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It’s a Barbie world
I watched “Barbie” so you don’t have to.
My daughter turned 15 last week and the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday was to go see the Barbie movie with her gal pals. I wasn’t extremely excited about this, but being a reasonable and loving dad, my wife and I loaded up the truck and went to see the movie. The girls were all pinked out, and I even wore my salmon-colored shirt. I don’t own any pink.
I was aware of the controversy surrounding the movie before we went in. In fact, we almost didn’t see it because one girl’s mom objected. In the end, that girl couldn’t make it so suddenly “Barbie” was back on.
I was always skeptical about the conservative angst about “Barbie,” but I was prepared not to like the movie. Rather than being offended, I thought I’d be bored. I was wrong.
[Spoiler alert: I usually try not to include spoilers when I write about movies, but since this one has been out for a while, I’m going to go for it. If you don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading now.]
“Barbie” opens with a scene that is reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was laugh-out-loud funny if you got the joke, which few under 50 probably did. Less than five minutes into the movie, I realized that this wasn’t going to be what I expected, and that it was actually going to be a fun experience.
You may be familiar with the premise already. The Barbies (there are a multitude of them) live in Barbieland where almost every woman is named Barbie and women dominate everything from construction to the government. Most men are Kens whose job is “beach.” This doesn’t mean actually doing anything at the beach, just “beach.”
One day, Barbie’s perfect world is shattered when she begins to experience mysterious defects. In order to cure herself, she travels to the real world with Ken. While there, Ken learns that men are dominant in the real world and takes the idea of a patriarchy back to Barbieland.
This sets the stage for what right-wing pundits have complained about. In the process of defeating the Kens, one of the characters gives an I-can-bring-home-the-bacon-and-fry-it-up-in-the-pan speech about the cognitive dissonance of expectations for women. This is along the lines of the old complaint about women in business having to walk a fine line between being too soft and being thought of as a bitch for being too tough. Still, I didn’t find this monologue to be objectionable and much of it rang true.
This scene makes me think of Tim Scott acknowledging that racism is a problem while still being optimistic about the future of America. I didn’t see the monologue as trashing America as much as acknowledging some of our faults and the difficulties that women face. America is a great place for everyone, women included, but it’s not perfect and some men are pigs, as associates of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein can attest.
“Barbie’s” critics overlook some other points that undercut their argument. For example, while in the real world, Barbie is verbally attacked by a feminist tween who hates Barbie dolls and calls her a fascist and a proponent of consumerism. But by the end of the movie, the girl is wearing pink and has become an ally of the Barbies.
Additionally, Ken begins the movie as one-dimensional character who exists only to be noticed by Barbie. Ken loves Barbie, but Barbie doesn’t feel the same way. Ken is perpetually friend-zoned. The subtext of Ken’s plot to install the patriarchy is that he is acting out to get Barbie to notice him.
Although Ken never gets the girl, he is eventually empowered to become a more independent person. He becomes “Kenough” in his own right rather than existing only in terms of being the lesser half of “Barbie and Ken.”
Further, Ken’s adventures in the real world undercut the critical claims about the message of the movie regarding the real-world patriarchy. Despite being a man, Ken can’t find success there. A funny moment was when Ken demands to perform an operation in a hospital, but a woman refuses to let him. Ken demands to see a doctor, and the woman replies, “I am a doctor” before calling security.
At the end of the movie, the narrator says that maybe the Kens in Barbieland will one day have as much opportunity as women in the real world. That doesn’t sound like feminist propaganda to me. It sounds more like a tongue-in-cheek critique of the Barbieland universe. The movie itself admits that the matriarchy in Barbieland is more of a problem than the real-world patriarchy.
If you look at the movie as a whole, it skewers stereotypes on both sides while engaging in a series of jokes about Barbie toys and failed experiments from Mattel. In some ways, it reminds me of “The Lego Movie” with its toy-based alternative reality, but today’s gender issues make it more controversial.
I’m old enough to remember when it was the left that engaged in constant complaints about microaggressions and to a great extent they still do. For example, the furor over the Jason Aldean song over the past few weeks is misplaced. The song is problematic and not very good, but you also have look outside the song itself to see racism.
