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Watching Barbie at the Dawn of the Apocalypse
This review contains no real spoilers, but it does contain some existential dread. Forewarned is forearmed.
Last weekend, I saw Barbie with my partner. We both wanted to see it, and to see it in a theatre. In that sense, we were like hundreds of millions of other people. Like any normal person, I got popcorn and a Coke and some candy. Like a less normal person, I watched the film and kept thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer, Sartre and Camus, and decades of feminist political and social philosophy.
By the time the movie was over, I’d reached a few conclusions. One, I shouldn’t have eaten the whole bag of popcorn. Two, Barbie is a brilliant, fun, funny, and sharp flick. It’s also an existential satire that captures common but profound woes and magnifies them in the way productions are meant to. It assesses decades upon decades of gender relations and hits the mark dead centre in its critiques. It both takes capitalism to task and thrives within its rules, more proof that the market weathers most attacks by subsuming and profiting from them.
I’d watch the movie again.
Heading into the theatre, we took a pause from a world facing an ongoing pandemic, a climate crisis, deadly wildfires, war, affordability crises, mass exploitation, growing extremism, democratic decline, and a handful of other intersecting challenges. For a little while, we traded those sites of grief for immersion in story about a doll that becomes existentially self-aware, channelling the pathologies of the real world, which then invade and disrupt the equilibrium of the doll world.
The disequilibrium offers a chance for the movie to present smooth summaries and cogent critiques of gendered pressures, imperatives, and expectations built into patriarchy. It also offers an analysis of identity creation and the social self-policing that attends social institutions that in turn limit self-expression and realization. In short, the movie calls these institutions out as limiting and oppressive, which they are. It also identifies them as being common across identities and gender, but inequitably so. Under patriarchy, everyone is policed — everybody and every body — but not to the same degree or effect. Women, for instance, face greater and worse realities under patriarchy. Barbie doesn’t dive so much into intersectional critiques inclusive or race, ability, and so forth, though. Patriarchy is shaped by gender, but it’s also shaped by race, class, ability, and, indeed, a plurality of genders. But maybe that’s to come in what’s sure to be the expanded Barbie universe.
The movie offers a light but direct class critique, sending up toy-maker Mattel and its absurd iterations of the doll, and lampooning corporate culture and the less-than-stellar (male) executives who comprise it. None of this has stopped Barbie for heading towards $1.3 to $1.6 billion in box-office revenue. The market and class critique of the film is within the boundaries of mainstream acceptable capitalist criticism. It poses no risk to returns, and in fact probably bolsters them for being lightly subversive. Studio executives, no doubt, banked on the idea that they could capture and exploit anger and resentment at capitalism without stirring up any serious resistance to class exploitation. It’s a good bet for them and it’s paying off. It usually does. The culture industry knows what it’s doing.
Barbie’s plot takes off with the words “Do you guys ever think about dying?” The film’s existential satire will land on target with anyone who’s ever spent time in a human body while enjoying the least bit of self-awareness. It’s hard to hide from the fact that you’re going to age and die. Even deep religious believers surely have their own moments, lying awake at night perhaps, where thoughts of “What….then?” or “What…if?” invade. I was a Catholic and a believer into my mid-20s. I still wondered “What…then” and “What…if?”
From flashes of existential self-awareness comes the spiralling questions about what this is all about, what it’s all worth, and whether any of it has any meaning. The film can’t resolve this issue because very little can. Maybe nothing can. There is no resolution, only coping. We fill our days with goals and dreams and jobs and philosophies and drugs of one sort or another in no small part because of this fact. That’s part of what makes an existential comedy satire about a doll so absurd and ironic — and funny.
With Barbie, director Greta Gerwig and the team who brought the film together have managed to spruce up existentialism for the 21st century, preparing it for a mass market, offering some class critique that won’t subvert capitalism, and a standard but resonant feminist critique of patriarchy. For many, it will be an introduction to these ideas. Already, there are stories of women dumping shitty partners after seeing the film. That’s a sort of consciousness raising. Maybe that consciousness raising will extend further and deeper, picking up on growing class alienation and awareness, especially among younger viewers. In the meantime, it’s certainly triggered the chud reactionaries who simultaneously whinge about the softening of the West while getting triggered by a film that challenges their mobilization of patriarchy in service of their mediocrity.
You love to see it. And Barbie. I think I’ll go see it again. It’s a fun way to think about death, gender, and class. Plus, there’s popcorn.