Guy DeBord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is not what I thought I would be thinking of when I saw Barbie only a few weeks ago. In summary, everybody is trapped in capitalism’s advertised life. The Spectacle: a system of violence demanding your attention and your attention dictates your oppression. However, Barbie’s decision to be an ad for Mattel based on a 1960s feminism manual reminded me of DeBord. “The spectacle is an affirmation of appearance and an identification of all human social life with appearances.” Greta Gerwig’s film felt like a white woman’s fantasy of Wakanda (see a good comparison here) — but not in the problematic way one podcast host claimed. Yet, anyone that watches films will see most blockbusters are structured in this way (see Chris Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories) — Barbie is a quest story.
However, it was telling to see, once the Box Office numbers climbed, speculation of a ‘toy universe’ rather than a commitment to make more films with women in front and behind the camera. Is it that surprising to see films centring women making bank? Further, as Zoë Rose Bryant tweeted about trends in women fronting major blockbusters in the last fifteen years opening at or over $150m in the Box Office.
The release of Black Panther (2018) and Wakanda Forever (2022) also showed likewise with Black audiences. Historically exploited groups will support films they believe ‘represent’ them. However, despite its marketing success, is Barbie as critical as people claim? In an article for Al-Jazeera, academic Priyamvada Gopal writes about the limitations of American liberal feminism. News publication Vox, also described the film as “just about as subversive as a movie can be while still being produced by one of its targets.” Northampton activist and Happy Hood editor Laura Graham further said the film “skips out on intersectionality” and is not feminist while also being “a film that references feminism” — ironic much?
Greta Gerwig’s film is co-produced by Mattel, who made the original Barbie dolls — and the film consciously comments on the institution — as far as it could without being a corporate risk (with declining sales). Guy DeBord’s conceptualisation of ‘the spectacle’ is alarmingly fitting to describe how a film that was designed to be subversive has been co-opted by the very same systems of control — much in the same way Black Panther could never truly be critical under Disney nor could Universal’s She Said (about the NYT investigation into Weinsten) offer a deeper analysis on male violence without asking questions about oversight in American television and film.
Financers would rather ‘vibes’ over truth — in this case white feminism was the stand-in, being celebrated as a universal victory. This was a film where white supremacy arrives in heels, or flats? As Vron Ware previously argued in Beyond the Pale white supremacy had only become so powerful due to the role of white feminists’ exclusion of racialised women. If the recent murders of racialised women like Breonna Taylor, Sabina Nessa and Belly Mujinga show us anything, it’s violence against women in a patriarchal world is not exclusively about white women. Yet increasingly, our media presents white womanhood as the uncontested norm or the default.
In Barbie there is America Ferrera’s character Gloria and Issa Rae’s President Barbie. Yet, ‘diversity’ under the Anti-Racism Industrial Complex means: ‘people racialised not white.’ As a Black man watching it, I left that film feeling unsettled. It was the opposite to what all the Black women in my family and friendship circles had told me about their navigation of patriarchy — violence from white people; from racialised men; and internalised misogyny from other racialised women. It reduced patriarchy to a monolith that focused on Margot Robbie symbolising the white feminist hope well within the remit of racist western beauty standards.
Even with the addition of America Ferrera and Issa Rae as well as Simu Liu, Barbieland is still a world that centralises white women. It is a reflection of the original Barbie doll where between 1959 and 2016, one is able to see that those dolls were designed to accentuate white girl/womanhood. What Barbie does fuel, as Ronke Babajide writes is “a massive money-making machinery that primarily benefits Mattel.” In Barbieland, women can be anything they want — even Black (ahem) —where intersectionality is depicted as an extra to the white pictureframe as the neutral space.
But as journalist Shaheena Uddin further writes for the Radio Times: “I’m all for diverse representation … but I do think there’s no escaping featuring an eponymous, historical, stereotypical blonde Barbie in a film titled Barbie!” Whilst blonde and blue eyes may be who is thought of when we think of Barbie, does this stop us from demanding more? The journalist further remarks, “…Margot Robbie’s appearance is exactly what you think of when you first think of ‘Barbie’ (and that’s on perfect casting).”
Following the Second World War, the world was enveloped in a consumer culture. Among those against this consumerism were The Situationist International who the Encyclopaedia Britannica say “believed that a society organised around such consumption” provoked boredom while shaping human wants in ways “that could be fulfilled only through the purchase of consumer goods.” The Barbie doll after the Second World War in the late 1950s and then the 1960s was part of this postwar consumerism in what could be described as a culture of junk — an insatiable want for stuff!
At its core, The Society of the Spectacle is a critique of postwar capitalism written in the backdrop of 1960s Paris. When DeBord wrote it, capitalism brought about a “general shift from having to appearing — all ‘having’ must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.” With Barbie, this looks like — rather than Mattel producing more films that pioneer women’s empowerment with women in front and behind the camera — they saw dollar signs and is now ‘raiding its entire toybox’ to make bigger and better films — gorging on the capitalist growth mindset. Thus ‘the spectacle’ argues that late capitalism has encouraged us humans to be more interested in images and appearances over all.
