Castrated Utopias: What Barbie and Oppenheimer reveal about our sexual politics
Hollywood masculinity, Metamodern Feminism, and destroyers of worlds
This includes mild to medium spoilers for both films. In other news, ‘The Bigger Picture’ is still going strong with a 5 star rating on Amazon from 20 reviews, and Hebrew-speaking readers can check out my recent interview in Haaretz. Also, check out this recent conversation with Marshall Aeon, one of my weirdest and most enjoyable to date. Also, I unexpectedly went viral on TikTok this month, find me there on alexander_beiner for regular short videos.
As Barbie and Oppenheimer end their cinematic runs, they leave behind one of the strangest memes of recent times: Barbenheimer. But beyond the glaring polarity between the two films, what really drove the meme and created such a powerful cultural moment?
Memes are powered by our collective desires, and Barbenheimer is no exception. It is in our stories, and the rituals we enact around them, that we often find the truest expression of social realities. Stories are tricky things; they represent reality, and they change it. Like people, they also have a habit of becoming what we want them to be.
Imagine a small, quiet cafe. At a table near the back, two academics are discussing Jack and the Beanstalk. The first, a Marxist, sets down his cup and tries to educate his misguided colleague. The story, he explains, is a Marxist fable. Jack and his mother represent the downtrodden proletariat, forced to sell their only cow for worthless magic beans. But once planted in the soil of awareness, these magic beans lead to an eruption of class consciousness, represented by the beanstalk. This, of course, is a direct route to the giant, a clear representation of the oppressive bourgeoisie. By toppling the giant, Jack transforms the bourgeois state into a workers' state.
His colleague, a Freudian, tuts and shakes her head. The story is clearly an oedipal fable, she explains. Jack is stuck in an infantile relationship with his mother, until he attains a powerful seed, clearly representing semen, which erupts into a huge phallic beanstalk; a symbol of his maturing masculinity. The giant at the top of the beanstalk, a representation of the father, feels his masculine authority challenged and Jack must kill him to possess his mother for himself.
Christopher Booker shares a version of this anecdote in his masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots. He uses it to explain how convincing an ideological frame can be when applied to a story, but how relative this frame can be. We use stories to make sense of life, but we also construct our social imaginary through them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern Hollywood.
Barbie is one of the most interesting films to come out of Hollywood in some time. It’s a strange phenomenon; a feminist initiation myth that critiques, sometimes with joyful nuance, capitalism and patriarchy, but which is paradoxically designed to sell a corporation’s product. Instead of a film we might read an ideology into, it’s a film woven around an existing ideology: feminism. However, the vision of the feminism it champions is what makes it particularly interesting.
Oppenheimer, conversely, is a film in which a feminine perspective is almost entirely lacking. It is an intensely masculine film, not just because so much of it involves men arguing in smoky rooms, but because it’s concerned with the question of what it means to bear responsibility for violence. How does it affect a man’s legacy, and what does it mean to be in right relationship to the destructive forces of the universe?
In this piece, I’m going to explore what Barbenheimer reveals about our evolving conceptions of sexual politics. Like a roll of film, we’ll have to follow the flashing frames of our collective unconscious. Male violence. Female utopia. Symbolic castration. Rage, sex, love, Kali and Ken and destroyers of worlds. These overlapping themes don’t lead us toward utopia, but maybe toward something more raw and human than what we can capture on celluloid.
In A Barbie World
I found Barbie to be a strange and contradictory film; at times brilliant, at times maddening. The task of creating a Barbie film that appealed to so many against the backdrop of our current gender politics is no easy task, and all things considered I think Greta Gerwig did an impressive job. It’s fun, well structured and at times leans toward a kind of metamodern feminism that seems able to hold the complexity of both social construction and biological difference. At other times, it slipped into a more simplistic feminism, and I found myself shaking my head at its narrow depictions of men and masculinity.
