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Cinemanarrative Dissonance - The Subversiveness of Barbie
Everyone wants to make subversive art. Almost no one can, because to actually be subversive you have to hide your heretical message in a package that gets past people’s initial defenses. Seeing actual subversion play out in the real world, successfully, is a wonder to behold.
(edit: I’ve now recorded a podcast episode on this subject as well)
MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW
I. The Surface Plot
Supposedly this movie is about Barbie. What is the plot of the Barbie part of the movie?
Barbie’s perfect world develops imperfections (burnt waffle, flat feet) and Barbie starts to have uncomfortable feelings about death. She visits a mentor who tells her to travel to the Real World to comfort the angsty child playing with her. Barbie Refuses The Call, but is forced to go anyway, and Ken comes along. In the Real World she discovers men hold many positions of power and is yelled at by a teenager, before being taken to Mattel HQ. Ken discovers The Patriarchy and returns to Barbieland. Barbie escapes Mattel with the help of the woman that was playing with her and has been having a crisis-of-meaning. They escape back to Barbieworld, which has been turned into a 24/7 frat party by Ken. Barbie un-brainwashes the other Barbies, and as a group they trick the Kens into fighting each other while they regain control of Barbieland. Everyone lives happily ever after.
II. The Trojan Horse Message (the fake one)
Barbie has a wrapper of pop wokeism. On the surface it is criticizing older feminism for focusing on providing positive role-models and encouragement, rather than focusing on reversing systemic prejudice. Barbie travels from her perfect girl-power world to the real world, which she is shocked to learn is ruled by The Patriarchy. She is excoriated for not having fought The Patriarchy. She flees back to Barbieland, only to discover it has been infected/conquered by The Patriarchy. She repents of her ways and adopts the correct DEI stance - she lectures her fellow Barbies on the evils of men and the oppression and inequity of womenhood. They triumph by denying Kens the vote, and return to a system of “anti-sexism” that redistributes all power to Barbies.
It should be a perfect woke fable. Except what we are shown on the screen doesn’t match the superficial reading.
II. Cinemanarrative Dissonance (the Megan Fox problem)
Ludonarrative dissonance is the conflict between a video game's narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay. I first heard of it here, presented by Dan Olson in this now-famous video essay. It’s a common problem in video games, which sometimes want to tell complex stories, but whose core gameplay loop still centers on the good ol’ “kill tons of dudes” paradigm.
Cinemanarrative Dissonance was coined in that video essay, which used the example of Transformers. This was expanded on in Lindsey Ellis’s video essay on Megan Fox’s character in Transformers. As written, her character has significantly more connection to the Transformers than Shaia’s character. She is a master mechanic, having grown up around cars and taught to fix them from childhood by her father. In the written narrative of the script, she’s a complex plot-critical character. But the camera treats her as an empty sex object, and that’s all anyone gets from her when they watch the movie. Because the camera controls how the audience interacts with the story. Not the script. (Watch the video, it’s great.)
Barbie has this same “problem.” And by “problem” I mean “opportunity,” because that’s where it slips in the subversion.
The Patriarchy that Barbie encounters? Actually pretty decent. The obligatory harassment that women must be subjected to in woke movies is a joke (literally). Barbie is never scared or in danger, the world contorts itself to keep her safe. She may actually be literally invincible in the real world? Ken is denied any sort of male privilege, and the idea that he could get around even the simplest job requirement just because there is a “Patriarchy” is riotously mocked.
The real world in general is pretty great. The parts of it that we are presented with in the movie are sunny and clean. The people are mostly friendly and fulfilled. We’re having fun. So much fun, in fact, that the only way we can tell anything might be bad is because characters are forced to say that it is. A sullen teenager lectures Barbie on how much everything sucks for a couple minutes, then we return to hijinks.
The Kenworld Frat Party is pretty cringe, but the Kens are incredibly easy to manipulate. In a world of Kens, a single Barbie is a Superhuman AI. Using superhuman manipulation tactics, Barbie easily turns the Kens on each other. Afterwards they are stripped of rights and dignity again.
This is starting to look strange. Not only does Barbie not face any challenges, she kinda looks like the bad guy? All the bad things we’re told that “The Patriarchy” does are absent from the real world (“We just got better at hiding it” says one man, in the most blatant instance of cinemanarrative dissonance in the movie), but are dialed up to 11 in Barbieland (men can’t own property, can’t hold positions of power, and are a subhuman caste without moral weight). What gives??
III. The Secret Protagonist
Here’s an observation:
Barbie doesn’t want anything.
Barbie doesn’t have any real problems.
Barbie doesn’t take any real actions for the first 3/4ths of the movie. (She’s shipped off to the real world kinda against her will, then bounces from one encounter to the next without much agency, not taking her first real action until she starts manipulating the Free Kens!)
Barbie has privilege and power everywhere she goes, and gets almost everything she wants.
