You are probably aware that there are two very different takes on the recent Barbie movie. There are some on the right, like Michael Knowles, who think the message of the film is terrific. There is a scene toward the end of the film in which Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken and tells him that he is enough as he is, but also that he has to find out who he is outside of any relationship with her.
Knowles interprets this in a red pill way. Given that all of the men in the film are shown as simps, who live only for validation from the women, he thinks this is Barbie telling Ken that he is not fit for relationships until he is his own mental point of origin, as the manosphere puts it. For Knowles, the message is that Ken needs to be more masculine, and stronger in his own frame.
This is plausible, but I don't think it is what Gerwig is aiming at. I am on the other side of the fence - I think Barbie is an unabashedly feminist film and that Gerwig believes that problems within feminism can be resolved by men and women going their own way. As I'll demonstrate in a moment, this is the message that at least some feminist women are taking from the film.
There are two problems within feminism that the film seeks to resolve by uncoupling Ken and Barbie. The first is equality. The philosophy of the film is that we have been created without any given ends and that therefore we have to make meaning for ourselves. And this then means that the power to have our self-chosen purposes and ends realised in society becomes critical. Power, though, is a zero sum game. If men have more of it, women have less of it and vice versa. In the film, this is shown as "either/or" - either the men have power or the women do.
So how, then, do you have equality? One way is to do what modern society formally does, and insist on levelling down any power structures. For instance, if white people have more power in a traditionally white society in the sense of dominating its cultural expression, then this has to be deconstructed, whereas the cultural expression of minority groups has to be supported and promoted.
There is something of a nod to this solution in the film, in the idea that the Kens must become activists to gradually improve their position, just as women must do in the real world. Still, the pursuit of power remains a zero sum game, in which whatever women gain, men must lose. And Gerwig believes that at this social level, men must lose.
So how does someone who sees the world through a modern frame resolve this? How should men respond to a world view based on a zero sum game in which they are slated to lose out? Gerwig says that there is a positive side to feminism for both men and women, one in which both have equal status. And that is that both sexes can equally act as autonomous individuals, shaping their own meaning, via solo development, without regard to the other sex. The Kens can do this just as much as the Barbies can. If each sex goes its own way, their own self-generated life aims can be pursued, without imposing on the other. There is no more reliance on the other sex, no more enmeshing, and therefore no loss of power to pursue our aims.
A feminist mother (Wendy Hahn) took her 15-year-old son to the Barbie movie so that he would absorb exactly this message. She wrote:
In 2023, I am fighting to raise a son who doesn’t become the next Kyle Rittenhouse, Brock Turner or Elon Musk.The idea is that we can all have "equal status" if we don't "depend on others for happiness". In the context of the film, this means men and women going their own way. The purposes or ends in life no longer revolve around marriage. There is a sacrifice of love for the empowerment to fulfil our own individual ends.
Movies, like books, invite dialogue. As a former high school English teacher, I wish all teachers would assign their students to watch “Barbie” in place of summer reading selections like “The Grapes of Wrath.”
....in the end, Stereotypical Barbie tells Ken to get a life that doesn’t depend on others for happiness ― a life that gives him equal status without infringing upon the status of anyone else. I want that for your sons and my son as well.
Interviewer: You said you were bringing a modern edge to it. What do you mean by that?
Rachel Zegler: I just mean that it's no longer 1937. We absolutely wrote a Snow White that...Gal Gadot: She's not going to be saved by the prince.Rachel Zegler: She's not going to be saved by the prince and she's not going to be dreaming about true love. She's dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be.
There is a sacrifice of love for power (I am not endorsing the Disney version of "true love" here). Marital love is sacrificed for girl power. The two are set against each other, as they have been within feminism for over a century.
The one exception to this messaging in the film is that there is some support for the mother/daughter relationship. I expect that this is because there is no zero sum game involved here (mothers, it is said in the film, help launch their high flying daughters into society).
The other problem within feminism that the film tries to resolve is that of cognitive dissonance. Women, we are told in the film, are oppressed because they have to walk a tightrope, for instance, by being thin but not too thin. The kinds of examples given are not all that persuasive: they do not seem, for instance, any more difficult than men having to be bold in approaching women, but not too bold.
However, feminism has, in fact, created significant areas of cognitive dissonance for women. For instance, if the aim is to attain power, then the traditionally feminine qualities will seem lesser than the traditionally masculine ones. So women need to have masculine traits and dial down their feminine presentation to other women, but still retain enough femininity that they will not make themselves entirely unattractive to men.
Similarly, women who are brought up in a modern feminist culture will absorb from an early age the idea that their role is to assert their own power against that of men. However, this conflicts with the feminine impulse women have to "let go" and be receptive for the right man when it comes to forming relationships with the opposite sex. It is difficult, in other words, for women to have a boss babe mentality and still successfully pair bond with a man.
The film does try to put forward the idea that women can be leaders and still have something of the feminine left in them, but even so you have to imagine that many women who take feminism seriously will have a considerable burden of cognitive dissonance. In my observation, there are many feminists who do not walk the tightrope successfully - they don't come across to men as sufficiently feminine and so the men look elsewhere for partners.
One way to resolve this cognitive dissonance is simply to downgrade the significance of relationships in human life. If relationships don't matter that much, then some of the burden is relieved.
What all this illustrates is how important the intellectual frame is. Imagine if the frame was different. Let's say, for instance, that the masculine and the feminine were thought of as meaningful goods that the individual gets to embody. If these are fully realised within a relationship with the opposite sex, then there exists a common good for men and women to serve, i.e. our own individual good is tied together with a larger, communal good. The focus would shift away from competing for power with the opposite sex. What would matter instead would be the way we order ourselves toward this higher good. The questions to be focused on might be how I as a man can best embody the masculine through my role as a husband or a father, or how I as a woman might best express the feminine through my role as a wife or a mother.