I recently watched Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy Lost in Translation on my laptop for the first time in over 20 years to prepare for or, more likely, to procrastinate writing a lecture I was slated to give surrounding the translation of Francesco Petrarch’s sonnets. I remember this film being formative when I was 16; it communicated what I thought, at the time, was a sort of untranslatable feeling of anomie and social isolation. This feeling was pervasive among my suburban high school friends, who tried our best to capture it in our respective blogs but never could quite find the right words or the adequate Livejournal emoticon in its list of moods, which at the time were restricted to Sad, Tired, Happy, Feeling Excited, Confused, etc. This time around, I watched Lost in Translation via Amazon Prime, whose viewing platform, at the end of the film, recommended I next watch Jackass Forever.
This seemed like an unlikely pairing from an algorithm; it Confused® me. It didn’t seem like counterprogramming since that happens on the level of a box office release to hundreds of millions of viewers rather than on the level of a streaming program option advertised to one sole viewer. Besides, counterprogramming assumes the existence of separate target audiences with disparate tastes. You don’t want to watch The Dark Knight, but you want to go to the movies? Chances are you’ll want to watch its polar opposite, Mamma Mia, released on the same day. This happened in 2008; I ended up watching both, but I think I was the exception to this rule.
A larger exception to this rule, of course, is Barbenheimer, which, in a kind of cultural fission, resulted in the co-incident one-day dropping of the two films Barbie and Oppenheimer, resulting further in a fusion of the two seemingly disparate target audiences, caught in the twin sights of the two films’ media teams’ allied marketing strategies. When I watched Lost in Translation, Barbenheimer wasn’t yet even a meme.
It’s hard to imagine a time before Barbenheimer was a meme. This has more to do with the nature of memes than the films: “meme”, in French, is a noun that means “same” or, as an emphasizer of personal pronouns, “self”, for example, “memes themselves.” Like nuclear proliferation and a mass-produced one-name doll, a meme is simply a virally self-replicating and highly disseminated image or concept. Of course, it’s not “simply” that, in regards to the hierarchical and moneyed interest differentials between an Instagram user adapting and re-posting a Barbenheimer meme and two film production companies making good on the meme by releasing Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie and Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer on the same day.
In the beginning, was the meme, and then Warner Bros. and Universal Studios said, “Let there be Barbenheimer”, and it was so. A meme travels across time, regardless of its origin, but it transports along with it some of its originary cultural and historical contexts and transforms the present. “In the beginning” has become a meme, most famously originating from the Bible, but it is also played upon in the opening of Barbie, and it helps herald Barbie’s genesis, a Deus ex machina moment, a God out of the Doll.
Both Barbie and Oppenheimer recall particular times when the world was forever changed or, at least, both the films make an argument for a product that changed the world by introducing something new that threatened – or that promised – sameness. A meme change. Both arguments are convincing. Oppenheimer is specifically a period piece that argues for periodization; there is the time before the bomb and the time after. Within Oppenheimer‘s story, we live in the aftermath, or the fallout, of a nuclear event that is yet to come, the total annihilation of human existence through human-driven actions, when all will be razed to ash and reduced to sameness. The name “Barbie” is itself a meme. Though the actors playing Barbie are multiple, their name is the same. Their call and their response are fused into one and the same: “Hey Barbie,” calls one Barbie, “Hey Barbie,” responds another Barbie. They are more like dolls than humans, though, and more like atoms than Adam, and they proliferate rather than procreate, and in their fission, something is unleashed and exploded.
This is the other aspect and function of the meme; not only does it travel relatively unchanged through time, but it spreads and mushrooms through self-replication and through the transformation of unlike elements into like elements. We can think of money, for example, as the superlative meme example of our time, and its alchemical technology of sameness-making being commodification, the transformation of images, like the atomic bomb exploding in Japan, or the transformation of labor, like the manufacture of the first Barbie dolls in Japan, or the transformation of concepts, like the critique of Patriarchy®, into near-Universal® profits for Mattel.
