Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 24, 2023


Second daughter

Daughters One, Four, and Three

Three times this week I have started writing a post, about why I can't write a post because I keep getting interrupted by real life, only to be interrupted by real life -- an emergency molar extraction for a child, the wedding ring being repaired, the million demands on the at-home parent when dad and oldest brother are canoeing with the Scouts in Virginia for a week. This weekend everyone was home, and so we took it in shifts to watch Barbie. I have four daughters, ages 21-13, and they went first, all dressed up because it's fun to dress up sometimes. The girls came home with opinions, but wanted to wait to discuss the movie until we'd all seen it.

So Darwin and I went, not in costume, because although it's fun to dress up, it's also nice not to have to dress up. And we were amused, for the most part. I am not a great fan of Greta Gerwig's oeuvre. Lady Bird left me unmoved by the angsty, self-absorbed teen protagonist, and Little Women was a revision of the literary source ungrounded in historical realities and attitudes (and burdened by the talented but ubiquitous leads, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet). But perhaps, we thought, Gerwig might have the overblown touch necessary for a camp property like Barbie.

In part, yes. The early absurdity of Barbieland, in which the perfectly sculpted characters move and act in ways believable to anyone who's ever watched kids play with their toys, was Technicolor fun -- and fun is the operative word in a movie based on a toy. But you've seen just about all of it in the trailers. Gerwig succeeds, to an extent, in humanizing her main Barbie character, aided immeasurably by the talent of actress Margot Robbie. But the only way she can deal with Ken, or with any male character in the movie, or any character who is not Margot Robbie Barbie, is by making them more, not less, of a caricature. And that's a problem in a movie that's trying to tread the ground covered with far more real human drama by The Lego Movie, which managed a much smaller-scale real-world crisis with surprising humanity.

Humanity is in short supply here. Indeed, Gerwig wants to use Barbie to make a profound point about the role in women in society, but she can't succeed in grinding her pink plastic ax to a razor's edge because she's unwilling to make any profound points about the role of men. Every man in the movie, from Ken to Will Ferrell's cartoonish Mattel CEO to a comically irrelevant husband and father (a toss-off gag), is as plastic and malleable to Gerwig's whims as Gerwig wants to claim that women are to the patriarchy. And this one-note story service isn't limited to the men, who are never presented as actual people. A real-world mother and her teenage daughter become Barbie's guides and co-conspirators, urging her to act and to value herself for herself. The bond shared by Barbie and the mother is surprisingly effective. But the teenage daughter, a vicious little piece of work -- all the abrasiveness and clever self-absorption of Lady Bird without the internal life which gave Lady Bird her context -- is like Barbie herself, only the prop that makes the mother "Mother". 

This movie is, in fact, a middle-aged woman's dream world of matriarchal relevance, where daughters are inexplicably hostile and then inexplicably appreciative, where Barbie can be sexy without sex because men are all emasculated buffoons (Barbie and Ken, as specifically revealed in dialogue, have no genitals), where men seem to be able to take over society simply by uttering the magic word "patriarchy", where women are Supreme Court judges and President and Chemists without having to demonstrate a lick of the grunt work that goes into politics and higher education. One of the few moments in the real world where the humor gives a nod to truth is where Ken is at a hospital demanding to be allowed to do surgery because he's a man, and the tired woman in scrubs tells him no. "Let me speak to a doctor!" he insists. "I am a doctor," retorts the woman, and you believe it in a way you don't believe in Nobel Prize-Winning Barbie. Ken doesn't ever act the way that boys play with corresponding toys such as GI Joe because, as Darwin noted, Ken was never a boys' toy, only an accessory to Barbie. The movie makes this point early on, but doesn't resolve it in an interesting and truthful way on its own terms.

The contrast with The Lego Movie, which did succeed on its own terms, is informative. There, each story line, toyland and real life, resolved honestly in its own world, and that worked because The Lego Movie only attempted to make a small, intimate point about the real world: the conflicts between the ways parents and children interact with beloved toys, and how that crisis of control can be bridged by love and some sacrifice. No matter the scale of the work of fiction, the only true points that it can make about the world are small and intimate and interior, because people are themselves small and intimate and interior. 

Barbie the Movie, however, wants to make a grand point about the necessity of feminism to counteract the oppressive demands society puts on women -- a society, it should be noted, that is 50% women. How do all these highly-qualified Barbies come to be oppressed by a buffoon like Ken? How can a vote to change the Constitution of Barbieland be so scary that the Barbies have to lure the Kens away from voting, when Barbies outnumber, and can therefore outvote, the Kens? Why does the grand plan to defeat the Kens give credence to pick-up artist cons? Why does the unbrainwashing of the Barbies work by capturing each one and forcing her to listen to an impassioned speech, when every intervention I've ever seen on that model in real life mostly makes the intervenee dig in and put up defensive walls? That's fantasy, if you like.

In the end, the movie's frenetic pace grinds to a halt as Barbie is encouraged to actualize herself into being human by the ghost of her original American promoter, Ruth Handler (whose historical significance in Barbie's propagation consisted of manipulating markets by bypassing parental gatekeeping and selling a German sex doll directly to children through the medium of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club). This is the lull where, in sleepovers yet to come, the girls (who mainly want to watch fun Barbieland antics and the Kens' farcical yet satisfying dance-off) wander off to have cake or open presents or check memes together. No one wants to watch Barbie being human in a movie which doesn't have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. It succeeds at moments because Gerwig, who is a talented procedural filmmaker, gives Barbie flashes of real insight. (A moment of wonder, where a stunned, luminous Barbie realizes the individuality of each person at a park, touches transcendence.) But she can't extend that humanity to every character. As a result, where the movie is absurd fun (and that's most of it), it works, and where it tries to be deep -- well, what better time to engage in real-world interactions like cake and sharing memes? Not every movie is so considerate as to telegraph where you can stop paying attention to it.

In case you were wondering: the four daughters (who enjoy the advantage of being surrounded by hard-working, supportive father, uncles, grandfather, and boyfriend) enjoyed the funhouse aspect, but were unmoved by being told how oppressed they were, either by the plastic dolls they don't play with, or by the destructive unfriendly kind of teen girl they avoid in real life. "Why didn't they give her some backstory to show why she's so cruel?" one asked. My 14yo son, disappointed because his parents ruled against him seeing the extended nudity in Oppenheimer at this moment in time, but understanding and accepting the reasoning, decided against seeing Barbie, and I'm glad of that. He's not irrelevant to the women in his life, nor a jerk, nor an idiot, just a guy who knows that a Pitch Meeting spoof will tell you more about the movie than the movie itself.


Antoinette said...

Love the pictures of your daughters. They are beautiful young women.

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