boons on her friends. And then leaves again, though, kind of breaking the Joseph Campbell pattern


The specifics are interesting, of course. She discovers that the Real World isn’t at all like she imagined it. (We all experience that, right?) 


To her horror, she finds that she has gone from feminist icon to scapegoat for everything from body image to commercialism. This is an interesting and very real twist. In 1959, Barbie felt new and bold and….dare we say “progressive”? Her own house and career and car and all that! In an era when women in most states couldn’t even obtain a mortgage or a credit card without their husbands’ signatures, this was heady stuff. 


Fast forward 60 years, and the high heels and big breasts seem somehow retrograde, and the freedom of ownership crassly commercial. Oh well, the passage of time is a harsh mistress. 


I imagine that a lot of Second Wave feminists had a similar bit of whiplash. And, like Barbie, many of us find the lack of progress toward full social, political, and economic equality for women to be discouraging. (Even more so, the retrogression from the Supreme Court and the Republican Party. And our parents.) 


And then, to find that one’s trip to fix things has ended in a disaster, because all that was really accomplished was Ken discovering patriarchy. 


Hence a superb line, when Gloria and Sasha catch up with her at Weird Barbie’s house, and find her face down. 


“She’s not dead, she’s just having an existential crisis.”


I could have used that line so many times when I had toddlers! I’ll have to keep it in mind in case I ever need it, though. 


This existential crisis is the core event of the book, though, right? Gloria’s existential crisis triggers Barbie’s deterioration, and eventually Ken’s devolution, and the need for all the stuff to be fixed. Keep that thought in mind though - there’s another line later about it. 


It is at the height of this meltdown, when Weird Barbie admits she can’t figure out how to deprogram the Barbies, who all seem to be happy with their new subservient roles as accessories to the Kens, that Gloria finally snaps, and unleashes a furious dramatic monologue. 


[Note here: the Barbies parrot an only slightly exaggerated version of what I have heard from all too many women in the Christian Patriarchy movement: that it is a relief to them to not have to make their own decisions. Basically, they embrace being children - never having to fully take responsibility for their own lives or choices. And yes, this is very much a sore point with me from my experiences with my own family and in the cult I was in. A lot of women need to grow the fuck up already, and act like adults.] 


Before I quote the monologue, I want to talk about it a bit. I haven’t really seen a movie with anything quite like it before. I mean, you cannot count the Kenneth Branaugh version of Henry V - that’s just a filming of play, not a movie designed from the ground up. 


But really, the dramatic monologue is exactly the sort of thing Shakespeare did. At some point - usually the climax of the tension, the lights dim, the spotlight comes on, everyone in the background pauses, and the main character starts talking philosophy. “To be or not to be? That is the question…” “Is this a dagger I see before me?” “All the world’s a stage…” “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle…” 


You get the idea. I think in this movie, while obviously it wasn’t in soaring iambic pentameter filled with metaphors, it was highly effective. It fit. 


Here is the entire monologue:


It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. 

You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass. 

You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. 

You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. 

You're supposed to love being a mother, but don't talk about your kids all the damn time. 

You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people.

You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining. 

You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.

You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don't even know.


Yeah. I agree. It is stupid and it sucks and it needs to change. And yes, this pretty much describes what my wife has been subjected to her entire life from certain people. The cult she survived (Jonathan Lindvall’s cult home church, Christian Patriarchy generally, the self-righteous and judgmental women in every single church group we have ever been part of, my parents and sister, people at her workplace, you get the idea…) Be this…but not too this. Women can never get it right, and are blamed for their failure to be perfect. 


I am so fucking sick and tired of this myself, and I am a white cis-het male! 


America Ferrera delivers this with a calm fury that is wonderful. I hear it resonated with a hell of a lot of women. Also, forget Barbie (no offense to Margot Robbie): Ferrera is a stone cold fox in this movie. (Sorry, I prefer sarcastic brunettes. I just do.) Again, just like the Ken song, it’s all about how well the monologue is sold. Ferrara sells it wonderfully. 


Another thing I want to mention in connection with this is that the list of requirements that Gloria lists are mostly enforced by women. I had a conversation online with some colleagues recently about the fact that it is true that women are held to impossible standards of beauty and clothing AND that most men don’t really notice or care. And YES, this is indeed patriarchy at work. 


How so? 


Let’s bring in something else in the movie to help explain. 


Not long after Ken-Dom is in the works, the Barbies (now deprogrammed), do the “womanly wiles” thing to get the Kens sure that their Barbies are flirting with other Kens. 


Unsurprisingly, this leads to a war. The most silly and ludicrous war of all time, of course - it really is hilarious, with the non-lethal weapons and the posturing. 