I also tempered that critique for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had a strong feeling that the film wasn’t really made for me as a man. It wasn’t trying to actively exclude me, but it was speaking to lived experiences of women, so I tried to listen to the message on its own terms. Secondly, I tend to take a ‘formalist’ approach; that means judging art based on its own parameters, on its actual form, rather than as a cultural or historical artefact. I aim to be a ‘meta-formalist’ and consider sociological and historical aspects too, but at heart I’m most interested in aesthetics.
With that in mind, Barbie is a movie about dolls that live in a fantasy world generated by the minds of the girls who play with them. Barbie isn’t ‘all women’, but an idealised depiction of women, with whom the real women in the movie have a complex relationship. Ken isn’t ‘all men’ because he’s very explicitly a corporate representation of a man who, in his own words, only exists in Barbie’s gaze.
However, the film is also an explicit commentary on real-life sexual politics, so analysing it fairly means taking that into account. Trying to hold all these frames at once is one of the reasons this piece has been such an enjoyable sensemaking challenge, and taken me longer to write than almost any other piece. So get in your pink car and strap in, because we’re going on a strange ride through Barbie’s politics.
Female Initiation Barbie
In the film, Barbie and Ken travel from Barbieland, a utopian fantasy realm run by the Barbies and powered by the imaginations of the girls playing with their dolls, and into the real world. However, a girl playing with ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ in the real world has started to get too real; Barbie is now thinking about death, developing cellulite and her feet have become normal instead of high-heel shaped. To stop this, she has to find the girl in the real world and see what’s wrong.
Once in the real world, Barbie quickly realises that it is men, not women, who hold most of the power. Ken, who has been a second-class citizen in Barbieland, feels validated and respected for the first time. Barbie feels unsafe, confused and disappointed. Men objectify her, and women hate her.
The emotional heart of the film is Barbie’s journey of self-discovery in light of this, and it follows the structure of a female initiation myth. As writer Charlotte Du Cann described it when I interviewed her for a piece on myth in 2020, female initiation myths see their protagonists begin in an idealised reality, and then forced into the real world (for example, Snow White). This is a journey back into the ground of being and a connection to nature, which is ‘real’ compared to the ‘constructed’ social reality she has come from. This connection to a deeper ground of being transforms her from her idealised and immature state into a more complex, grounded person in tune with the world around her. As Du Cann put it, ‘In nature you can be beautiful, but you can’t be a princess’.
Barbie needs to encounter reality to become a ‘real’ woman. However, woven through this mythic narrative is a feminist ideology that defines the nature of her transformation, with the enemy to overcome being patriarchy itself. While Barbie continues her quest in the real world, Ken returns to Barbieland with the forbidden knowledge of patriarchy and incites the other Kens to take over. The other Barbies become brainwashed with internalised misogyny, and Barbieland must be rescued by Margot Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, the woman who’s been inadvertently changing her (Gloria) and her teenage daughter Sasha.
There are nuances within Barbie’s commentary on sexual politics, but ultimately it assumes, like the scholars discussing Jack and the Beanstalk, that the world can be explained through a particular ideological lens. Every ideology is also a conspiracy theory, and can never hope to capture the true complexity of human experience. At the same time, the commentary Barbie is making resonates with the lived experience of millions of women. So how do we parse out the signal from the noise, and what exactly is Barbie trying to say about sexual politics? To find out, we have to take a quick drive through the history of feminism.
Feminism Then and Now
Just as Barbie is, feminism has always been concerned with the threat of male violence and domination. The first movement of thought we might call feminism came out of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and is often called ‘liberal feminism’. As scholars Ashley M Brown and Khaled J Ismail point out in an extensive review of feminist theories around masculinity, it was ‘mainly defensive’ in that it sought equality with men’s power and rights.
There was a strong focus on the roles of each gender, and as feminist scholars Susan Archer Mann and Ashly Suzanne Patterson argue, liberal feminism believed that ‘gender roles could be socially transformed through conscious social and political action to foster a more egalitarian society’. It focused on the different roles the sexes play, or were allowed to play. It described women’s oppression as a result of sociased gender role expectations that placed men in a dominant position, and liberation as a process of changing these roles and expectations.
