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Julie & Beth & Barbie & Ken
A People Talking bonus interview
It’s back to reality week and I thought it might be fun to kick off the fall to a little call-back to earlier in the summer - the Barbenheimer phenomenon.
Dr Beth Cooper Benjamin sat down for her achievement culture interview the week Barbie opened. Neither of us had seen it. That did not stop us. I think this holds up and while we are weeks behind the Discourse, what the heck. And warning, there is a big sidebar into labelling things “fill-in-the-blank” culture, and some discussion of a few other (truly wonderful) Substack newsletters.
Enjoy and pretend it’s July!
So - Barbie. Let's have some hot takes on a movie neither of us has seen. What the hell? I'm happy to admit that. Let's dive in. You're seeing it tomorrow, right?
Yes. My husband and I are taking our kids to see it tomorrow night.
It's so interesting that people are hungry for a monoculture event. I have very mixed feelings about it because I feel like we've been getting Barbie propaganda shoved at us for a year. So this feels like a manufactured event and not a genuine, let's celebrate really good art event. I have more hope for Oppenheimer, but also that's generally the content I would gravitate towards anyway.
And part of me is like, Greta, you go, girl, get your piece of IP, get your billions of dollars. Forget the Marvel Universe, let's have the Barbie Universe.
But I want to hear your take on it from the achievement culture perspective and women having to be everything to everyone. I follow two Substacks that are far more successful than mine and they’re authored by women and curated by women and edited by women, and I love that. One is Culture Study and it really is about what I still call, in really outdated parlance, “consciousness raising.” It’s a dose of “you are not crazy. This is an actually reasonable response to social pressures that you are not completely aware of.” And then the other one is Burnt Toast and that's anti diet culture. It is also completely marvelous.
Anyway, Culture Study is Anne Helen Peterson and she wrote something about a month ago, about home renovation and using sites like Wirecutter to get home good recommendations was “optimization culture.” And she said, “I admit this as someone who has a house where we really do need to renovate the bathroom,” but she still felt in the grip of optimization culture.
And I just started feeling like, does everything have to be a “culture?” Isn’t the impulse to label everything a (something) culture actually achievement culture? Isn’t it the same as having your hand in the air all the time as a girl in school so you get the A? Is it kind of Tracy Flick of us?
And as I said when I emailed you, is Barbie the movie version of achievement culture because it's celebrating the thing, critiquing the thing, deconstructing the thing, but then selling the thing back to you. I want to take a nap just talking about it.
I saw an ad for a Chevy electric vehicle that featured a scene from the movie and I thought, I don't know if I can take this.
First of all, I've never heard of optimization culture. Can you explain that a little more? I like Anne Helen Peterson and her stuff on work culture.
Definitely check out Culture Study as it’s an amazing newsletter. I want to first acknowledge that I am going to get this wrong as it’s a summary and it’s what I remember. So apologies and go check out and subscribe to Culture Study!
This was a recent post and it started out by saying that she had bought a coffee maker after looking at the reviews on Wirecutter. I look at Wirecutter. I look at it and it's not like I’m a robot and “Wirecutter says I need to buy this. I will buy it” but it’s a review site and you can be looking for a washing machine and there are eight million washing machines out there, right?
So she bought the coffee maker on Wirecutter, the top recommendation. And every morning it leaks. And so she was saying that we live in this culture where we're being told it is possible (and maybe expected?) for you to research and identify the best (expensive?) coffee maker and purchase the best coffee maker. And that if you buy the crappy coffee maker on a whim at Target you’re doing it wrong. But you can still end up with the crappy coffee maker. Then she moved on to this thing about renovation - that we renovate our homes because we are in the grip of this optimization culture.
Again, I get that. As a veteran home renovator, I had a little chuckle. And I bought a well-reviewed coffee maker on Wirecutter! But it does not leak. It’s a good coffee maker. And when I thought, Are we taking this whole “culture” thing too far. I get it, “culture.”
And then Burnt Toast is anti diet culture, anti beauty culture. The author is Virginia Sole Smith, who just wrote a book called Fat Talk about how to talk about fat bodies with kids - and as with my above summary, I’m sure this is quite reductionist so go check out the book and Burnt toast. (And side note, Virginia Sole-Smith is friendly with a former student of mine who is also a wonderful writer M. Kelsey Miller. And every time I think of Kelsey I could die with pride because I was her English teacher. Kelsey interviewed Virginia as part of the Fat Talk book launch.) Virginia has the worst trolls. I would be crying in the corner from one half of one of the notes she receives and she just keeps putting her finger in their eyes. Amazing! And believe me, I get how corrosive diet culture is and how the idea of making yourself as small as possible equals virtuousness infiltrates so many parts of day to day life for women.
