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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The hunger fed by ‘Barbie’ and Taylor Swift


This summer’s two biggest entertainment phenomena, the movie “Barbie” and Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, have a lot in common. Both feature conventionally gorgeous blond women who alternately revel in mainstream femininity and chafe at its limitations, enacting an ambivalence shared by many of their fans. Both, beneath their slick, exuberant pop surfaces, tell female coming-of-age stories marked by existential crises and bitter confrontations with sexism. (The third song on Swift’s set list is “The Man,” whose refrain is, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can/ wondering if I’d get there quicker/ if I was a man.”) And both have become juggernauts.

“Barbie” has just had the biggest opening weekend of any movie this summer, surpassing already high expectations to earn $162 million. More than just a movie, it’s become a major cultural event, with fans showing up in carefully curated outfits and then making TikToks of themselves crying, emotionally overcome. The film’s blunt feminism — its villain is, literally, patriarchy — has prompted an enjoyably impotent right-wing backlash. Conservative media figure Ben Shapiro opened a 43-minute monologue about how “viscerally angry” the movie made him by setting two Barbie dolls on fire.

The “Barbie” headlines echo the news about the Taylor Swift tour (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen, since resale tickets are going for thousands of dollars). Eras is set to become the highest-grossing musical tour in history, boosting the economy of the cities in which Swift alights. More than just a series of concerts, it’s become, like “Barbie,” a major cultural event, with fans also showing up in carefully curated outfits and then making TikToks of their ecstatic tears. And though Swift hasn’t triggered the right the way Barbie has, she did make Shapiro really mad with a speech she made about Pride Month during a Chicago stop.

An obvious lesson from the gargantuan success of both “Barbie” and the Eras Tour is that there is a huge, underserved market for entertainment that takes the feelings of girls and women seriously. After years of COVID isolation, reactionary politics and a mental health crisis that has hit girls and young women particularly hard, there’s a palpable longing for both communal delight and catharsis.

“What happens in the crowd is messy, wild, benevolent and beautiful,” Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker about a Swift concert. A woman attending one of the first “Barbie” showings told The Guardian she’d been waiting for it for two years: “I’ve been dying to go to a movie theater and have something that feels like a monoculture event.”

Part of what has made “Barbie” so resonant — beyond the campy pleasures of its fantastic costumes and sets — is that it treats becoming a woman as a hero’s journey. (This is also what has made its critics on the right so furious.) A pivotal moment in the movie comes when America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, gives an impromptu speech about the impossible demands made of women: “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line,” she cries. “It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory!”

The important part of this monologue — spoilers ahead — is not only what it articulates, but what it accomplishes. Gloria’s words wake up Barbies whom the Kens have brainwashed into submission. “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy you robbed it of its power!” exclaims the film’s heroine, Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie. It’s consciousness-raising as magic. And, ultimately, as difficult as being an adult woman is, Robbie’s Barbie chooses it over remaining in the sexless girlhood idyll of Barbieland, as we learn in the film’s perfect last line.

Given the evident hunger out there for entertainment that channels female angst, it would make sense for Hollywood, once the writers’ and actors’ strikes are over, to do more to cultivate female writers and directors. Women are still rarely given the chance to direct high-budget films; as the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found, women helmed only 11% of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2022. And looking at a list of last year’s major films, I was struck by how few of them seem to have been made with a female audience in mind, part of the reason there was so much pent-up demand for “Barbie.”

Searchlight Pictures is probably feeling good about signing Swift, who cites “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig as an influence, to direct her feature film debut. But for the most part, unfortunately, it appears as if the lesson Hollywood is going to take from the success of “Barbie” is not to make more stories for women, but to make more movies about toys.

As The New Yorker reported, 14 movies based on Mattel intellectual property have been announced, including features about the 1980s action figure He-Man and the boxing game Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. Forty-five more are in development. J.J. Abrams is working on what he called an “emotional and grounded and gritty” take on Hot Wheels. At least they’ve signed up Lena Dunham to make the movie based on Polly Pocket.

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