The politics and philosophy of ‘Barbie’

August 09, 2023 09:15
Photo: Reuters

I had the pleasure of watching ‘Barbie’ - by myself - earlier this week.

Truth be told, I went in with relatively low expectations. I have a general aversion to movie hypes and hyped-up movies, and have often found that my tastes are neither counter-cultural to the point of being niche and thus arthouse, nor mainstream enough to be satiated by blockbusters. Even Nolan’s Dunkirk, I had found to be subpar to Anthony McCarten’s Darkest Hour - and I’ve been reliably informed that the former is more ‘normie’ than the latter.

In any case, I left the theatre feeling triumphantly impressed - enthralled, even. ‘Barbie’ was everything I had wanted to see in a movie, and then some: it fused together existentialist musings, meta-commentary on large corporations (skewering guilty-as-charged folks that seem to spend more time polishing their ‘ESG’ titles than actually engaging in ESG), reflections upon femininity and masculinity, not-so-subtle Queer references, and, of course, the many Barbies and Kens, and Allen. It was a riveting watch, and one that had left me glued to my seat for the near-two-hour screentime.

And hence, in ‘Barbie’-style, here are a few loosely conjoined, scattered thoughts on the movie.

The first, was the emphatically philosophical undertones (overtones in places, such as Margot Robbie’s Barbie (‘stereotypical’) contemplating the implications of death at the start of the movie, or her coming to reconcile with the fact that life, despite its imperfections is well-worth living - anti-natalists, watch out!) that permeated the whole movie. The Truman Show-esque set-up of Barbieland, to which the ‘Real World’’s connection is so apparently outlandish that even the narrator (Helen Mirren) refuses to dignify or entertain it in detail, sets the scene for the key premise to be so irreverently absurd, that the suspension of our disbelief in it is almost mandatory for the ‘commonsensical’ audience.

The audience is invited to ponder the value and joys of existence - and its limits; to reflect upon what the self is in the absence of the ‘other’ (who is Ken without Barbie? Can there be a Ken without a Barbie); to acknowledge and grapple with the underlying sameness that conjoins us all (compare Simu Liu’s Ken with Ryan Gosling’s Ken - whilst they have tangible differences in personalities and behaviours, they are relationally and situationally almost identical, when it comes to Barbie, around which their lives unfold). These are all philosophical questions that would make for excellent material for folks to chew into and contemplate in an Applied Ethics or Metaphysics course, and I for one cannot wait till we can debate the similarities and differences between the Matrix Series’ ‘Red Pill or Blue Pill’ scene, vs. Barbie’s Shoes scene (with Weird Barbie, portrayed by the inimitable Kate McKinnon).

The second, is that ‘Barbie’ offers an empathetic and nuanced take on the feminist movement. The textbook-sound commentary on the oppressive double standards and intersecting expectations under the male gaze (and thus dimensions of alienation) is of course conveyed through the highly effective monologue from the working-class mother Gloria (America Ferrera), whose moment of triumph comes through in her relishing in her imperfections and confessing to her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) that the mother-daughter relationship is fundamentally dysfunctional. It is through the embracing - as opposed to repudiation and concealing - of vulnerability, that the women in the movie (whether it be the many Barbies, ft. Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey etc.) break free from the false consciousness instilled by the mendacious, newly installed patriarchy. Underpinning all of this, is in turn a deeper question - are we born to discriminate against the ‘other’ gender, or is discrimination along the lines of sex, gender, sexual orientation etc., merely a social construct that can be whimsically reified, though is far harder to take down? Sasha’s sardonic one-liners - intended to be effective putdowns of the guileless ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ upon the latter’s arrival into the human world - are as effective in their comic relief, as in their ability to eviscerate the progressive movement for the tired, cliched tropes trotted out to support ‘the race to the Left’. I shan’t go into detail over what’s in fact said about Barbie, but the movie deliciously navigates the fine line between sympathising with progressive critics of corporate feminism, and reactionary, even regressive pushback against the ‘stereotypical progressive activist tween’. Touché!

The movie theatre was packed. Sat right next to me were a family of four, with a boisterous toddler and an unsuspecting, slightly older girl sandwiched between a middle-aged couple. There were many points in the movie that I found facetious -- downright non-comedic, as opposed to un-funny (or maybe it was I who did not spot the jokes); yet here, my neighbours would burst into swift and audible laughter. There were other times when I’d chuckle, whilst my neighbours looked on, utterly bemused. I suppose one of the primary reasons for this movie’s universal, cross-demographic appeal, is that there’s something in it for everyone.

The final thought -- and one that is consistently hinted at above (just as subtly as the movie does) -- is that we could well be living in an era where commercialism is beyond satire. Not because commercialism - and the constant avarice for attention, consumption, and pretention that underpins it - is not worth our criticism or satirising. But because, in preemptively parodying itself, there have been a number of huge, commercially successful blockbusters that elevated their contents and messaging to the next level - to a level where life meets art, and where ridiculous kitsch morphs into bold, audacious self-denigration.

Think Matrix 4, or Tropic Thunder. Now think that, in the context of a movie made about mass-commercialised toys that had been historically produced to display imaginaries of the ideal - and thus idealised - women (who must fundamentally comport with the mainstream, dominant male gaze), ‘played with’ (itself a most ambiguous and multi-layered process) and thereby imbibed metaphorically by young toddlers, girls, and tweens. That’s ‘Barbie’ for you.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU