Subverting the Thing

Barbie, David Letterman, and the impossibility of being a mass-market radical

I didn’t like the Barbie movie very much, but I can’t stress enough how much that doesn’t matter. I didn’t dislike it, because it’s got some really good performances by actors who understood the assignment completely, a couple of stand-out gags1Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie, and it works pretty well as a modern homage to so many classic fantasy movies that inspired it. In that interview with director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, she mentions Barbie greeting Astronaut Barbies and saying “Yay, space!” and it really is a fantastic, charming moment.

The most clever thing about the trailers for the movie was the tagline that went something like “If you love Barbie, you’ll love this movie. If you hate Barbie, you’ll love this movie.” It might simply be that I’ve never had a strong opinion about Barbie one way or the other, so I couldn’t get into this movie. But it’s a toy company spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver an honest and earnest message about feminism to as wide an audience as possible, so what could possibly be the problem?

My biggest issue with it isn’t that it’s bad, but that it was so on-the-nose that I never felt like I had anything to engage with. It was two hours of characters always saying exactly what was on their minds, explicitly delivering a message that I already agreed with. Everything that seemed like an original or clever twist on the basic premise (which I’d already seen on SNL, to be honest) had already been given away in the inescapable torrent of marketing for the movie.

It’d be churlish and hypocritical to be too critical of anything I thought was “just fine overall,” much less one that explicitly comments how the patriarchy demands that women be exceptional just to be recognized as having any worth at all.2And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war. I don’t actually have any strong opinions about the movie, but about the idea that it was subversive.

There’s a New York Times interview with Gerwig that I can’t read, because I don’t subscribe to the paper anymore.3I can’t in good conscience give money to anybody who gives Ross Douthat a platform. But the pull quote from it, at least, has been stuck in my head ever since I saw it, and I’d been hoping that seeing the movie would give it more context. Gerwig is quoted as acknowledging that the movie is both marketing for Mattel and a commentary on feminism, saying “I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”

I don’t fault Barbie for failing to do that, because I don’t even believe that it’s possible.

Since the movie’s release, I’ve seen a surprising number of comments on social media saying “I can’t believe Mattel allowed this movie to exist” and the like. Which feels completely bizarre to me, since the movie is, unabashedly, a two-hour-long advertisement celebrating a toy company’s biggest toy.

The message that Mattel needs to counter isn’t really that Barbie the toy line is anti-feminist, but that Barbie the toy line is irrelevant. Assigning any kind of ideology, good or bad, to the toy is doing exactly the work that Mattel’s marketing needs it to do. This movie insists that Barbie isn’t simply a toy but an idea. And not simply any idea, but a timeless idea of potential and dreams and youth and family that transcends any ephemeral controversies about body image or politics. As far as Mattel’s concerned, the movie’s done exactly what it was intended to, several times over: taking a product that people haven’t thought much about in years (as the movie acknowledges), and making it the one thing that everybody is aware of.

For what it’s worth, I think that’s fine. It’s actually a very good idea to remove this product from any oversimplified context that says either that it’s a perfect vessel of empowerment or that it’s a horrible tool of the patriarchal establishment. As the movie says — again, so explicitly as to leave no room for interpretation — the product can only absorb or reflect whatever existing ideas society assigns to it. Barbie doesn’t really mean anything on its own.

In other words, I’m in violent agreement with the movie. I just don’t think there’s anything subversive about that. The whole idea that there even needs to be something subversive is a relic from the 70s and 80s that we desperately need to get rid of.

I’ve already confessed to being a huge fan of Late Night with David Letterman when I was a teenager. I entirely believed what it was selling: here was a guy who, along with his writers and producers, was giving us a real peek behind the scenes and telling it like it is. Not just exposing the shallowness and hypocrisy of popular media, but of modern capitalism. He was using capitalism as a tool to be anti-capitalist! He was beating the system from within!

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I had the relationship reversed. Letterman’s talk shows weren’t using corporate network television to subvert corporations, they were using the cachet of subversion to promote corporate network television. In my defense, I was young and guileless. Or as Barbie the movie would have a character shout, “It’s like when colonists gave small pox blankets to the natives. They had developed no defenses against it!!!!