Amazon Prime didn’t even recommend I watch the 2002 movie Jackass – a contemporary of Lost in Translation – but its sequel, the 2022 movie Jackass Forever. What does this mean? Lost in Translation :: Jackass Forever. What is the relationship between what is Lost and what is Forever? What happens to a work as it ages? What about works that seek never to age, that seek to update themselves, or continually translate themselves, or to laminate and plasticize themselves, to modify themselves? The unlikeliness of Barbie and Oppenheimer‘s success has been described as their representing something new in the film industry. But in the current climate, the standard for “something new” has lowered dramatically: essentially, neither film is an action movie nor a sequel.
The term “sequel” loses meaning in reference to the meme, as does the term “original”: the meme displaces both of them. Even “action”, such as an action film, is problematized insofar as an “act” is a “thing done”, but the moment a meme is generated is the same moment a meme is spread, and the moment a meme is spread it has copied and been regenerated; simultaneously, it is asking to be translated. Interestingly enough, “to translate” comes from the Latin “transferre” which means “carried across”, and “metaphor” comes from the Greek “metapheirein“, to transfer. Maybe I am still writing my translation lecture after all.
In any case, these analogies are not too metaphorical, and they translate. As in translation, a meme does “carry across” itself, its selfsame self, largely unchanged, and nonetheless, some meanings are gained and are lost in that movement between spaces and times. Oppenheimer exemplifies this phenomenon: as a translation machine, the film’s primary aim is the transformation of the foreign into the familiar, of unlike elements into like ones. Through literal acts of translation and aesthetic acts of cultural erasure, Oppenheimer is a film about the end of difference not due to the emergence of endlessly proliferating nuclear energy but, well, metaphorically. Metaphor is a principle of replacement; one element stands in for another. In Oppenheimer, English stands in for Sanskrit, dramatic actors stand in for historical actors, and the guilt of the perpetrators stands in as worthy of dramatization, as worthy of recognition, rather than the horrors faced by the victims; in Oppenheimer, the victims have no faces.
Beginning at translation, let us consider a meme that is older than “In the beginning”, as dramatized in the film Oppenheimer. “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” is the English translation of the ancient Hindi scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, written in Sanskrit. J. Robert Oppenheimer reported later, in a televised speech, that this was the line that flashed through his mind as he viewed the first successful test of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. After saying as much, he adds: “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” The “I” in “I am become death” is not solely referring to Oppenheimer, then, but rather to the human species itself, which now possesses this world-destroying bomb. Oppenheimer’s historic regret, or at least ambivalence about being father to the bomb, falls on all of us. It is a gesture towards communal accountability.
The fictional and titular Oppenheimer, however, is represented as using the same quote in a context completely removed from, and in fact antecedent to, the development of the bomb. Writer and director Christopher Nolan dramatizes a scene years before the Manhattan Project when Oppenheimer has just accepted his first academic appointment at Berkeley. One night at a house party thrown by colleagues with socialist leanings, Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, meets Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh. The two exchange meaningful glances, and suddenly we find ourselves at the beginning of what will be a tortuous relationship full of pain and adultery.
For now, however, we find ourselves, again suddenly, in Oppenheimer’s bedroom, where he and Jean Tatlock. Tatlock abruptly dismounts Oppenheimer and walks pointedly a few meters to his bookshelf, where she removes the Bhagavad Gita. She opens the book, views the Sanskrit, and says, “Can you read it?” Oppenheimer humbly and somewhat bashfully avers that he can. “What does this say?” she asks, pointing to a short passage. Oppenheimer equivocates a bit, and starts explaining the context of the passage. “No,” Tatlock pursues, “what does it say?” She points to one line.
This scene confuses me for a few reasons, some of which I indicated above, but primarily because I expected Murphy’s Oppenheimer, at this moment, to pronounce Sanskrit. Granted, the spoken language is far in the past, so correct pronunciation can largely only be conjectured at, but when Tatlock says “no, what does it say?” in response to Oppenheimer, I expect she’s asking in contradistinction to his English translation, that she wants the Sanskrit. Oppenheimer says, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” They resume having sex.
The historical context of death in relation to death, i.e., death in relation to the destruction harbored by the bomb, is translated to a filmic context of death in relation to sex, i.e., death in relation to the destruction harbored by love. The communal accountability is lost; it is replaced by an eroticization, which gains its sexual charge from the exoticization of a foreign text. This is the great palliative Oppenheimer offers us in metaphorical exchange. Sex for death. The biopic for history. The fetish object for the sacred text.
