I don't know what I thought the actual content of a Barbie movie might be. Well, that's a little misleading right off the bat, because I didn't think about it at all. If I had, I suppose I would have expected a sort of Barbie cartoon, with a negligible story, no more substantial than an episode of The Smurfs. And that the feminists and other media women writing about it were just using the movie as an occasion to muse, positively or negatively, about the significance of the famous doll, musings that would have about as much substance as the little mannequin itself.
But then I started coming across commentaries from serious-minded women who were finding some significance in the movie. Clearly there's more to it than just a lot of glib pop culture fluff and/or feminist cliches. I linked to several of these in comments on the previous post, but they deserve more attention than that, so here are links and a few quotes.
What emerges is that the actual world of actual women is difficult. The hints begin when Stereotypical Barbie—[played by Margot] Robbie—begins to experience limits and flaws, culminating in a startling admission that she’s starting to think about…dying. Off she goes, guided by the advice from Weird Barbie (the one whose chopped hair and markered-up face points to other ways Barbies are played with)—that she must find the girl who plays with her, whose angst is clearly filtering down into her up-to-now light-filled life....
Barbie might have begun her life inspiring little girls to reject real life and their unique way of being in the world, but at the end of this part of the journey, Barbie embraces that same way of being, of womanhood that is definitely not plastic, definitely not smooth and definitely not without mystery and pain—and embraces it with joy.
From Nina Power at Compact:
Gerwig’s Barbie points instead to a dialectical exit: Women can be mothers or not; they can take up any number of roles, or none; they can conform to femininity or look weird. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. But there are limits: We are past the moment of the free-floating signifier, of womanhood as a mere “identity.” The doll is born into suffering. To have a male or female body is to suffer and feel in different ways: We forget this if we reduce each other to mere signs. To be human is also to have to choose—an existential Barbie can hide this possibility from herself for a while, but facing every maiden is death, behind every Barbie, an Oppenheimer.
Barbie is a symbol of youth, beauty, and possibility. She can be anything, and everyone is drawn to her. But it’s all meaningless because the reason she’s so beautiful and perfect is that nothing has ever happened to Barbie. All the meaning in life comes from the things that give you wrinkles.
When she comes to the real world, Barbie finds herself on a bench at a bus stop next to a grandmotherly looking old lady. She has never seen an elderly woman before. No one ages in Barbie Land. Barbie gazes at her face and says, “You’re so beautiful.” The woman smiles and says, “I know it.”
According to Gerwig, studio executives wanted her to cut the scene, because it doesn’t move the plot along. She told them, “If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.”
I like the last line of that first paragraph.
The world [Barbie creator Ruth] Handler envisioned is, in many ways, the world we live in today. Like Barbie, American women have achieved high-level career success, especially in higher education, where their performance has notably surpassed that of American men. Like Barbie, American girls from a very young age have learned to flaunt their bodies and to call this empowerment. And like Barbie, Ken is only an accessory to female success today....
Unfortunately for those women who have followed the Barbie model, many now find themselves childless and unsatisfied. Emasculated men, apparently, don’t father many children.
Apart from commentary on the movie itself, these remarks revealed to me that I had a completely mistaken idea about how the Barbie doll came to be and what it meant. I had always assumed that it was the creation of a man or men. That was mainly because of the ridiculous and anatomically impossible (I think) physique. I imagined a male thought process something like Babies are boring. Let's make a sexy doll. And give her fun things to do. And I was always a little bit surprised that women put up with it--the sexy part, at least.
Wrong. Well, that description of the thought process is more or less accurate, but Barbie was the creation of a woman, a proto-feminist and a pretty hard-headed businesswoman who wanted her daughter Barbie to have a doll that would give her aspirations to a more exciting life than that of a mother and homemaker. Now the whole Barbie phenomenon--the doll, not the movie--makes sense in a way that it didn't before. Especially the role played by very consciously and skillfully contrived marketing. (The physique of the doll, however, did begin in the imagination of a man: it was suggested by a sex doll.)
Another thing I've learned over the past few days is how much my wife hates Barbie. I knew she had never played with or wanted a Barbie doll when she was little, but I had not realized that the feeling went far beyond indifference. Every time I've brought this movie up to her with remarks along the lines of what I've posted here--"You know, actually this movie sounds kind of interesting"--the response has been brief: "I hate Barbie." And that's pretty much that.
About Oppenheimer: not surprisingly, it has kicked off a new round of arguments about the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or rather, as far as what I've seen is concerned, a new round of justifications for it. Oppenheimer developed grave reservations about what he had done, and I gather the movie is sympathetic to those reservations. Moreover, he and many others with similar reservations were leftists, which tends to make those on the right suspicious and skeptical toward their ethical arguments.
At any rate, whenever the question comes up, American conservatives can be counted on to defend the morality of the bombing. A post by Rich Lowry at National Review, occasioned by the film, is pretty typical. The headline:
Oppenheimer Had Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right call.
There's no need to go into detail about the text. It's the justification that's always used: that the use of the bomb was necessary to end the war and in fact saved millions of lives. That's a reasonable argument, and if I'd been in Truman's place I might have done the same thing. (As is also usual, Lowry notes that the atomic bomb was really no worse than the fire bombing of cities--which is probably true, but is a bizarre line of reasoning: "It's ok that we killed these civilians, because we had already killed those other ones.")
What it doesn't address, though, is the moral principle, if formulated in an elemental way, without reference to the particular situation: is it morally permissible to deliberately kill innocent people?
If the answer to that is yes, then it's a pragmatic, utilitarian matter. It's purely a cost-benefit analysis. X people will die if we do this. X+Y people will die if we don't. Therefore we do it.
If the answer is no, then the bombings were objectively wrong, however powerful the reasons for resorting to them were.
What most conservatives, including most of those who oppose abortion, don't see is that if the answer is yes, then there is no argument against abortion (and many other things) in principle.
In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the practical calculation is very powerful, and I don't see any reason to doubt that it's correct as far as the number of casualties and the general horror are concerned. I don't dismiss it. Under the right threat we would probably all accede to things that we know to be wrong. But when, in the cold light of day, we say that it is, in principle, permissible to deliberately kill the innocent, we make a grave error. There's no good excuse for Catholics to make that mistake, because the Catechism is perfectly clear:
"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation." A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes. (2314)
I wrote about this at more length back in 2005: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory. One of my better efforts, I think, and one that I considered worth including in my book.
Ivan to Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov:
“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”
“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said softly.