There’s a lot a lot—a lot—going on in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie that hovers beneath the surface. Beyond its much-remarked general subversiveness, the film is a rarity in that its published reviews, even those that dutifully recount its “plot” and narrative, don’t really impact the film in a way that would ruin or “spoil” it for the viewer. So with that in mind, feel free to read on, even if you haven’t seen it yet.
It’s easy to understand why the political right doesn’t like this film. Most obviously, it incorporates a cornucopia of feminist messages that are poison to the entire Republican philosophy. Some of these messages are in-your-face obvious, such as Barbie’s puzzlement when she encounters an all-male board at Mattel, the very genesis of her own existence (it’s frankly amazing that Mattel apparently freely allowed this movie to be the blatant anti-corporate critique that it is). And, of course, there’s the transgender Barbie character, a fact that the vast majority of moviegoers wouldn’t have even noticed if Fox News hadn’t made it the focus of their attacks.
But one of the scariest aspects of the film for Republicans is embedded right there in the plot. Strangely only a few reviewers have actually noted it. And even the ones who have appear to have missed its electoral significance.
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After Ken (Barbie’s “partner” of sorts, played by an incredible Ryan Gosling) returns back to Barbieland from their visit to the “Real World,” he immediately embarks on transforming the formerly Barbie-dominant “girl” culture into a virtual cesspool of toxic masculinity. Those scenes—in which the previously vapid and complacent Kens who inhabit Barbie’s home universe start behaving like hyper-masculine assholes—are successful in blasting the cultural glorification of these behaviors.
But the overarching, ultimate goal for Ken in effecting these changes is to literally rewrite Barbieland’s Constitution in order to to cement male domination—or patriarchy—into law. That’s made very clear in the film’s narrative.
Jessica Bennett, who wrote a review of the film for the New York Times after seeing it with the celebrated feminist author, Susan Faludi, explains the significance.
In an early montage introducing viewers to Barbieland, lawyer Barbie speaks before the Supreme Court about the idea of personhood — “which immediately made me think of attempts to create the unborn as ‘persons,’” Ms. Faludi said.
Later, the Kens attempt to change the Constitution, amid Barbie lamenting how hard they had worked to create Barbieland: “You can’t just undo it in a day.” (To which Ken responds, “Literally — and figuratively — watch me.”) Ms. Faludi’s take? “I mean, that’s what happened on Election Day of 2016.”
But (at least to my viewing) it’s even more direct and disconcerting than an observation of “what happened on Election Day of 2016.” Rather, it’s exactly what Justice Samuel Alito and his collaborators on the Supreme Court did when they issued their infamous decision in the Dobbs case, overruling Roe v. Wade. In a nutshell, they effectively rewrote the Constitution to “cement the patriarchy.”
For all of Alito’s miserable, misogynistic bloviating to excuse the fact that the court was blithely ditching half a century of prior precedent to satisfy the political right’s most longstanding, cherished goal, the underlying intent of Dobbs was exactly what Gerwig’s film alludes to: to write a permanent, subjugated role for women and anyone else who can become pregnant into law. To transform women —permanently if possible—into a perpetual class of second-class citizens.
And crucially, that is the key conflict facing Barbie when she (subsequently, after Ken) returns to Barbieland from the Real World: to undo Ken’s damage. In the film, Barbie and her female Barbie allies achieve that (no, I’m not going to explain how; go see the film).
To date the Barbie film has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. Put mildly, it is a juggernaut of unprecedented proportions, with millions of women, young and old, going to see it (yes, a lot of men are seeing it too). It’s obviously striking a nerve, and that nerve is female empowerment.
And while it’s probably not the best idea to make too much of a film’s lasting cultural significance while it is still enjoying the peak of its popularity, Barbie’s potential for reminding voters—and in particular, younger, female voters—of what is really at stake in 2024 is just too damn attractive for Democrats to discount.