Years later, 30 Rock took what was basically the same gimmick and ran with it: mocking its own network for being corporate-controlled media, even though the parent company had changed from General Electric to Comcast by that point. I think it was a lot more honest, though, since it made it clear that it was operating as an absurd fantasy with only the gentlest overlap into actual satire. We heard a lot about the Funcooker and Cabletown, but the show never really claimed to be making a genuinely subversive statement about anti-trust laws or even corporate-controlled media, beyond a simple shrug and “what’re you gonna do?”

I can’t tell what was supposed to be subversive about Barbie: it did have a Jacques Tati-inspired take on Mattel’s corporate offices and executive boardrooms, which seemed more playful than challenging. Its main actual criticism — that a company making the best-selling toy for girls for decades has almost never had a female CEO — was presented as the gentlest “Ha ha, you got us!” gag that in the 1980s would’ve played as insightful self-awareness, but in 2023 just feels like a self-serving case of “acknowledging the problem is the same thing as solving the problem.”

And acknowledging Ruth Handler’s “weird tax evasion issues” would have a little more bite, if she weren’t depicted as an almost-saintly, wise and benevolent ghost who had a timeless dream of empowering young women to be whoever they chose to be. Until I read her Wikipedia entry, I had no idea that she was a co-founder of the company; the movie gave the impression that she was just another toy designer working within the company who somehow managed to hit it big.

There’s a David Foster Wallace essay called “E Unibus Pluram” with the great line “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” It was written during TV’s peak irony era, illustrating how popular media is incapable of genuinely subverting itself. You’re not doing the thing and subverting the thing, since “subverting” the thing is doing the thing.

And yes, I am painfully aware of the colossal irony of being a dude quoting David Foster Wallace when being critical of a movie full of boy dolls mansplaining things to girl dolls. I might as well be explaining The Godfather or whipping out my acoustic guitar. I like to think that I get it; I’m just temporarily ignoring it for the purposes of this blog post.

Because I think the movie gets it, too. It’s just being given a spin that makes me uncomfortable, as somebody who’s eager to be finally rid of the pointless, simple-minded irony spirals of the 1980s. One of the main takeaways in Barbie is rejecting the false dichotomy where you either believe in the over-simplified pink-and-pastel plastic world in which all women are brilliant and beautiful and perfect and live in perfect harmony, or you believe that the toy is a hateful tool of the patriarchy designed to keep girls and women in a perpetual state of in-fighting and low self-esteem. Rejecting those two extremes isn’t “subversive,” though; it’s mainstream by definition.

I’d bet that it does Gerwig a disservice to drag her quote even further out of context than the Times link does, and I suspect that it was just shorthand for saying that the movie doesn’t need to be either selling out to corporate America, or a pure feminist manifesto, that it can comfortably exist somewhere in between.

At least, I hope that’s the case, because I like the idea. I love it when clever people are able to make something that takes advantages of corporate resources but without compromising their integrity. I bristle when people online remind me that “corporations aren’t your friends!” as if that were insightful, or act as if simply complaining about capitalism was genuine anti-capitalist activism. A genuine message about social progress isn’t compromised simply by being funded by a corporation; it’s compromised when it stops being genuine. There’s nothing wrong with Dove using a message about body positivity to sell soap, as long as the message isn’t corrupted.

I just think that the only way that works is if we’re sincere and honest about what we’re saying, and we don’t get attached to the idea that we’re pulling one over on anybody, or Stickin’ it to The Man. I really do believe that we’re at a stage where “selling out” is mostly4NOT entirely! irrelevant. It feels weird to say, with the rise of “influencers” and Tik Tok and increasingly deceptive attempts to fill every moment of your consciousness with advertisements. But the problem, in my opinion, is the dishonesty, more than the commercialism.

Take the Dolly Parton route, who’s always acknowledged that she’s a business woman, and never lied or acted embarrassed about wanting to make money. Otherwise, you’re making a show of being anti-capitalist or anti-corporate, but doing nothing of actual relevance.

  • 1
    Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie
  • 2
    And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war.
  • 3
    I can’t in good conscience give money to anybody who gives Ross Douthat a platform.
  • 4
    NOT entirely!