Transition to the 1960’s and things get more extreme. Radical feminism arose from and alongside the women’s liberation movements of the era, and focused more acutely on the violence inherent in masculinity. They critiqued the excessive focus of liberal feminism on individual men ‘raising their consciousness’ to become more egalitarian, and argued that it was ultimately up to women to gain power and agency.
Radical feminists argued that male violence lay at the heart of unequal power dynamics between the sexes. The Redstockings, a radical feminist group founded in 1969, declared in their manifesto:
“The agents of women’s oppression [are] men… All power structures throughout history have been male-dominated and male-oriented. All men receive economic, sexual and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women.”
I see this as an unrealistically fundamentalist view, though I think it’s also understandable. The vast majority of violent crime is committed by men, and the simple fact that men are physically stronger than women, and more physically violent, creates a lived reality that can’t be denied. In her 2020 book What Do Men Want? feminist scholar Nina Powers writes,
“From a philosophical and feminist point of view, I think it would be entirely inadequate to deny that women are fundamentally free – free not only to respond to men, free to follow their own desire, and to reject the logic of fear and victimhood that diminishes their capacity to be in the world. Let us be clear: this freedom hits a wall when male violence is at its most extreme, when women are hurt and killed by men. It is imperative that we find every possible solution to the problem of male violence, beginning, above all, with prevention. We all, no doubt, agree on this. The question is deciding how best to collectively achieve it.”
When Barbie and Ken first travel to the real world, Barbie is cat-called, objectified and sexually assaulted within the first five minutes. As they’re skating down Venice Beach, Barbie tells Ken she thinks the attention she’s receiving has an undertone of violence. Ken seems perplexed; for him it has an undertone of admiration.
After the radicalism of the 1960’s, new forms of feminism emerged, including what Brown and Ismail refer to as ‘multi-dimensional’ feminism. This arose particularly from critiques by Black feminists who sought to include unequal racial power dynamics within feminist theory. The insight was that class and race couldn’t be ignored in feminist discourse, and as R.W Connell argued in 2005, both men and women are subjected to forms of ‘hegemonic masculinity’.
We see this echoed in Barbie when one of the lowly Mattel employees tagging along with the executive team quips “I’m a man without power. Does that make me a woman?”
Multidimensional feminism argues that overlapping structures of power and status affect both men and women, and that Black men in particular could be both ‘oppressors and oppressed’. Similarly, a working-class man can be oppressed by a wealthy woman in a dominant status position within society.
Where Barbie gets particularly interesting is in its relationship to the branches of feminism that have emerged over the last thirty years.
Particularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s, postmodern and poststructuralist feminism began to deconstruct the very idea of gender and biological sex. From a postmodern perspective, gender is ‘spoken into being’ and has no essential reality. Feminists like Judith Butler theorised that we create the idea of gender through ‘performance and discourse’. In this worldview, gender sits uncomfortably with biological sex, which is an essential trait. For this project to work, gender had to be separated out from biological sex. Any determinative force that sex has on gender has to be explained away, labeled as ‘problematic’ or ignored.
Postmodern feminism seeks to redress power imbalances by examining how concepts, behaviours, ideas and conceptions of gender have been made up through discourse, and then by trying to control that discourse. This is in part why there is an obsession with ‘correct language’ in social justice circles, and increasingly in HR departments, or Disney writing rooms, where this ideology has proliferated.
In her recent piece Socialism or Barbieism, Nina Power calls Barbie ‘quietly subversive’ because it explicitly speaks to essential aspects of being a woman, and being in a female body. I largely agree with this reading; Barbie acknowledges elements of the postmodern critique, for example the way that we can be ‘moulded’ like dolls into particular gender or social roles that aren’t truly who we are, but it nevertheless centres its whole story and ideological frame around the lived experience of women.
It is frequently body-focused, and comfortable celebrating the shadow side of female experience, with Gloria’s defining moment being her recognition that “I'm weird and dark and crazy.” which gives her renewed agency and energy. Most tellingly, once Barbie becomes ‘real’, the first thing she does is go to the gynocologist.
