Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ is a marvelous movie. It entices the audience to lose themselves in bouquet of visual delight, but conceals piercing thematic thorns for those who would succumb to its bubblegum allure. I’d be shocked if anyone made it through the film without at both a chuckle and a tear, at the least. Pain and pleasure are the sweeter for their juxtaposition. ‘Barbie’ could easily be a kid’s movie. Like any good children’s story, there are messages and themes waiting to be unraveled by an increasingly sophisticated viewer. In this post, I will examine one of those themes, the birth of misogyny.
Plenty has been posted by writers far more qualified than I about the feminist message of the film. Any effort to extol these virtues would be superfluous, and I will make no such effort here. This is not to suggest that there is not a strong feminist thread to the movie, or that feminism is not the central theme. It is. While there are powerful, clear take-home lessons and instances of much-needed authentic representation, these stand side-by-side with subtler nods and oblique suggestions. It is these less-obvious moments that pique my interest.
“My aim is therapeutic; my hope is that by discussing and understanding the root of misogynistic behavior, people who want to avoid it can do so.”
Misogyny has nearly as many faces as there are people. At one point in the film, Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) suggests that hating women is the one thing both men and women can agree on. Hopefully this is just angsty hyperbole.
Modern social theory sees no distinction between actions and character states. According to Critical Race Theory, for example, people think, say and do racist things because they (at least, all white people) are in fact racist. I disagree with this analysis. Of course some people are racist. Of course many people think, say and do racist things. However, the racist person thinks, says and does the racist thing because it is racist. They take considerations of race and racial prejudice to sufficiently justify or motivate some thoughts, words and actions. At the same time, there are people who do not take considerations of race to be sufficient to justify or motivate those same thoughts, words and actions. One internal signal that you are not racist is a genuine feeling of regret following some racist thought, word or action. Only you yourself are in a position to know if that regret is present. One external signal is effort to identify and correct racist thoughts, word and actions. The genuinely racist person feels no such regret and makes no such efforts.
In plain speaking we might say that the group who tries not to, but fails, does racist things “against their will.” In moral psychology we call actions of this kind ‘akratic’.To be fair, there is considerable academic debate about how akrasia is best understood. Akrasia is one of my areas of expertise but many people disagree with the picture I paint here. See … Continue reading At least in my opinion—if not in fact—not everyone who does something racist or homophobic or misogynistic or whatever does it because they themselves are racist, homophobic, misogynistic or whatever. Many people do things that are ‘out-of-character’. Not everyone who does something wrong is a bad person, though surely some are.
I am going to be discussing misogyny, and specifically misogynistic thoughts, words and actions. I do not mean to suggest that anyone who does or has done these things is a monster. In fact, my aim is therapeutic; my hope is that by discussing and understanding the root of misogynistic behavior, people who want to avoid it can do so. If you’re worried about your soul, it means you still have one. My goal is to help you be your own savior.
It is the pain of knowing that in both fantasy and the real world women’s happiness does not turn on men’s favor that is often the root of misogyny.
In the opening scenes of ‘Barbie’ we are introduced to Barbieland, an idealized world in which women are everything; not just presidents and noble prize winners, but happy and safe. Importantly, this physical and emotional security exists irrespective of the Kens. Barbie has a great day every day, Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.
Interestingly, even in this idealized world, Ken is tormented by his lack of positive relation to Barbie. Comedically, he attempts to remedy this lack by risking, and ultimately hurting, himself. Like a petulant child, Ken does get some attention for acting out, but not the kind he wants. In our world, men are equally tormented by their lack of positive relation to women. Unlike Barbieland, men in our world attempt to remedy the pain of this lack by hurting women. It is the pain of knowing that in both fantasy and the real world women’s happiness does not turn on men’s favor that is often the root of misogyny.
