Religion & Liberty Online

Barbie Is a Movie for Our Time. This Is a Bad Thing.

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The War of the Sexes is over. Guess who won? Nobody.

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When I was a college boy, one of my history professors argued persuasively, if self-interestedly, that pink was the medieval European color of manliness—it was the color of living flesh, of manly health. And I certainly admire the pinks one sees in Renaissance paintings. But I’ve never been able to see the good of it in our lives. When a man puts on a suit, it had better be dark blue. Maybe a light pink shirt would go well with summer linens, to remind ladies that we are at leisure. But men in pink is decadence, and today we call that decadence Barbie.

For my part, I prefer to go the way of men and see Oppenheimer, the historical drama (including the damned commies), and nuclear explosions. It’s great—go see it as often as you can, especially in IMAX. I think if you do it once a week throughout its run, it’ll change your life. Best thing you can do this summer. It’s a big hit, too. But nothing compared to Barbie, which debuted to around $400 million globally. I didn’t see such success coming, because I avoid the vast gossipy majority of social media—Instagram, especially. It’s too late to stop it now; it’s an astonishing cultural phenomenon because it’s mothers and daughters at the movies, in pink. It’s the consequence of a decade of Taylor Swift success. Men should be ashamed of themselves. Nothing less than America—the great modern republic of the ordinary life in which it is possible for us to have self-respect—is on the line.

I did not want to see Barbie, and I want you not to see it. If you have seen it, do penance (again, see Oppenheimer). I had to do it because I have to write about it, but only an exaggerated concern for the dignity of American men could finally persuade me. I am ashamed. Women in pink used to be something delightful and frivolous, like Fred Astaire dancing with the young Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s musical Funny Face. But come to think of it, maybe that’s where the problem started, with “Think Pink!”—too much advertising, too much temptation.

Barbie’s writer-director is Greta Gerwig, who once had something to do with good movies, and was lovely in Whit Stillman’s hilarious college campus comedy Damsels in Distress. Gerwig recently remade Little Women, perhaps because she hates Louisa May Alcott. Instead, watch George Cukor’s 1933 adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, a fine Christmas movie. Next, Gerwig has written the screenplay for a new Snow White for Disney, which already looks like a hilarious catastrophe. She wrote Barbie with her partner (not husband) Noah Baumbach, who was previously known as an indie artist, not an Instagram influencer. But things have changed.

Oppenheimer and Barbie resurrected the double feature event through sheer social media amusement at the self-importance of men and infatuation with the self-importance of women. These are our summer blockbusters, alongside Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible 7. Hopefully, theaters will survive. But it’s a horrible price to pay. Indeed, Barbie’s big box office success has forced people to fight online over whether it’s feminist/woke or secretly moderate, open to men’s dreams of manliness. Elon Musk’s Twitter (or, excuse me, X) is the last refuge of men in modern American public life. Now, Barbie’s trending. This is like one of the particularly gloomy scenes of impending onslaught in Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. We know that even if we prevail over the infantilization and feminization of the culture, we won’t all survive. Love and pity mingle in our souls.

Now the plot of Barbie is a thinly disguised version of the anti-erotic utopia we inhabit. Women run all the institutions, the men can do nothing but hit the gym or the beach. Barbie herself is played by Margot Robbie, who reminds me of how lovely the young Anne Hathaway was, really America’s sweetheart, the last one. Barbie lives in Barbieland, that is, Instagram. She is a lovely but loveless hen in a loveless henhouse. Suddenly, in the midst of her paradise, she comes to fear death and loses her superpower. She gets cellulite. This is known as “hitting the wall” on Twitter. Women age and then realize, shocked, that they’re mortal.

So Barbie goes off on a quest to find herself in the real world, with the lovelorn Ken in tow. It turns out that her mission is to bring a mother and daughter together in the hard world of 2023, where women are remarkably unhappy. Men run corporations and ogle women here; remnants of the patriarchy invariably cause problems that could be solved if people got in touch with themselves instead of being possessive, aggressive, and insecure. Barbie has an inner life; Ken doesn’t. It’s like the garden of Eden again, where the foolish Adam is tricked by the rather shrewder Eve. The Barbie theology is indeed serpent-like: it makes new gods in the world of advertising and social media.

Ken, by the way, is played by Ryan Gosling, whose career is defined by failing women in every possible way. In Blue Valentine (2010), his wife divorces him because he loves her and her daughter too much. It’s a fine picture, but depressive. In Nicolas Refn’s Drive (2011), he plays a heroic figure who saves a woman and her child but fails to save her husband and dies himself. In Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), he loses the love of his life because she prefers her career, with which he helps her. In Shane Black’s wonderful comedy The Nice Guys (2016), he feels guilty for failing to save his wife from an accidental death and is a drunkard bad father to a teenage daughter rather wiser and more of a grownup than him. In Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he thinks he might be the protagonist, but he’s actually supposed to serve a woman. I think he dies in that one, too. Only in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (2017) does he achieve, I think, lasting love, after of course being humiliated by his beloved’s infidelity. I guess directors take one look at this “knight of the mournful countenance” and just know he’s perfect for our times.

Ken lives up to this reputation. He’s a nonentity who thinks he could amount to something if Barbie only loved him. It goes without saying: Barbie doesn’t, can’t, and won’t love him. Loneliness is destiny. In a moment of revolt, Ken restores the patriarchy, presumably a reference to Twitter and the despised parts of the internet where men congregate only to be called incels. Ken’s reign is short-lived because he’s stupid. Barbie undoes him by playing up the naturally competitive side of manliness, undoing the cooperating side. Then Barbie liberates him so he can find himself, too; the women give men equality, and the men submit to it!

So we get something like divine providence. First, girls are shown smashing baby dolls, since they’ll no longer define themselves as mothers. Then a girl is shown rejecting Barbie, instigating the plot, a new rebellion that leads women to reject defining themselves as wives or lovers. Again, this is just the society we live in, in which most of the young are unmarried, unloved, alone. It’s just a little more depressive in pink. The astonishing thing about Barbie is that in abstracting from erotic demands, it does embrace death and mortality. Barbie wants to be a real woman and go to the gynecologist. I guess in the sequel you can look forward to Abortion Barbie.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.