Barbie Resists the Box!


The new Barbie film has seemingly caused a ripple in the culture wars, and it has received various praises and accusations. Barbie is a film about male fragility. Barbie is an existential masterpiece. Barbie is communist propaganda. The list goes on. Is Barbie a communist film? a feminist film? Or perhaps is the film just trying to sell toys?

Ynon Kreiz, the CEO of Mattel, has already thought of this, and he assures us this:

This [film] is not about selling toys… This is about creating quality content, creating an experience with societal impact that people would want to watch. We’ve been selling toys before we made movies, so we’re not dependent on that.

For anyone who’s browsed on Linkedin, this sounds like the typical corporate buzzwords you read on the platform (Social impact. Content. Experience. etc.). We all know it’s bullshit, but we also all know that in this day and age Kreiz has to say it. We know that Mattel Films’s debut film is about making money—about selling, if not toys, then the Mattel brand. The film’s marketing budget alone (estimated $150 million) was more than the budget required to create its emo cousin, Oppenheimer. This should really go without saying, but the film is a capitalist film. Barbie is an expensive piece of branded content directed by a trendy director (for the record, I love Greta, but Greta can’t save us…). Nonetheless, if we were to take Kreiz’s word for it—that this expensive piece of branded content is not about selling toys—then what is it about? Feminism? Empowerment? A Mattel rebrand? A further step toward dismantling the patriarchy?

At face value, Barbie is a film about ideology. The Barbies live in a bright and colorful world that can’t acknowledge suffering. It’s a plastic world separated from reality where girls rule and men are nice. It seems, however, that the men in this world are also unsatisfied, as Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) can never get enough attention from Barbie to make him happy. Ken finds books on the ideology of patriarchy and injects the Barbie World with a patriarchal plague brought from the real world. This is one way of thinking about ideology. Ideology comes from the books we read, the films we watch; it travels, it spreads. Ideology masks reality.

When we think of ideology, we might think of Marxism, fascism, Christianity, Islam or some other sort of “-ism”—some lens of thought which constricts and conforms free thought toward an ultimate end. Rather than taking things as they come—experiencing the world “directly”—the traditional form of ideology is seen as a mask. In this way, ideology is the mask over the reality which is actually there. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek sees a succinct definition of this kind of ideology in the Marxian idea, “They do not know it, but they are doing it”. Zizek interrogates this idea, however, that ideology is a mask over reality. For Zizek, ideology is woven into reality, not separate from it. In challenging this “false consciousness” approach to ideology, Zizek invokes German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s reversal of Marx’s definition. Rather than ideology being, “They know not what they do, and yet they do it,” ideology is instead, “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.”² In this way, ideology is not a sickness of the mind or a spell, which bar its victim from seeing what he does. Instead, ideology can also be the cynical distance taken up between one’s actions and knowledge.

However, Zizek also takes the definition of ideology a step further. Not only can ideology be the cynical distance between knowing what one is doing and doing it anyway (i.e., the capitalist film saying, “down with capitalism!”), but ideology is in the very objectivity of things, in the product, so to speak. But what could be meant by this? How can a product be ideological?

In the Barbie film, we see ideology presented as a false consciousness and the film tracks a character’s development in moving beyond ideology and into meaning-making. As I mentioned, Ken discovers the patriarchy in the real world and brings it back to the imaginary one. The other Kens become frat bros, converting all the Barbie houses into bachelor pads. The Kens somehow convince all the Barbies to wear sexy maid costumes and serve them beer, giving up their aspirations of being presidents and doctors. The Barbies find themselves under a spell of constant subordination to the Kens. Ironically, in the first act, this attribute of subordination is literally the first trait given to Ken. Ken above all else wants recognition from Barbie. He hurls himself into the white crest of a plastic wave. In an effort to impress Barbie, he humiliates himself. He’s tired of not getting her attention, but then he learns about the patriarchy, which somehow forestalls this desire through a brotherly bond with the other Kens.