Similarly, now “I” and “worlds” in “I have become death, destroyer of worlds”, refers to Oppenheimer and relationships, becoming entangled in the drama of his own personality and vices, his perpetual adultery. This also sets the film up to ultimately steer empathy toward the perpetrator instead of the atomic bomb’s victims.
This latter point becomes obvious in Oppenheimer‘s treatment of the Japanese. There is a scene after the twin bombings of Japan where the bomb’s architects are in a screening room, watching a film documenting and displaying the horrifying effects the blasts had on the skin, especially the faces, of the Japanese civilians. The audience sees no footage of this; rather, we watch the principal characters watch the footage. We watch the bomb-builders’ faces distort in; well, in what? Horror? Regret? Shock? Sad®? Tired®? Confused®?
While we can’t know their feelings as they see what their product has wrought, this is the point: the drama shifts not to the brutality of the action and its victims but to how the people responsible for it felt about it. The historical disfigurement is imitated by aesthetic defacing in that not one character in the film is Japanese; they are rendered faceless. This is not simply a film within Nolan’s film; it’s the nucleus of the film itself. The effects of the disfigurement are expropriated from the Japanese and superimposed onto the Americans. We could consider this filmic erasure a loss in translation: the lethal erasure of Japanese civilians is echoed and cinematically re-employed through aesthetic erasure.
The same dynamic occurs throughout Oppenheimer, but this time with a translational gain or addition. In several scenes, we watch Oppenheimer hallucinate a recurring waking nightmare: whatever crowd of Americans he is viewing – generally his colleagues at Los Alamos – a blinding white light obscures the screen, and we hear the sound of people fleeing, and in a soft blur, we see a white ectoplasmic goo slide down the faces of the crowd. Not only has the Japanese’s physical blast trauma been erased; it has been superimposed onto the faces of the white Western builders of the bomb. In this displacement, the literal and figurative defacement of Japan is appropriated by Americans and grafted onto the professional dishonoring and defacement of Oppenheimer, towards whom our sympathy is ultimately steered. Even their victimhood is appropriated.
This erasure is not incidental; if the disfigurement of the Japanese people is literally just beyond the periphery of the camera – relegated to verbal and textual history – it’s because the main focal point of Oppenheimer is Americans’ faces. Hoyte van Hoytema, Oppenheimer‘s cinematographer, explained in an interview with IndieWire: “This was a three-hour-long movie about faces. And our challenge was to be able to get closer with the camera to make those faces become our landscape, and to make those faces interesting enough for the audience to become captivated by them.”
There are very few wide-angled shots in Oppenheimer. We do not look out at the Los Alamos landscape with Cillian Murphy or the other actors; we do not identify with them. We do not witness events with them; we do not witness events without watching them witness those same events. The depiction of the detonation of the atomic bomb, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, is more instructional than it is exceptional. The preparation for the detonation involves close-ups of others – the builders of the bomb – being instructed by Matt Damon’s Leslie Groves to hold a chunk of metal before their eyes during the blast while Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) slathers sunscreen all over his face.
Jack Quaid’s Richard Feynman is sitting in the front seat of a car and says the windshield will protect him from UV radiation. Once the blast occurs in the film, the camera spends more time on the spectators than on the spectacle, as the real drama revolves around which viewers look away and which are too captivated to follow safety protocols. The faces are the events, and their reactions to historical events are also the events.
How did Nolan make a film where the locus of all action is the white American face? In the same way, and for the same reason, I name-dropped so many actors’ names above. Matt Damon of the Bourne franchise, playing Leslie Groves, says, “Hi Ken!” to former “Iron Man” Robert Downey Junior, playing Lewis Strauss, says, “Hi Ken!” to Kenneth Branaugh, playing Niels Bohr, says, “Hi Ken!” to Josh Harnett, a predecessor from another wildly jingoistic and inaccurate film, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor from 2001 –in one scene, Japanese planes attack a civilian hospital, although historically, this never happened, and Japanese pilots were under strict orders not to fire on civilian targets. Michael Bay knew this and went ahead with the scene anyway because he said it would be “more barbaric” – who says “Hi Ken!” to Bohemian Rhapsody‘s Rami Malek, who says “Hi Ken!” to Cillian Murphy who says “Oh, hi Ken!,” delightedly, a pleasant shock of recognition on his face, to Harry S. Truman disguised as Murphy’s former castmate from Nolan’s Batman franchise, Gary Oldman.
