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.


  1. I’m probably repeating myself, but for the reason you gave as well as many other reasons (most of them inherent contradictions within liberalism), it’s not possible to allow everyone the “freedom” it promises and promotes. One of the results is that “winners” need to be chosen who get to have their “freedom” while everyone else loses. One of the straightforward ways of deciding who gets his way seems to be this odd sort of collective historical karma — I guess you could call it class karma — where the cosmic scales are balanced out by preferring people who belong to net karmically credit-flush groups over people who belong to net karmically debt-ridden groups (e.g. women over men, nonwhites over whites, so-called homosexuals over so-called heterosexuals, etc.). Some people call this the victim olympics. Where this impulse to treat these political classes as moral agents (such that they can accumulate karmic debt over history that you might be responsible for merely by being a member of the group) comes from I’m not sure. A possible answer might be the political classes of early liberal theorists in the 17th century but to a certain extent there have always been classes throughout history. Another answer might be the mathematical impulse to quantify and compare things that’s so intertwined with liberal thinking: analogously to utilitarianism, perhaps there is some thinking along the lines of “units of freedom” where some groups are held to be in the red and others in the black and liberalism’s choice of winners and loses is merely a reckoning, a balancing of the books.

    It’s worth noting of course that this attitude is very corrosive to hierarchical structures as people with such mindsets will always be trying to tear them down so they can be on top, since only who’s on top can be truly free. Notably that also doesn’t leave any room for God in this philosophy, but then that’s not surprising since such a being would curtail one’s freedom by necessity, never mind the hierchical structures he would necessarily create and be atop of.

    As others have noted with regards to bio-leninism, there is the practical impulse that dyscommunal groups (here meaning only multitudes of people with dyscommunal behaviors) which would never be permitted to exist under any system except liberalism and so have an inherent interest in its political preservation, so it is somewhat natural that liberalism would seek, in its parlance, to empower them over groups which have no need of artificial support and thus no need of liberalism.

  2. these are simply tyrants exemplifying screwtape’s “equality” speech in the “screwtape proposes a toast”: they lie about “equality” so that when you surrender out of “honor,” they can be in control and will never make the same mistake you did because they have no mistaken principles of fairness.