3 August 2023
Barbie, Maaate, No!
Mainstream sexism kicks Ken where it hurts.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Barbie, maaate, no! Your film’s a toxic sexist rant against men! Greta Gerwig, maaate, no! The movie’s a mean-spirited slander on the male sex! Mattel, maaate, no!
It might surprise us that the Barbie movie has become a critical success (as well as a box-office smash hit), but perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, a film that so explicitly rides the zeitgeist is going to have an easy time from professionals anxious not to defy the current orthodoxy and risk a twitter-storm – trial by social media following furious accusations of heresy – which could damage or even destroy their careers. Indeed, more than a few of The Time’s male columnists were queuing up in T2 (the paper’s largely female-focused supplement) to declare “I’m Ken! I am!”, rolling onto their backs to have their tummies tickled, in grovelling abasement to the prevailing ideology.
Interestingly and surely significantly, the only voices prepared to criticise the film were female; Camilla Long in the Sunday Times and Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail not only judged it to be poorly crafted but also called it out over its sexism. Sarah Vine condemned it as being “deeply anti-man”, with every male character “an idiot, a bigot or a sad, pathetic loser”, and accused it of being more interested in “cultural revenge” than sexual equality. But they remain voices crying in the wilderness, drowned out by a deafening hubbub of pink noise.
Yes, yes, the film is a comedy, of course; but “we’re just having a laugh, a bit of harmless banter, can’t you take a joke?” has always been a handy smoke-screen for vicious and underhand attacks. And the film does pretend to address the serious issue of female under-achievement, so it deserves to be taken seriously. Unfortunately its approach is lazy and superficial and its conclusion is facile; the usual suspect – the patriarchy – is simply wheeled into the dock and pelted with rotten fruit without any kind of trial or investigation. Which is a shame, because implicit in the film – and in the success of the Barbie doll itself – is the interesting but unacknowledged and hence unexplored possibility that there’s another suspect, an alternative agent of repression, guilty of holding women back over the ages. However unintentionally, Barbie and her film suggest that the real enemy is not the patriarchy but the matriarchy – the matriarchy of Mother Nature, that cruel and repressive tyrant who has imposed menstruation, childbirth, the menopause and a host of other restrictions and obstacles on her daughters, while apparently leaving her sons free to go farther and faster along lines chosen by themselves rather than forced on them by nature.
The attraction and totemic power of the Barbie doll is surely that she is free from the tyranny of Mother Nature; she isn’t subject to menstruation, childbirth, the menopause or any other troubling, puzzling and demanding physical imperatives and bodily changes which are difficult to control and almost impossible to escape. This is entirely obvious from the very beginning of the film; its opening scene shows little girls smashing up their baby dolls and abandoning their game-playing roles as nursing mummies and instead embracing this artificial, unnatural, perfect and unchanging plastic idol – a clear rebellion against Mother Nature. Barbie has none of the physical blemishes that torment the offspring of Mother Nature. She isn’t subject to the messy, gross and puzzling issues of food, drink and sex (the movie gets easy laughs out of this). It’s telling that the Barbie models which failed in the market place were those which tried to bring Mother Nature in on the act – a pregnant Barbie, a Barbie who grows boobs, etc (as obvious as all this may be, it seems that Mattel doesn’t or didn’t fully grasp any of it). It’s also telling that Barbie’s journey in this film is triggered by her sudden and puzzling anxieties about a hitherto foreign and unknown concept, death; death, of course, being Mother Nature’s unbeatable trump card. In a more cohesive film, Barbie, on leaving her perfect Barbie World and entering the real world, would have found herself held back by menstruation, childbirth, the menopause and all those other natural functions which make it so much harder for her to live the life of her choice, and to achieve everything that she’s capable of achieving, than it is for men. But no. She simply encounters the patriarchy, and men are to blame for everything.
It’s understandable to resent men if Mother Nature appears to be hard on her daughters while being easy on her sons. But it’s unfair to blame men for it. And it’s wrong to exploit and encourage that resentment, to use it to capture and manipulate your target audience, as Mattel and other film makers and most advertising companies appear to do these days. An advert or a film or a tv drama which says that men are idiots and are to blame for everything (as many films and tv dramas and adverts do these days) is not necessarily kow-towing to the current orthodoxy – it’s more likely to be exploiting it for sales and marketing purposes.
Advertising agencies have been guilty of this for decades, well before the current orthodoxy established itself. Ask any ad-man or ad-woman what the first rule of advertising is and always has been and they’ll tell you; ‘Don’t waste time, effort or money on trying to target men – men hate shopping, they’re not suggestible and they resent having their buttons pushed’. Which is why the majority of adverts are aimed at women and why adverts usually portray men as idiots (‘your enemy is my enemy, so buy my product’). Even a recent tv advert for Viagra focused on the woman in the foreground; the man, gesturing pathetically in the background, was more or less invisible.
It’s also why the London Mayor’s new ‘awareness’ campaign (“maaate!”) is doomed to fail, even though it’s well intentioned, admirable in its purpose and addresses a serious issue which urgently needs sorting. Men simply do not respond well to advertising, to the suspicion that they’re being manipulated, to being told what to do. There are other reasons, of course. It’s not a very good advert. And the majority of men it addresses already know what’s right and wrong while the guilty minority don’t care whether they’re right or wrong. And it’s an attempt to police private conversations, which is obviously problematic.
But the most critical reason why it’s likely to fail is that men who have seen the Barbie movie and are subjected to the everyday sexism of “all men are idiots and men are to blame for everything” from newspapers, television, films and adverts are likely to ask themselves “Why are we being told off and demonised for sexism against women when sexism against men is tolerated and even encouraged by the mainstream?” Hopefully, such men would be aware that all sexism is wrong; but the question “why is one variety acceptable and the other unacceptable?” remains. There is a rational answer to that question, of course, the importance of which may well trump valid accusations of unfairness and hypocrisy; “One variety is acceptable because it doesn’t lead to physical abuse and even murder; the other variety is unacceptable because it can and often does lead to physical abuse and even murder”.
And it’s true that most men laugh off the mainstream sexism aimed against them, as they should. It’s not important or consequential, they take it on the chin and forget about it. But some men don’t. And here’s the real danger. If they can’t answer back via the mainstream media – and our culture does indeed forbid such retaliation in kind – where are they going to go to express their sense of unfairness? Into the shadows of social media, into the dark corners of the web, where their grievance, however valid or invalid, will find plenty of rotting compost-heaps and noxious dung-hills to nourish it into something truly toxic and perilous. Encouraging only one half of a debate and stifling the other half inevitably feeds a resentment which will almost certainly explode with devastating consequences sooner or later.
(Footnote: talking of devastating explosions – if you want a better picture of the human race’s existential anguish, go and see Oppenheimer which brilliantly follows the men pursuing the mysteries of quantum physics as they begin to realise that the horrifying prospect of nuclear apocalypse is looming on the road ahead of them. Puts Barbie’s fear of cellulite and flat feet in perspective. And if you want a better picture of female empowerment, go and see the impossibly entertaining Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning where not one, not two, but three kick-ass female characters more than hold their own against Tom Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt.)