Barbie is a subtle rebuke to postmodern femininity in favour of something that almost, but doesn’t quite, reach toward a new vision that can hold social constructivism, essentialism and a healthy relationship with the masculine in the same frame.
Why does this matter? Because it might represent a long-overdue vibe shift in the cultural consciousness, away from the inanity of postmodern extremism and toward a more complex, compassionate and grounded view on sexual politics. Barbie has been hugely successful, while blockbusters centered around postmodern ideologies about identity are flopping left and right. We will see other studios desperately trying to emulate its success, and that may mean steering away from social justice ideologies in film (it will also mean lots of films about toys nobody cares about).
This could be significant, because postmodern deconstruction in the absence of an essential reality to deconstruct into is a dead end artistically and philosophically. This is why stories based around it are so unsatisfying. As I’ve argued in other pieces, postmodern theory provides important critiques of power and insights into construction of identity that are worth integrating into any attempt to create a better, fairer and more compassionate world. However, sex and gender is where the project is at its most oppressive and most confused, and ultimately there’s only a small baby to save from some fetid bathwater.
For the postmodern project to work, it has to create a binary between identity that ‘constructed’ (true) and ‘essential’ (false). It also has to, as Ken Wilber points out, claim that everything is relative, except the fact that everything is relative, which is of course an absolute.
Essential qualities, for example biological differences between men and women, have to be seen as less important than identities that are socially constructed. The issue is that if there is nothing ‘essentially masculine’ or ‘essentially feminine’, any kind of non-binary gender expression becomes less expansive and tangled in a contradictory mess. You can’t escape binaries, because they are an essential quality of reality itself. From the quantum realm to our computers to our relationships. There is a huge a difference between acknowledging this and forcing people into binaries they don’t want to be in, and one can exist without the other.
Embracing some form of sexual essentialism doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be free to express whatever gender identity they want, or be protected and celebrated in doing so if they aren’t harming another. It’s arguing that in order for that to reach a true and full expression, one has to first acknowledge the essential reality of both polarities; the essential feminine, and the essential masculine, which exists within each of us and is expressed through the human body.
Essential means ‘it doesn’t change based on what you think or say about it’. Or, it has a quality of a higher order that isn’t affected by our own desires. Socialisation and culture significantly impact our conceptions of gender and sexuality, as do essential aspects of the human experience. Both are true at the same time.
However, this nuance is often lost in culture war arguments. It is no coincidence that the ideological fixation around the construction of identity has grown alongside the internet. As Katherine Dee has pointed out, many of the roots of our current gender politics can be traced back to Tumblr in the 2010’s; online, we can create a world in which human discourse is the highest value, where theory becomes reality.
This has led to a brutal culture war around what it means to be a woman and intense arguments around trans-rights across the political spectrum. For some feminists, like Rachel Hare-Mustin, postmodern feminism tries to erase women’s experiences. She describes it as ‘a ruse by which dominant groups once again rob women of a voice, this time by doing away with a category like Woman, or the reality of women’s lived experience.’ For those of a more postmodern disposition, this position itself can feel disenfranchising or dangerous. Western societies need to find ways to resolve this tension, and the first seeds of that resolution will come not through the ineptitude of humanities departments or HR professionals, but through art that isn’t afraid to take a risk.
Barbie does take that risk, and at its best it says a ‘yes and’ to both social constructivism and essentialism, which is an impressive achievement. At its worst, it falls into familiar Hollywood traps around sexual politics.
Despite its potential impact on widening our conversation around sex and gender, where Barbie falls short is in its depiction of masculinity. While it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, it nevertheless trips over the modern Hollywood trope of dealing with the threat of male violence or male domination by symbolically castrating its male characters (I explored this dynamic in my piece Broken Men in a Broken World).
This trap is spawned by postmodern conceptions of power. If everything is discourse, and gender is created through discourse, then to change the world you have to control its discourse. This is one reason we see big studios presenting male characters who are inept, laughable, weaker and stupider than their female counterparts. This happens particularly with legacy male characters like Luke Skywalker, because in this way history can be re-written, which is really the only way postmodern activism can enact change, obsessed as it is with narrative.
