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    Is Barbie a Confused Mess or Deeply Insightful?

    A Bonus PloughCast Episode

    By Hannah Long, Leah Libresco Sargeant, Alastair Roberts and Susannah Black Roberts

    August 30, 2023

    About This Episode

    Hannah Long, Leah Libresco Sargeant, Alastair Roberts, and Susannah Black Roberts discuss the Barbie Movie.

    Does it have a moral? What is Gerwig trying to say about feminism, men and women, capitalism, and so on? Is it a confused mess or deeply insightful?

    The primary problem that the movie is designed to critique is the deeply unsatisfying nature of contemporary masculinity and femininity, and the poverty of the “girlboss” as a model for female adulthood.

    But what does it offer as an alternative? Is there a vision for a way forward for Ken as well as Barbie? And what does it imply about the disembodiment of contemporary life?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. To kick off our “Enemy” series, we’ve got with us today Leah Libresco Sargeant, contributing editor of Plough who also, in addition to many other projects, writes the Other Feminisms Substack; Hannah Long, freelance writer, occasional film critic for Plough, and editor at Harper Collins, and Alastair Roberts, theologian, teacher at The Davenant Institute and The Theopolis Institute, and my husband. Welcome, all!

    We are all here to talk about a very important piece of culture that has come across our transoms … I don’t know what a transom is exactly … so to speak, this summer. And that is of course the Barbie movie. So this is also the kickoff episode of the podcast for our Enemy issue. There are various ways, many of them basically snarky, that I feel that this is appropriate. The enmity between the sexes is one of the many things that’s examined in the movie.

    But I guess one of the questions that I have, and I’ve basically spent the last, whatever, month arguing about this movie with various people, most recently my cousin who is a zoomer and feels that she can zoomersplain culture to me, which she may be able to do.

    But basically she thinks that there’s a very simple moral to Barbie. I’m not so sure that I think that there is a moral, but it feels like everyone is trying to find a moral. So what did you guys think? What is this movie saying, if anything, or is that the wrong question to ask?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think the movie takes a swing at big questions and has muddled and sometimes contradictory answers, in good faith, I would say, mostly. I think that’s part of what’s made it so popular. As Greta Gerwig said from the beginning, it’s something that everyone knows about and everyone has a slightly complicated but intense relationship with.

    But also it’s a movie that really lends itself to discussion. You want to see it with friends. You want to tell a friend to see it and then talk to you afterwards. I think, in some ways, if it had been a better movie philosophically, it would’ve been a less successful movie.

    Hannah Long: I agree with that. I think that any sort of media that has enough contradictions in it that everybody can argue about the small details is just built for virality. I guess possibly the most female thing about it is that it wants to please everyone. And so, you could see it bending over backwards, just be like, yes, Barbie and Ken are not going to end up together, but it is OK for Barbie and Ken to end up together if you want to. It’s all fine. Any way you want to live, it’s really OK. We shouldn’t just have one ideal of living. I mean it’s very incoherent in that way. You can also project your own ideology into it because of that, or if you really want to hate it, you can project all of the things you hate into it. I don’t think that it’s completely without a point of view. But because it is trying to be all things to all men, we’ve got that contradictory energy that I think people can grasp onto.

    Alastair Roberts: You might also think about the contradictions of the movie more generally. It’s an exploration of the contradictions that are experienced by men and women more generally. And so, I don’t think that I would read all of those contradictions as indications of incoherence. I mean the message that we get towards the end is one of contradictions. You have to be thin, but not too thin, et cetera, that feminist speech that’s given, but even subverted it in various ways.

    I think it’s an exploration in part of the contradictions, which for me made it a very interesting movie because it’s exploring a reality that people have experienced from different perspectives and in different vantage points, and yet doing that in a way that’s mindful of the different reads that are possible because it’s a contradictory reality that people are experiencing.

    There is something about Barbie that represents something positive, also something that represents something corporate, something that represents the innocence of girlhood, something that represents the oppression of a certain ideal. All of those things are explored within the movie, and none of them, I think, has given straightforwardly the final word. I think that’s one of the things that makes it a worthwhile movie to analyze.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, there is a moment when the daughter has her speech, her anti-Barbie speech, where you feel like in a different movie, in a movie that was simpler, that would be the viewpoint character in a way. Barbie would be the viewpoint character, but the daughter would be the voice of morality or the voice of the correct ethical stance. But that’s actually not the case. The daughter is actually shown to be really simple-minded in various ways, the easy accusation of fascism, and then her alienation from her mother, which is just pure preteen angst that needs to be gotten over.

    She’s not the voice of youth who tell the truth, which is the more usual Hollywood thing.