As a society, we are surrounded by images of suggestion that say one thing but mean something else. In the cult classic film They Live we are reminded of this through Nada (Roddy Piper) who is coasting through life existing without meaning until he happens upon a pair of sunglass es— when worn, show him the way the world truly is. Walking through LA, he sees media and government incorporated full of subliminal messages meant to keep humans compliant — “obey”; “consume”; “watch TV”; “conform;” “buy.”
On leaving Barbieland, Margot Robbie’s Barbie faces a similar epiphany when she sees how patriarchy privileges men and oppresses women. Yet what Barbie also does — through adveritising — is sell us an image of (white) feminism based on the effect allusions to ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’ has on modern audiences — without also considering how constructions of white womanhood are historically built on the subjugation of Black/Brown women — this criticism is not exclusive to Barbie, as Disney does the same thing with Wakanda and Captain America selling ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ while also being an institution with a long history of violence.
The spectacle of Barbie and its commentary of patriarchy hinges on Mattel trying to be a youthful institution that appeals to young Millennials, Generation Z, and the TikTok Generation — and in many ways their/our uncomprimising commitment to social justice. In short, Mattel using Barbie to illustrate commitment to ‘allyship’ may show ‘that they too are allies’ in a world where women are victimised by men. Yet, while the film calls out the optics of cis-manwashed institutions, cat-calling, and more, it falls short of overt manifestations of violence — probably due to appealing to a younger audience (though if young people are savvy enough to criticise the misogyny of Trump than surely they can understand it in a film?)
This isn’t about individuals but the broad picture of ‘the spectacle’ that focuses on appearances and images over truth and nuance. For example, whilst Margot Robbie may well feel strongly about how women are depicted on film (also see Babylon as a commentary), DeBord’s Society of the Spectacle illustrates ‘the spectacle’ is uninterested in the nuances of our modern augmented reality, but presenting simplified and one-dimensional takes. With the obsession with images and appearances not confined to marketing and social media but also films, television, shorts, and many more mediums of storytelling — Greta Gerwig’s Barbie included.
Some may argue the spectacle as simply an illustration of how mass media has come to be operationalised. DeBord says otherwise: “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialised.” It is not a top-down pratice, but one that is spread through society particpated in by all people. “Real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it.”
It is not just producing houses and capitalist institutions that have privileged images and appearances over truth, but everybody. When DeBord wrote his book, this predated the invention of the internet and thus social media — with many versions of people online as superficial, like Barbie’s land fronted by plastic — plastic personalities many promote offline too. As Guy DeBord writes, “The spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances.”
DeBord suggests that the power of celebrity does have a role in the society of the spectacle. Manifestations of this nature appear in popular images — i.e Barbie, superheroes, celebrity politicians like Boris Johnson. “Stars — ” as DeBord writes, “Spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles.” The Power of the Popular can be positioned as role models — with terms like Girl Boss Politics and Black Excellence frequently showing appearences over policy and practice. This can even situate those most oppressed as doing the work of whiteness and patriarchy for it — one example is minoritised groups accepting British Empire medals from the state for doing ‘activist work’.
Capitalising on ‘vibes’ over experience has become a main-stay of the Hollywood industrial complex, including recently with Bridgerton that cared more for debutante balls than storytelling — no less than when a white woman character sexually assaulted a Black man. Two series on, this still has not been addressed. Greta Gerwig’s pink patirarchy-free(ish) utopia is a wonderful allegory for the wakeup call oppressed people recieve when we realise the means and mechanisms of our oppression. Yet rather than exploring this, we recieve a two-dimensional view of patriarchy filled with disco, decadence, partying , and whiteness — bell hooks, it ain’t! Missed opportunities also lay in America Ferrera’s in-text history of her and her Barbie doll, and how they look nothing alike. This was an ample chance to consider intersectionality, but they cowardly reverted back to whiteness.
For most white women, Black and Brown women’s combined experiences of racism and misogyny attached to other forms of violence are a point of tension. It’s as much about ‘racism as doing’ as it is about the pluralstic nature womanhood and femininity has in communities not racialised as white.
Yet within the spectacle, films such as Barbie do not seek such a complex analysis. That’s why President Barbie’s Blackness is glossed over while simultanouesly used to promote so-called ‘diversity’. Under white feminism, expressions of intersectionality are muted or policed to fit the narrative they have fabricated and canonised. There is no reason to make an inclusive film when the industry has already obscured Black and Brown expressions of womanhood and femininity from view in favour of whiteness. Guy DeBord writes “Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency towards banalization dominated modern society the world over.” This also goes for Barbie’s men where Black and Brown Kens were just responding to Ryan Gosling’s white male masculinty.
In my view, Barbie being spouted in some spaces as a feminist masterpiece is a product of a society that is unused to films that centralise women. If we lived in a society where films about women made by women were normalised, I am not sure Barbie would be as celebrated, let alone a film that accentuates white womanhood reducing women of colour to the background and racialised men discarded like plastic. “The spectacles of domination” DeBord writes, “has succeeded in raising a whole generation molded to its laws.” Capitalism, like white feminism, is pervasive — and in media continues to be an uncontest norm many have accepted.
