feminism,  Film review

Dizzy With Success or Barbie is Superwoman for Superwomen

By Jurek Molnar

But the successes have their seamy side, especially when they are attained with comparative “ease” — “unexpectedly” so to speak. Such successes sometimes induce a spirit of vanity and conceit: “We can achieve anything!”, “There is nothing we can’t do!” People not infrequently become intoxicated by such successes; they become dizzy with success, lose all sense of proportion and the capacity to understand realities; they show a tendency to overrate their own strength and to underrate the strength of the enemy; adventurist attempts are made to solve all questions of socialist construction “in a trice.” In such a case, there is no room for concern to consolidate the successes achieved and to utilise them systematically for further advancement. Why should we consolidate the successes achieved when, as it is, we can dash to the full victory of socialism “in a trice”: “We can achieve anything!”, “There is nothing we can’t do!”

Joseph Stalin, Pravda No. 60 (March 1930)



The American journalist Kat Rosenfeld a regular contributor at Unherd published recently her take on the Barbie franchise. Her piece was called Barbie is Fight Club for Women, which argues that “Barbie” addresses a female identity crisis, the same way “Fight Club” (1999) addressed a male identity crisis back in the day. Rosenfeld writes about this identity crisis:

“Like Barbie, the Archetypal Millennial is both wildly accomplished yet developmentally trapped in perpetual adolescence: she dates less, marries later, and has fewer children, if she has them at all. Like Barbie, she lives in a world where women eclipse men on so many fronts that the latter become an afterthought, their comparative underachievement something between a punchline and a national crisis. (…) With enough time, effort and money, it is now possible for a committed woman to be hot virtually indefinitely; it is also increasingly understood that ambitious women probably should make this commitment, investing in their own faces for the same reasons that they pay into a pension. The result is paradoxical: no matter how much you achieve, the greatest mark of success for women is to look too young to have achieved much of anything.”

The “identity crisis” is not much of a crisis, if “women eclipse men on so many fronts”.

If underachieving men “become an afterthought”, the problem “to be hot virtually indefinitely” is more of a luxury issue, or as Comrade Stalin had put it, someone has actually become dizzy with success. Rosenfeld claims that the biggest challenge for women these days, most of all millennial women, is to preserve their hotness. But for whom? And why? The mystery is never solved.

While I do not agree with many of Kat Rosenfeld’s conclusions, it is nevertheless a brilliant essay which presents a very nuanced and informed perspective on the topic. Rosenfeld is for my taste a little too generous in her assessment of Greta Gerwig’s self-proclaimed intention “to do the thing and to subvert the thing”. The final product is commissioned and approved by the Mattel Company, which has produced Barbie dolls and related merchandise for several decades for a certain degree of profit. If Gerwig is subverting anything, then the subversion is in perfect accordance with the operating board and the marketing department of Mattel. The company can expect a decent revenue from this product, since it has been quite successful at the box office. If that is subversion, I personally completely misunderstand the term, but in Gerwig’s defense, my opinion is of course totally irrelevant.

One of my objections to Kat Rosenfeld’s essay is the comparison with “Fight Club”. David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel which was first published in 1996 sets a high bar. “Barbie” is certainly not able to reach this bar in terms of cinematic quality. “Barbie” is much too fractured and ill constructed due to its design as a marketing campaign for a popular toy. The comparison with “Fight Club” is definitely over the top. In “Fight Club” the hero suffers from a crisis, which he resolves by projecting himself onto a nearly perfect model of male sovereignty. But Tyler Durden, the iconic figure of peak masculinity, never found it necessary to blame women for the predicament of men. The problem he personifies is a spiritual crisis of men with themselves, not a matter of any interaction with women who allegedly “eclipse men on so many fronts” anyway. One problem with the Barbie movie is, that the Kens are definitely useless and stupid, but for mysterious reasons they cannot be ignored completely. Barbie needs them. Someone has to compete for Barbie’s attention, because the rejection of Ken’s advances is the point. It is important for Barbie to reject him, and it is important to her that he keeps coming back again and again to get rejected. Ken’s stupid uselessness is actually a function in Barbie’s perception. In an attention economy the rejection of Ken’s advances provide Barbie  an insurance of her own existence, value and perfection. At least men can be blamed for some particular malfunctions of society and serve as a punchline. It has to be so cruel and divisive, because people who are focused on prestige and want to be seen, recognized and celebrated, cannot completely give up on such an audience. This is the reason why Barbie is not Fight Club for women. Barbie does not address a specific crisis of female identity in regard to the female experience, Barbie is already the solution to a problem that is never clearly identified. In other words: Barbie is a different mythology, which follows different patterns of problems and solutions.

