As a huge fan of every project Greta Gerwig has involved herself in, and also a fan of the work of Noah Baumbach, her frequent collaborator, I was quite looking forward to the Barbie movie, the pair’s co-written project that Greta directed. Each has numerous metamodern credentials: His include writing/directing The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha and co-writing two films with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox). Hers: acting in Frances Ha and writing/directing Lady Bird (which we’ve written about here on our website) plus acting in too many mumblecore films to list here.
In an email exchange with an art-and-culture critic friend prior to the film’s release, I shared the prediction, “I think Barbie is going to be philosophically meaningful while also delivering the nostalgic, pink spectacle everyone is expecting. Fun for the whole family! And I think it will be a film I’ll end up describing as metamodern.”
To explain my expectation that Barbie might be philosophically meaningful requires a brief digression: I have been intrigued lately by the philosophical movement known as Object Oriented Ontology. “Object Oriented Ontology” may sound intimidating and un-Barbie-like, but let me try to explain the convergence I see between them. OOO is interested in the life (as it were) of objects. In this framework developed by Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, an object can be many things: a human, a can opener, the concept of democracy or… a doll. Anything that resists being reduced to the sum of its parts, or the sum of the influences on it.
If you’ve read my article, “Eleven Metamodern Methods in the Arts,” you may be able to sense why I feel this is relevant to metamodernism. To wit, the tenth method I proposed there is named “Over-projection (Anthropomorphism).” I explained it like this:
The projection of human personality onto non-human creatures or inanimate objects is metamodern in that it is a showcasing of inner, felt experience. In effect, the author/work/reader is filled up with felt experience to the point where it spills over and imbues itself in non-human entities. Examples of this can include characters who are talking animals, cars or other objects that are designed to look like they have faces (e.g. The 1997 redesign of the Volkswagen Beetle, the original Apple iMacs), Wes Anderson’s films The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, inanimate objects being given consideration for their “feelings.” [I would update these examples by adding Free Guy and Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (both 2021).]
I had come up with the above while searching for a heuristic to connect various cultural products under observation, attempting to say what made them “metamodern.” This was before I’d learned about OOO. When I found out about Harman’s and Morton’s philosophy, which arose during the same post-2000 decades in which metamodernism emerged, I thought, “Here’s an example of a metamodern philosophical movement!” It appeared to fit my Method #10, in that it seemed to be all about seeing the agency in non-human objects.
Also: In that same “Eleven Methods” essay, I proposed that “the essence of metamodernism is a (conscious or unconscious) motivation to protect the solidity of felt experience against the scientific reductionism of the modernist perspective and the ironic detachment of the postmodern sensibility.” When I encountered Graham Harman’s way of defining an object (my paraphrase, again: “Anything that resists being reduced to the sum of its parts, or the sum of the influences on it”), I found the resemblance interesting. I came to feel that OOO could arguably be understood as a contemporary philosophy that belongs under the umbrella of metamodernism, in the same way that certain songs or paintings do.
So, with all of that in mind, I went into Barbie hoping I might find some lighthearted philosophical explorations of the lives of inanimate objects; and/or the lives that people imagine into these objects. The previews suggested that the film would humorously turn the physical qualities of the real-world dolls into live-action behaviors. A trailer scene zooms in on Margot Robbie’s Barbie foot, which is stepping out of a high-heeled shoe and retaining its unnaturally elevated form. Another has Ken (Ryan Gosling) telling Barbie he wants to stay the night with her. “What would we do?” she queries. “I don’t know” is his response, because the objects (the dolls) don’t actually have the parts necessary for “bed-time activities.” Even though I’d already seen them, these scenes were still funny when they came along in the movie, as were additional extrapolations from the physicality of the real-life Barbie toy and its accessories. We meet a Weird Barbie character (Kate McKinnon) whose limbs splay out at impossible hyper-yoga angles because – as we learn – she’s the Barbie whose human owner has obsessively experimented with bending her every which way. Stairways are floated down, not descended step-by-step. Water doesn’t really work right, whether in the ocean, a shower or as a beverage.