Because it is not actors playing historical characters but historical characters playing actors. Nolan makes the famous face the site of entertainment, a familiarized (white western men) landscape that absorbs the shock of death and foreignness (Japan). What we ultimately recognize when we recognize this celebrity landscape of faces is not a story, narrative, or history but the film industry itself, an autobiography.
Closing the chapter on Ken, I mean Oppenheimer, which is placed largely in the mid-’40s and dramatizes an event that takes place at the beginning of the age range for the genesis of the Baby Boomer generation, we move on to Barbie, a film that opens by dramatizing a similar paradigm-shifting event that takes place at the middle of the age range for the genesis of the Baby Boomer generation, the introduction of the first Barbie doll in 1959. Fittingly, the film’s opening is also the film’s promotional video.
The film/promo opens with several wide shots of an empty and austere landscape golden-drenched with the light of the dawn sun. “Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been,” and here a dramatic pause from the narrator, Helen Mirren, before she completes the sentence: “…dolls.” Here we cut to an amber-hued landscape of rocks, leaden gray clouds above, and then in the foreground, the profile of two little girls in shadow facing one another and each holding up a baby doll; a lone pram is behind one of the girls, giving the whole atmosphere a Little House on the Prairie feel. “But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls,” says Mirren, and now several little girls appear in plain drab dresses, walking prams across the rocky landscape, raising tea cups to baby dolls’ mouths – baby dolls dressed in the same joyless and muted-colored dresses as the girls – “until,” says Mirren, and this is the final word of Mirren, whose narration is replaced with the opening strings of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra.
The irruption of the music is synced with the sudden apparition of a gigantic Margot Robbie – or Barbie – as viewed from below by a blonde-haired pigtailed child, who watches Barbie’s face in shadow as the crown of her head eclipses the corona of the sun, effecting the emergence of a new celestial/earthly body. So far, it would appear the other girls have only seen Barbie’s enormous and nude legs; they stare directly up at them. One of the girls touches her shin as if it is a structural beam, then rapidly removes her hand; both the impulse to touch and the impulse to retreat are symptomatic of the experience of awe, of something extraterrestrial but also familiar.
So far, this is shot-to-shot a masterful, hilarious, and, most importantly, recognizable parody of Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening of which is headlined “The Dawn of Time”. 2001: A Space Odyssey opens in a similar barren landscape but with chimpanzees as its principal characters, and instead of the mono-nym Barbie, we have the monolith, the enormous black smooth rectangular tower jutting out of the arid dirt, which has either arrived from outer space or even from another time and seems completely alien to everything surrounding it. The peak of the monolith similarly eclipses the sun’s corona, signifying not only the emergence of a new form but something that interrupts time itself.
Barbie, in a one-to-one correspondence with the monolith, replaces the sun and time itself, where the unmentioned year 1959 is only visually referenced by the black and white swimsuit and is further displaced into a new mythical time, a kind of year 0 that, like in Oppenheimer, documents a paradigm shift. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith is entirely alien; however, the Barbie monolith in Barbie is as new as the doll is familiar. There is no compelling visual link or likeness between the chimpanzees that touch, in awe, and then retract their hands, in awe, from the inorganic structure that is the monolith. The Barbie monolith, on the other hand, while distinct from the landscape and the girls in her smiling attitude, her striking and modern outfit, and her height, nonetheless resembles a possible, a desired future for the girls; both demographics are at least human, and the smooth monolithic legs of Barbie, which never grow hair and, as Gerwig’s film later dramatizes, never grow cellulite, could become the girls’ as well. It is the tangible object of the girls’ fingers’ veneration, a new model to strive to resemble, rather than the baby dolls that are dressed like the girls and that are, after all, babies and represent their past.
This representation of a break between the past and present that can trend towards a new future is notable, considering 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sci-fi genre is a serious genre that posits alternative and possible futures as a way of commenting on the trajectory of the present. 2001: A Space Odyssey is somewhat exceptional to the genre, however; it argues, through its structuring, that the dystopian future finds its source in the remotest past, “in the beginning”, from which irrupts the monolith that, like a meme, recurs and reappears unchanged through monolithic time.