    Hannah Long: Yeah. I was definitely expecting it to go that way, whereas it turns out that it’s not a Gen Z movie perspective-wise, even if Gen Z gets to have a say briefly. It’s about millennial parents trying to figure out, OK, who are we? What are we now? How do we relate to our kids? What do we think about these ideas of gender anymore?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: There was a great piece by Helen Andrews at the American Conservative about the movie viewed through that lens of millennials becoming moms. But I do think it’s a weakness of the movie that we don’t get a real supported pivot for the daughter. As she stays longer in Barbieland, she gets pinker and pinker and her hair is styled out of her eyes like mothers always like, but we never really get a sense … She gives her view to Barbie to shake her. We don’t get something that’s returned to her in the same way. It feels like she changes her mind because the script says, “And by now, she’s changed her mind.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Again, it raises that question of what are people being converted to when they see Barbie? She has a pull on them, a nostalgic pull, the kind of pull that people who are just absolutely disarmingly sincere can have. But what is that pull towards? What is she sincere about?

    Hannah Long: Yeah. I really appreciated that about your piece, Leah, the way you’ve focused on how there is no real clear, positive view of what femininity is. It’s about definitions. As I was thinking about this and I was thinking, OK, so we have a movie, it comes out in 2023, sort of fitfully funny back and forth, lots of debunking bad ideas, sort of this doofus representation of the patriarchy. Then it all comes down to this jokey dodge, avoiding actually defining what the question of the movie is, which is of course not Barbie, but Matt Walsh’s What Is a Woman?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Whoa. Well done.

    Hannah Long: But these two movies are hand-in-hand in a way in that they are both about this question of what does it mean to be a woman? What is a woman? They both end with a joke and they don’t actually define … I mean the Matt Walsh documentary ends with … I think the definition they end up with is somebody who can’t open a pickle jar without help.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Hannah Long: Yeah. It’s like I’m like, OK, that’s definitely going to solve all the anthropological questions of the twenty-first century.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: This is what drives me a little crazy about the movie, because it’s really pulled between these two questions of is a woman something you are on a very deep level, something that’s received, something that’s given to you, which is where we get the thread of the movie that’s more about mortality and the body and the potential to bear children. Then we have a parallel thread that says a woman is something that’s done to you.

    This is why in my review I talked about how much this parallels the trans theorist Andrea Long Chu’s view of just women is being on the bad side of a power differential. That’s what that big monologue sounded like to me. Being a woman is being asked to do something that’s contradictory and unfair.

    But if that’s the case, then everyone should just stop. Get off the ride, stop being a woman, pick something better to be. I don’t think that’s the conclusion the movie wants us to land on. But since Gloria’s the pivotal force of the movie, I don’t think she ever lands on a better answer.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Mm-hmm. I mean, at the very deepest level, the movie does not end with closure. It ends with … the problem of the movie is people who are being stifled or people who are not being allowed to be people. The problem of not being allowed to be people, not being allowed to be a man or not being allowed to be a woman, even if you are in power, even if you are Barbie, and then later Ken, neither of those are real. Those are both disembodied and fake and cartoony ways to be.

    It’s not that it’s wrong because it’s oppression, although it is oppression in the case of Barbieland, against men, and then in the case of Kendom against women. It’s wrong because it’s fake. And so, figuring out how not to be fake is the fundamental question of the movie.

    I almost feel as though Greta Gerwig probably pulled a bunch of her punches against Mattel in exchange for having the right to make the movie, I guess, because that felt like a very underdeveloped … It should have been a lot more sinister than it was, basically, in my opinion.

    Alastair Roberts: One aspect of the movie that really stood out to me is that this is another example of Gerwig’s coming-of-age movies for women. It’s an exploration, among other things, of the relationship between the child, the girl, and the adult woman.

    So Barbie represents something of the innocence of a child’s viewpoint as they imagine themselves as an adult, and the world that they project as the world that they imagine they’ll enter into, and yet you have the more cynical perspective of Sasha, the daughter, who has not got any connection with that innocence and that childlikeness. That inner child has been torn from her in various ways. She sees the world in terms of fascism, in terms of capitalism, in terms of these malign forces, and loses something of the perspective that Barbie represents.

    On the other hand, the mother is unable to … she’s dealing with questions of mortality and other things that are driving the plot, unbeknownst to us, by causing the problems for Stereotypical Barbie.

    But the challenge of moving beyond that age of childhood, moving from the stage of being a girl to being a woman, and what that move represents for the relationship between girlhood and womanhood, is, it seems to me, a question that Gerwig has been exploring in various ways in her other movies and is also at the heart of this movie.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m not sure that I agree that the vision of Barbie is ever innocent. I think that there’s an innocence in the play that we see that Sasha and her mother are doing with Barbie. There is this sense of like, OK, Sasha, you actually did have a good time. You’re just retroactively politicizing it and saying you always hated it. And so, that’s real. But at the very beginning of the movie, there’s the funny reference to …

    Alastair Roberts: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Susannah Black Roberts: 2001, where the uncivilized, unrealized six-year-old girls see the Barbie and the Barbie causes them to smash their baby dolls. That is both in 2001 and in the movie that is an exit from Eden moment, like this is the promise of technology and/or the promise of something that’s not like an animal life, that’s beyond an animal life. And so, the fundamental nature of what you do with Barbie is you reject being a woman as being a female animal in any way.