But this isn’t just humor: it’s reality. 


In a society built around hierarchy and power, attaining status is all-important. Nobody wants to be Alan, right? (“I’m a man without power. Does that make me a woman?”) So there is an endless fight, an endless competition for that power and status among the men. I hate that, although the “winners” would probably dismiss my dislike for the game as due to the fact that I am short and not conventionally attractive, so it is just sour grapes.


Now, let’s look at the female side of things. Again, because hierarchy is the game, jostling for position is all-important. So women weaponize the performance of “femininity” to gain status for themselves. After all, there is money and power and the thrill of looking down on others to be gained from kicking the other sisters in the teeth. 


Patriarchy hurts everyone in the long term, and even in the short term. But it does hurt some people more than others. So the goal is to make sure someone else is the one hurt the most, not you. 


At this point, I would like to circle back to another idea that I mentioned earlier, and tie things together a bit more. 


This whole drama is triggered by an existential crisis. Barbie finds herself thinking about death. Which is weird, because Barbies don’t age or die. (Although if loved a bit too harshly, they might turn into Weird Barbie.) As Ruth (the inventor of Barbie) puts it:


“Humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever.”


We humans made the terrible mistake (philosophically speaking) of becoming sentient enough to realize that death is our destination. We will all die someday. And that is terrifying - an existential crisis of the most profound sort. So we do things to distract ourselves from that reality. 


As John Gray puts it, humans chase power so they can feel that they are escaping death. The movie puts it a bit differently, but the idea is the same. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was to the effect that because being human is hard, they make up things like Barbie and Patriarchy to cope. 


Barbie is an illusion - but a more socially beneficial illusion - that we can be whatever we want to be. It isn’t entirely true, but aspiration is a better way to live than apathy. 


Patriarchy is an illusion as well: the illusion that power and status will allow us to escape death. Which it won’t. And it causes suffering along the way. 


That fear of death is the one existential crisis, but I think Barbie experiences another as well: fear of change. Gloria points out that life is change. It’s ALL change. Barbie finds that terrifying at first. Later, of course (spoiler), she chooses to accept change and the inevitability of death in order to become human. 


I think I have come to the end of the major themes I wanted to discuss, but I still have a number of notes that I would like to talk about a bit, even if they don’t specifically fit with where I have gone. I’ll just handle them in a random order. 


First, hey, did anyone else enjoy the opening scene? The re-creation of 2001: A Space Odyssey? That was hilarious and brilliant and wonderful. 


But there’s more! Any classical music nerd will know the music for that scene: the opening of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Based loosely on Nietszche’s philosophical work of the same name, it is likewise dense and occasionally incomprehensible - and totally over-the-top. I mean, that first bit is a sunrise for god’s sake! And it sounds like the apocalypse. It’s wonderful. 


But if you listen carefully, that music is subtly worked into the score as a kind of leitmotif undergirding many of the scenes. Ken’s unfortunate awakening to Patriarchy in the Real World is the most obvious one, but it is hidden throughout. Talk about a cool Easter egg. 


Another thing that was straight-up hilarious was the running joke about Barbie’s feet. Which are shaped to fit high heels and only high heels. So when her feet become…normal, she knows something has gone wrong. But she also realizes:


“I would never wear heels if my feet were shaped like this.”


Yeah, me either, Barbie. 


Or the scene where Ken hurts himself trying to surf a plastic wave, and is then smack talked by the other Kens. Such horrible and hilarious double entendres ensue. 


“If I wasn’t severely injured, I would beach you off right now, Ken. But you don’t even know how to beach yourself off.”

“How are you going to beach both of us off? It doesn’t make sense. You can’t even beach yourself off! You’re going to beach both of us off?!”


“Come on, Kens. Nobody’s going to beach anyone off.” 


And of course there are the references to the fact that Barbies have no genitals. (Admit it: you joked about that as a kid too…) Weird Barbie:


“I’d like to see what kind of nude blob he’s packing under those jeans.” 


And a few random zingers. Ken, after he reads up on Patriarchy and finds he can’t just waltz in and demand his privilege:


“You guys are not doing patriarchy very well.” 


Or Sasha, middle school cynic:


“Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on.”


And also Sasha, after Stereotypical Barbie unthinkingly takes credit for what Gloria just said:


“Hell yes, White Savior Barbie!”  


Well, there you go: my thoughts on the Barbie movie. 




The (very short) list of other movie posts:


Encanto and the Foundation of a Family

Pixar’s Inside Out and the Importance of Sadness

Fear and Love: The Unexpected Message of Disney’s Frozen

Band of Brothers

Hidden Figures

The Barchester Chronicles


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