While Ken installs patriarchy in Barbie World, Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) continues her search for the girl to whom she belongs, but then she has a run-in with the higher-ups at Mattel. The CEO (played by Will Farrell) tries to put Barbie back in her box—the corporation tries to contain her—but she escapes. Thefake Mattel company wants Barbie to stay in her box and not influence other parts of the real world. This, in a way, speaks to Barbie’s authenticity. She goes beyond the profiteering of the company. Barbie is more than a product. This film is not about selling toys. In many ways, we might even say that this would be a nice allegory for the power of film as a medium—the power of branded content! Film opens the box. Barbie’s meaning and her influence as a product extend beyond mere commodification. It’s the company that wants to put her in a box, and Barbie’s soul resists these limits.

We might wonder, however, if it is really Barbie’s soul which resists being put in a box—a limitation—or the company’s soul which insists on pushing Barbie out of the box, out of the shelves (and into new markets). In this way, isn’t this scene really a plea for considering the transcendent power of a product? Here, the position is that products are more than products. The idea that Barbie resists the limits of corporate greed and being a mere product is precisely the message that Mattel Films is pushing. Barbie is not a product, she is and can be so much more.

When Barbie returns, Barbie World has succumbed to Kendom (Ken’s Kingdom) and this imaginary world becomes the battleground for true consciousness, where the real-world heroes (Gloria, the mother and Sasha, the daughter), along with Stereotypical Barbie, slowly break the spell the Kens have over the dolls in order to rediscover their true aspirations.

Toward the end of the film, Gloria begins a monologue on the impossibilities of being a woman. At one point in the monologue, the film then cuts to Margot Robbie and freezes for a moment as an omniscient narrator interjects that Robbie should not have been cast for this part of the film, implying that as a woman she is perhaps too perfect-looking to portray the imperfect, suffering woman. Not only does the film challenge the patriarchy, but it also challenges itself. The film is self-aware enough to catch its own faults and shortcomings before an audience does. It brings to question the very influence patriarchy has on beauty standards. The film is aware of its own contradictions, and yet it carries on, attacking the patriarchy, presenting a triumphant stance for female empowerment whilst ironically critiquing Barbie as a product of capitalism. Things can be both, right? A film can be liberatory even while it is part of a massive rebranding and market expansion effort for a private corporation. The film is full of moments like this. Meta, self-reflective humor, in which a position is taken up (challenging beauty standards, for example) whilst preserving the very things it challenges. At one point a businessman assures Ken that patriarchy does still exist, but that companies are just better at hiding it. If you thought Mattel doesn’t have a male CEO with all this criticism toward the patriarchal C-suite… you thought wrong!

Kreiz, Mattel CEO, does not shy away from the film’s self-deprecating content:

There are so many elements of humor and self-deprecation in the movie. And we embrace that. We take our brands very seriously. We take what we do very seriously. But we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

This quote in many ways sums up the film’s cynical take on the patriarchy. We do not take ourselves seriously, but we take our brands seriously. Us capitalists try to control the narrative, but the product speaks for itself—it goes beyond our categorization—its product form. The pink-tie C-suite of pseudo-Mattel can take a punch. Corporations are silly, disorganized, but they don’t worry because they do not have a grip on the real meaning of their products. This very humbling of the corporation’s influence over their products is what makes the product so powerful, however. Barbie is more than a commodity—Barbie is uncontainable. Barbie resists the box! Mattel isn’t pushing Barbie out of the box. No, Mattel tried (and failed) to put Barbie in the box.

A Film About a Coke

If the irony of this is not coming through, imagine instead a film about a life-size bottle of Coke, except that the Coke comes alive, and the Coke discovers it can be more than a mere product. Coke does not just taste good, Coke is also kind, caring, and supportive —Coke can help real people achieve their dreams and become a better version of themselves

But then the CEO of Coca-Cola sees that Coke is having too much influence on the world. So the CEO of Coca-Cola (played by Will Ferrell) tries to put Coke back in the fridge where it belongs. He says to the Coke, “You’re just a Coke!” But Coke resists because Coke has a soul — Coke is more than a product!