    Hannah Long: But one thing that is, I think, relevant here is how religious the outlook of Greta Gerwig is on these ideas, that apparently there were just so many things happening on set where they were doing a jokey religious angle to talking about all these existential questions, where they would all go over to one of their houses to watch movies on Sundays and call it movie church. It would be a movie that inspired the film and they were just trying to … and that’s more of just an artistic way of getting together, but apparently Margo Robbie also said that Greta Gerwig wrote a poem about Barbie that shares some similarities with the Apostles’ Creed.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Whoa.

    Hannah Long: Or actually that’s a quote from Gerwig. At another point, she says, “So Barbie was invented first,” Gerwig points out. “Ken was invented after Barbie to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”

    So once you realize that there’s some Genesis stuff going on, it becomes much more of a leaving paradise story. The scales fall from Barbie’s eyes and she realizes that she’s going to die one day.

    So there’s a way of looking at it that way, but you can also see that sin already exists in the garden. It’s already an oppressive place. The Barbies are oppressing the Kens. It’s just that she’s not aware of this yet.

    So it doesn’t map quite as neatly onto a religious arc, but I think that you can look at it at as a metaphor for growing up, so for becoming aware of your own flaws, becoming aware of your own sinfulness and desires and mortality and all those sorts of things that hit you when you’re about twelve. So the first thing that she encounters is not just an awareness of her own sexuality in the world outside, and the threats that she would experience there in this cartoonish version of the patriarchy or the male-dominated world. But she also immediately meets a teenager who’s very disillusioned and who sees the world in that way.

    A big part of her journey is about coming to a more moderate adult view of, OK, so I know now what the world is actually like as opposed to what I thought it was when I was younger. How do I think about that? How do I come out of the disillusionment?

    I’m not sure that it gives us an excellent logical ladder for other people to follow out of it. As Leah was saying, is that I think that it just assumes that the plot will drive you along with it. The answers it gives, the conversation she ends up having with this God figure, the creator, who is not really quite a godlike figure as someone who isn’t really going to give you too many answers. Greta Gerwig is Unitarian.

    It ends up being these platitudes about what it is to be human, what the future is going to be like. You just end up with a lot of contradictions. And so, it’s your own sense of anxiety and contradictions being reflected back to you, which doesn’t feel like the way that you would actually get out of anxiety.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: It gets really close to a theology of subcreation, and again dodges it, because Barbie is both someone who recognizes herself as a created being, as someone her creator and then others are telling a story through her. But then she explicitly says she wants to be the one who makes the stories, not who is the story for others. And her creator rather than explicitly blessing any choice of hers as like “and my role as creator is to step back so you make a choice without my influence.”

    So instead of it being this proper hierarchy rather than the deranged, gonzo patriarchy that Ken explores of the creator and then Barbie and then some act of creation that Barbie makes in imitation of her creator and out of love for her creator to better resemble her creator, it’s a creator who steps back from the role of creator because it’s a competitive world where she and Barbie can’t both be creative at the same time.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Well, I mean she’s a demiurge. That’s the thing. It’s Barbie Gnosticism and she is not God. She’s the demiurge. And so, it would be in fact wrong. Anything that Barbie took from her … Barbie actually has to become a human being and be created in that sense rather than being the doll.

    The interesting thing is that basically everyone’s job in this movie, Barbie and Ken primarily, is to self-actualize. That’s your job, you’ve got to self-actualize, and there’s not really a question about, “self-actualize for what?” although there is an indication that there might be a for what later on, like Pinocchio needs to become a real boy, and then maybe Pinocchio can start actually living a real human life.

    And so, obviously it’s not going to be cool for Ken to continue as a kind of just adjunct to Barbie. He needs to discover what he is by himself or for himself. But at the same time, those aren’t really adult … like “self-actualize” is not a real job any more than “beach” is a real job. You need to be aiming at a good that is beyond just “become who you are” with a non-transcendent vision for that.

    Alastair Roberts: The fact that it begins with the parody of the 2001 scene, with the dawn of humanity, I think the creation themes are very prominent within the movie itself. You have something of the dawn of consciousness of humanity represented in the dawn of a new consciousness in the young girls who were formerly playing with childlike dolls and now are playing with an image of an adult, which is a bridge between worlds.

    There’s something alien about it, just like the monolith at the beginning of 2001. It’s an image that gives a new consciousness, but it’s a consciousness provoked by something that is at once alien, but also becomes integral to the self of those who’ve been formed by it. It provokes aggression in the first creatures to encounter the monolith, and something similar in the first ones to encounter the great Barbie.

    It does seem to me that that movement between the two worlds is explored in a number of figures. So you do have the failed Barbies. You have the weird Barbie who’s a figure who represents in some ways maybe a transition out of that childlike stage. A lot of it was these are people who have not entered into adult sexuality. There’s a stalling. They can have a romance, but there’s no procreation. There’s no motherhood and fatherhood. For the talk about matriarchy and patriarchy, there are no fathers or mothers.

