Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.
!! Spoilers ahead !!
I really want everyone to see this movie and fully enjoy it, so I recommend not reading this if you haven’t seen it. And if you haven’t seen it, my god, see it.
Last night, I went to see Barbie in theaters for the second time. Since I first saw it two weeks ago, I have been kvelling over it with friends, pouring over it in my mind, acutely delighting in that Greta Gerwig got to do this and that she did this.
Yes, I’m aware that the movie is a commercial. Yes, I did wish there were more than two genders in the mix. No it is not radical or high art. Yes, it is kind of a mess. And still, I can’t help tearing up for the fifth time right now thinking about the tens of thousands of women and femmes who did not previously have language to describe why living in the patriarchy is so painful, who will walk out of the theater after seeing it feeling validated, liberated, at least a little bit deprogrammed.
Here are a few of the many reasons I love Barbie:
- We all still need to hear America Ferrera’s monologue about the litany of double standards we are held to as women/femmes. I adore the meta moment when Barbie says, “by giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy you robbed it of its power!” The movie reminds us we can help deprogram each other any time, all the time. You feel so good after Ferrera’s speech that it reminds even those of us who can articulate these things that it just feels really, really good to hear them.
- Switching genders made the sad absurdities of the patriarchy clear and funny. One example and one of my favorite lines was: “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” Ken’s loving friends surround him, offering love and ice cream but he is fixated on Barbie’s attention. You think “how pathetic” and then “…oh.” Oof. Yes. Too often, to have a great day, we require the male gaze no matter how many friends are offering us ice cream. This is also true of men––the patriarchy makes us need their attention but it also makes them need us to need it (if a man is masculine in the forest…). In this clusterfuck of attention needing, we all lose. I once saw Gloria Steinem speak and she blew my mind saying, “It’s very sad how we feel we need a man to validate our existence and how that then gives the men ego complexes. If they only knew how little it mattered which man…” (1)
- I loved its vision of the not-patriarchy. The Nobel is awarded to Barbie and she says “I worked very hard so I deserve it.” Imagine! A world where women can freely recognize their own hard-won accomplishments without publicly diminishing themselves! Barbie speaks in the Supreme Court and says “I’m getting emotional and I’m expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time and that does not diminish my powers; it expands them!” Imagine! Emotion as power! A world where we allowed our full humanity into spaces of collective decision making! Women showing emotion without being discredited!
- The way it mocks masculinity is just really funny. Indeed, I have had men explain The Godfather to me and play guitar at me and all sorts of variations of those two things, which are not small offenses. Underestimating someone’s intelligence and/or coercing someone into giving you their undivided attention and validation in real time are horrible things to do. It was simply cathartic to watch these rampant behaviors be made fun of so well.
- Allan. My husband is definitely an Allan—doesn’t show off or demand attention, concerned for the Kens when they fall victim to their own machismo, made very uncomfortable by the patriarchy, gets how to fight alongside women rather than for them (something like — be useful, not helpful), also secretly extremely skilled in physical combat. I scored so hard. People think Allan is queer coded but I agree with Liz Plank that actually he’s the alternative to toxic masculinity for all men.
Last week, in a group hang comprised mostly of very smart women, an exceedingly smart man I like very much said, “Supposedly Marilyn Monroe was actually really smart. A whole documentary was just made about it, about how she was strategic in the way she used the patriarchy to her advantage.” Ouch. The comment reminded me not only that we still default assume women are unintelligent (and even less intelligent if they are stereotypically beautiful) but also that men are still woefully (blissfully?) unaware that the world is the Kendom and that for us, every day is a series of new, exhausting strategic challenges in navigating it.
I managed to sublimate the little heartbreak that comment sent through me into jokes that were not jokes about how there would never be a documentary about how “Marlon Brando was actually really smart!” “Clint Eastwood–– actually really smart!” Marilyn Monroe was an incredible actor, singer, performer. Of course she was smart. What I didn’t go on to explain was that of course she operated strategically in the patriarchy. Any woman/femme, any not cis person, who has gotten anywhere, accomplished anything in this world has necessarily been a strategic operator in the patriarchy. There is no other way.
When Barbie discovers the Kendom, she has a tantrum and says “I’m just going to sit here and wait and hope that one of the more leadership oriented Barbies snaps out of it and does something about this whole mess.” Then, with the help of her friends, she gets up and accepts her responsibility to change things. They get to work deprogramming each other and dismantling the patriarchy together. My August suggestion for how to have fun in the apocalypse is: I’m down if you are, Barbie!
And then secondarily this, which is something that can help us not run out of fuel for that, and help us have more fun in general: when the Kens are Kenning, we can remember that it’s because they are Kens, and we can feel a little bad for them, which can make it all a little less hurtful and bring us back to remembering that we need to fix the patriarchy because we want everybody to be OK. Even if we aren’t ready to give them that Supreme Court seat just yet.
OK Bye Barbie!!!
(1) The talk was filmed (there’s baby Zoe in the front row) with Oprah for her network. We’d had long roundtables with the producers before and I’d talked about how the messaging in the commercials between segments ran contrary to Oprah’s feminist discourse. I was in front because the plan was that I would ask Oprah a question about that. But just before it started, one of the producers pulled me aside and said there’d been a change of plans—actually, Oprah would turn to me and ask, “So I heard you think it’s stupid to shave your vagina.” I’d said that in passing in the group discussion and was mortified by the idea that 1. I would discuss my pubes on TV and 2. that my big chance to talk to Oprah would be about something as inconsequential as pubic hair. I was too shocked to protest and before I’d really responded I was rushed to my seat. She never asked and when I got to talk to her later, I thanked her for not asking. She said, “Oh honey, I read that and I thought, ‘who cares!?’” And I said, “exactly!” and we rolled our eyes and laughed and she hugged me and I cried.
Zoe Keziah Mendelson is a writer, researcher, information designer, and creative director. She is co-founder of Webby-winning Pussypedia.net and the author of Pussypedia: A Comprehensive Guide. She is currently creating a martial arts curriculum for dogs. Subscribe to Zoe’s Substack here.