August 12, 2023
From Irish Marxism

Warner Bros. Pictures

In the early 1970s it seemed to me that a product suddenly hit the shelves that as a child I spent all my pocket money on – Birds Eye Supermousse.  It was light, airy, sweet and utterly insubstantial.  For some reason it reminded me of ‘Barbie’.  They were a big hit at the time, as I remember, and now they have disappeared.  I forgot what they were called and had to search for their name.

At the weekend I went to see the film with my wife.  It was my idea, if only to see what all the fuss was about.  I had read numerous reviews that were generally favourable and a number of people I talked to appeared to have liked it to some degree.

The first reviews described a film of many levels: the product of a capitalist toy corporation that portrayed its Executive Board as greedy and stupid, about a product that many young girls disliked.  It was knowing and self-referential, like opposing mirrors that reflect your reflection.  It painted an ideal world of many different kinds of Barbie–to cover all the politically correct types that girls might aspire to be–with men as the subordinate sex, in obvious opposition to the real patriarchal world of male dominance.

Everything was cartoonish and pink but the reviews seemed to promise a more cerebral level and I wanted to see whether it existed and what it had to say.  Was this a feminist film that would succeed in advancing the confidence of young women?  What place might it have in the so-called ‘culture wars’?  Was it in any sense a ‘progressive’ film?  How could a product-placement film be progressive, or was this another variety of the ability of capitalism to commodifying everything; like putting Che Guevara on a T-shirt and flogging millions of them?

Well, I’m tempted to say that it isn’t for me to judge.  As a man long past his youth I’m not exactly the target demographic. However, talking to my wife she didn’t think older women would think much of it, in fact she thought it was awful, although I’m not sure many younger women will feel the same.

In any case, however one’s appreciation may differ, there is something definite to be said about the qualities of a film.  The plot, in so far as it existed, involved a doll that discovers death and leaves the dreamlike feminist ‘Barbie land’ to venture to the real world to sort out her existential angst.  She returns to the phantasy land of Barbie and engages with its newly ensconced patriarchy, which leads without any obvious rationale to the climax of the film.  

After just five minutes I wondered how I would see it through.  The opening cartoon-like world was silly, with the upturned sexual division of labour delivered with the subtlety of a hammer hitting a nail.  Later, feminist speeches came out of characters’ mouths like sermons delivered in a gender studies lecture; in a more real life setting their stilted and incongruous character might have stood out even more than they did.  Perhaps, especially for some younger women, this might have seemed novel and rebellious, but that would reflect more on the audience than the film.

This was, after all, a film about a doll that has been criticised for influencing young women to adopt a stereotypical view of what a woman should ideally be, one that almost all cannot hope to satisfy.  In today’s more PC environment (in some countries), capitalism can sell you difference as well, so you can now identify with and purchase many sorts of Barbie, including the late British Queen.  The film, however, sells it ‘radical’ feminist message through ‘stereotypical Barbie’, who remains as blonde and beautiful at the end of the film as she does at the beginning.  The other Barbies are just so many props that mark the difference.

At the start of the film we get a preposterous Helen Mirren voiceover –“Since Barbie can be anything, so can women . . . Girls become women who can achieve anything they put their minds to. Thanks to Barbie all the problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.”  

Immediately we are invited to be sceptical of what we are about to see and hear, but to what end? And at the end?  What are we to think of a ‘feminist’ film that has its heroes achieve their aims through using their sexual appeal to men in order to set them in competition with each other and thereby achieve victory over them?  And what victory is this anyway – women on top?  On top of what?  All those dumb and doltish men?

In one speech a character states that it is: “literally impossible to be a woman. … 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 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’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 behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining…”

As issues facing women they don’t exactly stand out, unless you radically reframe them, but then the lightness of the film is hardly going to interrogate the perpetuation of the sexual division of labour, or could permit raw issues like abortion rights, domestic violence and rape to figure in it.

Of course, it is all supposed to be ironic, but because it is so confused it’s not clear what meaning is being subverted and by what other meaning.  Perhaps one reason why a number of reviews referred differently to its layers of meaning, including the idea that it is some sort of feminist statement, is that they went looking for some depth so they might see what they might like to see. 

A stereotypical Barbie Doll as a feminist hero is as strange as they come, but it has good company with the ideas of those for whom the rights of women can be asserted by men who simply claim that they are women themselves.  A film not so much of liberation as a faithful reflection of the poverty of the current politics of what is sometimes called woke capitalism.

As one reviewer put it in ‘The Irish Times’ (paywall), it is ‘a cosmically confused bore that seeks to moralise, but doesn’t know how’. . . [with] no real message and no understanding who its audience is.’   It is ‘a film so obsessed with being deemed acceptable by all groups at all times that it fails to do what it is supposed to: be good.’

Whatever serious message its creators think are contained within it, its delivery system didn’t work, while the message itself became a confused mess, especially at the end.  The film can’t overcome the shallowness of its origin which suits its cartoon character.  Not only did the plot fail to deliver, overwhelmed by its shallowness, but the most entertaining element was the male lead, who seemed to be the vehicle of what few jokes there were.  It would, however, have needed many more good ones to have made the film work in any significant way.