In Barbie, we see a group of women who live in a matriarchy. Barbie goes to the human world to effectively see how the Barbies in her world treat the Kens. Is matriarchy the antidote to patriarchy? Ronke Babajide gives the example of Bijagos in Guineau Bissau as an oppressive matriarchy. To put it succintly, she writes “Men have few rights. They have to make themselves pretty and find a woman who’ll take them in. […] When the women are done with them, they throw them out of the house.” Barbieland offers ‘happiness and order’ to its inhabitants, yet when Barbie ‘wakes up’ she is unhappy and stuck — more like the philosophies of John Carpenter’s They Live than comparisons critics made to Marvel and Wakanda!
Viewers calling Barbie anti-men have missed the point. It is time women and other oppressed groups have more popular media that speaks to their experiences (America’s speech on navigating patriarchy made ripples beyond women’s gaze itself). This is a film that while I found dragged in areas, did have important things to say — it is simply crused by a consumer culture that cares more about images than truth. Mattel, and corporations like it, care more for money than art (the marketing budget was greater than the film’s budget) — effectively Mattel have made a two-hour advert.
At the start of this post, I cited Laura Graham saying Barbie “is not a feminist film” — and I think she is right. There is visibility of historically exploited groups — i.e BIPOC actors, trans actors, Plus-Sized Barbie and so on. Yet, the lack of exploration of intersectionality stops this film being feminist. The ‘feminist movements’ of the 1970s lead by white women excluded women of colour and was just white supremacy under a different name. Celebrating Barbie as feminist is incredibly revealing of where we are in 2023. As far as representation, I think we are in a culture of toxic gratefulness for recieving the bare minimum — we can demand better.
In 2023, films like Barbie gives audiences ‘crumbs’ dressed up as feminist advocacy — it is a soft introduction to patriarchy but Audre Lorde and Hill Collins it is not! What cannot be dismissed is the swathes of women that felt validated by Barbie. What it may be is a doorstopper that allows better work to be produced. I’m wishing here. (There is much trash made by men under far less scrutiny). Yet, as far as popular blockbusters, films by and starring women are an anomaly. Many of the films I have seen of this nature are low budget and / or independent with cheap marketing budgets.
In her book In the Wake, academic Christina Sharpe talks about Julie Dash’s 1992 film Daughters of the Dust: “… emnated from the politics and aesthetics that began with Dash’s work as part of the LA Rebellion …” This was also the first film by a Black American woman to get cinematic distribution in the United States. At its release, Daughters was considered a new type of feminist filmmaking, and went on to to be a vital reference point for decoloniality and Black aesthetics. Even Beyoncé— who is sometimeish on issues of social justice — was inspired by it as you can see in the exquisite short film to her song ‘All Night’ from her 2016 album Lemonade.
For my own sanity, I am thinking of Barbie as doorstopper. However, I also think we as consumers need to work harder to see the films being made by women and generally all filmmakers on the smaller screens. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is painfully underwatched — yet many of us will undoubtedly go to see Nia DaCosta’s Captian Marvel sequel The Marvels in November (great, but it is possible to support both kinds of films). For all of people’s complaints about ‘representation’, in my experiences — it is challenging to take these criticisms as seriously when people aren’t as vocal about smaller films. For example Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking are (arguably) more complex syntheses of patriarchy than Barbie — yet swathes of the public focused on ‘the popular’.
Under ‘the spectacle’ art in general is crushed by an ideology that cares more for appearances than nuance. So, corporations like Mattel show us ‘the spectacle’ not only sells us the physical but the thought. i.e the appearance of feminism through a two-hour ad (Barbie) that does not challenge. The financers of blockbusters are uninterested in complexities, but diluted images. As DeBord writes, “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.”
Guy DeBord wrote The Society of the Spectacle (1967) in response to postwar consumerist culture that he observed in the world around him. Blaming the creative teams, Mattel, and Warner Bros for Barbie is easy — but ultimately low-hanging fruit. What about us, Joe and Jane Bloggs, as individual and collective social actors that continue to invest by celebrating cold takes as radical? Barbie’s takes on patriarchy are more Betty Friedan (whew) than Shirley Chisolm, yet were celebrated as a feminist magnus opus — showing we should demand more from media and each other.
Hollywood has always been obsessed with images and appearances over observable truth — but long gone are the days of explicit ‘message films’ that will be marketed to a mainstream audiences. Films like Barbie present the idea that Mattel is now ‘pro-women’ for moral reasons rather than economic reasons through a worldview that has been materialised — based on images and appearances over observable truths and experience.
Yet, some may argue everything is ‘spectacle’. However, the moral of DeBord’s book was not to be drowned by the spectacle as an immune system for capitalism, but see through the images it depends on. So then, (and to conclude), as DeBord writes, “In analysing the spectacle, we are obliged to a certain extent to use the spectacle’s own language, in the sense that we have to operate on the … terrain of the society that expresses itself in the spectacle” — as to see through the now oraclised capitalist lie!
Bibliography + Further Reading
- New World Order. Series 3 Episode 5. TIMESTAMP 16:26 onwards.
- The Society of the Spectacle.
- Comments on the Society of the Spectacle