This expectation of mine – that the film might involve some metamodern play around the overlap of objecty-ness and people-ness – was fulfilled. Method #10, boom! Meanwhile, the film also exemplifies my Method #11, meta-cute.
…It has to do with things that evoke childlike innocence and simplicity, but are meant for usage by adult-age people. …
Barbie, a film centered around a children’s doll, but that grapples with serious adult issues, seems ready to have its “meta-cute” box checked.
Yet another interestingly metamodern aspect of Barbie lies in its handling of what one imagines might be a conflict between Gerwig’s artistic and social agenda and the agenda of The Mattel Corporation, which owns and markets the line of Barbie toys, and is the ultimate producer of the film (in partnership with Warner Brothers). According to Willa Paskin at the New York Times, in order to negotiate this seemingly impossible contradiction,
… Gerwig devoted herself to threading a needle slimmer than the eyelashes painted on the doll’s face. The movie is a celebration of Barbie and a subterranean apologia for Barbie. It is a giant corporate undertaking and a strange, funny personal project. It is a jubilant, mercilessly effective polymer-and-pink extravaganza whose guiding star turns out to be Gerwig’s own sincerity. “Things can be both/and,” she said. “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Many of those attending the film seemed to be drawn into this braiding of the commercial and the critical, celebrating their affection for the product by showing up decked out in pink, while also cheering for the film’s feminist and humanist message.
Mattel is represented in the movie by Will Ferrel’s character – known only as “The CEO” – who comes across as a combination of bumbling, money-motivated, affable, manipulative, manipulable, ultimately good-natured and ultimately effective in his domain. It should be noted that the true feminist/humanist wisdom bearer in the film is Ruth Handler, who in the film and in real life was the founder of the Mattel corporation. As embodied in these characters, the film’s sensibility oscillates in its attitude towards the corporate/capitalist/commercial realm, calling attention to the possibility of humanity there, while still maintaining a cautious, critical eye.
OK, now, here is where Barbie’s metamodernism gets a bit thin for me: in the film’s delivery of its feminist, anti-patriarchal message. I have to say first… I’M A FEMINIST! I’m not happy about the way women’s lives were constrained in the time before the Barbie doll was brought to market (1959) and I am certain that in 2023 we still have a long way to go in rectifying these wrongs. And I love that the film raises these issues!
But (and yes, here comes that “I’m not sexist, but…” moment that is probably not a good look. Gonna do it anyway; bear with me), I do have some things to say about this section. What I will call the Battle of the Sexes segment begins, to my mind, when Barbie returns from the Real World and finds Ken has installed himself as the new leader, and ends just before she goes for her wisdom walk with Ruth Handler. To me, Gerwig’s approach to these topics resulted in a dumbed-down, seemingly misandrist treatment of important issues. Though it’s hard to imagine this was an expression of any sort of true anti-male attitude on the part of the filmmakers, nonetheless, what we get felt like a reach for easy laughs, or an overly blunt tool for offering catharsis.
The larger point being this: to the extent that the film may have gone for those cheap, sit-commy laughs, I feel that it gave up on the possibility of bequeathing compassion to everybody, and therefore weakened its feminist message, and thereby became less … metamodern. I will explain.