    Pregnant Barbie was discontinued, and the vision at the beginning is of destroying the babies. And so, that movement into the realm of adulthood and its relationship with procreative relations is one that I think is worth exploring. The messages there seem to me to be contradictory, but contradictory and interesting in perhaps revealing ways.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Hannah Long: Yeah. You have the ending where … and you could read it in different ways. But Barbie walking into a gynecologist’s office is at least an underlining of her physical embodiment and that this is very important. Of course, it’s also a joke about the unique physical embodiment of a plastic Barbie.

    But to say that there is something intrinsic in being a woman, in being a person who goes to a gynecologist, I thought, oh, OK, this is actually, in a weird way, a little bit more profound than a Matt Walsh take on this. At least there’s no pickle-jar joke.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So the thing that felt satisfying to me about the movie was the refusal … it’s a refusal of a happily ever after when the happily ever after was intended to be this corporate feminist world where we’re all girlbosses.

    And so, the one thing that it definitively refuses is the corporate feminist, girlboss Barbie vision of human flourishing. A, that’s not going to work. It doesn’t solve the real-world differences between men and women and make them not exist, because as soon as you step into the physical real world, construction workers are a little bit physically scary to little blonde girls. The nature of reality is not what the girlboss world needs it to be.

    But the thing is that like … the main thing, it seemed to say, is there’s not a way to solve relations between the sexes in a sense that would give us a Kantian perpetual peace between the sexes. There’s always going to be a kind of interesting struggle and enmity, but that’s actually a good thing, or at least not enmity, but the peace between the sexes is not going to be a, I guess, neutrality … A peace without striving or a peace without negotiation or just a kind of everyone is just very straightforwardly, non-oppressed and everything … and the war between the sexes has been solved. The war between the sexes will not be solved, but you don’t actually want it to be solved.

    Hannah Long: Yeah. I think this is Ross Douthat wrote a terrific piece that had this approach to it, which is about why he thinks there needs to be a sequel called Barbie and Ken, that is more of a romantic story. One of the things he says is that, “There’s an interesting parallel in Barbie to the ending of Lena Dunham’s series Girls, another formerly feminist story with a reactionary subtext, which graced its anti-heroine with motherhood, but left her in a quasi-matriarchal limbo. In each narrative, the one way that the current dissatisfactions of women and men can’t be resolved is with the happy ending that even stories about the battle of the sexes used to take for granted, not a rearrangement of political power but a romantic partnership, not one sex’s rule, but both sexes’ contentment.”

    I think that somewhat speaks to the current drought we have of real romantic storylines in major stories. I mean you look at the Marvel movies and they’re very desexualized. They barely throw in romantic subplots anymore. I’m not sure I should recommend all of it, but there was an essay, I can’t remember the whole title, but it was about how everyone’s sexy, but there’s no real sexiness in movies, that everyone is these chiseled gods. All these men look like they’ve been taking steroids. But there’s just a strange chasteness to everything.

    You watch a movie like The Mask of Zorro from the 1990s, and it’s just like this is a different universe. The amount of chemistry [inaudible].

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, everyone is just much hotter. Yeah.

    Hannah Long: People are pretty now, but they’re not hot. Anyway, this is an important sociological problem. We need to solve this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, it is an important sociological problem. I mean I think that a reason … I was thinking about remarriage comedies as you were talking, and also about MacLintock! obviously, but I do think that an issue is that the normal happily ever after where men and women come together in a partnership where it’s not fake is going to be fundamentally in-egalitarian in certain ways in order to be satisfying or in order to be hot. It just like … it has to be.

    And that’s always going to be problematic. And so, you have to have people just off on their own personal quests and deferring coming together until later when the political problems might be solved, so that it’s safe for them to come together. I just don’t think that the political problems get solved.

    I do think that that is actually the movie taking away the possibility of the Kantian perpetual sexual peace is a really, really good thing. I’m going to quote from a mufo of many of ours, Edmund Smirk. He’s been doing basically nonstop Barbie memes, as you told me about, Hannah. This one is the standard Ken in his mink and his sunglasses.

    “It wasn’t a celebration, Barbie. It was lament. Fukuyama lamented the fact that history was ending. He detests the last man. He detests Allan, the man without Kenergy, thumos. Luckily for him, this Ken is bringing theological conflict back,”

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: OK. This is my excuse to give my Ken take.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Please.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So I feel you blowing the door wide open. It’s a simpler Ken take. Part of the reason people find Ken’s descent into the patriarchy-and-horses ‘verse so charming is because it’s clear it’s not satisfying to him, and that’s part of what makes it safe and satisfying for the viewer, in a way the real threat of Andrew Tate is not charming and is not inviting, because both the script and Gosling are totally clear, he’s doing these things still to show he is strong enough and has an independent interest enough to merit Barbie. He looks to her for approval while he’s doing it, and he’s not happy when he’s alone in his Kendom.