The script, which was written by Greta Gerwig and her husband Noah Baumbach, also an accomplished director, contains some clever scenes, but the story has a lot of holes and lot of things in the plot lack proper motivation. “Barbie” tells an ideologically driven story, but is built to be the propaganda and money machine of a corporate business model. This generates a lot of contradictory impulses. Anti-capitalist rhetoric or rants that Barbie has thrown back feminism 50 years are mandatory lines in dialogue, but this feels more like a ritual in order to include a specific segment of the audience. Affirmation and critique are fused together in one single corporate strategy to achieve different marketing goals for different customers. If you love Barbie, this film is for you and if you hate Barbie, this film is for you. Everyone is sucked in by the gravitational pull of this singularity of corporate feminist Stalinism. The underlying contradictions are in some parts of the movie the subject of meta-level jokes, which are either not funny or pretentious banalities, but in terms of commercial success and product placement this strategy works really well. In fact from this point of view the film is the work of a genius and Greta Gerwig has earned herself a formidable career. For better or worse this woman will have an impact on the film industry in the coming decades.

It would be more accurate instead to compare Mattel’s “Barbie” with DC’s “Superman”. Superman is like Barbie a toy, a comic, a series of films (animated “Barbie” films exist since 2001), a cultural icon and a profitable trade mark.

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill“, shortly before the Bride kills Bill, Bill holds a lecture about the nature of Superman. Superman, he argues, is always Superman. Most superheroes are regular people and change into their hero identities by wearing a costume. But in the case of Superman, the costume is actually his true form. And so, when Superman turns into Clark Kent, he has to act as if he was a normal person. It is not so different from Barbie, who is already Barbie and hence perfect and has to learn to act like a human being at some point. Superman is in principle different from all the human beings around him, including Lois Lane, while Barbie is just one particular individual in a world of Barbies, which is also a crucial difference between male and female escape fantasies. Men imagine themselves as lonely wolves, women love to be at the center of a group. Superman is by default alone and has no peers, or faces in any other case enemies and hostile rivals. This makes Superman paradoxically a very human character, who has to deal with his own imperfections despite his super powers. In their award winning comic book Superman. Peace on Earth from 1998, Paul Dini and Alex Ross show that the limit of Superman’s power lies in human nature itself. Superman tries to resolve a food crisis by transporting goods to remote places, but he soon realizes that hunger is also a political issue. He can deliver things where they are needed, but the warlords, tyrants and bandits that control the area will make use of his delivery after he is gone. Superman, then remembers what his human father has taught him about farming and cultivating the land and turns into a humanist, who doesn’t need super powers any more. He just teaches by example how to take care of the grains.

Barbie on the other hand is a secular goddess, who promises her worshippers the exact opposite of Superman. She is already perfect and cannot become any better or grow in any direction from where she is. The cosmos of Barbie is a very interesting contradiction: on the one hand no living female actually achieves her physical qualities, but on the other hand every woman can become popular as Barbie and every woman can be Barbie. At least that is what the commercials say. While no man can become Superman, every woman can become Barbie. At the end of the movie Barbie leaves Barbie Land and enters the real world by visiting her gynecologist. Every woman has to visit her gynecologist, and so the movie concludes that every woman can be Barbie. That promise is of course nothing more than advertisement. But as every good advertisement the lie sells better than the truth. The main problem that Barbie poses as a cultural icon is the strange absence of any question, why women want to become Barbie. It is quite clear why anyone would like to be Superman, but it is by no means clear why anyone would accept the Barbie doll as a representation or projection of herself. In Gerwig’s movie a protagonist from the real world, played by America Ferrera, who is somehow responsible for Barbie’s depression and anxiety, gives a monologue, in which she decries the unfairness of being a woman in today’s world. (The irony is lost on the writers.) And while some of her complaints may actually be true, nowhere in her rant actually appears any explanation who does this to her and why. The causes of these predicaments are either abstract or remain unnamed. There is not a single thought in this movie that in a woman centered world, the predicament of women may have most of all to do with the way women interact with one another. The best example is Gerwig herself, who had full control over a budget of roughly $150 million, which will be returned in two weeks at the box office and very likely turn into a large profit in the coming months. Gerwig is “subverting the thing” by simply being extremely commercially successful and making fun of men, but of course the patriarchy…

If one looks at this movie with a critical eye, then the Kens are actually the victims of oppression and the Barbies are actually the villains. This irony is of course lost on the writers. Ken’s introduction of the patriarchy into Barbie Land is an insurrection of subalterns, who cannot speak (to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak). The fact that they are too stupid to achieve success is also the effect of Barbie fascism, which dehumanizes the Kens, robs them of their agency and deforms their ability to use language. The behavior of the Barbies is one of people in power and control. When Barbie returns to Barbie Land and discovers a coup has happened, she acts like someone who has lost her privileges and is angry that she has to share resources,  which she had thought were hers and hers alone. Corporate feminist Stalinism is dizzy with success.

