Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz and his wife, Ginger, arrived at a Washington reception for “Barbie” in matching pink, smiling in photos along the “pink carpet,” mingling with guests sipping pink cocktails, admiring a life-size pink toy box.
They left with political ammunition.
“The Barbie I grew up with was a representation of limitless possibilities, spanning diverse careers and female empowerment,” Ms. Gaetz wrote on Twitter. “The 2023 Barbie movie, unfortunately, doesn’t address any notions of faith or family, trying to normalize the idea that men and women can’t positively collaborate (yuck).”
When another account scolded Mr. Gaetz, the far-right, stunt-seeking Florida congressman, for attending the event, citing the casting of a transgender actor as a doctor Barbie, Mr. Gaetz answered with a double function of culture war.
“If you let transsexuals keep you from seeing Margo Robbie,” he said, leaving the “T” out of the movie star’s first name, “the terrorists win.”
Nonterrorist winners were many after the film’s estimated $155 million debut: Ms. Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, found an eager audience for their rosy-hued feminist work; the marketing team at Warner Bros., whose ubiquitous campaigns clearly paid off; the movie industry itself, riding “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to its most culturally dominant weekend in years.
But few results were nominally inexplicable (and probably unavoidable) like the film’s instant usefulness to political actors and opportunists of all stripes. For a modern take on what was long a politically fraught emblem of toxic body image and reductive social norms, no option was too small, no twist too ideological or seemingly dire for a bipartisan coalition of commentators and elected officials to see value in dissecting it.
“I have, like, pages and pages of notes,” Ben Shapiro, the popular conservative commentator, said in a long video review, which started with him setting a doll on fire and didn’t get any more charitable. (He said his producers “dragged” him into the theater.)
“Here are 4 ways Barbie embraces California values,” the office of Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, wrote in a thread hailing Barbie as a champion of climate activism, “hitting the road in her electric vehicle” and destigmatizing mental health care.
If there was a time in culture when a big summer movie event was some sort of American unifier, a time for sharing overbuttered popcorn via big-budget shooters and insatiable shark sagas, that time isn’t 2023.
And, as always, the performative investment of the political class in “Barbie”—the outrage and the hug—can seem more like a wink than anything else.
What to do about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., who posts a Barbie that looks like her next to the instagram caption“Come on Barbie, let’s rule”?
What exactly does it mean that Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, says of himself“This Ken is pushing to end maternal mortality”?
Indeed, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has used the practice of seriousness in accusing “Barbie” of working to appease the Chinese. (Some Republicans have become obsessed with a scene featuring a crudely drawn map purportedly showing the so-called nine-dash line, indicating Chinese ownership of disputed ocean territory under international law. Vietnam banned domestic showings of the film because of that image.)
“Obviously, the little girls that are going to see Barbie, none of them will have any idea what those scripts mean,” Cruz told Fox News. “This is really designed for the eyes of the Chinese censors, and they are trying to kiss the Chinese Communist Party because they want to make money by selling the film.”
The answer on the right is not unique. For a generation of conservative personalities, schooled on Andrew Breitbart’s much-quoted observation that “politics is downstream of culture,” Hollywood and other ostensibly liberal strongholds must be confronted head-on, lest their leanings take young voters down without a fight.
The past few years have provided ample evidence, some on the right say, for a “wake up, screw up” view that progressivism is bad business. Last year’s apolitically patriotic “Top Gun: Maverick” was a smash hit, as was this year’s “Super Mario Bros. Movie” for kids. By contrast, right-wing critics argued that Disney’s new version of “The Little Mermaid,” with its main character played by black actress Halle Bailey, fell short of its producers’ expectations. (Of course, there’s no way to track exactly what makes or breaks a movie, and many observers adhere to screenwriter William Goldman’s axiom: “Nobody knows anything.”)
It cannot be said that “Barbie” has been ruined. But her supposed politics, conservatives have argued, hurt her by making her less entertaining: “a lecture,” in the sense words by Rich Cromwell of The Federalist, “self-identifying as a movie.”
Kyle Smith, critic for The Wall Street Journal, She complained that the film “contains more attacks on ‘patriarchy’ than a year’s worth of Ms.” magazine.
The film seems at times (mild spoiler alert) to be involved with “the patriarchy” ironically, infusing it with savvy Southern California blandness, decor that seems hair metal-inspired, and a heavy emphasis on weightlifting and brewskis.
When the time comes (less kind spoiler alert) to reclaim Barbie Land, the Barbies distract the Kens by indulging in their penchant for exaggerated gestures of masculinity like playing the acoustic guitar and insisting on displaying a “Godfather” quote while talking about it.
Shapiro seems unconvinced that the movie is generally in on its own jokes.
“The real argument that the movie makes is that if women enjoy men, it is because they have been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” she said in her review.
He called the film, with a straight face, two hours you’ll be sorry to miss as you sit on your deathbed.
“The things I do,” he said, “for my audience.”
Anjali Huynh contributed reporting.