    I think that’s part of … aside from Gosling’s natural charm, that makes this so funny, and then raises the question of are the things we ask of men similarly unsatisfying for men if women aren’t a part of what being a man is? We see a lot of “men going their own way,” or there are things where I think there’s a similar hollowness where there’s a lot of effort to prove men don’t need women for the sake of ultimately impressing women. The movie wears that pretty openly on its sleeve, and I think that’s part of what makes that whole sequence charming.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, that’s totally right.

    Hannah Long: Yes. I think that the pairing between the negging and the simping in the patriarchal Kens is a very familiar pairing in a lot of these-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh man.

    Hannah Long: … types of guys, shall we say.

    Alastair Roberts: I think it’s important, there’s never going to be any resolution within Barbieland. Barbieland is a fundamentally childlike state. And so, you have sibling rivalry that can be assuaged perhaps, but there’s not going to be a true resolution. To get a true resolution, you have to leave Barbieland and enter the real world.

    Ken never actually leaves that state fully. And so, he’s moved beyond his state of extreme simping perhaps, but he’s fundamentally a childlike figure. Whereas the movement into the real world that Barbie makes is a movement … I think, at the end, a movement towards maturity and adulthood. That promises a resolution that could not be achieved within Barbieland because Barbieland isn’t a place where you could actually have a sexual union. It’s a realm of childhood and childlike figures. And so, you’re going to have this immaturity that is characteristic of that state.

    It’s not a bad thing in its own place. It has its place. It just needs to be recognized for its penultimate status. It needs to be seen as something that you grow out of and move beyond. You can have these sorts of childlike squabbles between siblings and between boys and girls, but ultimately we have to relate as men and women, and it’s not going to be a matter of dominance of boys or girls. It’s going to be a matter of men and women and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives working things out, which are a very different type. You don’t have any fathers in the movie.

    You have one father of the teenage daughter, but he’s absent for most of the movie. You have the corporate boss, but he’s a childlike figure as well in his own way. In the same way, you have a few mother figures, and those mother figures, Ruth particularly, the creator, and also the mother who’s struggling with her own motherhood. I think those are key figures.

    There’s not a patriarchy, really, because there are no father figures. There’s not really a matriarchy either. It’s a state of siblings in rivalry with each other. And so, maturity involves leaving that state behind, and Ken doesn’t quite make that move, but Barbie does. There’s a sense of promise that she might actually enter into an adult-like state and find resolution that you can never find within the realm of childhood itself.

    Hannah Long: I think it’s important that Ken’s idea of the patriarchy is also the idea of someone who is immediately leaving the state of innocence, that the first thing they do upon leaving the garden is she realized that she’s going to die and that all the pain of the world comes upon her. And then he decides to become oppressive immediately.

    So both of them have immediately immature reactions. She’s a more mature character, so she expresses it more subtly. He’s also a supporting character, so you don’t get as much with him. But the reading where you could say that patriarchal Ken is just the way the world is, I think that it’s not intended to be that way. All the women in patriarchal Ken world are exaggerated ideals of what men want women to be, but there’s not really marriage in that world either. They keep referring to like, “Oh, will you be my long-distance, low-commitment girlfriend?” or whatever it was. I don’t remember … and I might be wrong about this. I don’t remember any specific marriage archetypes in that Ken world either.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, there weren’t. Obviously, eventually it needs to be the case that the Barbies and the Kens, in order to become real people, need to actually become embodied and then come back together. But there is, I think, an intermediate stage, which is that Ken actually does need to figure out who he is without Barbie, not because men and women … not in a liberal self-realization way and not because men and women fundamentally can be each other without each other, because they can’t, but because men do need to have a thing that they’re about other than women in order for women to find them attractive. The perpetual simp just is not marriage material.

    Hannah Long: Yes. Ken needs a come-to-Jesus moment, too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Ken needs a career and he might need to, I don’t know, go to sea.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So let’s talk about the come-to-Jesus moment he gets, because doesn’t get an encounter with his creator. He gets a dream ballet, and we have not talked enough about that yet.

    When I heard there was a dream ballet in the movie, I was thrilled, because I think that is a way, oddly, of tackling a big question you don’t have the words for. But when I saw it in practice, I was disappointed.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean I thought the dream ballet that it came closest to was actually the fight scene in West Side Story, the original West Side Story, not the new one. Like there’s no threat of death and there’s no threat of … there’s no transition exactly.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think there’s no choice made is ultimately the problem. There is a choice where the Kens decide to stop fighting, but it’s not clear why or what they recognize in each other. I think you were talking about the lack of sexiness in Marvel movies and a lot of film now where there just isn’t a tension that can be resolved. I don’t think there’s enough of a tension between the Kens or, again, enough of a threat of violence, sex, whatever you want, that gives the dance teeth as it were.

