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The New Barbie Movie and Why We Can't Stop Talking About Politics
Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse. - Theodor Adorno
People have become sick and tired of talking about politics, and yet they cannot stop doing it. Time and time again, when the dust has settled over such debates, and one’s political opponent has walked away, it has only left one feeling worse. Yet the fruitlessness of such endeavours seems to merely goad people on. It is as if the pointlessness of such disputes is the point. They serve as a vessel to dump one’s frustrations into that somehow seems to make such frustrations worse. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Whether these debates happen across a dinner table or through Twitter replies, they are carried out under the pretense that they constitute a genuine political act. People seem to ‘talk about politics’ because it feels like it is actually doing something. Political struggle isn’t supposed to feel good; it is uncomfortable and often even violent. And yet the mere presence of this feeling does not constitute a political act. The urge to ‘talk about politics’ is a pseudo activity; it mirrors much of the emotional baggage associated with political struggle, yet it is channelled towards meaningless interpersonal conflict. Far from serving as an aid to resist forms of domination, which drive one’s frustrations in the first place, it instead functions as a subtle practice in self-harm, an unhealthy coping mechanism for channelling excess aggression caused by feelings of hopelessness and despair.
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There is a reason that such discussions, while coated in political language, are generally of a purely personal nature. When one ‘talks about politics,’ it, more often than not, amounts to either moral condemnations or exculpations of individual acts. “People should stop buying X product,” or “has anyone noticed that people who like X book are low-key creepy?” The narrow scope of such discussions is a reflection of the fact that they may only lay claim to affecting the range of decisions allowed to one by the market, the ‘freedom’ given to one after one’s freedom has been foreclosed upon. When class domination has become ubiquitous, the only room for conflict is that of an interpersonal nature. Political discussion has become a sublimated iteration of the general form of neurotic interpersonal conflict that structures our lives, driven by the tension between a modern, strongly developed rational ego agency and the failure to meet such ego demands caused by scarcity. To meet these demands, we must compete on the market with each other for scraps. And, following the erosion of political agency driven by the market becoming a hegemonic force within our lives, that is all we’ve become to each other. Fellow competitors, willing to work together only with the promise of mutual ingratiation, always keeping an eye on each other for when such unions might collapse due to conflicts which necessarily emerge between self-interested actors. In this world, political discussion can only amount to a question of which scraps one is allowed to enjoy.
And yet, while we might expect this general attitude when ‘talking about politics’ from those within a liberal political framework, this is, in truth, embraced by the entire political spectrum. While many imagine they are genuinely resisting the domination that predicates market relations through ‘talking about politics,’ in practice, they cannot help but recognize this market’s dominance (even if only subconsciously through their actions). “Is it bourgeois to pay someone for housecleaning?” While such a question is couched in Marxist terminology, it is almost entirely alien to the theoretical framework. ‘Class’ is not analyzed as one’s relationship to production but instead serves as a signifier which justifies interpersonal condemnation. “Bourgeois” becomes “someone I don’t like,” who spends the limited freedom given to them by the market in such a way that is deemed worthy of spite and aggression. Such a question, which seems to cause a considerable stir on Twitter regularly, and those similar to it merely serve as sublimated acts of cruelty. They utilize the language of ‘political analysis’ to legitimate a target for one’s excess aggression. They take for granted the idea that such aggression can only be channelled through a range of actions that leaves the underlying structure of capitalism unquestioned.
But what about those who give up on ‘talking about politics?’ Is such a thing possible? Some, it seems, attempt to search for methods to cope with powerlessness and domination by escaping political discourse. Most notably through etching out a sphere of consumption within their lives detached from ‘the political.’ This method is fleeting and necessarily structured by the very same ‘political’ one is fleeing from (one must arrive with money in hand for the escape promised at the movie theatre). Yet, at least in there, you don’t have to talk about politics.
Sheer enjoyment seems to be a very popular method to drown out the presence of class-based domination, which manifests itself consciously through the same market-driven competition that drives the urge to ‘talk about politics.’ And many are rather protective of this sphere of enjoyment. This sentiment is articulated across the political spectrum, whether one is shouting “keep politics out of X” or even using the rebuke “let people enjoy things,” a phrase typically levied at perceived attempts to corrupt one’s sacred haven of ‘enjoyment’ with political analysis.