Increasingly, these days the right does the same thing. Although he’s not the only offender, I’m going to pick on Ben Shapiro here.
I used to be one of Shapiro’s avid listeners. When I first discovered Shapiro’s podcast, he was an objective conservative voice. Like so many others, Shapiro seemed to lose his way after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. He seemed to become afraid to criticize Trump and his show was transformed into an exercise in nut-picking in which he would find an obscure leftist who said something stupid and rant about it for 30 minutes while ignoring most of the major issues of the day, especially if they reflected poorly on Republicans.
Shapiro, the once logical and thoughtful commentator, became an internet sensation last week for engaging in a 43-minute diatribe against the Barbie movie in which he burned a Barbie doll while, internet users noted, being dressed a lot like Ken. I haven’t listened to Shapiro’s take, which is about a third of the length of the movie itself, but having now seen the movie, I can’t see that there’s that much to get fired up against unless you’re determined to be ticked off about it.
Unfortunately, many on the right have embraced the left’s culture of victimhood and perpetual indignation. This is illustrated by Shapiro’s decline from a thoughtful, intellectual conservative to just another purveyor of the Outrage Du Jour. These grifters have to find something to keep their followers angry about to keep them watching, clicking, and listening even when there’s nothing to angry about. Especially when there’s nothing to be angry about.
As Rudyard Kipling might have put it, “Snowflakes to the left of me! Snowflakes to the right! Into the valley of outrage rode the nation.”
For what it’s worth, the conservative backlash over “Barbie” undercuts the recent success of the Bud Light boycott. “Barbie” set a double-handful of records at the box office proving that the success of right-wing boycotts is more of a fluke than a guarantee. The same applies to boycotts from the left as well.
Having said that, there are a few objectionable parts to the movie. There were three instances in which the dialogue was inappropriate for children. In the first, Kens are arguing and threatening to “beach off” each other. This is a nonsensical term that can easily be mistaken for a sexual term. But the flip side is that the joke would probably go over the heads of young viewers.
Having adult jokes in kids’ shows is an old tradition. Those of us of older generations probably missed a lot of the inside jokes for parents in shows like the “Flintstones” and even old Looney Tunes cartoons.
A more serious example is when Barbie confronts cat-calling male construction workers in the real world, telling them that she doesn’t have a vagina. That’s a cringeworthy moment when I think about the little girls (or boys) in the audience who may not yet be familiar with that term and might have some questions for mom and dad as they leave the theater.
There was also a bleeped-out F-bomb from the president of Barbieland. I’m sure most kids have heard worse, both on shows at home that their parents watch as well as from watching unsupervised content on the internet, but can we agree that there is no place for F-bombs in children’s television and movies?
Finally, there was also the mention of recurring thoughts of death. This would probably also go over the heads of most children, but it might be disturbing to some.
For the most part though, “Barbie” is pretty tame. Despite the talk about the patriarchy, for which most of the criticisms don’t present the context (and some of the critics, like Ted Cruz, admit they haven’t even seen the movie), there’s less objectionable content in the 114-minute film than in the three minutes of Aqua’s 1997 hit, “Barbie Girl,” which presents Barbie as a sexual object with lyrics such as “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere” and “Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please.”
The Barbie movie is rated PG-13. That’s good guidance when the more adult material is considered. The problem is that younger kids will end up seeing it, especially when it becomes available on streaming and DVD (does anyone buy DVDs anymore?), but again, those same kids have probably seen and heard much worse already.
I have to admit that “Barbie” is a much better movie than I expected. Even though I’ve never been a fan of Barbie dolls (and my daughter was never even into them, having come of age in the “Frozen” era), I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. So did the girls. I’ll add that it provoked a lively discussion between my wife and the 15-year-olds on the drive home.
One last tip is don’t leave as soon as the credits roll. I got a kick out of seeing the canceled and rejected dolls and toys that were sprinkled throughout the movie. Quite a few of the bit players were dolls that you wouldn’t think could possibly be real, but it turns out that they were.
As it turns out, the real world can be stranger than Barbieland.
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