There is no climax to Barbie’s actions. No tension is built up over the course of the movie, and there is no cathartic release of that tension.
Barbie has no real character arc. She doesn’t need to learn or grow much, and thus doesn’t.
There is a character that does, though.
Ken has real problems. He belongs to an underclass in his society. His people are politically oppressed in the literal sense — they cannot hold offices of power. They have no homes and no property. They are denied even the opportunity to grow into better people.
Ken wants something. He deeply, desperately wants Barbie to notice him, to know him, and to win her love.
Ken proactively joins Barbie’s quest, sneaking into her car. In the real world he discovers a place that treats him like a full person, deserving of equal respect and rights. He is thrilled that this is possible. He immediately takes the knowledge of this system and rushes home to tell his fellow Kens. He mistakenly refers to this as “Patriarchy” because how would he know better? He implements this system successfully (mostly).
Ken thinks he gets what he wants—Barbie finally sees him, and cares enough to ask who he is. She then uses his affection to hurt him, and turn the Kens against each other in violence. The Kens have a massive beach-invasion battle scene, which culminates in a heart-wrenching musical production. This is the emotional climax of the movie. Ken spills all his fears and insecurities. Ken cries in anguish about the relentless unfairness of doing your best to live in a system designed to keep you down; of the silent suffering endured in the hope of some scraps, and the outrage of learning he could have been so much more all along.
Ken learns to let go of his self-loathing and comes to embrace his inner strength and all the aspects of himself.
Ken loses everything anyway. It is too late. Barbie did see who he is, and she didn’t want him. The one thing he most wanted was never possible in the first place, it was a fool’s errand all along. His regime is overthrown, and his people are subjugated again.
In the face of all this, Ken undergoes a personal reckoning. He comes to realize that he must be a whole person in himself. That can never be taken away. He learns to accept himself with all his flaws. He is Kenough.
IV. The Real Message Hidden Inside The Trojan Horse
The secret message is pretty simple.
The world we live in - the rich, educated, western world - is actually pretty good for most people. Yeah, there’s issues. Some people are assholes. Some parts of life suck, and in some ways it sucks differently for men than for women. But even when the details are different, overall it’s equally good/bad for both. Love is hard.
Some men have it bad. Really bad. More than people who crow about “The Patriarchy” would have you believe.
Some women have it really good. More than people who crow about “The Patriarchy” would have you believe. Female privilege exists. Very attractive females have relatively a lot of it. They can use it for all sorts of things, up to and including destroying men and toppling empires. They have ways of exercising power that men don’t have (and visa versa).
V. Cinemanarrative Dissonance (the Subversiveness of Barbie)
Barbie works because the script gives you one message - Barbie is the hero! This is wacky hijinks! Woke is great, boo patriarchy!
There are scenes where characters describe actions that are not shown on screen, or that are flat out contradicted by what we see. There are a couple sections in the movie where a character just recites dogma for the camera.
None of this matters because, as we saw with Megan Fox in Transformers, you can write anything you want. The audience sees the world portrayed by the camera. What are you going to believe, the words someone is reciting, or your own lying eyes?
This allows everyone to go see Barbie. People who want to see a feminist critique of male domination. People who want to see a slapstick comedy. People who want to see their favorite childhood toy come to life on screen. And every single one of them will see a world where some women have a lot of power, and some men have none, and the system doesn’t particularly care either way. They will see men mocked by a matriarchy that laughs at their pathetic attempts to be useful and provide value to others. They will see a man who’s been told his whole life he’s worthless finally throw off the judgement of others and start to live for himself.
It says a lot about modern society that this message had to be slipped in under the veil of lip-service to the woke orthodoxy. It is particularly notable that this message is so unobjectionable. It’s a basic empowerment message, aimed at average men. And yet the only way it would work is slipped in within a woman’s empowerment message.
Yes, Barbie-the-character did do a few things, particularly at the end. And she grew a little bit, in that she decided Barbieworld life is too simple and she wants to experience the complexity of a real life, where not everything is a simple oppression binary. The surface narrative wouldn’t work as a cover story if there was literally nothing there. Pay attention to how thin it is. Pay attention to where the emotion in the story lies. Pay attention to the world and the people that the camera is showing you.
When we leave Ken, he faces an uncertain world and an uncertain future. Not even he knows where he will go from here. “I don’t know who I am without you,” he says to Barbie. “It’s ‘Barbie and Ken.’ There is no ‘just Ken.’ ”
As the credits play out we see the title again, and we realize that even the title is a subversion. The movie is not “Barbie and Ken.” It’s just “Barbie.” The words “And Ken” are missing. On the surface level, this is to sell tickets. On the deeper level, this is symbolic. They are conspicuous in their absence. You notice them because they were erased. They were erased because this is the story of how they were erased. The ‘And Ken’ has been set free.