Yet, despite many people’s ostensible desire to keep these two spheres separate, they are becoming indistinguishable. People increasingly enjoy ‘talking about politics’ through the media they consume. Such a concept is essential to the now global’ culture war,’ which reduces ‘the political’ to cultural signifiers connected to acts of consumption. One acts out one’s politics by partaking in these various cultural signifiers and boycotting those of the other side. And I am rather skeptical of the suggestion that this constitutes a serious divide in the population (between those who wish to see ‘politics’ in their media and those who do not). Instead, commands such as “keep politics out of X” are necessarily embedded within the ‘culture war.’ The same conservatives who despise any mention of anti-black violence in their sports broadcasts adore witnessing these same broadcast’s absurd displays of American military might. These people do not wish to keep political discourse separate from enjoyment but instead to remove the aspects of ‘talking about politics’ that make them uncomfortable. People want political struggle without hardship, the good without the bad (I can’t believe it’s not freedom!). But considering the fact that this fat-free variation of ‘talking about politics’ is equally consequential, can you blame them?
In truth, the move to ‘escape’ politics through enjoyment is not antithetical to talking about politics. We are always talking about politics, even when we specifically aren’t. The sphere of enjoyment is not only inextricably linked with the seemingly immutable forms of political domination that structure our world but also the futile acts of resistance we attempt to levy against it.
Nowhere is this better witnessed in the current pop cultural milieu than with audience reactions to the recently released blockbuster hit Barbie. The film, produced by Mattel, positions itself as a ‘feminist’ piece of media, contextualizing the Barbie brand as facilitating female empowerment. And, of course, the typical culture war morons have come out of the woodwork to condemn it, with Ben Shapiro, for instance, producing a youtube video titled “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS The Barbie Movie For 43 Minutes,” wherein he declares that the movie is “anti-men” and even, in typical American conservative culture war fashion, burns a Barbie doll in protest. The film’s vague signalling towards feminist politics predetermines this negative right-wing reaction, and this reaction predetermines that seeing the film in some way constitutes a (pseudo) political activity for those on the other side of the culture war. Before the film has even been watched, its consumption is already partisan, with one’s political enemies telling one that consuming it somehow amounts to a negation of these enemy’s political project. Yet, this negation is not towards anything positive but instead holds the same false image of political agency posited by what it attempts to negate.
A central theme of the film concerns the idealized realm of Barbie land, innocent to human strife and sin, being ‘infected’ by the real world, leading to, among other things, the introduction of patriarchy. Barbie land serves as a representation of the idealized image of Barbie produced by children at play. The emphatic message of this theme seems to be that “entertainment is now political” and the Barbie brand must adapt to this situation. And just as one is meant to identify with these toy Barbies in childhood, so too is one supposed to hold the movie Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, as a role model. This form identification is the crux of the Barbie’ brand’ (hence the vast array of different iterations of the doll, made to appeal to as many young girls as possible). The difference, it seems, between the movie and the brand itself is that the movie posits such identification as explicitly ‘feminist.’ Barbie is a role model that has inspired young girls everywhere to do their very best (this Barbie is an astronaut!). We have all grown up now, and the way we consume products is inextricably linked to ‘talking about politics.’
The film makes its feminist argument, in part, by dispelling the beliefs of certain characters who disagree with the notion that the Barbie brand is feminist. But if you’re expecting some form of Platonic dialogue (I don’t know why you would), you will be rather disappointed. One character, a preteen girl named Sasha, initially tells Barbie
You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented. You represent everything wrong with our culture: sexualized capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals. Look at yourself. You set the feminist movement back 50 years. You destroy girls’ innate sense of worth.
She even ends this rant by calling Barbie a fascist. Yet this future acolyte of Adorno does not later regret these words as a result of rational argumentation. Instead, she develops an emotional attachment to Barbie, realizing the character is not a ‘fascist’ following Barbie’s role in removing patriarchy from Barbie land.
