Discourse on ‘Barbie’ reflects depth of Fragmented American media
Punditry dominates political coverage in the United States, but reception of Barbie (2023) demonstrates the strength of political bias in art criticism as well. How did we get here, and how can we recognize bias in action?
From its announcement, “Barbie” was designated as a feminist work, thus relegating it as subject to the 21st century’s intensely sectarian media landscape. Since 2015, its rotating list of writers has included Jenny Bicks, Diablo Cody, Bert V. Royal, Amy Schumer, and finally Greta Gerwig, all of whom have centered women’s issues in their previous works. Gerwig herself described the film as “certainly feminist,” and journalists for Vanity Fair and Glamour UK have agreed. Feminism as a movement is one of the most divisive issues of our time, with publications on either side of the left/right divide shepherding radically different narratives. Over the past 15 years with a noticeable uptick in the last decade, the conservative Fox News has drastically led among other top TV news sources with mentions of feminism. A brief look at headlines containing the phrase indicate its identity as a national lightning rod — rage-bait for conservative audiences more so than a legitimate sociopolitical issue for liberal ones.
Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism reflects on the concept of “Argument Culture,” first proposed by linguist Deborah Tannen in the 1990s — a period of massive growth for media, especially for cable television and its influence. On its consequences for political news, they write:“For all its pyrotechnic appeal, the Argument Culture did not expand the scope of public discussion. it narrowed it. It tended the limit itself to subjects where there was a good fight to be had. And as the web began to replace cable news as a venue for breaking news, cable talk shows began to narrow their focus even further, dealing increasingly with a single subject: politics” (237). This legacy of argument-focused news coverage places “Barbie” and its themes in the path of increased scrutiny as it inevitably engages with an intensely fragmented media, in which only 66% of Americans in 2023 trust, largely due to partisan divide. But does this necessarily preclude “Barbie” from the privilege of thoughtful discourse?
At first glance, reception of “Barbie” appears extremely polarized. Right-wing publications — designated by AllSides’ Media Bias calculator — published incendiary headlines calling the film a failure and propaganda. The Daily Mail, which AllSides deems right-wing, published a review by Sarah Vine which reads, “My main objection is that Barbie is not really a film about Barbie at all. It’s one hour and 54 minutes of extended misandry, dressed up with a few fun dance routines and one or two (granted fairly decent) jokes.” Another opinion piece from the National Review reads, “What isn’t set up is a single coherent vision of where we are as a society or where we ought to go […] paying lip service to feminism and demanding the impossible from supposedly liberated women.” A significant portion of the word count for conservative opinion pieces is spent dismantling the film’s ideology, rather than discussing technical filmmaking aspects like script or acting. An additional piece for the National Review by Armond White contains much less amiable language, reading: “The multiple Barbies and Kens (multiethnic, overweight, disabled) are airhead protesters, spoofing the Frankie and Annette beach movies. Diversity hires America Ferrera and Issa Rae give abominable speeches about Latino and black feminist sacrifice, and Rhea Perlman appears morphing Barbie inventor Ruth Handler into Ruth Bader Ginsburg…” Or, as Rich Cromwell of The Federalist puts it, "‘Barbie’ is a two-hour grind through a litany of complaints about how the patriarchy is keeping the ladies down […] we’re treated to a series of angry talking points in which the only fanciful flights of imagination are ones that veer off into a nightmarish world in which women are objectified, vilified, and subjugated in ways that would make a literal caveman blush.” These conservative articles seem to take aim at “Barbie” as a fully political piece of media, rather than engaging with it as a summer blockbuster or a source of ostensible entertainment, once again reflecting the Argument Culture concept.
Articles from liberal publications come to resoundingly different conclusions. Alissa Wilkinson writes for Vox: “Yet fun and thoughtfulness can go together; a blockbuster (or a doll) need not be brainless to be fun. That [Gerwig] managed to infuse [sentimental, as in her previous work] sensibilities into Barbie is something near a miracle. I can’t wait to go see it again.” A Vox reader would get a drastically different impression of “Barbie” from this review than they would from, say, Breitbart, which reported that “Unfortunately, it looks as though this picture will be a divisive, culture-war flashpoint rather than a box-office smash that brings Americans together.” On “bringing Americans together,” they hyperlinked a review of Top Gun. Comments on the technical aspects of the film only serve to deepen any already-cemented political opinion. Richard Brody writes for The New Yorker, “‘Barbie’ contains a potent paradox that is fundamental to its effervescent delights. A single frame of the film packs such profuse and exquisite detail—of costume and settings, gestures and diction—that it’s impossible to enumerate the plethora of inventions and decisions that bring it to life […] Gerwig’s movie puts in bright critical light the trouble with Barbie’s pure, blank perfection. Barbie can be anything in Barbieland—a doctor, a President, an astronaut—but only because Barbieland is a frictionless Brigadoon. There’s no Fox News in Barbieland, no political demagogy, no religion, no culture. Any girl who plays with Barbie and imagines that she can do anything will discover, eventually, that she’s been the victim of a noxious fantasy.”