Lately, a popular attitude is “do you and f*ck what people think.” This sounds nice but it is psychologically unviable. People have basic needs. Food and water unobjectionably fits this criteria. Contemporary researchspecifically the empirical findings of Self-Determination Theory or ‘SDT’. See https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/ to learn more. suggests that, across cultures, ages, races, genders, economic classes and every other conceivable division of people, all people have basic psychological needs. Where these needs are not met, people will suffer. This suffering is manifested in a withdrawal from basic human actives. Where these need are met, people will flourish. One of these needs is positive relatedness.The others are autonomy and competence. People need to be, or at least feel that they are, positively related to others.
Just Ken liking himself is not, despite the pithy slogan, kenough.
Some consider people’s need for positive relatedness to be a bug, rather than a feature.One of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, probably falls into this camp, as does novelist Ayn Rand, economist Friedrich Hayek, and most classically liberal and libertarian-minded people. If one understands humans as fundamentally individual, the need for positive relatedness is confusing, and maladaptive. However, if we understand humans as fundamentally communal animals—meaning that we do better together than we do alone—then the desire and drive to positively relate is plainly adaptive.
This is not to suggest that anyone owes anyone else positive relations. I am not saying that women should positively relate to men, or that Barbie should love Ken. Far from it. I am suggesting that Ken’s desire to be liked is a good thing. Ideally it motivates him to be the kind of person that people generally like; kind, honest, caring, helpful, or at the very least, funny. I am also suggesting that just Ken liking himself is not, despite the pithy slogan, kenough.
Like many psychological drives, the drive to positively relate to others has healthy and unhealthy expression. Healthy expression involves identifying a group with which one would like to positively relate, and developing oneself into the kind of person with which that group will positively relate. There is an interesting question of ‘notional community’. Possibly, it is enough to positively relate to an imagined community when one cannot positively relate to their actual community. … Continue reading Unhealthy expression involves getting angry that a given group does not accept you, or feeling negatively about yourself because a given group doesn’t like you.
Of course, healthy expression of any drive is easier said than done. One can probably convince themselves to think, say, and do things that would win the approval of nebbish incels. Despite meeting the need for positive relatedness, I doubt such approval is a good thing.
This is typically how men respond to the pain of rejection—by attempting to inflict it on others.
In the film, Ken experiences positive relatedness when a woman in the real world asks him for the time. He feels, for the first time, respected. He then attempts to rebuild the elements of the real world that convey that (undeserved) respect—patriarchy—in Barbieland. The results are disastrous; Despite his efforts, Ken only manages to alienate Barbie even further.
Here, the story gets a little odd. In the film, Ken attempts to make Barbie feel the same pain of rejection that she “made” him feel. (Again, I am not suggesting that Barbie is criticizable for her role in Ken’s feeling this way, but I do insist that she played a role.) There isn’t much explanation given as to why Ken would attempt to hurt Barbie, rather than woo her. Perhaps his mink coat and gold watches are supposed to do just that, but clearly Barbie feels a greater affinity for people who do admirable things, like the other Barbies, than mere material goods. Maybe Ken isn’t smart enough the figure that out. Maybe he should’ve grabbed How to Win Friends and Influence People instead of Horses.
Most likely no explanation is needed because this is typically how men respond to the pain of rejection—by attempting to inflict it on others. It’s just so ubiquitous that it would actually be weird to portray it any other way.
Any woman with a fitness-oriented social media account has first hand experience of the following phenomena: “Reply guy” replies to story, or sends a DM. When the content creator doesn’t respond, or doesn’t respond in the way he wants, he calls her vile names.
The phenomena is not not limited to the chronically online. I once worked with a man who was so incensed that a female co-worker was not romantically interested in him after a few dates that he refused to even speak to her for a while. When he finally did, it was with enough vitriol and disrespect that he got himself fired. Bear in mind, the woman he held in such contempt was one he previously saw as a fitting object of romantic interest! Of course, she didn’t change in the intervening period. He did. This is a prime example of unhealthy expression of the frustrated desire to be liked.Most likely, continuing to send replies and messages, even if they aren’t vitriolic, is not much better.
Life isn’t always about feeling good.
