Barbiemania has been swamping us for the better part of a year, marketing for the Barbie film. Look at this. -►
I wonder how much it must have cost to get Google to do this. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic? I always thought that song was satire even if nobody around me agreed. Now I feel like the kid calling out naked plasticity while everyone else shushes. And the plastic game has been upped to a whole new level with the upcoming release of the film Oppenheimer. Social media-fueled pop culture has gone from nauseating levels of pink to #Barbenheimer memes.
This would be pretty fun in a world where marketers tried to entertain in order to engage people and induce them to buy. But the golden era of advertising-as-storytelling is long past. We’re in the cartoon nightmare world that a century of sci-fi and 90s movies like Terminator & The Matrix portrayed. The machines are taking us over and defeating us, one manipulated swipe at a time. We are simultaneously the content producers that keep platforms active and the captive consumers to whom they sell, using intricate knowledge of how we perform our lives. I say perform, because “You can brush my hair; undress me everywhere” feels truer than ever before, with big corporations playing monster kids with our dollhouse lives.
Even the ad glam fest that was Mad Men (set in the 1950-60s New York) plied its brand on drama with the contradictions between being human and being capitalist. Capitalist greed has never been able to hide the fact that it is that – greed. Stories like Man Men charismatically made us care about people who paid the price for their greed. Barbieheimer is meta at a whole different level.
Admittedly, I was never going to like the idea of a Barbie film. Barbie has been Mattel Inc’s weapon to turn little girls into insecure, body-hating consumers for over 60 years now. It’s bad enough that generations of women were indoctrinated into valuing themselves only as their bodies as appealing to men. Mattel started young, targeting children as young as 8 or 9. The history of Barbie itself includes exploited Asian labour, copyright infringement and eventually firing of the founders for false financial reporting. All packaged in a blonde, blue-eyed, thin-waisted, long-limbed plastic doll sold to little girls the world over as an aspirational icon.
The doll has seen changes over the years, always driven by an eye on more sales. The demure sideward glance was changed to forward-facing eyes to keep up with 70s feminism. Barbie started as a model and then was a flight attendant. It would be years before Barbiedom deigned to take on traditionally unfeminine careers like medicine or space travel. Black hair & a saree were added years after unsuccessfully trying to colonise India with Eurocentrism. I remember getting a subscription to something called ‘Barbie Friends Club’ when I was around ten. I convinced my parents about it by showing them the ad that called it a children’s magazine. Barbie Friends Club turned out to be a paid subscription to infrequent 8 page sales brochures featuring products like Barbie furniture, other dolls and more clothes with a single-page comic embedded (usually featuring Barbie’s change of costume). Every plastic atom of this doll reeks of monetary greed.
I cannot help but see the Greta Gerwig inclusion as femvertising, something that Mattel Inc has pretty much pioneered. A woman director spiel was used to push the film at least a year ago. Then the teasers promised a subversive Barbie. And now a ‘commercial feminism’ message of reclaiming pink plasters itself across our many screens. What’s commercial feminism? Feminism as a saleable feature of a product that may or may not (most likely not) be actually feminist. Because feminism involves acknowledging & making reparations for history, not chasing personal gain. Colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism all place personal gain above human values and Mattel’s Barbie embodies all three.
I might still have shrugged off the pink brouhaha, cackling alone as everyone else threw their time & money towards being brainwashed. But Barbenheimer just pushed that last damning button. Isn’t it obvious by now that the shriller the marketing, the more tone-deaf the product will be? Every commercial entity is aimed at earning profit and minimising cost & risk. Why would they spend that much unless they were really worried it wasn’t saleable? Clearly Christopher Nolan’s brand of vaguely-science-if-you-don’t-get-it-you’re-stupid filmmaking (Mememto, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet) won’t work here. Another play from the Nolan book is vaguely-historic-if-you-dont-like-it-you’re-insensitive (Dunkirk and now Oppenheimer). It would seem play 2 is no longer as effective.
So how about play 3, namely the toxic fandom pioneered by comicbros? Hello, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight whose releases curiously coincided with the commercialisation of geek culture. An underground subculture consisting of people who enjoyed science & maths faced social & behaviour disorders due to isolation, bullying was capitalised on by the comic book industry (the OG incels), then IT (leading to techbros). Today anybody who spends on a plastic Captain America shield gets to call themselves a part of geek culture, never mind if they’re science-abhorring accountants, book-loathing fuccbois or rich bankers. Geekdom is now an accessory quirk that you can acquire if you have the money.