    But it’s also significant that Barbie and Ken don’t have a dream ballet, even a more fully dream ballet on Ken’s part that she doesn’t have to explicitly participate in. I think something like that, that’s where the real tension is, would give more room for Ken to work something out in a bigger way.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Hannah Long: Yeah. This is an intra-Ken conflict, and that ultimately there is a surface-level conflict between the Kens, but it’s never really developed in a way where it feels like it’s about anything. It’s just puffing their chests. It’s rooster stuff. But they’re not even in conflict over a specific Barbie all that much. So it doesn’t feel like the stakes are really there. It’s not a love triangle. It’s never developed as a love triangle. And so …

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s just a distraction. It’s a distraction that the Barbies have engineered in order to take back political power.

    Hannah Long: That’s right. I think that there’s a lack of self-awareness that the movie shows about the way the Barbies are behaving in that scenario too, which is very manipulative. I mean it’s funny and it feels like a mid-2010s meme about taking back power from the men or whatever, but viewed objectively, it is very toxic behavior, and it …

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s also like, “This is our land, this is Barbieland, and we’re taking back our Barbieland from these other lesser Kens.”

    Hannah Long: Exactly. If the goal was to have a gender-flipped revelation where Barbie realizes that she is oppressing people, then the manner in which she expresses that revelation is just showing that she’s just becoming a cleverer oppressor.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Well, because they’re not persuading the Kens either. This is building to a democratic vote, and the goal is to sideline all the Kens so they forget to vote, not to think the Kens might be rational beings who would be moved to reconsider their privileges.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Kentianism, you might say. I’m so sorry.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Oh man.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean the thing that was so good about the movie is that it was a thorough … again, I just want to say it’s such a thoroughly satisfying rejection of girlbossism and of consumeristic girlbossism. That needs to be rejected so badly.

    Hannah Long: I feel like everything I say about that will be extremely hypocritical. I’m sitting in a skyscraper right now.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You are the most girlboss of all of us.

    Hannah Long: So, anyway, it’s a problem. But just a little bit of girlbossing just for fun.

    Susannah Black Roberts: As a treat.

    Hannah Long: As a treat.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right.

    Hannah Long: I will say, since I did drop the line that I was going to promote one of our books, we have this book coming out called Get Married from Brad Wilcox, which is a slightly troll-y title. But it is about this problem of men and women not getting together. You have an idea of what that’s going to be.

    It sounds like a conservative meme of like, oh, well, we need to get beyond all of the liberal messages and everything, but it takes a slightly different angle than you would expect, because it’s talking about how men and women, both men and women, are not marrying as much as they want to. This is not about enforcing an old way of being on people and saying you should do this, even if you don’t want to, to save civilization.

    It’s saying that people are lonely and people genuinely want to get together, but they’re not getting together. Why is that so? What are the things that are preventing people from getting together?

    It’s this big investigation of a lot of different things. I’m not going to go too much further into it, but I was thinking about that as I was watching the ending of the movie, because I was just like … it’s like when you had your Barbie and your Ken doll when you were like ten. I’m just like, “Now kiss. Now kiss,” and they didn’t, and I was disappointed, even though, objectively, Ken was not at an emotional point where he was ready to be the man that Barbie deserves or that he’s not the man he deserves, really, at that point.

    So they hadn’t really built them to that point, but emotionally I was like I really care about him and I care about how he clearly really wants to be loved and he wants to let someone to love him. It felt cheap for it not to go that direction.

    And so, there was just a sense of wistfulness as I was watching it. I was also thinking about the statistics in this book that I’d been editing and working on, saying that there’s such a tie between loneliness and anxiousness and lack of direction, and also just being alone and not even looking for someone, or not knowing how to start looking for someone.

    I think a lot of it is also the breakdown of the usual rules and rituals of dating. A lot of that is a lot more complicated now. I don’t want to oversimplify it, because I think that he brings in a lot of complicated reasons for why people are making these decisions. He’s very empathetic to that. He’s not just saying all of the “liberal feminist women” are making these choices and it’s bad, or just saying one thing or another, which you would expect. I think he’s very empathetic to a lot of that because he was raised by a single mother. And so, that’s part of where he’s coming from.

    But one thing he does do, which actually I disagree with, is that I think he really wants there to be more representations of people getting together on screen. He thinks whenever there is a representation of divorce on screen, it’s implying that this is normative and that we need to lean that direction.

    I don’t think that that’s the case. I think divorce … like Marriage Story, the film Marriage Story, is clearly very anti-divorce, which is also a Noah Baumbach pinned film. It’s just devastating. I mean it makes it seem extremely unpleasant to go through that.

    So, anyway, just to bring it all back together is that I do think that there … as you said about remarriage comedies, at least they had an expectation that this is how this gets resolved, and that feels like we really don’t have that anywhere right now. I mean the only thing that I can think of was something I watched last night, which was Only Murders in the Building, and you could tell how little we see this now that I was getting emotional when Martin Short kissed Meryl Streep.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh man.

    Hannah Long: So I was just like, “This is so romantic.” I thought, “Oh man. OK, we need to fix society.”