Men want to be like Superman, because it is unreachable and women want to become Barbie, because it is unreachable too. Superman is super, but not perfect, while Barbie is perfect but not super. This difference is rarely recognized. Superman is mostly unhappy, because the fate of humanity lies entirely on his shoulder and the burden keeps him busy. Barbie, who at the beginning of this movie has a strange death wish, is unhappy, because her life is perfect and this is obviously unbearable. When Kat Rosenfeld claims that the biggest problem women today have is to preserve their hotness, she is obviously mistaken. The biggest problem of women is that they are increasingly unhappy the more perfect, enjoyable and hedonistic their life becomes. The particular promise of feminism that women will be happy if they can do and get what they want, is a lie. Happiness does not come from hedonism and unrestrained liberty. Happiness comes from struggle, hard work, difficult decisions and being part of a loving family. Having children will make you happy and working hard for your success will make you happy. The consumerism that is promoted by Barbie and the corporate feminist Stalinism complex as “freedom”, is a recipe for unhappiness. Barbie encapsulates this problem, without reflecting it. Again, the irony is lost on the writers.

The nature of Barbie’s mythological foundation is exemplified in the first scene, which is a parody of Kubrick famous Monolith sequence from “2001 – A Space Odyssey”. Instead of early ape like humans, little girls play with old fashioned dolls, which resemble toddlers, so the girls can play mothers. Unlike Kubrick, Gerwig cannot do the scene without a narrator, who needs to explain what’s going on. Then the Monolith comes along, this time in the form of a giant retro Barbie figure, and the girls learn to destroy their old dolls and gather around the Barbie monolith to start Barbie Land civilization. It is a clever scene, and the closest thing to a nerd reference that is possible in such a context, but it has no meaning in the story itself nor does it reveal anything about the Barbie character. What it does reveal, is the sinister side of an agenda. The monolith in Kubrick’s classic appears out of nowhere. Its origins remain unknown and what it actually does is never resolved, only the consequences of its sudden intervention. The Barbie Monolith appears out of nowhere and gives rise to a new beginning. The girls, who have played with boring old-fashioned dolls, a game in which they practiced to be mothers, are now doing the prestige thing. The way the girls play is no longer a subject of natural tendencies, but the result of an artificial outside intervention. Barbie is antithetical to nature, an irony that is again lost on the writers. It is not the patriarchy that makes the girls love Barbie. It is not men who created the archetype. Barbie, according to this movie, is a self-inflicted weapon of mind destruction, which was invented by a superwomen for all the other superwomen, who love to rant about “sexualized capitalism”, but take the power and the money anyway. Irony, as I mentioned before is completely lost on these writers. Barbie is the problem that women face, to decide who and how they want to be, but Barbie is also the solution to this problem, that is at best addressed in abstract terms and outsourced to the patriarchy. At the end of the day it turns out that all the battles of emancipation are won, the goals of liberation are achieved and the victories of women are already celebrated. All that is left is reenactment and the need for incompetent villains, who have no language and agency. Someone like Ken will always be there for a quick punch and an according line.

“Barbie” is the achievement of a class of privileged and spoiled elite princesses, who keep ranting about the patriarchy, while holding the power and occupying the spots of glory, fame and prestige. Their problem is not that they are oppressed, but that they are never happy with their lives, whatever they try. Somebody has to pay for that and it’s not them. The strange idea that anyone of these women is oppressed or even held back is preposterous but it works exactly for that reason. The elites of the past were convinced to deserve their status. They ruled with self-confidence. The woke elites of corporate feminist Stalinism can only rule by proxy. The social justice rhetoric is a political formula which enables revenge fantasies and a psychological permission to be cruel, bitter and resentful. The grift keeps on working and will not stop working, because this is actually the ideology of the ruling class. The Greta Gerwigs of this world have made corporate feminist Stalinism a winning formula and they are dizzy with success.