A male character needs to be symbolically castrated so that the female character can take on his power and status in the culture. Barbie has fun with this idea as dolls don’t have genitals, but it’s not just Ken who’s castrated; every male character in the movie is inept, laughable or inferior to his female counterparts. This is widespread in Hollywood, and as film critic The Critical Drinker has pointed out, it makes for terrible storytelling.
It’s also an ineffective way to create a more equal and compassionate relationship between the sexes. In the real world, ‘theory’ is subservient to reality, not the other way around. Men won’t stop being a threat to women, or each other, because blockbuster films cast them as inept and ineffectual. Reading about the horrors happening today in Haiti, where roving gangs are using rape as a political weapon, throws into sharp contrast just how inept this bitter, passive aggressive tactic is compared to the problem at hand.
Male violence is a complex, systemic issue that needs to be taken seriously and represented in art with a level of sophistication most Hollywood films can’t reach. The 2005 film A History of Violence is a notable exception, which I explore for paid subscribers at the end of this piece alongside The Crucible.
Male violence is a collective problem that can only be solved in a conscious, thoughtful and collaborative partnership between men and women. Hollywood’s current tactic drives young men to toxic figures like Andrew Tate who give them a sense of self-esteem, in the most regressive ways possible.
Male Violence in Barbieland
So how does Barbie explore the threat of male violence and domination? In the final act, Barbie returns to Barbieland with ‘real women’ Gloria and Sasha in tow. They discover that the Kens have now taken over, and most of the other Barbies are doing their bidding, hopelessly brainwashed by the power of patriarchy that they have no natural defenses against. Gloria manages to free the Barbies from their brainwashing by delivering a powerful speech about the impossible pressures and contradictions faced by women.
But what about the men? Ken has been lauded by some on the political right as the subversive hero of the story, because he rejects being feminised and turned into a second class citizen. This isn’t really the message the film is trying to send, but the interpretation itself speaks to something important.
For an increasing number of men, particularly those with less access to economic opportunity, the core idea at the heart of Barbie, that the world is run by men for men, is no longer true. There is a popular idea in the men’s rights spheres called The Longhouse. A fluid and ambiguous concept, it refers to the state of living in a feminised society that pretends not to be feminised. As blogger Lomez explains:
The most important feature of the Longhouse, and why it makes such a resonant (and controversial) symbol of our current circumstances, is the ubiquitous rule of the Den Mother. More than anything, the Longhouse refers to the remarkable overcorrection of the last two generations toward social norms centering feminine needs and feminine methods for controlling, directing, and modeling behavior.
For many women, this might feel absurd based on their lived experience, while many men feel equally strongly that it’s the case. It’s likely both are right in different contexts. What is more widely recognised is that men and boys are in crisis. As Richard V. Reeves argues in his recent book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to do About It, men and boys are facing unprecedented systemic struggles. These are related to significant changes in the labor market over the last fifty years, including a decline in blue-collar jobs, the structure of our education systems and many other factors that have led to what sociologist David Morgan calls a loss of ‘ontological security’ among men. This situation is also illuminated in The Boy Crisis, in which Warren Farrell explores how boys are falling behind in education, mental health and general wellbeing around the world.
For many men I’ve worked with in men’s retreats and beyond, a particularly frustrating aspect of this crisis is liberal society’s depiction of men as inherently flawed and in need of ‘fixing’. At times Barbie tries to paint a more complex and compassionate picture, while at others it falls straight into this trap.
After the Kens have failed to take over Barbieland, they effectively get back into their box and are symbolically re-castrated. Barbie encourages Ken to find his own identity and autonomy, as she goes on to do. However, after the Barbies say they’ll move toward a more equal society, one of the Kens asks if some Kens can have a seat on the supreme court, which is flat out rejected. Effectively, the Kens of Barbieland are given the status of women in the 1950’s, leaving the ending ambiguous.
