Last week my dad, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans, went to the movies to see “Barbie.” Not his usual fare, but Ben Shapiro’s 43-minute YouTube tirade exposing the movie’s liberal/trans/feminist agenda convinced him it was urgent, essential viewing. Later, Dad called me, a little bemused. What was all the fuss about? Unfortunately I hadn’t seen “Barbie,” and as of this writing, I still haven’t. As a mother of very young children, my leisure time is fairly limited. Often, the best I can do is to observe a cultural flash point indirectly. I’m not complaining; piecing together a work of art out of the disjointed, often feverish reactions it produces can be entertaining. And when I finally do get around to the actual film, book, or misgendered transKaren attack, it often proves disappointingly staid compared to the wild vision I’ve been carrying around in my head.
In the case of “Barbie,” the conservative commentariat has given me uncommonly rich material to work with. How can one movie advocate “satanic” rejection of motherhood (Jason Whitlock) while pushing “angry feminist claptrap that alienates men and woman” (Ben Shapiro) and yet also express anxiety about our “post-sex, post-human ‘equality’” (Mary Harrington), hint at the “the beauty of accepting all that comes with [femininity]—fertility, emotions, even babies” (Mary Rose Somarriba), and conclude that “a boring mom is sometimes a wonderful thing to be, a lot more wonderful than living in a plastic dream house” (Helen Andrews).
The men have a point: Gerwig does rely a bit much on that tired liberal boogeyman, the Patriarchy, and her vision of Barbiehood is self-consciously “inclusive” enough to encompass a biological man. But it’s not without a certain subversive irony. What’s a trans Barbie in a world where no one has genitals? A virtue signal, perhaps, but a clearly empty one. There’s no confusion about what makes Barbie a real woman once she finally opts for the “red pill”: the movie ends with our heroine, giddy with anticipation, checking in at the gynecologist.
Does this mean the women are right? A more interesting question may be why these interpretations of “Barbie” line up so neatly by sex. How could two groups of usually insightful, intelligent, generally politically aligned commentators arrive at such fundamentally different conclusions about the thesis of the same film? This seems to be the (maybe) accidental genius of “Barbie”: essential differences prove too strong to deny, for Gerwig, for Barbie, for Ken, and for the audience. Men and women experience this film as differently as they experience life. Not everything is meant for everyone. If there’s a hidden reactionary message, as some radical Ken stans want to believe, it’s that.
My father heroically stuck with Barbie until the credits, determined to get something out of it despite his famously low aptitude for noticing “Love Island” references or deciphering convoluted multiverse-type shenanigans. In the end he was sure of only this: Margot Robbie is stunningly beautiful. There are worse truths to contemplate on a summer afternoon.