This is the strange ambivalence that Barbie introduces in its parody: it is parodying a dystopia. While the monolith is the most commonly parodied element – the most meme-ic element – of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s opening scene, the central argument of “The Dawn of Man”, however, is a kind of narrative argument that immediately follows. After the chimpanzees crowd and touch the monolith, and we see the crown of the monolith obscure the sun, we cut to a lone chimpanzee sitting in a pile of the bones of a large, long-decomposed tapir. This is when Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra begins.
The chimpanzee, thinking, creating, repurposing, lifts one of the longer bones and begins smashing the other bones with it, tepidly at first, until the music swells with the increasing ferocity of the chimp, crescendoing at the moment the chimpanzee smashes the skull of the tapir. The music suddenly ends and cuts to a scene of rival chimpanzees encroaching on the territory of the original tribe. The chimpanzee holding the bone from the previous scene then kills another chimpanzee from the enemy tribe, causing the enemy tribe to retreat before this new technology.
This is the cosmological argument of 2001: A Space Odyssey; humans are not distinguished from animals through language or through culture; it’s not even because we discovered and wielded tools; rather, it is because we discovered and wielded weapons. In this way, humans make animals and other humans submit before the threat of violence. Its transformative and primordial use is in destruction and death. I am become death, destroyer of worlds, implies the bone-wielding chimp.
In Barbie, after the girls have finished touching the monolithic legs of the new giant adult doll, the camera returns to the blonde-haired girl in glasses with wide eyes staring up at Barbie. With a close-up to Barbie’s face, a pulling down of the glasses to cheek level, and a wink, the girls, as if cued by the wink, in slow motion – cued now also by the crescendo of Strauss’ music – raise their baby dolls by the feet, and smash the head of the now-weaponized baby club into the head of a prostrate baby doll, smashing the latter to plaster pieces. Then the girls fling their dolls away, and the final flung doll rises to the sky, revolves, continues rising, leaves Earth’s atmosphere, which is replaced by stars, and then pops to be transformed into the Barbie logo.
As an opening to the film and a promotional video for the film – focusing on the latter here – it’s ingenious. Not only is Margot Robbie’s character winking at the girls who are audience to her arrival, but Gerwig seems to be winking at an audience that could otherwise be torn, acknowledging the fraught and polarizing symbol that is the Barbie doll. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith is not the weapon, but rather the catalyst for the discovery of weaponry or, if a more causal relationship, that which incites and invites violence. The bones in 2001: A Space Odyssey are aligned with the baby dolls in Barbie, but in the former, the bones are used as weapons against the living, whereas the baby dolls are used as weapons against themselves.
Will Barbie then be a feminist weapon against the Patriarchy, or will it be used as a tool of the Patriarchy? This question is purposefully left unresolved and ambivalent, and this is the genius of the commercial because it is, ultimately, a commercial for two things that will become one. First as a promo, the scene is a commercial for the film itself, and it is the real counterprogramming at work, more successful I think even than the Barbenheimer counterprogramming: whether you are against Barbie or for Barbie doesn’t matter, this film is for you. Second, Barbie‘s opening scene and the entirety of the film is a commercial for Mattel itself. Once again, the final image of the promo is a baby spinning in space, replaced by the Barbie logo.
Notably, it’s the logo and not a Barbie doll, not Margot Robbie as Barbie, but Mattel’s Barbie font and Barbie pink. Whether you buy a Barbie doll, a Ken doll, or a Midge doll, you will always find this logo on the box—the meme behind the meme. Indeed, Barbie‘s opening scene is both the promo video and the film itself; it is art that advertises the art that advertises the product. It says to throw out the baby with the bath water and buy Barbie. Mattel’s profits have reinvigorated since the release of Barbie, and of course that is the point.
There’s a parable by 3rd-century Chinese writer Han Fei that speaks to this. A merchant one day has two objects for sale at the marketplace; the first, he says, is a spear that can break through any shield. The second, he says, is a shield that can repel any spear. A savvy customer comes by and asks the seller, What happens if you hurl the unstoppable spear at the unbreakable shield? Naturally, the seller doesn’t answer and leaves the marketplace. Naturally, the story ends. This story is itself the origin of the Mandarin Chinese word mao-dun. Mao literally translates as spear, and dun literally translates as shield. Mao-dun, or spear-shield, is the Mandarin term for “contradiction”.
