Last week, Representative Matt Gaetz and his wife, Ginger, arrived at a reception in Washington for “Barbie” in matching pink, grinning at photos along the “pink carpet,” mingling with guests sipping pink cocktails and admiring a life-size pink toy box.
They left with political ammunition.
“The Barbie I grew up with was a representation of limitless possibilities, embracing diverse careers and female empowerment,” Ms. Gaetz wrote on Twitter. “The 2023 Barbie movie sadly fails to address any notion of faith or family and attempts to normalize the idea that men and women can’t work together positively (yuck).”
When another account berated Mr. Gaetz, the far-right and perpetually stunt-seeking Florida congressman, for even attending the movie — citing the cast of a trans actor as Doctor Barbie — Mr. Gaetz replied with a culture-warring dual function.
“If you let the trans stop you from seeing Margo Robbie,” he said, omitting the “T” from the movie star’s first name, “the terrorists win.”
The non-terrorist winners were numerous after the film’s estimated $155 million debut: Ms. Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, found an eager audience for their pink-hued feminist opus; the marketing team at Warner Bros., whose ubiquitous campaigns clearly paid off; the movie industry itself, with “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to its most culturally dominant weekend in years.
But few results were so nominally inexplicable (and probably unavoidable) as the film’s immediate utility to political actors and opportunists of all kinds. For a modern take on what had long been a politically charged emblem of toxic body image and restrictive social norms, no choice was too petty, no twist too ideology-affirming or seemingly outrageous, for a bipartisan coalition of commentators and elected officials to see value in dissecting it.
“I have pages and pages of notes,” Ben Shapiro, the popular conservative commentator, said in a long video review, which started when he set fire to a doll and didn’t get any more charitable. (He said his producers “dragged” him to the theater.)
“Here are 4 ways Barbie is embracing California values,” said Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor. wrote in a thread praising Barbie as a champion of climate activism, “hit the road in her electric vehicle,” and destigmatizing mental health.
If there was a time in culture when a massive summer movie event was something of an American unity — a moment to share over-buttered popcorn over big-budget shoot-’em-ups and sagas about insatiable sharks — it’s not 2023.
And, as always, the political class’s performative investment in “Barbie”—the outcry and the embrace—can seem mostly a wink.
What about Michigan Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer posting next to the Instagram caption “Come on Barbie, let’s go rule” a Barbie meant to look like herself?
What exactly does it mean when Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, says of itself“This Ken Pushes Ending Maternal Mortality”?
Sure, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has called for gravity practice by accusing “Barbie” of trying to appease the Chinese. (Some Republicans have focused on a scene with a crudely drawn map supposedly depicting the so-called nine-dash line, which indicates Chinese ownership of oceanic territory disputed under international law. Vietnam has banned showings of the film in the country over that image.)
“Obviously, the little girls who are going to see Barbie, none of them will have any idea what those dashes mean,” Mr. Cruz told Fox News. “This is really designed for the eyes of the Chinese censors, and they’re trying to cheer up the Chinese Communist Party because they want to make money selling the movie.”
The reaction on the right is not a one-off. For a generation of conservative personalities, devoid of Andrew Breitbart’s oft-cited observation that “politics is downstream of culture,” Hollywood and other ostensibly liberal bastions must be confronted head-on lest their tendencies trap young voters without a fight.
Recent years have provided enough evidence, some on the right say, for a “wake up, bust out” view that progressivism is a bad thing. Last year’s apolitically patriotic ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ was a runaway success, as was the kid-friendly ‘The Super Mario Bros. movie this year. In contrast, critics on the right argued that Disney’s remake of “The Little Mermaid,” with the title character played by black actress Halle Bailey, fell short of producers’ expectations. (Of course, there’s no way to trace exactly what determines a movie’s success or failure, and many observers cling to screenwriter William Goldman’s comment, “Nobody knows anything.”)
“Barbie” cannot be said to have gone out of business. But its alleged politics, conservatives have argued, have damaged it by making it less entertaining—”a lecture,” in the words of Rich Cromwell of The Federalist, “that identifies itself as a movie.”
Kyle Smith, a reviewer at The Wall Street Journal, complained that the film “contains more swipes at ‘the patriarchy’ than a year at Ms. magazine.”
The film seems at times (spoiler warning) to be ironically concerned with “the patriarchy,” infusing it with familiar Southern California emptiness, decor that seems inspired by hair metal, and a heavy emphasis on weightlifting and “brewskis.”
When it comes time (less-cautious spoiler warning) to reclaim Barbie Land, the Barbies distract the Kens by giving in to their tendency for overly masculine gestures, such as playing acoustic guitar, and insisting on showing a date “The Godfather” as they talk about it.
Mr. Shapiro has sounded that he is not convinced that the film largely makes its own jokes.
“The actual argument the movie makes is that if women like men, it’s because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” he said in his review.
He called the film, straight-faced, two hours he will waste sitting on his deathbed.
“The things I do,” he said, “for my audience.”
Anjali Huynh reporting contributed.