Barbie Can’t Be Feminist

With Hollywood actors joining writers on strike one can claim solidarity simply by helping themselves and not seeing Barbie. This kind of support to the strikers sounds easy. If not seeing Hollywood was all it took to support its workers, we could easily comply. But what happens when the strike breaks and we have to go back to see these movies? That seems like a far more daunting task.

The bemoaning about the quality of art today is certainly overblown and I would say overall that music, movies and everything else in art has never been better. You just have to know where to look.

In the following criticism, I am openly following the Zizek rule. Slavoj Zizek says he has an idea that comes from a movie and he often will not see the movie for the fear of ruining his idea. So I haven’t seen Barbie and by firing shots from afar I do represent the modern American online soldier who wants to escalate violence in other regions of the world without getting their hands dirty. As Drake says “trigger fingers turn to twitter fingers”.

My idea about Barbie is that at the Trump/Sanders moment there was a legitimate referendum on American tradition and we were right to disavow this tradition. Since that time there was this effort to redeem the American project and I fear that at least for the political actors that matter, it has been successful to some extent.

What was going on at that time in 2016? Bernie Sanders and a variety of social movements represented a working class critique of American life and the defeat of these movements confirmed the lack of democracy in the United States and the legitimacy of our critique. These movements were intersectional in nature, and they all, relatively speaking, came from the lower classes.

Trumpism on the other hand represented a bourgeois rebellion against the oligarchs. These upper middle class reactionaries have more power in American society than the lower classes and were able to achieve a shocking Trump victory, but their real impact on any policy by Mr. Trump or anywhere else remains pretty unclear. These people recognized that even they don’t really have a voice in American democracy. They saw that big money controls everything and this created a crisis that manifested in January 6th.

My opinion of the dreaded 1/6 is that it is appalling for a completely different reason than what the liberal pundits think. On the one hand such a rebellion was certainly some kind of class rebellion. Not by the working class, as the media would like to frame it, but by a bourgeois contingent who wants to punch down, not up. What is noteworthy about this group is that it also recognizes that the elites are some kind of obstacle to punching down insofar as the elites don’t care about anyone.

With the defeat of the working class movements being so swift and definite we were led to believe that the only existing critique that existed, or at least the only critique that was viable or possible politically, came from the bourgeois reactionary class, and because of this, we should unite around American institutions to defeat it. This was a legitimate thing to think and still is. It remains an open question that is almost closed, whether or not there really can be a working class imprint on American political life and it seems to me undoubtedly true we are better off with American institutions than the reactionaries embodied by Trumpism.

Our job is to be a little more optimistic. Our job is to recall that while the critique of American society ended up with a monstrous conclusion, that never was the attempt, and if anyone is to blame for this, it is not the working class who was silenced and scapegoated for Trump, but rather the oligarchs who ensured the only rebellion possible would come from the upper middle class.

So how does this relate to Barbie? At the crossroads of the Trump election it seemed like we all agreed there was something ugly going on in this country and that everything, from popular toys to the means of production, could be brought into question because we all agreed that American society had failed. When Trump was defeated I of course was relieved but I recognized it came at a tremendous cost.

The effort to redeem faith in American society was fully underway and I will admit that the defeat of Trump wasn’t only a deep state conspiracy but it was also a working class victory against the bourgeois. However this was no victory for the working class in any real terms. The working class believed less in the United States, not more, after the terror of Trump.

This is not what the ruling class believes. They want us to think of the defeat of Trump as the triumph of American democracy, not the narrowing of it. Their project is to channel all our legitimate grievances back into the machine that runs on money we could never imagine and convince us our interests are represented.

The basic pattern is: don’t cancel Barbie. We can, under present conditions, have Barbie represent your demands. Barbie is feminist. This is American democracy. You make a demand and it is heard.

There is something off about this. Was the real demand we had of Barbie that she become a feminist? Or was it that there was nothing feminist about distributing an unhealthy looking body type to young girls? If the Barbie movie increases the sale of Barbies, this means more little girls will be looking at the toy and feeling bad about themselves.

The message seems to be that if you are of a certain class all the values of the American Dream are possible for you. When Hillary Clinton told Bernie Sanders that going after Wall St. wouldn’t stop sexism there was a clear message there. Working class women would never make it in American life. They would always have to be secondary not only to men, but also to upper class women.

The same can be said for the Barbie movie. If you look like Barbie (and that’s not possible without money), you can have whatever you want from society. But if you don’t look like her, you better start trying and the reason you don’t have what you want (feminism, equality, dignity) is that you aren’t good enough.

I know the movie is supposed to be some kind of satire but how can it be when Margot Robbie is cast as Barbie? I saw Robbie in Bombshell and I thought she was good and it was a good movie. That was a time when you could just make a straightforward critique of American society. Here is where sexual harassment occurred. It was bad and ugly and it’s part of our life and here’s the story about it.

But casting Robbie in this film makes me skeptical of how much this movie can really be a satire. Sure it can say all the right things but it clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too. Or more sinisterly, it wants our women to have their cake, and throw it up.

I know what some people will say: just enjoy the movie. But I am enjoying pointing something out. We have very short memories. It’s not like we don’t remember events. But we forget our assumptions when we get new ones. Just a couple years ago it legitimately was cool to cancel Barbie.

The satire of Barbie is the only way this movie is taken seriously and for this reason it is the most cynical way to make the movie. If there was a straight forward making of Barbie we would recognize what a narrow concept of womanhood she represents. But by hiding behind satire we are told to redeem this very concept we critiqued.

I would be more interested in the film if Amy Schumer was cast as Barbie, as she originally was asked to do. But at the time the plot was not “feminist and cool”, according to Schumer. So why, when the movie became a feminist concept, was Schumer not asked to do the role again? Wouldn’t Schumer’s body type have been more feminist insofar that it would have brought down the very idea of Barbie?

But these two things could never happen at once. The plot, and the divergent body type, and I mean divergent for Hollywood, not for the average person, these two things could never both be feminist at once. We would have to hold onto the concept of Barbie one way or another. One door was with Schumer representing a Barbie narrative we couldn’t take seriously because it’s not our values. The other door was with Robbie faking a serious concept and keeping the same backwards ideals.

Now Schumer wouldn’t have been my ideal Barbie either. Barbie would ideally not only have big hips, but in these times of hate, also have a big cock. What better way to stick it to the gatekeepers of womanhood than to make Barbie have a large penis for all the little children to play with? I would even settle for any genitalia on Barbie. What does it say about American society that a highly sexualized toy doesn’t have any sex organs? Doesn’t this just confirm that Barbie really isn’t pro-sex and that her real purpose is to make all of us ashamed of our bodies and who we are?

I’ll close this by linking this to my core idea of what political ideology is. I think we all want the same things and the difference between the left and the right is not what we want, but for how many of us we want it for. We all want health care, peace, clean water, a home, a voice, some sense of freedom and agency, and the ability to be in community. The left wants these things for everybody; all living things. The right wants these things for certain individuals or groups, and this determines how far to the right they are. This slice of society could be a class, a nation, a race, gender, sexual orientation, an individual, a family, a city, an organization.

In this case perhaps the movie is center-right. It wants feminism for rich white women and not for most women. For the class of people with political power it tells them they have a voice. For everyone else, it reconfirms they don’t and has a similar affect. By strengthening the ideal of something out of reach Barbie attempts to reaffirm our reliance on the system.

The ideal beauty standard now not only brings us attention, wealth and fame, but also feminism! It just became more desirable to be like Barbie and our despair that we aren’t only grows. Not only is Barbie better looking. She has better values!

The only way to stay sane is to remember these people don’t have a sense of humor. They think they are making the joke when they are the joke. But don’t take my word for it. I didn’t see the movie, and if I did, I might sound like Christy Lemire: “As the film’s star, Margot Robbie finds just the right balance between satire and sincerity. She’s the perfect casting choice; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed stunner completely looks the part, of course, but she also radiates the kind of unflagging, exaggerated optimism required for this heightened, candy-coated world.”

In the same review Lemire praises the film for acknowledging the unrealistic body standards of Barbie. Which one is it? This is the reality we currently live in. Everyone is a critic and no one wants to change anything. Because the only change we can imagine, and the only change given to us, is something worse.

If anything this makes the working class critique of American society all the more prescient. The working class and the left will continue to be blamed for the disintegration of American society where reality is too dystopian to be satirized. This should only strengthen our resolve. It only proves to us that we are right to denounce present conditions.

What remains an open question, and it is coming close to being closed, is if the gatekeepers are right about the utility of change. It is very much possible things can only stay the same, or get worse. But that doesn’t mean we have to be gaslit. We never asked for feminist Barbie and the fact that this version is even more alienating demonstrates that we are still human.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at