    Alastair Roberts: One thing we haven’t really commented upon yet that I think is a very important theme of the movie is the relationship between women and aging. And so, it’s not just a matter of going from girlhood to womanhood, but what does it mean to face death, to face the experience of becoming an older woman?

    There’s the very powerful scene of the encounter between Barbie and the old woman on the bench at the bus stop, and the way that Barbie marvels at how beautiful the woman is. She knows and she responds, “I know.” There’s something about that encounter with someone who’s never experienced an old woman and innocently describes the beauty that she sees that I think captures a key theme within the movie.

    She’s struggled with these thoughts of mortality and death, and she struggled with these symptoms of aging, cellulite, with her heels, and all these sorts of issues that have given her this sense of mortality and have reflected the experience of Gloria. Then she encounters an actual old woman.

    Then, of course, the encounter with Ruth later on in the movie also expresses what it means to be an old woman who’s aged in a way that she’s no longer at war with the world. She’s not at war with her mortality. Barbie is a war against mortality and a constant freezing in amber of womanhood at a stage of youth that never actually grows up, that avoids the experience of age I think captures something about the experience of modern society more generally, where we struggle to grow old. We struggle to face the movement beyond the realm of childhood.

    And so, we’re always going back to the realm of childhood. Barbie itself is a retreading of familiar ground for people who want to look back to their girlhood, and the toys that they played with in that context, and the way that people dress up as an exploration of that childhood, recreation of that childhood.

    That’s not a bad thing, but there’s also this turning away from the experience of growing old that is far more pathological. I think Barbie is, among other things, exploring that as a far more positive thing than feared. And so, Barbie’s fears of growing old in a world that’s sealed off from the reality of aging is allayed in part by encountering actual older women.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean I think that the parallel there is the thing that Ken … the thing that’s wrong with Ken on one level is that he is an adolescent or a post-adolescent, but he’s never experienced lust. He’s never had the opportunity to master himself because he’s never had anything that was trying to master him.

    The disembodiedness for him is a kind of like … he’s not experiencing the results of the fall, as Augustine would describe them in a way, and that’s a problem for him. The way that Barbie needs to wrestle with the results of aging, and in order to be a full human being.

    Hannah Long: I wrote a piece just now for Angelus News about Peter Pan and Wendy, which was the new adaptation of Peter Pan from Disney+ earlier this year. It actually parallels a lot of these stories because it’s about Wendy and she’s very afraid of growing up, but she doesn’t really have an idea of what it means to be grown up. She doesn’t want to be like her mother. She doesn’t want to be a mother, she doesn’t want to have kids, and she doesn’t want to date Peter.

    The whole story doesn’t really work because they removed these elements from it. They also really strip out the Victorian-ness. So it’s just a whole mess.

    But she has this epiphany near the end of the story where she’s been struggling to fly because she doesn’t really have happy thoughts. All of her happy thoughts up until this point have been thoughts of childhood. Then suddenly she has this image of adulthood that is a happy thought, but the adulthood is being single, learning how to fly airplanes, learning to be a suffragist, all these sorts of … it is like the girlboss Barbie montage, and she never ends up with Peter.

    And so, again, it feels like we’ve lost the old forms of telling these stories and the profound lessons that they had without actually needing to tell us the lessons. Peter Pan as a story was very aware of sexuality and of growing up and how all of those things are wrapped together, and it saw them as inherently wrapped together that you can’t separate growing up from your sexuality and your sexual feelings. You can’t just grow up into an asexual blob and pretend that it’s either not just changing body, but, as Leah says, your mind is also struggling to cope with these new feelings and with these new passions and how do I control myself and how do I live a virtuous life now that I have all of these things to encounter?

    That’s so inherent to the story of Peter Pan, but they don’t even need to tell us that because of the assumptions that are already there. This movie has to have a big subtext-free speech about all of this because there are no forms anymore. There are no shared assumptions.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Or there are so many different ones that conflict with each other. You pick up little bits and pieces of them, but there’s no script that can be subverted cleverly through suggestive, or, “here’s something she wants to be to me, but it’s not my mother,” like the old ways that you could imply answers to these things because there was something to play against in a way.

    There’s nothing to play against except the deep dissatisfaction with the perpetual dating, like you take your sixteen-year-old dating self into your adulthood and then continue to do that for years and years and years and years. You medicate your body so that you’re as infertile as you would be if you didn’t have any genitalia.

    That’s not satisfying. There’s something about being a perpetually plastic sixteen-year-old trying to preserve that body as long as possible that is not satisfying to women. What to do instead is just not clear, which is why I think there needs to be a second movie.

    Hannah Long: I guess I have a few recommended things, which is watch the 2003 Peter Pan, which solves all of these problems. Andrew Peterson had a wonderful album some years ago called Light for the Lost Boy, that is about a lot of these things, about the fall from innocence, about the loss of childhood and how much that hurts, but also this need to grow up and this need to recognize our own sinfulness and our own need for God and our vulnerability. Then it ends with this eschatological, glorious image of the Kingdom. It’s, I just think, very relevant to a lot of these concerns.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, we will drop links to those in the show notes.

