Barbie’s Philosophical Undercurrents and Tidal Waves

My take on the new Greta Gerwig film, “Barbie.”

Barbie is a PG-13 fantasy comedy film directed by Greta Gerwig and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. It stars Margot Robbie as the “stereotypical Barbie” (what you think of when you think of Barbie) and Ryan Gosling as “stereotypical Ken.” It was released in theaters on July 20 this year.

According to film critic Stephen Greydanus, publicists for the film did not make it easy to preview, meaning that previews have trickled in after the media marketing storm that created intense hype and expectations. 

There is a meme depicting “what I thought watching it would be like” and what it actually was, which is fitting for various reasons. I knew the movie would be excellently made, loaded with controversy and ideas people can disagree about. It did not disappoint. 

What everyone is saying or should say: the movie is beautifully produced, costuming is phenomenal, and a delight to the eyes; the humor and past movie references are witty. I laughed out loud. The roles were written for Robbie and Gosling, so it is no wonder they fill them perfectly, and as the reviewers are saying, Gosling is pitch-perfect bringing in talent from every stage of his acting career. 

Now, the ideas. We have three significant plots competing for space here.

  • 1. Barbie has an awakening.
  • 2. Who rules the world? 
  • 3. Ken loves Barbie; Barbie isn’t very interested in Ken. 

But before we dig in, let us remember to ask ourselves, from what lens are we viewing this movie? Is it an omniscient narrator? Is it a first-person perspective? While there is a narrator, our clue as to whose lens this is comes from when Barbie floats down from her dreamhouse because when girls play with dolls, they do not walk downstairs; they float, the narrator tells us. So this film is seen through the lens of girls or women. Just as we see Barbie the way girls see her, so we also see the Kens. Even the strangeness of male actions in the real world could arguably be seen through this lens as well because it just doesn’t quite fit reality, but it fits the lens of how women see them.

On to the plot(s) – there are spoilers, but not aggressively so

1. Barbie has an awakening.

It is not unlike the illumination outside Plato’s cave. Barbie has intrusive thoughts about death, experiences anxiety, tears and self-consciousness for the first time and marvels at the beauty of old age. 

This parallels the coming of age of a girl, who has been told she can be anything, do anything, and look great doing it, realizes this isn’t true. We don’t all have the smarts, the means, the cooperation with the universe, or the looks to have it all. For a lot of women, this realization hurts. My generation was raised on this, as was Gerwig’s, and the real world mother in the story. The next generation, represented by the real world daughter, may be a lot more disillusioned from the start. That lack of hope is what Barbie encounters.

However, this plot point goes from Plato’s Cave to The Velveteen Rabbit, in which it isn’t really an awakening but the impact of how Barbie as a doll has been played with by the girl who loves her. While this connection is beautiful, it isn’t clear or consistent with the other things taking place in the story. The Velveteen move becomes more of a shortcut to explain Barbie’s actions and get us to the next thing. 

It’s the former child-to-adult realization of what womanhood is, how messy and complicated it is, that turns the climatic conflict and saves the day.

Remember perspective or lens of the films?

This realization isn’t for men. The film is not speaking about grand ideas about what a woman is. It articulates what it is like to live as a woman and the experience of being female in modern society. 

The film is not saying what it is like to be a man. So when the men look chauvinistic, contradictory, violent or foolish, it articulates the woman’s interaction with the man – not a philosophical stance on masculinity or what it is to be a man. It’s offensive to men, but it might help some men to understand that this is really how a lot of men present themselves to women.

What’s interesting is that a vast majority of films play this way in reverse, movies about men, for men, made in the perspective of men, show women presented merely through the view of man – as a villain or virgin or eye candy. We are so used to it that we don’t always notice when that happens. Reversing it upsets a lot of people. 

2. Who rules the world? 

The movie is very much about the relationship between men and women—a little philosophy for us. Sr. Prudence Allen gives us these terms and understanding.

Plato believed that men and women did not have significant differences, and so were equal. This is called sex unity. Barbie doesn’t propose this. 

Aristotle believed that men and women had significant differences and that men were superior to women. This is called sex polarity.

