I have now seen the Barbie movie. It is not a children's film, but deals with issues of the meaning of life from a feminist perspective. It is useful to look at because it connects feminist politics with a modern metaphysics - and we get to see what is lost in the process.
I do need to set out the basic plot to explain this (so...spoiler alert). We begin in Barbie land which is a matriarchy where not only do the Barbies rule politically, but the Kens (the male dolls) are merely accessories. The Kens try to impress the Barbies but the Barbies aren't that interested, as every night is girls night.
Then Barbie is afflicted with an existential angst and is forced to go to the real world (where humans live). Barbie had expected to be greeted there as a heroine who had empowered women; instead, the patriarchy still rules. Ken loves that he gets some respect in the real world and returns to Barbie land to set up a patriarchy of his own. Barbie gets to meet her creator in the real world, and then returns to Barbie land with a mother, Gloria, and her daughter. Together they attempt to restore the matriarchy.
The best place to begin in analysing the film is with the metaphysics. Barbie's creator (a God figure) tells Barbie that "I created you so you wouldn't have an ending", i.e. that there are no ends or purposes to her life, but that she must choose for herself what she will be and do. The assumption in the film is that there is no given meaning to things, none given by a creator, so that everything is made up by ourselves and that we as humans subjectively create our own meaning and purpose.
This is the essential frame through which all else follows. What you see in the film is how some things, once thought to be a core aspect of being human, radically lose meaning within this frame.
This is particularly true of relationships between men and women. Some reviewers complained that the film was man-hating. I didn't find this to be so, not directly at least. The men are nearly all well-intentioned. The problem is that they are portrayed as entirely superfluous in the lives of women. They exist not only as a potential threat to women's autonomy and agency, but even more so as irritating figures who get in the way of women in their daily lives, i.e. who are merely tolerated. There is one husband portrayed in the film (Gloria's), but he is like a third wheel to the mother/daughter relationship, and he brings no meaning or purpose to their lives.
Similarly, at the end of the film Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken. She tells him that he has to find meaning not in relationship with her but on his own. She effectively tells him that he must go his own way, and that he is enough by himself.
It is a savagely cold message but it makes sense within the frame. If we are to aim at maximising our autonomy, understood to mean our freedom to self-define, because this is how we assert meaning, then relationships are merely limiting. We are most autonomous when we develop solo, outside of relationships with others. Hence, love is rejected in the Barbie movie, for the sake of empowerment.
Imagine if the frame was different. For most of the Western tradition, love was thought to connect us meaningfully to higher goods and purposes and was therefore worth cultivating. Similarly, to truly develop who we are as men and women, it was once thought that we would do this in relationship with each other, as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers within a family, as a natural setting for human life. A significant regard was attached to fatherhood and motherhood to the point that it was possible, for instance, to speak of maternal honour.
Relationships are regarded in the Barbie film as just meaningless flummery. In Ken's patriarchy, the men are romantic and want to help the Barbies by demonstrating masculine competence. The Barbies are happy, admire the Kens and do little things for them like bringing them beer. But the female role is to be something like a "bimbo" that does not engage the higher nature of the women (a merely "helpful decoration" as the film puts it). When matriarchy is restored, Barbie triumphantly says that the women once again have "brains and autonomy". Again, this only makes sense within the modern feminist frame. In the older frame, relationships had a significance that would ask of both men and women something of the best within their natures - it was a field of human life that would justify giving the best of ourselves to those whom we loved. There was, potentially, a nobility to this kind of love.
Which brings us to motherhood. The film is conflicted here. Early on, motherhood is given a drubbing. The film shows little girls rejecting motherhood by bashing their baby dolls on the ground. The narrator dismisses the idea that women experience motherhood as a worthwhile thing. Throughout the film what matters is women holding political power or judicial power or winning prizes for science or journalism. However, in the real world, Gloria is just an ordinary woman with a boring office job and for her the relationship with her daughter does matter. Gloria's love for her daughter is perhaps the one human touch in the entire film. Later, we are told that mothers do have a purpose, which is to launch their high flying feminist daughters into the world. There is nothing said about women who might end up with sons instead.
Why are there mixed messages here when it comes to motherhood? I'm not sure. Perhaps the one last bastion of human love in this feminist world is a purely female one between mother and daughter that has as its ultimate purpose female empowerment.
Another difficult message in the film is that of equality. Within the feminist frame there is no common ground between men and women. There is no mutual service to a family or nation, nor do men and women fulfil aspects of their own created nature in relationship with the opposite sex. What there is instead is a pursuit of empowerment so that we might get to follow our own autonomous will. This, however, is a zero sum game. If men have power to set the world to their own desires, women lose power and vice versa. This is part of the basic plot of the movie. There is either male supremacy (Ken land) or female supremacy (Barbie land). One side has to win or lose.
The film tries to take the moral high ground by suggesting that each sex might gradually fight for and win political rights within these systems. The film also asserts that equality can be achieved by the Kens accepting, just like the Barbies, that they don't need the opposite sex and that they can be self-defining autonomous agents just like the women. It is somewhat radical for the film to suggest this, as feminists usually assert that men already have this power. The film is conceding that men are more likely to still want to uphold a pre-modern ideal of the sexes being in relationship with each other. Equality is possible, according to the Barbie film, if both sexes go their own way.
But there is another problem with equality. Barbie decides, at the end of the film, that what she really wants, even at the cost of becoming mortal, is to become a person so that she can be one of the makers/creators instead of one of those being acted on. What this illustrates is that the feminist frame is necessarily elitist rather than egalitarian. Most people are not going to wield power in society - they are not going to be part of the elite who get to move things according to their will. The film is honest enough to concede this in the character of Gloria, who is an exploited office worker who does not even have enough time to go on a vacation with her daughter. In other words, the kind of power that the feminist frame suggests will allow us to make meaning will be illusory for most people. There will be a tiny number of winners at the top, but most will be losers.
There is another confusion that arises here. On the one hand, we are supposed to rise to a godlike status of being makers/creators who thereby infuse meaning into existence - a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch:
For Nietzsche, the Übermensch is...a being who is able to be their own determiner of value; sculpt their characteristics and circumstances into a beautiful, empowered, ecstatic whole; and fulfil their ultimate potential to become who they truly are.
However, the film depicts women as complaining that under the patriarchy they are expected to meet standards and that this is oppressive and that, instead, people should just accept who they are, as they are (at the end, Ken comes to the realisation that he is "Kenough").
So which is it? Are we self-defining, empowered meaning makers or just good enough as we are, any way that we are?
Perhaps one problem for the feminist frame here is that there does not exist within it any basis for objective standards, so meeting these will necessarily feel oppressive and/or arbitrary. But if this is true, then why bother self-defining? If what you already are is enough, and as good as anything else, then you may as well stay with it. The power you are striving to have, that of autonomous self-definition, is not even needed. But where then does meaning come from, if we are not subjectively making up our own meaning or purposes, as an expression of our agency, but are just accepting who we already are? If I am enough as an ordinary office worker like Gloria, then why suggest that women must find meaning in being movers and shakers as creatives or executives?
So how to summarise the film? On the one hand, I think it is better if these trends within modernity are brought to the surface, as they are in the movie. Better to see openly where things are headed and on what basis. The problem, though, is that even people who are opposed to the trends tend to argue for something else from within the feminist frame itself, which can only ever slow down what is happening rather than genuinely alter the course of social change.
On the other hand, I do find it sad that things have reached such a low point, that men and women are being split off from each other within mainstream culture. It is a defeat for all of us, men and women.