Barbie Movie is as Pro-Male as it is Feminist

February

3

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While the “Barbie” movie is billed as a pro-woman film, and I think it is, I want to take a look at it from the perspective of it being a very positive film for men.

Yes, it certainly critiques patriarchy, and America Fererra’s monologue about the struggles of being a woman gave cinematic voice to a common experience of being a woman in this world. It does not, however, critique men any more than it critiques women. Those who like to point to any negative depictions of men should be reminded that the film takes its crisis turn when the Barbies/women easily become brainwashed into subservient Stepford Wives. It is not anti-woman to show that. At the same time, the Kens become boorish man-children, prioritizing beer and big trucks over all else. This is not anti-man. The film critiques the system within which gender operates, putting it on display in a bright pink-colored joy-filled visual spectacle.

The Barbie movie has been given a lot of significance for a summer blockbuster. It was a better-than-most tentpole movie that became imbued with meaning, in part because it was very well made with a cultural icon and a not-so-subtle message. It brilliantly wove the complexity of Barbie’s cultural relevance into an equally complex film script. Of course, if the box-office has anything to say about the film, it clearly resonated with a lot of people, as exemplified by its $1.5 billion global box-office haul. Somewhere between 60-70% of theater goers for the movie were women, which means that men spend about a half a billion dollars to watch the film. And that’s just in the theaters.


It's a Barbie World

We all know that all of the dolls in the Barbie Universe are Barbie dolls. Ken is a character in that universe. That’s how the story goes. Every woman in a James Bond movie is a character in the Bond world. That’s how the Bond story goes. At the beginning of “Barbie”, they are all just dolls. But when stereotypical Barbie questions her morality/immortality, something changes – and they have to reconcile the Barbie world with the real world. Frankly, that’s brilliant storytelling. Barbie has meant many different things to many different people – and it’s the people, you and me, who have created that meaning. Whatever you have ever thought of about Barbie dolls is meaning that you assigned to a piece of plastic. That’s not a bad thing, it’s what we do as humans – we make meaning out of things and events, sometimes congruent meaning, and sometimes not so.

As the father of daughters, I never bought my daughters Barbie dolls. I associated Barbie with unhealthy body-type stereotypes and I didn’t want that “beauty” ideal to impact my daughters (I mean, that’s impossible in this world, but I tried to lessen the impact or delay the encounter). But that’s the meaning I gave to Barbie. What the movie did so excellently was to point out that what you think about Barbie dolls is the meaning that you gave them. Barbie has meant empowerment to some girls, regressive body image pathologies to others, and lots in between.


Hollywood, Barbie, and The Hero’s Journey

Director Greta Gerwig expertly weaves a tale that uses the plethora of divergent opinions about Barbie to create the internal conflicts and problems for the film’s characters. As for Ken, he’s not sure how he fits into a story that’s not about him or when he is not the center of attention. He needs attention from Barbie in order to feel validated. And not just any Barbie, but Margot Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie. This is why I think the message for boys and men is far from negative. Allow me to explain.

First, when the film focuses on Ken’s story, it’s about Ken being “Kenough” without Barbie, or in short, without “getting” Barbie. The hero narrative for men very often culminates around “getting the girl” in order to be complete or to be a true hero. This is pretty central to the Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell – and then utilized as a hero/story blueprint for Hollywood since the 1970s renaissance and beyond. One of the unseen and under-discussed consequence of the impact of Joseph Campbell’s work on society is the codification of what it means to be a hero – and how women are regarded in the Campbellian hero narrative: they are mother, temptress, challenge to be conquered, or prize for the successful completion of the Journey.  Their majority of mainstream storytelling has conformed to this narrative structure.

When Life is Impacted by Art

While many feminist thinkers have pointed to how the male-dominated hero’s journey narrative has negatively impacted representation of women, and how women are portrayed in general, the truth is that it has set and unrealistic image of how men can be validated as heroes (or real men). Do you remember the Santa Barbara shooter who went on a killing spree because hot women wouldn’t have sex with him? He posted this video before gunning down six people and injuring fourteen more in Santa Barbara. He claimed that he was denied sex by women – and that he deserved it. Now, I can’t claim that the hero narrative of getting the girl as a reward caused this behavior. But there is certainly a correlation between his claimed grievances and claims on why they are grievances at all. When the dominant story narrative is that the good guy, the hero, gets the girl, then when that doesn’t happen, it can be easy blame. That can be self-blame and loathing, or pointed towards others. 

In the Barbie movie, Ken has to learn that he can be meaningful and important without getting the girl, without her being his reward for figuring out his lesson of the movie. When Ken steps out of Barbieland and into the real world, he comes to believe that what is missing in Barbieland is power and significance. What he learns after trying to institute a patriarchal structure in Barbieland is that power over others and an indulgence of his senses are NOT what makes a man fulfilled. That the old man cave, beer, pool, and “manly” things (whatever the hell that means) might be fun, but it’s certainly not necessarily fulfilling. And that finding a new way to find significance is worth looking for.

The film, Barbie, may be anti-patriarchy, but in being so, is likely more pro-man than one might think at first glance.

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I’ve read a few blogs and listened to a few podcasts that bashed the movies as being anti-man, several of whom explicitly stated that they hadn’t seen the movie. Others appeared to be watching the film with the explicit aim of proving a point they already made in their head. The film may be anti-patriarchy, but in being so, is likely more pro-man than one might think at first glance (or first viewing). And to those men, I think you can rest assured that the sequel will most likely be Ken’s story. The end of the film certainly pointed that direction. But, if you’re expecting him to “get” Barbie in the end of this movie or its sequel, you’ll be either disappointed, or come to see that there may be no better ending for future pro-male movies than not having a woman be the reward for the male hero.


Feminist and Pro-Male

The Barbie movie’s big takeaway for me as a pro-male film is seeing a man in struggle (not figuring it out), all the way to the end, is a good image for men to see. For men to see Ken struggling with his identity after he has made a life that revolves around a woman is a reality for many men. Most of life isn’t spent in the heroic climax anyway. Life is spent in the swings of life between successes and failures, where the two poles are brief moments in a hero’s journey that is about the journey and not the goal, reward, or end point.

If, after watching the Barbie movie, you need to see a man get the girl and save the day, admired and revered by everyone in the last scene who claps for his heroics, well, I have good news for you: there are tens of thousands of options streaming free right now.

Have you seen “Barbie”? If so, let me know what you think in the comments.

  • Thank you, Matthew, for a very insightful post. I think you do a great job in promoting the movie as well! But, more than that, your take on the issues of masculinity and femininity touch significantly on many issues that often come up in Pub meetings.

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