Brendan’s review of Barbie (2023)

Tonight I saw Barbie.

I think people are going to be watching this movie, talking about it, finding inspiration in it, arguing about it, loving it, hating it, thinking about it, studying it, and in some way engaged by it, for decades to come. It is possibly the most existentialist-themed film to come out of Hollywood in a long while.

Yes, it’s a feminist film too. That much is obvious going in. The “It is literally impossible to be a woman” speech needed to be there, even if it’s not an especially new message— some variation of it has crossed my social media stream almost every day for many years.

I get that that message needs to continue to be said until the people who need to get it finally get it.

But I think the existentialist theme is the more interesting one. At the beginning of the film, Barbie is an object. She’s so perfect, that she isn’t even interesting. She lives in herself, but not *for* herself. And Ken is an object, too: in fact he wants to be an object, for as the narrator tells us he feels entirely unfulfilled unless Barbie is looking at him. He lives neither in himself nor for himself. So far, Barbie-land is fine, if a little weird. And then, Barbie drops the existential question: “Any of you guys ever think about dying?”

At that point, I felt able to settle into my seat in the cinema and enjoy myself, able to ignore that I was the only guy in the cinema who had gone to see it alone. Don’t believe me? I’ll photograph my ticket for you. But then, wouldn’t that be a Ken-ish thing to do? That is, to need to be seen as something, and to feel that need so deeply as to feel empty and angsty without it?

(Whoa, I think I just had an out-of-movie experience.)

I love that Barbie’s quest is a quest for realisation, a quest for the real. I love that Barbieland is Plato’s Cave. That the real world is messy, complicated, and a little dangerous. That Ken craves Barbie’s gaze so deeply, he organizes a patriarchal takeover of Barbieland in order to get it— and then he doesn’t get it, because he finds himself neck deep in a Hegelian master-servant dialectic. I love that Weird Barbie is a shaman. That Allan sees both early-film Barbieland, and the Ken kingdom, for the dead ends that they are. I love that Barbie accidentally finds herself on a quest for God— that is, Ruth Handler, her creator. And most of all, I love that Barbie decides what she wants is “to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”

That’s what I want too, Barbie. That’s why studied philosophy.

In fact I love something else about this film more than that. I love that all over this planet, millions and millions of girls are going to watch this film, thinking that they’re in for a semi-escapist, feminist-themed, family comedy film, about nothing more consequential than a toy. And on one level they’re going to get that film. But they’re *also* going to get an introduction to several of the most important and influential ideas in existentialism and phenomenology. They’re going to learn about the patriarchy. And Plato’s Cave. And Sartre and de Beauvoir’s Le Regard, and Le Regard Masculaine. And Hegel’s Dialectic. And the social construction of identity. And Hume’s Bundle Theory. And Heidegger’s being-towards-death. And Brechtian meta-theatricality. They’ll even get a touch of Marxism— but not too much, as Barbie is still a corporate IP, and the film is full of product placements. They’ll see an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Pinnochio. And the goddess Innana. And they’ll get a demonstration from Barbie, Ken, and Gloria, of what speaking from the heart, and from a place of pain, can look like, and how it can be healing.

And on most of these themes, the film doesn’t just “ask the question”. It takes a stand. It picks a side. It builds the argument. And it’s too busy dancing to care if you disagree.

I hope that a generation of boys will watch this film, and see how absolutely ridiculous Ken looks when he’s running his Ken kingdom. (Aside: in that phase of his story, he looked, moved, and spoke like all the bullies who made my life miserable in primary school and high school.) I hope that in watching this film, they’ll see there are ways to be a man that don’t involve perpetuating the patriarchy. And it’s up to us to find them. Although I worry that some of those boys watching this film will grasp that self-aware Barbie, living both in herself and for herself, doesn’t need Ken. And then they, too, might throw a patriarchal temper tantrum, as Ken did for a while. Perhaps they’ll tape a Bible to a baseball bat, and trash a Barbie dollhouse with it?

Oh, I see. That happened. Oh dear.

Incidently, I was not the only Ken in the cinema tonight. But all the others who I could see, were there with their kids, and they looked like they were fulfilling a family duty and very uncomfortable doing it. One of them was in a hurry to leave, when the credits rolled. But credit to them, for showing up anyway, for their kid’s sake if not for their own.

As for me, I’m glad I saw this film. And I’m glad I saw it in a cinema. I think that I have work to do, now. People with whom to relate to better. And meaning to create. Also, questions to ask, concerning what it means to create meaning.

All right, those are my off-the-cuff thoughts for tonight. Let me know what you think, too. And if any of you know someone in the cast and crew, thank them for me, please.

[My review of Barbie was first published on Facebook, where it was shared more than 14,000 times. I still feel astonished about that fact.]

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