Did you have “Republicans freak out over the gender politics of the Barbie movie” on your 2023 bingo card? I, for one, did not—yet here we are. The movie hasn’t even been released yet, but Fox News is leading the charge against it, giving a host of right-wing influencer types the space to whine that, as one chyron predictably put it, the “Barbie movie goes woke.”
According to one of its stars, Simu Liu, “I’m so glad that this movie exists because I think it puts the final nail in the coffin of that very heteronormative idea of what gender is, and what is or is not gendered.” Writer and activist Charlotte Clymer tweeted a compelling review of the movie, writing that it “feels like an especially potent trojan horse, beckoning us with well-earned laughter into a larger conversation on gender and how Barbie—the defining cultural symbol of high femme expression—has shaped that discourse over the past six decades.” So you can begin to see the problem from the right-wing culture warriors’ point of view.
In the words of one Christian movie review site gleefully quoted by Fox News, ”The new BARBIE movie forgets its core audience of families and children while catering to nostalgic adults and pushing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender character stories. Furthermore, the movie was poorly made with multiple premises, losing even the most die-hard fans.” (News flash: Nostalgic adults can be parents who make decisions about their family’s movie-watching habits.)
The movie’s undermining of Barbie’s traditional place in the gender canon includes the title character’s feet suddenly going flat rather than maintaining her eternal high-heeled stance, experiencing objectification by men for the first time as she leaves Barbie world for the real world, and Ken becoming what Clymer describes as “something of a Jordan Peterson guru to the other Kens.” All of these are potent critiques of gender representation in Barbie—a brand long loathed by many feminists—and could be the targets of right-wing ire. Indeed, Ginger Gaetz, wife of Rep. Matt Gaetz, is trying to grow her social media profile on the basis of the movie, despite the fact that she and Matt attended and eagerly posed for pictures at the premiere.
“I'd recommend sticking to getting outfit inspiration and skipping the theater,” she tweeted. That’s because “[t]he Barbie I grew up with was a representation of limitless possibilities, embracing diverse careers and feminine empowerment,” but “[t]he 2023 Barbie movie, unfortunately, neglects to address any notion of faith or family, and tries to normalize the idea that men and women can't collaborate positively (yuck).” Additionally, there’s “[d]isappointingly low T from Ken.”
Did anyone connect Barbie to faith or family to begin with? Barbie has had a long list of careers. She’s been a cowgirl, a wild animal trainer, a race car driver, a bowler, a boxer, an aerobics instructor, a computer engineer, an architect, a campaign fundraiser, a U.S. president, a fashion trend forecaster, and a film director. She has taught subjects from yoga to Spanish to sign language. She has occupied a number of roles in the military. She has owned small businesses including a farmers market stall and a fashion boutique, as well as working in almost any kind of store you can think of. She has not, however, been a minister in any of her incarnations—and indeed, if she had been, it would have alienated those Christians who do not believe it is biblically appropriate for women to be ministers. Perhaps Ginger Gaetz and her ilk imagined one of the musician Barbies as a church musician.
And family? Barbie is not a particularly maternal figure. Barbie and Ken are not married. They may have from time to time shared a Dreamhouse, but that was living in sin. It may be easy for someone married to Matt Gaetz to get confused about what “faith and family” is supposed to look like, but while Barbie has long been a hyper-femme icon, the official narrative about her coming from Mattel has never been that.
Gaetz either missed the thing she was supposed to be most upset about or wasn’t quite willing to go there. Because a significant part of the right-wing freakout centers around one single character, a doctor Barbie played by trans actress Hari Nef. As that Christian movie review site said, the movie “push[es] lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender character stories.” The Federalist’s Peachy Keenan, author of “Domestic Extremist: A Practical Guide to Winning the Culture War,” wrote at Revolver, the movie is “the slickest, most visually appealing and therefore most insidious packaging of feminist cliche and trans grooming” that she had ever seen, and said on Fox News, “I found out last week, they somehow didn’t let anyone know this with the marketing campaign, that one of Barbie’s main three sidekicks is—surprise surprise—a man. I mean, is nothing sacred?” She added, “I don’t really know what they were thinking, they just gave Barbie the Bud Light treatment.”
No, the movie happened to cast Hari Nef. It’s the bigots who want to give the movie “the Bud Light treatment” by unleashing an avalanche of hate on any company that offers even a glancing positive representation of a trans person.
Even without a trans actress playing a Barbie, the culture warriors of the right probably would have had at least a minor freakout over the movie. Ginger Gaetz laid out some of the arguments that would have been used, as silly as they are. (Has Ken ever seemed especially “high T” to you?) After all, it’s the slow news month of July. Teachers aren’t in the classroom to present targets for attack. But the movie’s use of a trans actress in the hallowed feminine role of Barbie guaranteed that the temper tantrum would be loud and sustained. There is a right-wing project afoot to drive trans people from public life, to make their existence unspeakable—in the sense that it cannot be mentioned, and in the sense that the miseries inflicted upon them would be impossible to convey in words.