But can’t chocolate just be chocolate once in a while? Can’t I have chocolate and not be fighting the power? I don’t need to get an A in treats.
And can I follow a recommendation on Wirecutter just because I have too many choices? Not because I’m a victim of optimization culture?
I’m a little grumpy.
I trained as an ethnographer. I am somebody who takes culture seriously. My dissertation was, I use something called cultural analysis of discourse, which is basically looking for evidence of culture in language. And there’s this analogy I learned in graduate school that cultures are like invisible gases. They're real and they have measurable properties, but you can’t observe them directly. What you can do is look for evidence or measure them through their effects on language, how they shape our language. And the gasses are consequential, right? We're breathing them in. They're affecting our health. It's important that we understand them because we're digesting them constantly. We're taking them in and they're shaping us. They can be hard to recognize, but they're so ubiquitous and pervasive and potent that it’s worth our while to study them. And I tend to find it interesting and exciting and gratifying to look for that stuff. I'm also somebody who I would not see a Barbie movie that wasn't subversive. I'm not interested in spending my money and my time on a video game movie or a toy movie. It's just not that interesting to me. Unless the property, the IP, is something that I am deeply invested in and just want to enjoy and experience.
I have an ambivalent relationship with Barbie. I feel like most women I know have an ambivalent relationship with Barbie. We know it's bad for us, that our beauty standards and our sense of what’s acceptable for women has been shaped by that ridiculously-proportioned shiny plastic doll, but still…I desperately wanted a Barbie when I was little and had a feminist mom who was like, Uh…no.
You never got one?
I asked for a Barbie for Christmas when I was about five. And I got a book of Barbie paper dolls. And it was actually one of my first inklings that there was no Santa because I was like, Santa knew what I meant. My mom's the one who doesn't want me to have Barbies. And I finally got one when I was 10. I was too old for Barbies. I got Peaches and Cream Barbie. And I never played with it, but I still dressed it up. I loved changing her clothes. That's all I ever wanted to do was change the clothes. And I also know I studied lots about body image and eating disorders. And it's such a crazy example of perfectionism and impossible expectations. Barbie is literally physically impossible. So I have all kinds of thoughts about Barbie. And also she's ambitious and has had all these careers. And does that mean that girls can see themselves doing all those things, or does it set a whole other set of impossible expectations? No, you have to be gorgeous and be President now.
Gorgeous and be President! And identify what “culture” made you do it!
It's all of them, really. We're experiencing lots of cultures at the same time. They're just ways of separating out strands of thinking so that we can tackle them better. So, I'm ambivalent about Barbie to begin with. And so I feel both like I'm excited to see where the movie takes it and what she does with that material and also to feel gross about how it's sold back to me. I thought it was genius, the marketing strategy. What's the tag line? For everyone who loves Barbie and for everyone who hates Barbie. That’s a genius pitch right there.
And I love how the origin of this version of the movie was Margot Robbie herself. I think she was the one who worked with Mattel to get this moving. And then they brought on Greta Gerwig specifically. And then Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach wrote the screenplay. But then you just wonder, what are we even doing? to make Barbie voice against the patriarchy. That feels a little too on the nose.
But again, I'm now curious to see it. At first I thought, it's going to be schlock. And now it seems to be schlock with a political message, which - is that even possible? And I also find the reviews peculiar because so many dance around whether or not it's a good movie. Finally, I read Anthony Lane in the New Yorker and he said, it's really fun and it's a mess. And I have a feeling 10 years from now, people are going to be: fun and a hot mess because they're trying to do so much stuff.
But there is something to be said for this desire for monocultural experiences and I need to go see it to take that healing medicine. That's not a bad thing. And I think, so go and have a take. Go see the damn movie.
I'll tell you my Barbie story because I just think it's so... You think back on these things in your childhood that always seemed kind of neutral and suddenly you're like, huh, that’s a little peculiar. And of course now, unfortunately, my mother can't remember anything, so I can't really ask her.