There’s only so far Barbie is willing to go in entertaining the idea of a world with that much male power. Barbieland is, after all, a feminist utopia, and that means it’s run by women, not a partnership society with men. However, we don’t need to look far for stories that do show us a world run exclusively by men, and where it can lead.
Oppenheimer and Fatherhood
Set during an era where patriarchy was more overt than it is today, Oppenheimer explores systemic male violence in its deepest expression; the creation of a weapon that can destroy all life. A key theme in the film is the necessity of violence when faced with violence, and the moral implications of this.
There is something inevitable about Oppenheimer’s project to build the bomb before the Nazis first that speaks to an aspect of masculinity that scholar Phil Crispman calls ‘an abstract rage to protect’. Violence, he argues, is intrinsic to the masculine experience because “every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight.” and as such men have by virtue of their bodies and roles an intrinsic need to be vigilant, to sacrifice and prepare to protect those they love.
Building a nuke before the Nazis, then dropping it on two Japanese cities to end the war, is probably the most intense expression of this impulse humanity has ever experienced.
The key question at the heart of Oppenheimer, which is never satisfactorily answered, is ‘is he responsible for violence unleashed by the bomb, and if so will he take on that responsibility?’ Robert Downey Jr.’s character at one point goes on a rant about Oppenheimer, criticising him for wanting to have it both ways; to play the hero who created the bomb and the victim of circumstance at the same time. It’s a sympathetic moment for an unsympathetic character, because he’s kind of right. Oppenheimer never really takes full responsibility for his creation. Tellingly, at one point he tries to give away his own child because he and his wife (played by Emily Blunt) aren’t fit to look after it.
In the 1950’s as he’s being grilled by the government about his history, his perceived failings during the Manhattan Project and his Communist connections, his wife constantly asks him why he isn’t fighting back and deafening his reputation. Eventually when she’s called as a witness, she takes on the dominant role and starts to run rings around her interrogator. She has to step into this role, because Oppenheimer just won’t show up for himself, or for a higher ideal.
So what can the film tell us about sexual politics today, and where does it overlap with Barbie? In both films, there is an absence of an archetypal father. A mature, responsible masculine figure. Oppenheimer is a genius, but he stays in the ‘hero’ phase in the mythic journey and we never really see him mature, or even get a sense of what he truly stands for. Imagine if Aragorn had kept roving around as Strider, but never decided to take up his rightful place as the king, where he would have to live for others rather than himself.
Oppenheimer never steps into the archetypal role of the king, or the responsible father. This speaks to a deeper dynamic in society today. One role of mature father figures is to teach boys how to become good men. How to take responsibility for their capacity for violence, and how to inhabit a body that can inflict violence on women and on other men. How to use his aggression in a way that helps the collective, not harm it. How to be fair, how to protect, how to respect.
Perhaps it is no surprise that 76% of men in prison in the UK are from fatherless homes, and 90% of homeless or runaway children in the US come from fatherless homes. Good fathers, and good father figures, are essential for the health of society.
Throughout this essay, I’ve been exploring how both these films explore aspects of modern sexual politics. But what really powered the Barbenheimer meme?
Polarity. Not just the polarity between the films, but the polarity within them, and within Barbie in particular. As a cultural moment, it may mark a moment when our art starts to reflect sexual difference, essentialism and the social construction of gender in new ways.
Not by trying to erase polarity, buy by tapping into the creative tension between men and women, and between the masculine and feminine within each of us. We haven’t yet figured out how to do that on a cultural level, partly because we’re confused, and partly because we all drive each other crazy.
The success of Barbenheimer, and particularly Barbie, might provide us with some of the cultural energy to open a new phase in that conversation. A conversation that takes us toward a new reality in which the feminine is no longer devalued and dominated, and the masculine is no longer castrated and blamed for all the world’s ills. A world that can embrace the fluidity of gender identity without needing to discard essential qualities that make us who we are. A vibrant dance between two opposites, full of passion and intrigue, mystery and love, separation and union.
For paid subscribers, I’ve explored two other pieces of art that were originally in this piece but I had to take out (reluctantly) for length. One is 2005 film A History of Violence, the other is The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which explores both female and male violence.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial