Konstantin Kisin did a review of the Barbie movie which I would categorise as being both insightful and flawed. He says in his review:
The central destructive notion of liberalism is the idea that we're all individuals maximising our freedom and pursuing happiness. I have much sympathy for this approach when it comes to relations between the citizen and the government. I am liberal in the sense that I want to be free from authoritarian control in order to be able to pursue my own happiness as I see fit.
What I believe liberalism gets wrong is the attempt to apply this concept outside of the relationship between the individual and the state and extend it into the realm of family and human relations more broadly. Yes, freedom from intrusive government is likely to provide opportunities for each individual to pursue their own happiness but it is simply a lie to say that maximising freedom from your fellow human beings is a recipe for happiness...happiness is derived not from your freedom from other people but from the bonds you form with them.
Indeed, as any parent knows, the most meaningful things we ever get to do are the very things that constrain our freedom the most...
If the poison pill of hyper-liberalism is to encourage us to see ourselves as atomised individuals, the liberal feminism of Hollywood depicted here is worse still...the modern feminist movement is intent on brainwashing young women to see the relationship between men and women as one of competition...having retaken Barbie Land from the clutches of the patriarchy and rejected Ken's quite reasonable suggestion that he and Barbie, i.e. men and women, are created to be together, Barbie is free to ride off into the sunset, alone.
There are some aspects of this analysis that I think Kisin gets right. He identifies as a problem liberalism setting men and women apart as competing political classes; and he observes correctly that maximising our individual autonomy by rejecting family commitments, and instead going it alone, is not a pathway to happiness for most people. I also share with Kisin his opposition to an intrusive, authoritarian state.
Nonetheless, there are problems. Kisin would like to return to a much earlier version of liberalism in which liberalism was thought of as "political", i.e. as being applied to the sphere of politics rather than the personal life of family relationships.
This attempt to keep public/political life and private/family life apart did not work. It was always likely to fail, and it did, in fact, fail. Why? Because if you establish the maximising of individual autonomy as the overriding public good, then there will be a call for this good to be applied to all the institutions of society, including the family.
As early as the 1880s in England, women were starting to apply the key liberal political principle to their own lives. For instance, a student from Girton College at this time described her liberal understanding of herself as a woman as follows:
We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.
Clearly, the firewall that was supposed to protect the bonds of family life from the logic of liberal individualism was already failing by the later nineteenth century.
Feminists hammered away to collapse the distinction between private and public goods. "The personal is the political" was a favourite slogan of second wave feminism. Similarly, feminists often drew comparisons between tyranny in politics and tyranny in the family. For instance, in 1994 an Australian feminist called Kate Gilmore unveiled a new government policy with these words:
You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home...that will take us to the point where we can secure change.
Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.
"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?
Kollontai is already using the phrase "woman of the past" to describe those women who sought family bonds rather than freedom, independence and solitude - and this in the early 1900s. The issue, then, is do we really want to keep cycling through these phases, in which the liberal principle gets applied to the lives of women, so that they pursue a lonely life independent of family love?
There is a second problem with Kisin's proposed solution. Even if our personal, private lives could be kept separate from the principle animating the public, political arena, Kisin's formula would still do significant harm. Note the way that Kisin himself puts it. He wants to be free as an individual to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit.
This sounds alright, but it leaves something out. If we are imagined as millions of individuals each seeking our own good according to our individual desires or beliefs, then how are common goods to be defended? Where, at the public and political level, are these common goods to be acknowledged and upheld?
The most obvious common good is that of nation. What if it is an aspect of the human good to belong to a traditional nation? I cannot uphold the existence of the nation I belong to at a purely individual level. The formula of people being left alone to do their own private, individual thing no longer works if you accept that the existence of a nation is important to human life.
And there is good reason to believe that it is important. Living amongst a people with whom you share thick bonds of a shared ancestry, language, history and culture provides the arena for expressing many of our social commitments. For instance, it allows us to express and fulfil aspects of our manhood, the ones by which we protect the larger polis, through the exercise of our masculine strengths, including the heroic virtues of defending the community from harm. It provides significant aspects of our identity and our sense of belonging, as well as a connectedness to culture, to place, to nature and to generations past, present and future. It makes us the bearers of a tradition, giving us standards to live up to and to make our own contributions to. It provides a warmth of familiarity of manners and mores, of humour and of the smaller, unspoken understandings that exist between a people embedded in a longstanding culture of their own. It allows us to reproduce who we are and what we most value, and it can be, at its best, a portal into the transcendent, as when we experience something like the "soul" of our nation and it draws out our love and a sense of duty that expresses something better within our own natures.
As important as it is to avoid state overreach or state tyranny, there are common goods like that of nation that do need to be upheld, and this can only be done at the level of the polis, and therefore the focus of political life cannot be only a freedom to pursue our own purely individual ends. If this is the only focus, we are left powerless to defend things that are highly meaningful to our own lives.
Finally, one more criticism of Kisin's analysis, but more along the lines of a quibble. Kisin claims that the makers of Barbie are motivated by the principle of "misery loves company" or "hurt people hurt people". I don't think this is so. The director of the film, Greta Gerwig, is married with children. The actress Margot Robbie has been with her current husband for a decade or more and writes glowingly of how fulfilled the marriage has made her. So these women are choosing one thing for themselves (marriage and motherhood), whilst promoting something else to other women (going it alone).
What is happening here is better explained by Lawrence Auster's concept of the unprincipled exception. Auster explained that liberal values, if followed consistently, would make it difficult to live a decent life. Therefore, it is common for liberals to make unprincipled exceptions in order to escape the personally harmful consequences of their own beliefs.
I have long noted that upper middle-class women are sometimes adept at playing this game. They do enough to secure traditional goods for themselves, whilst also promoting modernist values. It tends to be women a little below them who take the message at face value, and who attempt, usually disastrously, to live in a more principled way along feminist lines.