When I was a child my mother told me, “some people just aren’t going to like you no matter what you do.” This was a hard lesson, and in no way comforting, but it was still true and it’s being true made it useful. So take it from momma, fellas: Sometimes, no matter what you do, a woman, or even all women, aren’t going to like you. And it’s going to hurt. That’s just how life is sometimes, painful. Being a good man, and indeed a good person, means dealing with that pain and letting it stop with you. Being a bad man, and indeed a bad person, means multiplying that pain and pushing it onto others. All the hate and violence you can muster will not make you feel better. And that’s because life isn’t always about feeling good.
One thing that is helpful when dealing with pain, whether physical or emotional, is to express it. Even if it’s just to yourself, it is ok to say, “I feel hurt that I am not loved by this person.” Probably, assuming she’s a complete stranger, just saying it out loud might help you understand how ridiculous it is to even feel that way. I am not saying you are ridiculous for feeling that way. You are normal and human for feeling that way. But it’s still silly. Feeling silly things is not one of the glories of being human. If you’re up for it, tell one of your bros. They might make fun of you, but I guarantee they know exactly what you’re feeling. If you don’t have a bro to tell, you can tell me. I get it.
Another good anathema to pain is distraction. If you’re feeling the pain of rejection, go do something. Go outside. Go to the gym. Write an essay like this one. Learn to ride a horse. Let a guy on YouTube teach you how to rebuild an engine. Memorize the first 50 Roman Emperors in order, and a fun fact about each. Listen to early 2000s pop-punk. Write an early 2000s pop-punk song. Listen to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Write a symphony. Watch a Scorsese movie. Start a podcast about Scorsese movies. Do literally anything besides take that pain out on someone else. You will be shocked how much motivation and production you can squeeze out of a little bit of negative emotion, if you try.
While I see value in acknowledging and discussing that pain, I see no value in pathologizing it.
Some will observe that “go to therapy” is notably absent from my list of suggestions. This is deliberate. One of my main points is that the pain of feeling undesired is totally normal and in fact adaptive, even when directed towards an unreasonable target, like a stranger on the internet. While I see value in acknowledging and discussing that pain, I see no value in pathologizing it. I expect to receive some flak from the ‘therapism’ crowd. So be it.
Like ‘Barbie’ I don’t have a happy, feel-good, fairytale ending for the Kens of the world. I don’t have a foolproof method for getting people to like you, especially women, and I don’t have any salve for the the pain of rejection. All I can say is, I feel it too. We all do. All we can do is be the best possible versions of ourselves, and hope that some day, someone notices. If not, we can crawl into our graves knowing that we have done nothing less than our absolute best, and no one and nothing can take that from you. Hey, at least you didn’t devote your life to developing a super weapon that murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians. If you want to feel better about yourself, go watch that movie. Could be worse.
|↑1||To be fair, there is considerable academic debate about how akrasia is best understood. Akrasia is one of my areas of expertise but many people disagree with the picture I paint here. See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first philosophical treatment of the phenomena, and Donald Davidson, “How Is Weakness-of-will possible” (1970) for the a common, contemporary interpretation.|
|↑2||specifically the empirical findings of Self-Determination Theory or ‘SDT’. See https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/ to learn more.|
|↑3||The others are autonomy and competence.|
|↑4||One of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, probably falls into this camp, as does novelist Ayn Rand, economist Friedrich Hayek, and most classically liberal and libertarian-minded people.|
|↑5||There is an interesting question of ‘notional community’. Possibly, it is enough to positively relate to an imagined community when one cannot positively relate to their actual community. This seems especially relevant to marginalized communities. One might develop themselves into the kind of person that fictional characters like Aragorn or Hermione Granger would like. Or, one might develop themselves into the kind of person historical characters like Aristotle or Boudicca might like. Further, one might develop themselves into the kind of person that a celebrity, say, Alok Vaid-Menon would like. More research needs to be done on the difference actually being liked by actual people makes, compared to imaging one is liked by theoretical [or for that matter, actual] people.|
|↑6||Most likely, continuing to send replies and messages, even if they aren’t vitriolic, is not much better.|