Mao-dun, or contradiction, also operates like a meme that has detached from its original picture. That original picture, which is also the original picture, is the market. That’s to say; in the story of the spear and the shield, we make the mistake of taking the merchant’s words at face value. The spear isn’t an unstoppable spear, and the shield isn’t an unbreakable shield, and they don’t actually cancel one another out nor contradict each other; they don’t actually, together, form a contradiction. Even if they did, it doesn’t matter. Whatever they actually are, they aren’t now; now they’re just for sale.
Before moving on from this inaugural scene in Barbie, it’s important to tease out the implications of the outermost frame, which infrequently but strikingly persists in the form of Helen Mirren’s narration, and that is the Documentary Now – also narrated by Mirren – allusion. The mockumentary Gerwig references is not one episode, but an entire current and ongoing series. The strength of Documentary Now is in its research; the most effective, which is to say funny, episodes are the ones that most closely document the original documentary.
Thus, Gerwig can have Barbie walk a tightrope between fact and fiction, between force and farce; if you take it too seriously, you’re ruining the fun. Mockumentary is also a keenly self-aware genre. The uncanny juxtaposition of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Documentary Now actually synergize: these two seemingly antithetical registers – the iconic and the ironic – are mutually reinforcing as frames that translate and transfer and recycle content, that reinforce tropes and memes even as they “critique” them.
The monolithic Barbie, and the opening monolith that is Barbie, follow this opening scene to an immortal place populated by immortal and unblemished Barbies of different social castes and social roles – it’s Plato’s symposium, only now it’s Barbie’s symposium – delimited by a mountain whose face is lettered BARBIELAND, in the same font as Hollywood’s HOLLYWOOD wign. This acts, intentionally or not, as a kind of foreshadowing: while the world of the film is putatively divided into Barbieland and the Real World, the Real World is actually just “the country of California”, as they say in the film, and the portal between the two worlds leads directly to Venice, California. The original Venice is a city in the country of Italy, and so Venice of California is like its copy, but Hollywood reverses this by rendering every other place in the world a copy of itself, via image production and image distribution that transforms Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Similarly, when Barbie alights to the ground from her bed in the morning, the wind pushes up her dress as her arms push it down, a visual absorption of the Marilyn Monroe meme. Quickly, however, Barbie starts experiencing thoughts of death and other disturbances, which begin to expose the cracks in the simulacra of her life and surroundings: her heels touch the ground, the waterless shower nozzle emits what Barbie “experiences” as cold instead of hot water, etc. It is as if there is a chink in the programming of the matrix in which she lives.
In keeping with and further embedding itself within a production matrix that reproduces itself, Barbie employs a Matrix reference. Barbie seeks the advice of Weird Barbie, an outcast guru who explains to her that she has a choice: she can either choose a pink high heel (the blue pill), which represents staying in Barbieland, or a brown Birkenstock sandal which represents knowing the truth (the red pill). Barbie says, “The first one, the high heel”, and the guru says, “You have to want to know. Okay? Do it again”, and further explains to Barbie that she doesn’t actually have the power to choose, but just wants Barbie to feel better if she happens to make the right choice, but she has to choose the Real World because that’s what happens in movies.
Here is where the Documentary Now frame makes even more sense; Gerwig treats all of Hollywood’s cultural production as one document to remix, to parody. But the parody is a parody of parody; rather than satirizing and thereby escaping Hollywood’s endless revisions and recastings and inability to generate anything besides sequels and reboots, Barbie is imprisoned in Hollywood. The film cannot even imagine a place outside of the real world, nor can it imagine a dream world; both are Hollywood. Moments like this are depressing because they didn’t offer any kind of escape but rather a dissertation on the history and makeup of the prison bars. In other words, Barbie‘s self-awareness seems less interested in teaching viewers how to live and more interested in showing them, in algorithm fashion, what to watch next.
