Say What? - In case you've been hiding in your cave, Barbie the (very pink) movie has opened - "She can do anything, he's just Ken" - to a flood of press, praise, profits and horror on the part of grown-ass men bleating about a "man-hating... alienating, dangerous and perverse film" and "woke propaganda fest" that by playfully positing the existence of a patriarchy serves as an insidious "Trojan horse" that will doom us all, also turn us all gay. Well yeah, duh. Ken: "Sublime!"
Long representative of all things heteronormative - a thin white beautiful long-legged woman with no reproductive organs and "the perfect boyfriend for any occasion," also without genitals - you'd think Barbie would be a character conservatives could love, and they did until pernicious feminist and director/co-writer Greta Gerwig updated her for the 21st century. In her version, Stereotypical Barbie ("Barbie") and the other Barbies ("Hi Barbie! Hi Barbie!") still live in Barbie Land, which is "to be a perfect being in a perfect place," in this case a matriarchal utopia where women are self-sufficient and successful at all the important jobs. Beach Ken ("Ken") - "Actually, my job, it's just Beach" - is only happy when he is with Barbie: He argues,, "It's 'Barbie and Ken', there is no just 'Ken'" and while, "Barbie has a great day every day, Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him." After Barbie undergoes a sudden existential crisis - discovering both death and cellulite - she goes on a voyage of self-discovery to the Real World, such as it is; there, she and a stowaway Ken discover the patriarchy, where men run everything and, "Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on."
Full disclosure: We haven't seen the movie yet. But reviews praise Gerwig for balancing "both reverence and mockery" in "an easy-on-the-eyes meditation on patriarchy"- a tough gig in a movie about a plastic doll whose place in our culture has long veered uncomfortably between narrator Helen Mirren's “Barbie can be anything, women can be anything” to the charge she's "been making women feel bad about themselves since she was invented." The script, by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, sounds hilarious, with many of the best lines given to Ryan Gosling's earnest, vapid, horse-and-headband-loving Ken, with his "delicious lack of interiority" and heart-on-his-sleeve Kenergy, from, "I'm trained to stand confidently here" to "To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses I lost interest." Gosling has said he took the role in part because he saw a Ken doll facedown in his backyard and his 6-and-7-year-old daughters told him, "Nobody plays with Ken"; he adds, straight-faced, "That’s why we must tell his story." Since then, he's determinedly channeled his inner Ken, singing the praises of faux mink - "If you can't define yourself by your thoughts (or) accomplishments, a faux mink can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you" - and urging, "Ken as hard as you can, every day."
For the most part, critics have deemed Gerwig's Barbie "feminism-lite," full of painful truths told in a droll way. "I'm a man without power," notes Aaron, a Mattel intern in the Real World. "Does that make me a woman?" The one exception comes after Ken returns from that world and, inspired by its patriarchy, remakes Barbie Land into a brewski-filled bro-friendly Kendom where "every night is boys' night": He turns Barbie's Dreamhouse into the Mojo Dojo Casa House (redundant but "sounds cool"), puts up images of horses everywhere, and persuades all the Kens to turn their Barbies into maids and doting girlfriends. When Barbie returns, despondent about the changes - "I’m not good enough for anything” - America Ferrera's Gloria, a Mattel employee, offers a scathing indictment of a world where, "It is literally impossible to be a woman....You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean...You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail..We have to always be extraordinary but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. But also, everything is your fault."
That moment of all-too-real-if-comic-book-flippant gravity is, perhaps, why the entire, fragile-as-a-snowflake, male-centric universe to the right of the New York Times freaked out at a bubbly comedy about a plastic doll - wait, was Tucker right about that crisis of masculinity? - and proceeded to lambaste it in screamingly misogynist terms as "woke garbage," “angry feminist claptrap," "a flaming garbage heap," "jaded-feminist social messaging, “and, from a hateful Fox guest who won't let her 2 daughters see it because trans actress Hari Nef plays a Barbie sidekick, "the most insidious packaging of feminist cliches and trans grooming you have ever seen," adding, without irony, "Is nothing sacred?" Fox promoted a Christian review charging the film "pushes" LGBTQ stories and ignores "pro-family and biblical values"; Matt Gaetz' wife (sic) also said it "neglects to address any notion of faith or family," but complained Ken showed "disappointingly low T,” or testosterone, which is weird given he doesn't have a dick; Laura Ingraham griped, "They don't want real men," going on a bonkers rant about "pajama boys," Pilates, and leggings. In summary, evil Barbie preaches, "All men deserve to perish because of the patriarchy," so we need more fart jokes and less inclusivity.
The Most Witless Weirdness in the Face of Wokeness Awards got split this time between two loathsome contenders. Ever-asinine Ted Cruz, who hasn't seen the film, charged several times it was "pushing Chinese propaganda” with Barbie's "nonsense map" of squiggles and arrows that includes a disputed area in the South China Sea. "The press likes to mock this and be like, 'Oh, come on, why are you talking (about) Barbie?'" he whined. "Because Hollywood letting the Chinese communists dictate what is in American films is a real threat." (No, for fuck's sake, your idiocy is.) And 40-year-old right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, who said his producers "dragged" him to the movie - dressed, riotously obliviously, in a Ken outfit: "My brother in Christ. You are wearing a Ken cosplay" - hated it so much he spewed an incandescent, 43-minute critique about "one of the most woke movies I have ever seen" before lighting a Barbie and Ken doll on fire, complete with recorded screams. "It's obvious Ben's problems are rooted in the fact he wanted to go to art school but his parents wouldn't let him," said one observer. Another: "Aw, Ben burned his Barbies. Most people that have Barbies get rid of them at a much younger age than he is now. Glad he was able to finally let go of them.”
Sadly, the right-wing "hate train" against Barbie, unlike ones against Bud Light, Cracker Barrel, Target et al has failed to gather much steam. Maybe it's because Ken and Barbie look so cute in their pink outfits, or the script's so charmingly goofy and good-natured, or the franchise feels so American, or the outrage feels so dumb. Reflecting the spirit of the movie, even the criticism of the criticism is pretty gentle, from, "Go out and plant a tree or something MAGAs" to the guy who added cranky reviews to the poster "because it makes it even cooler." Thus, alongside lounging Barbie and Ken: "They won't be happy until we are all gay, "The feminist agenda will kill us all," and "A pink acid trip that feels like being slapped by lots of confusingly attractive people." Same for the taunts about wokeness: "If Barbie is too feminist for you, might I recommend almost every other movie ever made," "Describe yourself in 5 words. BBC News review: 'Deeply bizarre and anti-man,'" and "They made Barbie woke? FUCK! How am I supposed to go about my day knowing my favorite doll isn’t in the Freedom Caucus? I need mom to get me a milk." Weird Barbie gets the final word, advising the discomfited-by-reality Barbie: "You can go back to your regular life, and forget any of this ever happened. Or you can know the truth about the universe." Tough call, but she can do anything, right?
(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. This article was first published in Common Dreams. Email: [email protected])