    Alastair Roberts: Should we say something about the themes of capitalism, consumerism, and artificiality?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I mean this is why I think that she was pulling her punches, because obviously there was a lot of critique of capitalism in the movie, but at the same time it was all an ad.

    Hannah Long: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: She had to not subvert it too much or Mattel would not have let her make the movie. So …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think there’s an exhaustion critique of capitalism that gives people permission to participate in it. I think that’s where this movie lands. We’re like, “Oh yeah, consumerism. It’s a crock. It’s all meant to sell things to you. It’s all collapsing, so it’s fine.”

    I’ve seen that in conversations with friends, where people say, like, “Well, here we are in the burning ashes of capitalism.” So nothing matters and you can go to take yourself to the spa if you want to. It almost becomes a way of not examining consumerism with the assumption being that capitalism is in a slow collapse and almost the victory has already been won.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Or that “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” So you might as well be in Niebuhrian, whatever, participant in capitalism because nothing you do is going to be ethical. And so, no actual choices that you can possibly make will matter.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. If you wear the slave labor cotton, but the shirt says “Boo Capitalism,” then you’re really striking a pretty powerful blow.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Alastair Roberts: There also does seem to be some recognition of the “neoliberalism as social justice” line, where the world of Barbieland is a very socially manicured world, where there’s very carefully arranged representation of various groups. It’s very clear that, although there is an avoidance of any death, imperfection, things like that, it’s very clearly intended to be inclusive, to be diverse.

    But it’s precisely that because it’s organized by a capitalist system. It’s presenting something of the marriage between that capitalist corporate vision, which is sexless in its own way and a society that is very carefully … it’s very much about surface appearances, about representation, and doesn’t actually deal with some of the deeper questions that the film itself raises, the things that are unsatisfactory about Barbieland, even though it has, for instance, a Black female president and trans Barbie and things like that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean you could very well imagine kind of like CEO of Raytheon Barbie, which we are at a position in the world where all of the CEOs of the five major weapons companies are women at the moment. From the perspective of Barbieland, that’s great. Any girl can grow up to make drones. There’s not really a commentary other than that.

    Yeah, I do think that that is the dark, like the really dark, and kind of … she did examine that, she did gesture towards that, but I felt like it could have been a lot darker. Gritty Barbie reboot when?

    Alastair Roberts: We need Gerwig to make the sequel to Oppenheimer and we need Nolan to make the gritty reboot of Barbie.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: No …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Here’s the question I have for you guys. Gerwig is under contract for two Narnia stories for Netflix.

    Hannah Long: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Ooh, interesting.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: After seeing Barbie, which stories do you want her to tackle?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Silver Chair.

    Hannah Long: Silver Chair [inaudible].

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. Everyone wants Silver Chair. I’m Silver Chair also.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Really?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. [inaudible].

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. That seems like a really natural one for her to do, especially because she could do girlboss Jadis.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I’d like Silver Chair and Horse and His Boy from her-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Especially because Horse and His Boy is a story that’s nestled into a better known story.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: The way she’s been willing to take on Barbie and Little Women and find a story woven throughout a different story where you said [inaudible] makes me want her to take on Horse and His Boy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean …

    Hannah Long: I think that Puddleglum could give a big speech in Silver Chair about the inherent contradictions in being a Marsh-wiggle.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Puddleglum speech. Man, I really hope she does Silver Chair. That would be so excellent.

    Hannah Long: Tom Baker does a great version of that, but that’s [inaudible]. Anyway …

    Alastair Roberts: The Horse and His Boy would certainly be interesting in exploring the character of Aravis as a coming-of-age story.

    Hannah Long: I’m not sure. Do we trust her with Susan?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, we don’t trust her with the Susan question. No, she would mess it up.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think Last Battle is unfilmable anyway.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, you can’t film Last Battle.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So it’s fine.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And you can’t film … I mean whatever. The first three I thought were wonderful. So let’s have those be canonical and then have her do Horse and His Boy, and …

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. I think if you’re worried about the problem of Susan in The Last Battle, you should remember that the plot revolves around a donkey wearing a lion’s skin and becoming an object of awe, and that that works way better on the page than it’s going to work looking at it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think it’s probably time to wrap us up. You guys, thank you so much for doing this. Bye, guys.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Bye-bye.

    Alastair Roberts: God bless.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    On our next episode, I’ll be talking with Clare Stober and Marianne Wright about joining the Bruderhof. What is it like to give up all one’s money and live without private property?

    Contributed By portrait of Hannah Long Hannah Long

    Hannah Long grew up in Appalachian Virginia, where her family has lived for nigh-on 250 years. She freelanced for The Weekly Standard during college, and after graduation moved to New York City, where she now lives.

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    Contributed By LeahLibrescoSargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant runs Other Feminisms, a Substack community focused on interdependence.

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    Contributed By portrait of Alistair Roberts Alastair Roberts

    Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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