Another such moment is framed once again by Mirren’s narration. Towards Barbie‘s end, experiencing a sort of paralysis or what we’d call a Reality Check, Barbie laments that she is no longer pretty, that she is no longer “stereotypical Barbie pretty”. Here, the Documentary Now narrator interjects, “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” That is, I think, the point: the filmmakers don’t want to make this point. The point the filmmakers want to make – and it is the writers, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, of course, who wrote Helen Mirren’s line – is that they are aware that their film promotes stereotypical ideas of feminine beauty. And by stereotypical ideas, I mean patriarchal ideologies of how a woman’s body should be shaped and displayed. Gerwig and Baumbach commenting on their awareness of their not having escaped this does not allow them to escape this, but this is how Barbie is structured; this is the patriarchal weapon against the patriarchy that the film presents, the smashing of the baby doll’s head into the baby doll’s head.
In its climactic scene, Barbie presents this weapon, or shield, against the patriarchy. Barbieland has been usurped by Kens, who have introduced the patriarchy to Barbieland and transformed it and the Barbies therein. The Barbies have been brainwashed; they are subservient to the Kens and have no memory of their own needs, personalities, abilities, or former vocations. Breaking the spell requires that another woman shares a testimonial of how difficult it is to be a woman in this society, the contradiction of being an oppressed person who cannot testify to her oppression because she is supposed to enjoy it, for example. Suddenly, the awakened Barbie’s eyes pop open, like she is a doll, out of a trance, as if from the Barbie’s neck just fell an enchanted charm bracelet called The Patriarchy ®, made by Mattel.
I know it is not the job of a Hollywood film to critique power structures and to promote alterity and to give voice to the oppressed and to help us imagine a future outside of the patriarchy. But why isn’t it the job of a Hollywood film to do that? Even if there is an argument that concretely and irrefutably lays out why it shouldn’t be Hollywood’s job, Barbie purports to be doing just that. And yet, the patriarchy isn’t a magic spell that we can simply wave away by talking about it. It’s a crushing, brutalizing, murderous machine or, better yet, a matrix of machines that is so powerful, so subtle, interconnected, and so meme-ic and self-reproducing that it can make a slew of films about itself and make money doing it.
In Barbie, the patriarchy is presenting the all-male board of Mattel as bumbling, witless, and supportive, while in the real world the majority-male Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade according to “non-biased” legal logic regarding the intentions of the slave-owning and women’s suffrage-denying founding fathers who wrote the U.S. Constitution. The patriarchy is a film that presents a car chase between those same Mattel owners and Barbie but reveals itself as a Chevy Blazer commercial with prolonged filming of the car’s cross-shaped logo.
In that same car in Barbie – which, to be fair, is an electric vehicle – towards the film’s end, America Ferrera’s character’s husband says “Sí, se puede” to Barbie, and both Ferrera and her character’s daughter say “that’s cultural appropriation”, which it is, but more on Gerwig’s part. Sí, se puede is historically associated with civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta, who used the phrase to motivate and organize labor strikes in Arizona and California in the ’60s, and which later became President Obama’s campaign slogan; he credited Huerta when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
While this is most likely what the phrase “that’s cultural appropriation” refers to, it ironically does so without cultural or historical context. “Sí, se puede” here is re-appropriated to refer to the 2002 Disney film Gotta Kick It Up, in which the character Yolanda, played by America Ferrera, would chant as a high school Latin American dance team member. Treated as a meme, “Sí, se puede” largely retains its cultural context, but its revolutionary and class context is erased and re-employed as self-referential by Hollywood: “We said that,” says Hollywood.
In other words, “Sí, se puede” is removed from its original context of striking farm workers in California and is re-employed as a meme celebrating and advertising earlier Hollywood films at exactly the moment Hollywood writers and actors are striking against being replaced by literal meme machines, or AIs that generate new scripts by remixing human-written scripts they have been fed, and that also reproduce the faces of background actors so those memified faces can melt more cost-effectively in Oppenheimer: The Squeakquel. Not to mention that the husband who says “Sí, se puede” says it while using Duolingo, an app advertised throughout Barbie. Thus the labor activist’s chant is commodified into a commercial for a language-learning app for white people.
