Barbie for Radicals

Or, how Greta Gerwig took on Plato and won. By Quan Nguyen.

Encountering mass cultural phenomena can be conflicting for us on the left. 

We know how the ideological machinery of Hollywood productions constrains any progressive messaging in pop culture, and is able to capture and appropriate radical ideas, whether Black radicalism in Black Panther, anti-fascist organising in Andor, or critiques of the super-rich in Triangle of Sadness and The Menu, packaging left-wing ideas into products easy to consume but difficult to enact. So, when Greta Gerwig promises to both subvert and not subvert Mattel’s toy advert, should we expect any meaningful feminist message from a Barbie movie?

On the other hand, even leftists should have fun, and we all can appreciate introductory  but low-barrier feminism. And Barbie delivers just that. It is a fun and engaging exploration of patriarchy and feminism, touching on important notes: how feminist empowerment has women doing their own thing without centering men, while patriarchal empowerment demands the subordination of women to men, and how true male liberation relies on the Kens to recognise that they are kenough on their own. 

There are questionable parts, such as the men not being held accountable for their patriarchal actions, and Barbies not only taking on the emotional labour of consoling the Kens, but apologising (!) for causing male resentment by just doing their own Barbie things without the Kens, which seems pretty harmful as a feminist message. But maybe surface-level feminism is enough for a corporate toy advert, and we should just enjoy the ride.

Except that Barbie isn’t just that. Barbie is an ambitious experiment on how to maintain the seeds of radicalism in the most corporate of productions, and Greta Gerwig managed to do so by adding layers below surface-level feminism, infusing the movie with a surprisingly thorough critique of philosophical idealism, concluding in an argument for materialism that is empathetic, human, and redeems Barbie’s feminist message.

Philosophical idealism goes back to Plato, who holds that there is a world of ideas that contains abstract, pure ideals of objects such as the pure triangle, the perfect circle, numbers, and ideas like justice, happiness, and the idea of a human. Moulded after this is a shadow world, the concrete material, imperfect world that tries to emulate the world of ideas. According to Plato, when we create in the material world (e.g. build a chair, or a just society) we think about the abstract, pure ideas (the perfect chair, the well-ordered society) and then enact them in the material world. The opposite view is philosophical materialism, according to which it’s the other way round: it is the material world that shapes our ideas. 

(Spoilers for Barbie hereafter)

We start with stereotypical Barbie in the Barbie World, an idealised world which the material world is modelled after: girls in the real world are assumed to model themselves after the Barbies, learning that they can be anything from president to scientist. The Barbie world is perfect; the material world isn’t but is coming closer to the ideal by using the Barbie world as a model.

barbie with a mirror

However, it turns out this isn’t the case: Stereotypical Barbie suddenly learns about death, depression and loneliness, without any input from within the Barbie world, the origin being a lonely alienated mum in the real world. Barbie further encounters other central human traits such as sadness, beauty and emotions, while Beach Ken learns about Patriarchy from the material world. Both bring these ideas back into the Barbie world and enact them there. So, according to Greta Gerwig, Plato is wrong: it isn’t the ideal that moulds the real world, but the material world that shapes our ideas.

Back in the Barbie world, Ken’s patriarchal input from the real world overpowers the preconceptions of the Barbies easily, as their ideas of empowerment are purely abstract and have not been given meaning through the material world (as the movie states, similar to indigenous people not having resistance to european germs). The Barbies end up embracing subordination to the Kens. Attempts to reverse this by appealing to abstract ideas, such as how empowered the original Barbie selves used to be, do not work and cannot shake the Barbies from patriarchal slumber. Stereotypical Barbie collapses into despair.

The only thing that works to wake them up is, again, input from the material world, in the form of the alienated mum’s monologue about the lived reality and contradictions of being a woman. This wakes the main Barbie from her depression, and the other barbies from patriarchal indoctrination, not only restoring the old Barbie selves but the formation of a new, stronger consciousness in the Barbies.

So, Greta Gerwig shows that while we all assume that ideas live forever, it is the material world, its lived reality and experience, and particularly emotions, that shape what our ideas mean in the end, and that change always originates in the material world and its contradictions and struggles. This is made explicit in the movie’s ending, where stereotypical Barbie rejects being a mere idea and asks to become someone who gives meaning to these ideas. This results in Barbie embracing human emotion, and ends with a visit to the gynaecologist, arguably the most material experience.

This stance against idealism in favour of the messy, contradictory struggles of the material world is ultimately what redeems the surface-level feminism of the Barbie movie, and is what makes Barbie resist the elite capture of radical ideas. While we obviously wouldn’t expect a toy advert to feature quotes on feminist separatism from radical feminist writers like Andrew Dworkin, or the newest take on radical intersectionality, Greta Gerwig layers her corporate-approved feminism with a materialist philosophy that points us towards how lasting change is created: what really matters is the lived reality, the experience of women’s lives and struggles, not the abstract representation of feminist ideas. So, while Barbie’s feminist message is constrained by all sorts of things, the movie asks us to embrace the material struggle and its contradictions, and especially women’s emotions as a source of reflection and change.