Spoiler Alert: I will divulge as little as possible about the specifics of the movie as I talk about the real-life implications of its philosophical ideas, but, obviously, some content of the movie will leak out.
Yes, Barbie is a surprisingly philosophical movie. I had low expectations for Barbie. I’ve never been a fan of corporations or dolls, and especially corporate dolls that objectify women. My expectations were very mistaken.
Incels and fundamentalists will hate the movie, though they will probably refuse to see it. Males who half-watch the movie will mansplain about how it is inaccurate or unhelpful. The #GoWokeGoBroke keyboard warriors will silently stew as their attack meme is proven wrong. And yes, some feminists will claim Barbie doesn’t go far enough.
Unequivocally, Barbie is a feminist movie. But it isn’t a dour dystopian screed, nor does it portray all men as pigs, nor does it portray women as hopelessly, permanently oppressed. It confuses some people who have only a passing familiarity with feminist thought.
And yes, Barbie is “woke.” But not the childish wokeness of certain science fiction franchises that simply reverse stereotypes. The paradox of the Barbie movie is that it portrays existing stereotypes, portrays those stereotypes reversed, shows how everybody is being delusional, and shows the path to greater truth and humanity, all while parodying everyone and everything, including itself.
The Best Satire Skewers Everybody
Social satire is an art form. It is easy to poke fun at other people, but quality satire intelligently exposes human folly and delusions, awakening audience members from their dogmatic slumber. To be quality, satire needs to be accurate, intelligent, and unabashed and needs to not take itself too seriously.
Barbie is quality satire. From its opening scene, it skewers what we know and exposes our underlying assumptions with intelligence and humor. Targets of the satire include patriarchy and corporate arrogance, certainly, but also savaged are the complacency of older feminists who think change for women has been achieved and the stroppy attitude of younger feminists who think change is impossible. The movie gets its satire across with a Martin Scorsese–level catalog of references to past movies, and a John Crichton–level smattering of cultural references.
More than anything, the movie exposes how much society reduces the individual person to formulaic roles. People are disregarded by society and subjected to social stereotypes of ethnicity, gender, race, class, and more.
The cultural pressures of labels and their attached stereotypes greatly hinder individuals from discovering who they are. This is especially the case for women, and the movie gives us one character’s soliloquy for the ages on the absurdly contradictory set of expectations demanded of women. The soliloquy powerfully expresses how gender roles trap women, stripping them of their individual agency and identity.
But what puts the Barbie movie in a separate category is that it doesn’t descend into identity politics but across the board satirizes how culture depersonalizes everyone. The movie’s basic premise is that there is a fantasy world of Barbieland where the dolls live an idyllic Malibu Barbie life. But this false utopia of Barbieland is the creation of people in the real world, and it reflects the depersonalization of our world.
With only a few exceptions in Barbieland, women are named “Barbie,” and men are named “Ken.” What differences there are between them are only a matter of function — Judge Barbie, Doctor Barbie, President Barbie, Construction Worker Barbie, and so on. Other than stereotypical job function expectations, all of the Barbies are the same. Other than their jobs, they are interchangeable and without individuality. This is true even for our central character, Stereotypical Barbie, who has no job and no function other than being the stereotype of what a woman “should” look like.
The movie shows that the real world mirrors the depersonalization of Barbieland. This is to be expected because the real world created Barbieland and the real world created depersonalization and practices it daily. The real world reduces us to matters of our functions.
The real world thinks in terms of stereotypical labels. This explains why the Mattel Corporation, and the dolls in Barbieland, think that naming one doll Judge Barbie, another Doctor Barbie, and another President Barbie and so on remedies historical inequalities. It is absurd. The movie acknowledges that. In making this acknowledgement, it criticizes corporatism and patriarchy, but also those second-wave feminists and others who naively think equality for women has been achieved.
That Woke Thing
What is this “woke” in movies that some people complain about? I discuss that in depth elsewhere. It will suffice for now to describe being woke as being aware of social injustices.
Most people will connect woke with identity politics, but the latter is a battle of stereotypical labels. Liberation for labels of race and sex work only within a legal context. As history records, establishing legal rights is essential, but they in themselves are not sufficient for social justice. Laws don’t change hearts and minds.
Awakening to the reality of social injustices is an enlightenment an individual must experience. It’s a difficult task going to each individual, recognizing them, talking with them, and helping them see reality. That difficulty is why people fall into identity politics — labels are an easy cop-out.
Surprisingly, the Barbie movie doesn’t take the easy out. It could have. It could have fallen back to the clichés of identity politics, taken the box office millions, and gone home. No. Instead, the creators, much to their credit, showed us the real meaning of justice and woke — each person awakening to the injustices around them and to the deeper reality that they don’t have to be and do what the culture dictates to them. What the Barbie movie literally shows is that individual awakening to the reality that patriarchy reduces everyone to stereotypes—men and women—and that patriarchy damages and suppresses each and every one of us in ways unique to each and every one of us.
The notion of individuals thinking and acting independent of cultural labels and their attached stereotypes scares people, especially the people in power. It’s why right-wingers hate the Barbie movie — like they waited for an excuse. It’s why people who prefer identity politics hate the Barbie movie. It’s too woke for either side.
If, as I suggest, we consider woke to be the personal enlightenment that you can decide who you are independently of cultural labels and their attached stereotypes, then going woke is the answer to social injustice. The Barbie movie is woke in that way. Its message will be lost on many people not yet open to their own self and agency. But then, that’s how it works.
The arc of history bends slowly toward justice. Too slowly, perhaps, but inertia favors people awakening to the delusions of our reality. One step at a time, one person at a time. That’s how it works, and if we keep pressing, it is how it will work. Deride awakening to cultural oppression as “woke” if you want, but individuals working together to battle depersonalization and recognize individuals is the path to justice.
One complaint I have seen of the Barbie movie is that it leaves unresolved the fates of the characters. That is consistent with the movie’s theme of individual awakening. Barbieland is saved, but the story is not resolved. That’s like real life.