The anonymous husband says “sí, se puede” to Barbie at the end of the film; he’s wishing her luck for what the viewer is made to think will be a job interview. “You’re going to do great,” America Ferrera says. Barbie is wearing a brown blazer, business casual, like she’s looking for a job. She enters a glass building of what appears to be corporate America and then goes to the secretary’s desk. The secretary says How can I help you? and Barbie says I’m ready to meet my gynecologist! Rather than entering the department of labor, Barbie is entering the reproductive labor market. This makes her really real, like a real woman, in the real world. Like being born, the doctor first says, “It’s a girl!” Once she is real, she must be a woman; she is immediately equated with biological sex. This is the patriarchy, too.
Another strange aspect of Barbie is the eerie absence of sex until this culminating moment and the strange lack of gender exploration. Again, the moment when Barbie individuates from the other Barbies, where she is suddenly inhabited by The Real, is when she says, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” to her fellow memes. This is Barbie’s own “I am become death, destroyer of Barbieworld” moment, but whereas in Oppenheimer, death is harbored and eroticized in a culture-appropriating sex scene, sex haunts Barbie throughout metonymically.
I mean this in a few ways. In terms of “haunts”, neither Barbie nor Ken has genitals, and this absence is indirectly addressed throughout the film, mostly via euphemistic substitution: “I’m gonna beach you off so hard,” Ken says to Ken. The truly funny but truly bizarre aspect of this homoerotic scene is that, according to the logic of the film, it almost isn’t homoerotic because none of the denizens of Barbieland have sexes (genitalia), and none of them have knowledge of nor desire for sex. “Can I stay over tonight?” Ryan Gosling asks Margot Robbie. “And do what?” asks Robbie innocently. “I don’t really know,” admits Gosling. Sexuality is intuited in this scene, and the two are nominally boyfriend and girlfriend, but this only reaches so far as the nominal.
It is interesting that in the Real World of Barbie there are no queer characters nor depictions of queer sexualities, nor of nonbinary genders. Instead, we have the liminal and deferred sexuality of Barbieland, which at best functions as a kind of incomplete heteronormativity. While societal gender roles are explicitly thwarted in the sense that Barbieland’s vocations are all held by women, they’re never called such; instead of gender roles, we simply have The Patriarchy, which is inverted in Barbieland. After the Kens are deposed, they are permitted to remain in society, but they’ll probably have to work their way up, the same as women in the Real World. But as Helen Mirren points out, perhaps the filmmakers should take note that weapons built by the patriarchy don’t work so well against the Patriarchy. I add that the meme-ification of the concept of the Patriarchy – which in Barbie is so simplified, reduced, and docile that it actually comes to resemble a product of Mattel, as inseparable from Barbie as Ken – is also the patriarchy.
In the 2022 film adaptation of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise, written and directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Greta Gerwig, which adheres very strictly to the events and the mood of the book, even down to the level of dialogue, there’s a scene missing from DeLillo’s book. I guess it was lost in translation. The book’s story takes place in a small college town. The narrator is a professor at a small liberal arts college; he is the chair of Hitler Studies, and there is a new professor named Murray who teaches cultural studies, and he is most interested in teaching the legacy of Elvis. He wants Elvis to become, in terms of cultural capital, the new Hitler.
Murray one day suggests to the narrator that they drive to a small outlying town with a tourist attraction called The Most Photographed Barn in America. On the 22-mile car ride, they count five signs that all say THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. They park and walk to an elevated spot and, like the audience members of Oppenheimer, stare less at the barn than they do at all the spectators with their cameras and tripods trained on the barn.
The narrator has the same question you and I have: Why is it called Barbenheimer? I mean, Why is it the most photographed barn in America? But the narrator doesn’t actually ask this; the two remain silent. Murray says, “No one sees the barn,” and then there’s silence, and then Murray says, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” and then there’s silence, and then he says “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one,” and then there’s silence, and then Murray says, “They are taking pictures of taking pictures.”
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books. 1986.
Desowitz, Bill. “Kodak Had to Engineer Brand-New 65mm Film Stock for the Black-and-White ‘Oppenheimer’ Sequences”. IndieWire. 24 July 2023.
Taylor, Tom. “The troubling historical inaccuracy in Michael Bay’s ‘Pearl Harbor’“. Far Out Magazine. 8 December 2022.
Wilowski, Mack. “Earnings Beat of the Week: Mattel Reports Surprise Profit Amid Barbie Box Office Hit”. Investopedia. 29 July 2023.