The original geek subculture was not a community; it was several people scattered across genders and geographies with a desperate interest in knowledge. The internet was pioneered by such people. It makes sense that their earliest efforts would be to build what they could not find – connections with other human beings. “I didn’t know there were other people like me.” was a common feeling in the early internet. As this subculture connected, they built their sense of self, powered by what they were suddenly able to do. It may also explain why the internet is such a misogynist, vapid place today. It didn’t descend here. It was built by people who never learnt how to relate to other human beings and leapfrogged into sudden power. They were highjacked by big corporations that always knew how to make money off people’s inadequacies. Thus today we have one of the least knowledgeable but most dangerous armies in the world today. They call themselves fandoms.
‘Toxic fandom’ seems like a redundancy because a fandom today is a carefully seeded identity trap by corporations; toxic by definition. “Who am I?” is a question that millennia of humans have asked themselves. It’s intricately linked to where we belong, a question that’s gotten more complex with easier geographic travel and homogenised internet culture. Big Marketing offers up a solution – You are a person who buys my brand. This is straight out of midcentury marketing textbooks that detail Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Buyer personae. A fandom is comprised of people whose only identification is that they all buy into one product, be it a device (Appletards), an artist (Swifties) or a franchise (Trekkies).
I truly do hate to break it to the fandoms but what you spend on does not define who you are. Yet, people’s bond with their chosen identities is so magnetic, they’ll go to war over this. And nowhere are these wars worse than when no blood is shed. These are wounds of the kind inflicted by capitalism & patriarchy that steadily erode our sense of power, agency and finally self. It is damning that this comes back to quantifiable profit for the corporations. Why defend your product’s quality when you can easily instigate a group of consumers to do so, who will even pay you for the privilege of carrying your flag? Why even care if your product is good or not? People’s need to belong far overrides their desire for value for money. We are being increasingly kept so insecure that instead of identifying with an ethnicity, family, social circle, interest or work, we find it easier to identify with some brand that we buy. And we are willing to resort to bullying & mob mentality to defend that brand.
Social media capitalises on the innate human need to bond with other people. We create the content that powers a platform and we also pay with our information so they can extract even more money from us. That’s like fuel makers paying to manufacture trains and then paying for tickets to transport them into slavery. What part of this is particularly ethical or even makes sense? I realise that most of us do not have individual agency in this and that we cannot function in our lives without using social media. But we do have the power to hold the truth of our exploitation. We do have the power to not buy into the myths of these being good for us (or entertaining or empowering or knowledge-imparting).
To return to #Barbenheimer, it seems pretty clear that play 3 (fandoms) is at work to push Oppenheimer and what better way than to piggyback on another existing fandom, in return for some freshness infusion? Let’s not forget this is the business of theatrics, after all. It’s an easy leap to assume that having identified as pink or black, the next entertaining thing will be to get fan herds locking horns. It even has a name and it’s called Counterprogramming film distribution. I really have a problem with being so easily programmed (another word for brainwashing) to spend.
Lest you believe that I’m exaggerating, how many of you have already planned to watch either movie? You do know fully well that just to recover the costs of all this hoopla, they’ll have to go streaming pretty soon. And it’ll be easy to pirate both movies within the weekend of their release. Do you really think ‘Should corporations have the full share of the greedy pie they stole from us?’ is an ethical dilemma? So why would you spend that money and your time and mind space on what is only intent on exploiting you? Does having a woman director negate the millions of girls who have lived their lives with severe body image issues and continue paying for it? Does telling a story about the atomic bomb negate the need to tell it well, authentically and without exploitative gimmicks?
If pragmatism forms any part of your moral identity, would you trust even as entertainment, things that definitely exploit you and have bloodied histories on their books? Your call. Maybe memes are just more fun.
I have been away from this blog for an unprecedented two months because of health issues. Some of you have asked me if I plan to return. Thank you for keeping me in your minds and yes because I never left. I also often receive messages from some of you expressing an opinion on something I’ve created on this blog. I’m very grateful for these because all artists need the validation of response (even if it is disagreement). Please consider sharing your thoughts in the comments section here because it helps me keep track of the conversation and ensure my response. If you’d prefer not having your identity shared, you’re welcome to use a different name. Your email address will not show to anyone but me.