Then imagine that this film about a bottle of Coke was also produced by Coca-Cola, and when asked about the film, the CEO said, “This film is not about selling Coke!”

Gil Scott-Heron tells us that “the revolution will not be televised.” But to Heron’s quote we should add the addendum: the revolution will not be televised, except when the revolution is television.

The film’s content screams, “Female empowerment! Dismantle the patriarchy!” But the film’s form is supportive of the very things its content protests against. So the protest is the entertainment. This film is not about change, but instead about portraying the event of change so that things can stay the same. It has already taken care of dismantling the patriarchy, its own self-criticism, its critique of capitalism — all the necessary things needed for today’s cinema. In a sense, the film has broken itself out of its own restrictions. We don’t have to consider the disingenuousness of the film, because the film literally does this for us — it already knows Margot is not the best choice whilst simultaneously the CEO admits in casting the film that, “It was Margot… there was no other option”.⁴ Where we are left at the end of the film is at the exact same place we started. We are left with a mystified, transcendent object: Barbie. The Barbie film. Film as the transcendent medium, which cannot be contained to its commodity form. In this way, Barbie is not a product — the toy can mean whatever it wants to us viewers, and we can form our own independent relationship with the product now that its universality has been dismantled.

I think this is the film’s main point: We are not defined by our history; we are invited to make meaning in our lives.

In one of the final scenes of the film, the C-suite steps aside to reveal Ruth, the original creator of Barbie (i.e., God). Ruth tells Barbie that she can either be a product or be on the side of the meaning-makers. This scene reminded me of the same sort of dualism seen in the famous quote speculated to have been said by Karl Rove, advisor to the Bush administration. Legend has it, Rove said this behind closed doors to journalist Ron Suskind in 2004:

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

For the purposes of this essay, whether or not Rove actually spoke these words does not matter. What matters is the duality between those who discern fact and those who make meaning. The quote imagines that there are those who study reality, and there are those who create reality. How does this relate to the provocation at the end of Barbie? Well, in a sense, there are those who are the product of reality — and who by extension study it to find out about themselves — and then there are the meaning-makers, those who create new realities and define themselves. The film invites the viewer to make meaning and not conform to one’s product-ness. The irony, of course, is that it is the product — the film — which is inviting us into this space. Furthermore, the provocation to make meaning at the behest of studying meaning — the objectivity of meaning, for example, that is in the Barbie product — is rendered as merely subjective. The film almost acts as a kind of spell, which invites us to not think objectively about what a Barbie actually is — i.e., a doll, a brand — but instead only about what the doll could be, disregarding the ways in which our reality has already been shaped by the meaning-makers. From this point of view, however, the meaning-makers are creating the reality of pure subjectivity. What we all have in common is the ability to abstract, but when we try to abstract Barbie, the product itself resists abstraction — being put into a box.

I must admit I find it difficult to imagine living in a world, however, in which we perceive all products as mere entertainment – or that we reduce all products to the mere commodity form. The particularity of our products gives them a desirable character. The problem with this, however, is that there’s too much particularity in our world, and it all feels the same. Who says, “The Barbie movie was just two hours of passing time”? The film inevitably seems to be much more than that. This is why the existentialists tell us we are condemned to freedom, because meaning inevitably involves our participation — and even if we renounce our participation, we are still participating in that renouncement. Products will always be more than products – ‘product’ is just an abstraction. The end of the film takes an existential leap: we must act or else be a product! But when today’s corporations are at the helm of pushing products out of their boxes — Marx called this commodity fetishism — the radical act is not nodding along and finding our own little meanings apart from the grand whole, but instead trying to discern the patterns of sameness which seek to produce our differences. This is why the invocation to make our own meaning can also be the machinations of product-ness. If the Barbie film was not about selling toys, it was indeed about selling the power of a product — the power of the things we buy, and how even the companies cannot put limits on their products. The patriarchy tried to put Barbie in a box, but Barbie is much more than a commodity, and the product’s limits are endless!