Barbie and others do so in such a way that explicitly postures the film, and its consumption, as composing some form of ‘feminist resistance’ against the real patriarchy. Barbie comes back to Barbie land from a visit to the real world to find that Ken, who accompanied her, has learned about patriarchy and implemented it by brainwashing all of the different Barbies into enjoying being subservient to the various Kens. The patriarchy is then destroyed, and this form of brainwashing is lifted, through America Ferrera’s character making the Barbies aware of the unfair double standards that women face in a patriarchal society.
This plot point, emotionally speaking, is the crux of the movie’s defence of the Barbie brand. When America Ferrera’s character speaks to the Barbies, who are then freed from the ‘brainwashing’ which caused them to serve the patriarchy, she is also speaking to the audience themselves, who are also meant to feel ‘liberated’ by this awareness. The film instructs us to think that the Barbie film, as well as the brand more generally, is ‘feminist’ (and therefore, its consumption in some way constitutes a feminist act) because we witness her fight the patriarchy.
The suggestion that patriarchy can be fought through the act of ‘waking women up’ to the unfair double standards they experience is obviously absurd. There is no sense in which the contents of the film, or the use of ‘Barbie’ as a role model, can serve to genuinely equip women to combat the patriarchy. Yet this does not matter. Barbie, like most blockbuster films, does not convince audiences through rational argumentation, instead using emotional gratification. It feels good to root for Barbie, and when she wins, it is as if we have won as well. And yet, of course, we have actually lost. The form of gratification one feels through this pseudo-political act is predicated upon an emotional sleight of hand. While the film presents identification with Barbie as constituting some genuine political act in reality, all this amounts to is an act of consumption. A false, irrational image of freedom is dangled in front of our eyes, and we are, for a brief moment, allowed to partake in it as if it is real. But it is built upon a lie which leaves us even more blind to the inexorable and opaque forms of domination that cause our suffering. The psychic energy which drives us to oppose such suffering is channelled toward consumption, which serves as a painkiller that makes the symptom increasingly impossible to identify, underpinned by a form of emotional manipulation designed to extract as much profit as possible from us, even during our time off.
Importantly, the politics presented in this movie, structured in such a way that, above all, encourages audiences to consume more Mattel products, is almost identical to the logic that underpins the desire to ‘talk about politics.’ Its end goal is to make others ‘aware’ of some political fact (heavily attached to the moral quality of a particular individual act of consumption), with little to no consideration for how this awareness relates to genuine political action. And yet it seems that the Barbie movie does not serve as a replacement for ‘talking about politics.’ Instead, it practically begs the audience to conceive of such useless political discussions as genuinely political. In a sense, I may have presented the causal order of this phenomenon backwards. It may be that the desire to ‘talk about politics’ is a cheap reflection of the form of (pseudo) political action roused in audiences through the presentation of consumption as a political act. The gradual transition from this form of consumption serving as a temporary ‘shield’ for forgetting about the political to constituting what defines the political may just be a product of the increasingly hegemonic role that large capitalist firms play within culture. And this phenomenon is, of course, predicated upon an intensification of powerlessness and a withering away of political agency, which leaves audiences increasingly neurotic and emotionally vulnerable to the suggestion that acts of consumption may genuinely constitute a contribution to some positive political project. This may be why our powerlessness causes us to love ‘talking about politics’ so much.
One might think this is overly ‘pessimistic.’ “Why can’t you just let people enjoy things?” And I am frankly already tired of responding to this point when it has already been answered, at least subtly, within the original text I have written. And yet, while my outlook may very well be ‘pessimistic,’ it is a form of pessimism that is dialectical, always holding some utopian image in mind with reference to what is being rejected within the present. This pessimism is derived from a refusal to yield this image to a profoundly unfree world, whose acceptance necessarily foreclosed upon the possibility of realizing such utopian possibilities. In this sense, it is rather optimistic, far more so than its detractors.
Overall, I’ll rate the Barbie film 4 ‘angry Adorno aphorisms’ out of 5. Really enjoyed it. Highlights of the film include Ryan Gosling, Ryan Gosling, and Ryan Gosling. Favorite scene was probably the homoerotic Ryan Gosling dance number. If I had any critiques of the film, it’s that there wasn’t enough Ryan Gosling.
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