Feminism, particularly second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, believed that men and women have significant differences and that women are superior to men. This is called reverse sex polarity. 

Sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but equal and complement each other in meaningful ways.

Fractional sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but incomplete on their own and basically need each other to make up the difference. Man brave. Woman gentle. 

Integral sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but, as individuals, are still whole complete human beings. They express qualities and traits in a uniquely feminine or masculine way, but both are capable of possessing the characteristics. Men and women can be brave. Men and women can be gentle. It just looks different, and we can learn from each other’s style of bravery or gentleness.

Back to Barbie Land.

Barbie Land is a world of Reverse Sex Polarity. Feminism rightly identifies a good deal of human history as operating under Sex Polarity – but in this movie, they call it “patriarchy.” It might help us understand the movie if we can get away from catchy (ahem, triggering) nicknames.

After discovering it in the Real World, Ken tries to bring “patriarchy” to Barbie Land. The viewer sees the shallowest forms of how society looks under that way of thinking. It’s funny. I hope we can see the humor in this.

Barbies takes it back and reaffirms the complexity of women (a long struggle for men to grapple with – I told my husband to say “complex” not “complicated”) and reestablish the original order of Reverse Sex Polarity by not giving the Kens equal rights. 

Is it good? Is it bad? 

The writers are playing out the ideas as they tell a story and not necessarily making a stand on what the real world should do with it. 

3. Ken loves Barbie; Barbie isn’t very interested in Ken. 

Standpoint Theory in feminism rightly points out that women are often viewed primarily in relation to men. Again, think back to the lens through which a story is told. Integral gender complementarity would have us see that women are complete creations by God, called to growth, no doubt, but don’t require a masculine presence to flourish as a person. That is why we can have nuns, and it’s good. 

Barbie isn’t defined by her man. That’s the reality of the toy and its a longstanding joke about the toy and Ken.

In the film, Ken expresses his dependency on Barbie for identity.

She encourages him to see who he is as an individual. That is good and healthy.

Sadly, there is no understanding of the complementary dynamic between men and women. Except for this final conversation with Barbie and Ken, men and women are at odds. This dynamic of being in competition for power has its roots in second wave feminism which has its roots in Marxist thought (class struggle for power). The resolution between Barbie and Ken makes little sense in light of everything that came before it.

What do we do with this information? How do we make the world a better place? There are no answers, which might just be this modern generation’s deep sadness. 

The writers see the patriarchy, a society organized around sex polarity, as responsible for the challenging experience of living as a woman and the evils women suffer instead of understanding that this came about as a result of the fall of “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This dynamic is the result of the fall. It not a prescription to help us get through the fall, as some men believe.

Barbie’s decision, in the end, isn’t at all clear. But it shows the writers reaching and knowing there is something good worth going after, but, as I imagine the writers themselves feel, they don’t know exactly what it is. For me, the ending was very flat.

But as to what came before it, I love it. My all-time favorite moment was Gosling’s power ballad (some weak vocals notwithstanding) and dance number that referenced the oldest of movie musicals and Footloose vibes.

The movie is good, even if it is wrong.

I do not recommend it unless you are ready to tackle these ideas intellectually. For those wanting to see CRT or feminism, that’s all there. For those who desire to explore the concepts behind it, it’s a feast. 

I do not believe this is Marxist propaganda. And it isn’t a kid’s movie (hence that PG-13 rating). 

Instead, it is a creative exploration into the ideas that have shaped the writers, and if people never explore those ideas, how will they ever find the truth? 

It is a movie by a woman who works in a male-dominated environment. Women who have not been in that setting may see the world differently. Indeed, men will. I respect Gerwig’s effort and willingness to search through these answers with so much delight and humor and play out these questions’ ideas. What if we just turned a society based on sex polarity nicknamed “patriarchy” and flipped it to reverse sex polarity, in this case, Barbie Land? 

I hope modern feminists viewers can see that such a solution is not an answer. Although, I know there are plenty of movements that promote it.

At least someone with a budget behind her has this opportunity to ask the questions and unabashedly acknowledge that women are complicated, complex and beautiful creatures.

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