Letting me have Barbies did not seem like a major parenting decision. So I had Barbies. I had a little case and Barbie clothes. I remember when I picked out Malibu Barbie at the GreatWay department store in Waltham, which was down the street from us, for some special occasion. But the biggest excitement was when I got a dark haired Barbie because I was dark haired. And that just felt huge to have some representation. But I never had a Ken. When I went to someone else’s house and the kid had a Ken it was always so exotic, I think especially because the only male in the house was my dad. Even the dog was a girl. And I can't totally remember whether I didn't want a Ken or whether my parents wouldn't buy me a Ken. But I suspect they wouldn't buy me a Ken, which I just find really weird and interesting. Why was that the line of the sand?
I don't know if they thought a male doll was inappropriate or if it was goofy or... I really don't know. But I also have a “realizing there is no Santa” memory related to Barbie because they bought me this Barbie pool set and I found it hidden in the attic. It was one of these things that you both think, I got you, mom and dad! and also you're also, this is kind of sad and I wish I hadn’t found it.
Note: My sister told me that my mom did not allow her to have a Barbie, only a Skipper and a Francie, Barbie’s less endowed friend. Although my dad finally got her an actual Barbie at some point. I guess the younger one wears parents down…
I feel protective of Greta Gerwig right now because as a female director, there's so much pressure on her to be successful in order for the next woman to get a big budget feature. And for her to thread this impossible needle of commerce and critique and make a completely successful movie that everyone will love seeing and will make everybody think and challenge their assumptions and heal everybody's patriarchal bullshit.
It's way too much pressure. And maybe it's enough that it's a mess and really fun. I think part of the reason I'm excited to go is because we mostly just go to the theater to see action movies that are fun to see on a big screen. And I have chase blindness or fight blindness. I can never actually tell what's happening in a fight scene or chase scene. It's all just a blur and it ends. That content is just totally lost on me. But this movie I feel like, oh, this will be fun to see in a theater with people. Again, that collective experience, I want to do the thing that everybody's doing.
I finally surrendered to it because I think you're right. And I also think that the state of cinema is so sad. It used to be that you'd get excited about going to see a Meryl Streep movie and they just don't even come to the theater anymore. They go right to Netflix. And honestly, they don’t seem as good. And I’m really dating myself but remember going to see an “indy” movie at an art movie theater like Sex, Lies and Videotape? That was kind of a small event. I even remember that sense of an event when a group of us went to see No Country for Old Men, which doesn’t even feel like that long ago. (Note: it was 16 years ago…)
So I am excited about Oppenheimer, too. Even though I typically find Christopher Nolan movies a bit ponderous, truth be told. (Note: IMO - While it is amazing that Nolan made a three hour movie about a very technical topic that genuinely held audience attention, and the Trinity sequence was spectacular…the character development across the board was… not great. The women? Grimace. But a lot of the men, too. Honestly, I’d see Barbie again over O even though America Ferrara’s job at Mattel seemed to be… sitting in a corridor outside a board room? But one doesn’t expect crystalline character development from a movie about a doll.)
I'm excited to go to the theater in general. Right now, we've gone to more movies in the last couple of months than we have in the past three years combined just because it feels safe to do and because my kids are old enough that they're not going to the bathroom every 10 minutes and there are more things that they can see because they’re getting older. We're not just going to see animated kids movies anymore.
And I completely understand what you're saying about feeling protective of Greta Gerwig. I have a post about women and leadership that I can't quite seem to get a great angle on. (Update: I think I found the angle - stay tuned.) I think this has to do with my age. I'm in a place where I'm thinking, do we have to diagnose everything? Life is short and can we just be like, life is messy and it's nuanced and it's a little of this and a little of that. I don't want to have my hand in the air all the time. I don't necessarily want to have to get the right answer. So then again, maybe I should take my own medicine with Barbie and say, Thank you, Greta, for putting together an entertaining couple of hours that maybe had some points that didn't quite work, but who cares?
Look, she's starting with problematic material. And there's also that you are working in partnership with a corporate overlord with IP like Barbie. There's only so far you can push the critique before you break it. So she had some real constraints that may make it unsatisfying in some ways on one side or the other. But I also appreciate, oh, that's a real interesting challenge for a filmmaker who is a thoughtful person, who wants to make an entertaining film that also has something to say. And I am excited to take my sons to see a movie that uses the word patriarchy a dozen times. And uses the term unironically. I do love the idea, too, that when Ken learns about the patriarchy it's like the best thing he’s ever heard. That sounds so hilarious to me.
TOOS readers: In conclusion - Barbie is not Hamlet but it’s pretty fun. I may be missing some pink gene but I did not cry and it is kind of a mess but super fun. And it’s been fun to see movies. Now let’s hope you get these strikes resolved, Hollywood!
Happy Fall and see you later in the week, friends!
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