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Things Can't Be Both/And
You can't subvert the thing and do the thing
The NYT published a profile of Greta Gerwig recently. The article hinted at with some of the intellectual conflict I found myself grappling with while watching BARBIE: at the end of the day, this innovative, entertaining, singular, fascinating world Gerwig created is designed to scrub clean the reputation of a much-maligned intellectual property in the pursuit of greater sales and further film franchises. To this point, Gerwig said to the profiler, “Things can be both/and. I'm doing the thing and subverting the thing.” This quote was on my mind quite a bit while I was watching, especially in the moments in the film in which the unwieldy synthesis of doing-and-subverting could not hold together.
One thing I’ve learned from trying to work in a field where you try to make money from art (although on an infintesimally small scale, compared to Gerwig), is that you can’t both do something and subvert it simultaneously. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it. The only way to truly subvert it is to try and develop something independent of it entirely. When it comes to total power - like capitalism, like patriarchy - the only way out is to try and cast off its frameworks altogether, not just comment on criticize them. There is no “using your platform for good” when the platform itself is evil. You can’t send the message that it’s okay to have cellulite while promoting cellulite cream. The critique will always be subsumed by the system. The master’s tools, and all that. That doesn’t mean a person is evil for taking a big paycheck and trying to make the most of it! Everybody’s gotta eat, and maybe you can take that money and make something really cool you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to. That’s what Gerwig did. But I’m not going to thank her on behalf of women for it. To quote Don Draper…
The idea that you can both do and subvert simultaneously is not just a justification for making the film, it seems to be the message of the film itself. There’s a part in the middle of the film that I think exemplifies the fact that you cannot simultaneous do and subvert, although it’s a part a lot of people seemed to like. It’s a monologue (a stump speech, really) from America Ferrera, about halfway through the film:
I hated this. Hated it! Almost took me out of the film entirely. And not just because it’s cliche - outlining the unfair expectations placed on women under patriarchy is a common trope in popular media for women that tries to both subvert and do. Every time, it leaves me cold. When you say that this is what women have to be in this world, even if you’re talking about how it’s unfair or frustrating - you’ve further associated these qualities - thinness, staying pretty, staying young, never being rude - with womanhood itself. To engage with these premises at all, even to criticize them, only serves to make these strictures more real and more confining. All it does is alienate anyone who’s managed to escape - the very people we should be looking to for help.
It’s impossible to ever get really get loose from the trap patriarchy has laid for us, but I think it’s worth it to try, hard as it may be (Don Draper voice: That’s what the patriarchal approval is for!) All of this stuff is unfair, and some people need to do some of it to survive, but when you’re too myopic to see any other ways of being, you’re not doing anything helpful. This is why you can’t both subvert and do: it means you’ll never leave the matrix.
If there’s one thing I want to impart on young women, it’s that Ferrara’s monologue might feel true, but it isn’t. not “every single other woman” is “tying herself in knots so that people will like [her].” Not every woman is trying to be thin, or be a boss, or any of these other things. You actually don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want to. You can be free! You will face consequences for casting off these expectations (see my last substack post), but the more of us that do it, the better off we’ll all be. And it gets easier and easier every day. All Barbie (and similar pop feminist works that attempt to reckon with patriarchal conceptions of womanhood) can manage to do is rattle the bars of our cage - there is no vision for what might exist outside it. Patriarchy’s expectations for us aren’t unjust because they’re hard for us to meet. They’re unjust for expecting anything of us at all. Barbie bugged me because it envisions a perfect world for women being one that is free of cellulite, rather than a place where there isn’t a word for cellulite. You don’t win the game just by making an appeal to change the rules. The only way to win is not to play.
edit: My wonderful friend Josh Gondelman sent me a great piece by Jessica Defino that delves into greater depth about the literal commodification of BARBIE, and produces a wealth of economic evidence that you cannot subvert via consumption.
please note that I did like Barbie! And that I am not expecting a movie about Barbie to offer me feminist liberation! I just think the movie is a good way to talk about a common thing in pop feminist media and third wave feminism in general that I find disappointing and oddly politically retrograde.
I think part of the reason people feel so compelled to self-justify when they do something that goes against their professed beliefs is because people feel like they must only do politically defensible things, and thus, everything one does needs to be politically defensible. Everyone is terrified of being a hypocrite. This is unsustainable. Everyone does, and must do, politically indefensible things all the time. If your beliefs are in opposition to the forces of power that shape our lives - capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, take your pick, really - there is no way to act in accordance with your beliefs 100% of the time. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to practice our beliefs as much as possible, but it leads to much more sinister ends if we try to justify the shitty things we need to do to survive within these systems as Actually Good.
Ironically, the only character in the movie who cashes in their chips and gets out of the game entirely is Alan, and the whole joke of Alan is that he is a total afterthought for both Barbie and Ken. Justice for Alan! He’s the only one who’s getting out of here alive.