Sunday, July 30, 2023

Reframing Barbie

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 √úbermensch:

For Nietzsche, the √úbermensch 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.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Trouble in feminist paradise

I saw an interview with the cast of the newly released Barbie film and it demonstrated that feminism is still really a creature of political liberalism.

In the interview there is a discussion of what it means to be a Ken, i.e. one of the male dolls. Two responses were given, both of some interest.

Kate McKinnon, who plays "weird Barbie" in the film, pushed the idea that the point is to reject gender roles altogether. She said "Gender roles deny people half their humanity...we just need to be ourselves". The journalist commenting on this agreed and wrote:

That’s the point, plain and simple: Trying to shove oneself into a category or box, rather than simply being yourself and letting people apply adjectives to you as they see fit, limits yourself as a human being.

Rather than thinking about whether they’re “acting like a Ken” or “acting like a Barbie,” people should simply worry whether they are acting like themselves – that is how you truly come alive.

This is simply liberalism applied to the issue of our sex. Liberalism wants to maximise our individual autonomy, understood to mean our ability to self-determine or self-define who we are and what we do. Therefore, pre-determined characteristics, such as our sex, are thought of negatively as limitations that should be made not to matter.

Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie

One of the problems with this view is that it makes who we are less meaningful. In the pre-liberal understanding, I as a man get to embody the masculine, which exists as a meaningful category within reality (an "essence"), which then means that my identity and role as a man is connected to a larger, transcendent good that I can strive toward as an ideal.

What liberalism replaces this with is a notion that our sex is not meaningful in this way, but rather I am just me, not connected to anything outside of my own self. I could be one thing or I could be another, and either way it wouldn't matter. There cannot be, in this view, any ideals connected to being a man or a woman, nor any standards, and in this respect the categories become radically unimportant.

This is not the end of the feminist story. One of the ideas within liberal modernity is that the good in life is a power to enact our own individual desires rather than having to serve someone else's. This then leads to the distinct ideal of female empowerment, which is understood to mean women being able to act in whatever direction they wish, without negative judgement or consequence. 

But this makes relationships between men and women a zero sum game. You either have independent boss babes or you have The Handmaid's Tale. And this comes out in the second comment made by a woman on the Barbie interview panel. Issa Rae said,

I think a Ken for me is just kind of there. I think a Ken is a great accessory. That's what I loved about Greta's imagining of Barbie is that the Kens are just supplemental characters to these Barbies. Barbies can do everything, Kens are there to support and don't necessarily have their own story and I think that's not necessarily a negative thing, it's incredibly strong for a man to be in supportive roles.

Issa Rae is drawing out the logic of the way that feminism frames reality. In a pre-liberal mental universe, men and women served common goods. They did this, in part, because the framework was not so radically individualistic. Instead of attempting individual empowerment, men and women acted to serve the larger common good of the families and communities they belonged to. There was also a common good in the sense that men and women only fully expressed who they were in relationship to each other, as husbands and wives, within a spousal union.

Issa Rae

In the newer liberal mental universe, men and women become competing political classes. There is no mutual service toward a common good. Instead, there is the effort to self-empower to enact our own individual desires. So either the woman gets to empower, with the man serving her, or vice versa (apparently, the plot of the Barbie film revolves around this notion of two such alternative worlds).

This understanding of a zero sum game, in which something that is beneficial to men is assumed to be a loss for women, does not gel well with the liberal emphasis on political equality. Feminists have long proclaimed that they want equality, so how then can someone like Issa Rae endorse the idea of men as being a supporting cast for women?

The explanation I have heard from women is that men are already empowered to do whatever they want and therefore any empowerment for women is just a progressive move toward equality. I have also heard women acknowledge that it is unequal but that it is nonetheless justified because men previously dominated (so that it is a kind of historical balancing of the books).

We are stuck within this feminist framing. We are trapped within the idea that manhood and womanhood are limiting to who we are rather than adding a meaningful layer to our existence. And, perhaps worse, we cannot escape the zero sum game mentality, in which the sexes are radically set apart from each other, in non-complementary roles, and where gender war will proceed eternally because of the lack of any common ground. 

The truly liberating option would be to step outside the frame.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Lane's New Australia

In the 1890s a charismatic Australian journalist named William Lane attempted to establish a socialist utopia in Paraguay. A book published about this enterprise in 1912 has been republished by Bonfire Books (None but the Crocodiles by Stewart Grahame). 


What is so interesting about the New Australia Movement is that it had so much in its favour....and yet it nonetheless rapidly failed.

The socialist experiment in Paraguay had every reason to prosper. Paraguay had recently experienced a war and had lost much of its adult male population. Its government was therefore keen to attract new settlers and so offered William Lane a large amount of quality land. At the same time, some bitter labour disputes in Australia led to a large number of skilled and experienced workers joining the movement. Lane himself was genuinely idealistic and principled and an inspiring leader. Nor was the experiment overly radical; for instance, members were allowed to continue to live in families.

The idea of the new society was a socialist one: what was produced would be held in common and then distributed equally to each member. 

I won't go into the details about how this unfolded, as it is described so well in the book (which you can purchase here). It is curious, though, that the reason for failure was predicted some 600 years earlier by the medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas justified the holding of private property as follows:

Firstly, because everyone is more solicitous about procuring what belongs to himself alone than that which is common to all or many, since each shunning labour leaves to another what is the common burden of all, as happens with a multitude of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each has his own duty of procuring a certain thing, while there would be confusion if each should procure things haphazard. Thirdly, because in this way the peace of men is better preserved, for each is content with his own. 

All three of these principles played out in New Australia, but especially the first. 

Socialist Australians in Paraguay in the 1890s.

What lessons do we draw from the failure of the New Australia colony? The basic one, I think, is that the family is one of the natural settings for human life. Men are more motivated to work industrially if they can direct the fruits of their labours to their own wife and children. If, instead, those fruits are directed toward a common store to be distributed equally, then the work is more likely to be left to others and, as Aquinas so shrewdly predicted, there will be discontent about how the work of a community is apportioned.

Stewart Grahame was optimistic in 1912 that the combination of the free market and Christianity would prove a winning formula. History didn't work out that way: Christianity gradually lost its influence in the culture and the bigger corporations have increasingly adopted a leftist social agenda. 

One final point. Although pure socialist experiments like the one in Paraguay are doomed to failure, a certain kind of state socialism is increasingly influential in the West. This is perhaps where the real argument about socialism is to be had.