Barbie: Philosopher & Activist

Barbie: Philosopher & Activist
Barbie photo booth display with balloons and a frame you can stand in with the words "Be a Doll"

Barbie alert! I liked the movie. But I did not like the ending. Because it is too much like life. The movie raises so many questions but it answers so few. It highlights so many problems, but then solves so few. Patriarchy distorts everything, it says. But then, at the end, Barbie is lucky to get even one thing right: control over her own health care.

Of course the movie is a silly spectacle. One with great costumes, choreography, and comedic acting, for sure! But totally within the safe zone of a Hollywood blockbuster. The film questions all-male corporate boardrooms, but takes corporate capitalism for granted. It says that a beautiful life of plenty can be shallow, but it doesn’t show us any other kind of life. The film challenges male and female social roles but explores no non-binary possibilities. It shows us just as much ethnic diversity as the Barbie toy line, and not much more. You get the idea.

Still, the writers put in a lot of great psychology, philosophy, and feminist theory. For example, neither the Barbies nor the Kens were taught how to be authentic people. They know only social roles and routines. Kind of like…many of us in the real world. You’ve lived it: a crisis calls us to do more, to be more. Sometimes we feel the call as a deep yearning.

Barbie feels it first. So she sets out in a journey to a more “real” place. But it’s not easy to be more real. In fact, it’s not so easy to be a woman in this new place. Barbie sees the boxes others want to put her in. Notices how few women are in visible positions of power. She meets a few wise women, but they wield their influence from the shadows. Suddenly, Barbie’s social role is to live at the margins. So she sees power relations as she has never seen them before. This is a nod to feminist standpoint epistemology— people disadvantaged by social systems see truths that those in power have the luxury of ignoring. So Barbie asks herself a big existential question: how can I reconcile my inner world, shaped in innocence, with this harsher outer world?

Ken tries to follow Barbie into self-awareness. He sees new possibilities for personal and social power. So, he too, has an existential crisis and feels a desire to grow. And then, to address his inner yearning, he latches onto the first thing he sees: power. He is so excited about the possibilities that he shares them with all the Kens.

But the result is silly, because no one ever taught Ken what one ought to do with real power. He keeps the basic structure of roles and routines just as it was. And then leads the Kens in simply switching positions with the Barbies. (George Orwell’s Animal Farm, anyone? Surely you read that, about the Soviet Union replacing authoritarian royal capitalism with authoritarian state-sponsored capitalism?) Together, the Kens could have what philosopher Hannah Arendt calls “power with” each other to accomplish many good things. But, in their naïveté, they can only imagine a sort of goal-less “power over” the Barbies.

Oh how I hoped the film would end with the Barbies and Kens creating a world of shared power! But it did not. Instead, it said, “You all have a lot of work to do before you can even envision this.” Like re-discover what it means to be human beyond your social conditioning. Now, I admit I appreciated this caution. History shows how easy it is to fall back into the only patterns you know.  And I also like the film’s nod to the philosophical and spiritual value of self-knowledge. But I do accept that you might see it as spiritual bypassing of significant social action.

I’m still reflecting on the conversation with Ruth. She, the creator of Barbie, is obviously the film’s God-figure. And, at the the end, she gives Barbie a spiritual teaching. “Life sucks and then you die,” she says. “So, go make some meaning in this effed-up world.” (This is straight-up philosophical existentialism, in case you did not notice.) At first, I disliked this teaching. Is that all Barbie can do? Carve out a shred of meaning? But not necessarily take on the problems the movie poses?

But then I saw the first thing Barbie chooses to do: take control of her own reproductive health! And, with that, the film’s end kicked me right back into the real world. Into the United States of 2023. Where, after more than 180 years of public feminist thought and advocacy, women are fighting again for safe reproductive health care. So, the film ends with quite a realistic picture of social activism: take on one issue at a time, and give it your all.

I know you might have wished Barbie would make a different choice. Maybe the same one as you have made. But, in fact, so many projects need attention. As the classic Jewish text Pirkei Avot says: The day is short, and the work is plentiful…It is not your duty to finish the work, but you’re not free to neglect it either.

** Photo credit: Phillip Pessar via Wikimedia Commons

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