One of the basic devices of the film is the reversal of gender roles in Barbieland. There are plenty of “Barbies” with professional jobs – for example, Doctor Barbie, Journalist Barbie, Judge Barbie, President Barbie – whereas the Kens have more ornamental personae, such as Beach Ken, Basketball Ken and Tourist Ken. Also, the Dream Houses in Barbieland are owned by the various Barbies and the Kens just … maybe sleep on the beach? Social life in Barbieland is centered around networks of women, with the diversity of Kens being expressed mainly through their appearance and their attachments to certain Barbies. And, sure – all of this is cute in a making-the-toy-real way and also functions as a lighthearted but meaningful means of drawing attention to the patriarchal conventions that persist in our real-life society by flipping them on their head. However…
In the film’s second act, Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie (the only Barbie without a high-level job) and Ryan Gosling’s Beach Ken make a kind of hero’s journey into the real world. Barbie is shocked by the misogyny she encounters, whereas Ken is inspired to see men in charge of things and having agency. The two of them get separated and Ken ends up returning to Barbieland first. When Barbie gets back there, she finds that Ken has incited a revolution, establishing himself as the alpha leader of a sort of frat-boy patriarchy in what was formerly Barbieland. The Barbies have mostly accepted submissive roles, giving up their professional occupations and deferring to the agency of the Kens. But Barbie does not give in to the new order. After winning back many of the other Barbies by breaking their trances, she devises a strategy that relies on traditional “feminine wiles” to trick the Kens into fighting each other, so that the Barbies can retake control of the Barbieland government while the men are distracted.
All of this makes for great laughs, but at what cost? I would argue that it does a disservice to genuine feminism. First of all, by lampooning the men, it undercuts their interiority and therefore undercuts the film’s overall metamodern sensibility. Maybe I’m being a bit too fastidious here, but, if the premise of the film is a sex-role reversal, where the Barbies represent the conventional male status in real society and the Kens represent the conventional female status, then, what are the implications for how the “revolution” is depicted?
In Barbie’s plot, the Kens, representing the previously marginalized group, act like power-hungry buffoons when they get a shot at power. Then the Barbies get their “rightful position” in control of society back. The film seems to be suggesting that what constitutes a “win” is when the previously dominant group regains dominance. And when they do so in this film, the Barbies pay no more than lip service to the project of striving for a truly egalitarian society.
Even if I’m being too literal in trying to maintain the logic of the role-reversal device, it remains the case that the film (or at least this part of it) does not conclude with egalitarianism and a greater recognition of the agency and individuality of all people. Rather, it still concludes with one group on top and another group in a secondary position. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling’s amazing performance of the film’s stand-out song/dance number “I’m Just Ken” loses some of its potential metamodern impact by being placed inside the big Battle of the Sexes. What could have been a powerful song about how a man can assert the value of his interiority in spite of being not the main character instead ends up belittling the very idea of male interiority: because it happens in a context where Ken is (temporarily) the film’s villain and thus must appear ridiculous.
Now, I will concede that the problems I have with the film might be unique to my particular vantage point. While Barbie was created by a duo known for their nuanced, indie sensibilities (i.e., the kind of stuff that I personally love), nevertheless this film was intended to be a blockbuster appealing to mainstream audiences. And it appears to have succeeded in bringing its feminist message to a demographic that needs such a message. According to a survey conducted by ResumeBuilder.com, 74% of conservative men who watched Barbie say the film improved their view of women in leadership positions. So it may have been exactly the movie that the world, overall, needs right now. Just not perfect for me, having come in with certain expectations. And unfortunately not for the friend to whom I wrote the excited email prior to the film’s release; this aspect of the film was a deal-breaker for him.
Luckily, the film does not end with the Battle of the Sexes. Afterwards, Barbie has her own reckoning, and an encounter with Ruth Handler, who is essentially the creator “god” of her existence. In a big, metamodern step towards claiming her agency and interiority, Barbie asserts that she wants to be “the creator not just the thing created.” Ruth suggests to Barbie that no special dispensation is required to make this change; the fact of Barbie wanting it is all that’s needed to make the transformation a reality. So with Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” (written for the film) playing in the background, the doll anthropomorphizes herself and enters the real world, now human in every detail. The object has become agent – the progression that I’d hoped to see.
So, that’s my metamodern take on Barbie, the good, the bad and the pretty. (Or, the meta-cute, the object-oriented, and the imperfectly feminist.) All in all, in spite of the reservations I’ve admitted to, I end up feeling that Gerwig, Baumbach, Robbie, et al. have brought us a product that should be remembered as mostly brilliant, and definitely as metamodern.