Meanwhile, some publications engage almost too apolitically, neglecting to acknowledge the film’s objectively subversive topics. The Daily Beast, which AllSides considers liberal, published a review from Coleman Spilde so glowing that it doesn’t feel like a leap to say he was pointed in a certain direction. Spilde writes, “After what feels like an eternity of waiting, ‘Barbie’ has arrived—and in a moving, hilarious, nearly perfect package to boot,” also calling the film “genius” and “awe-inspiring.” Notably, Spilde states that “For anyone worried that Barbie would be Gerwig’s capitalist sellout, fear not. Even in an inherently plutocratic world, Gerwig maintains her integrity,” directly contradicting the most popularized critique that the film was essentially a two-hour advertisement.
The intensely differing coverage of “Barbie” points to the pervasiveness of agendas at already biased publications. Kovach and Rosenstiel detail the succession of events that led to the existence of those agendas. “New technology has made the forum more robust and journalism’s role less paternal. But technology’s promise of a larger public forum and a broader set of facts in common was mostly a fantasy. The web has largely been organized in ways that separate us so we can be sold things.… how can [journalism] exist when each person has their own reality, with their own … facts?” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 226). The vastness of the internet and its ability to host and foster profoundly different communities with entirely separate canons of information has resulted in the kind of utterly polarized discourse we see with Barbie. Importantly, Barbie itself is not an example of misinformation — each reviewer has access to the same exact film. Rather, it is the reviewer themself and the forum they’ve been given access to that is evidence of the problem. Barbie is a mere litmus test for an already splintered media. Kovach and Rosenstiel continue, “A forum without regard for facts fails to inform, and a debate steeped in prejudice and supposition only inflames,” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 232). What can we do when the facts are there, intact, but prejudice creates from them two distinct realities?
One hopes and actually does find that, among the most reputable of sources that tilt one way or the other, nuance can still be found. Manohla Dargis writes for The New York Times, left-wing according to AllSides, “Gerwig does much within the material’s inherently commercial parameters, though it isn’t until the finale — capped by a sharply funny, philosophically expansive last line — that you see the ‘Barbie’ that could have been.” Or, still for the National Review, Jack Butler writes, “It is, rather, that Barbie is far less straightforward than Oppenheimer, with multiple interpretive and thematic layers. Oppenheimer is not an uncomplicated film, but Barbie is itself a highly sophisticated one — and one that many conservatives are almost certainly getting wrong.” Film critique is an art form, thus expanding the lengths to which its practitioners can attribute the same source material to differing viewpoints. However, when those viewpoints become intertwined with political ideology as simplistic as left or right and are spoon fed to a polarized public therefore enabling echo chambers, the true depth of our media problem becomes clear. Perhaps it is apt that the only review I found not mentioning politics was one by Rob Stewart of 411MANIA.com, a wrestling news publication. He writes,
“But by the later acts, her emotions are much more developed. She is torn between two worlds and isn’t sure where she belongs anymore. Hell, that’s part of why Superman is one of my favorite characters. It’s a good story to tell! The problem is that little of that story feels earned. The story is SO Barbie-centric–and what isn’t about Barbie is mostly focused on Ryan Gosling goofing about as Ken–that Gloria and Sasha are never wholly developed. Their emotional resolution feels rushed, like it was included just to tick the box.”
Politics are politics, and coverage of them feels as though it has passed the point of no return. But when political publications widen their scope to culture, a new danger arises, as they threaten to limit the ability of the reader to merely consume media critically on their own. It would do the average follower of Fox or Vox alike to seek cultural criticism from unbiased sources, even if it means venturing outside our usual domain or dodging popup articles about the next UFC fight.