July 25, 2023 - 7:00am

Greta Gerwig’s recent film Barbie has racked up big money at the box office while sparking a fiery debate within the Online Right. This dissension primarily arises from the film’s portrayal of Ken, embodied by a vacant-eyed Ryan Gosling. Hidden beneath the film’s glossy surface — typical kid’s fare elevated for adults who refuse to grow up — are layers of nuance that have carved Internet Right-wingers into two contrasting camps.

The film’s narrative weaves together two storylines. The first focuses on Margot Robbie‘s “Stereotypical Barbie”, who ventures into the real world seeking to understand the profound changes in her life. The second plot, which has inflamed discussions within the Online Right, involves Gosling’s Ken and the various other Kens who populate the fictional world. These jobless figures — representative of various customer demographics — attempt to woo the similarly diverse Barbies, the rulers of the toy world’s matriarchy. 

In the film, Ken ventures into the real world alongside Barbie, and discovers the existence of “patriarchy”, before returning to his world to incite a rebellion among the Kens, who aim to overturn their female-led order. Of course, Hollywood happy ending tropes persist, as this rebellion leads to a collaboration by promising equality for all dolls.

One faction within the Online Right perceives Barbie as a typical example of “woke” dogma. Its members critique the film as a thinly veiled attempt at progressive social commentary in which, as popular YouTube critic The Critical Drinker states, “women are simply amazing, and men and everything they do is utterly and irredeemably bad.” National Review critic Armond White, meanwhile, describes Barbie as a platform for Gerwig’s “jaded-feminist adult social messaging”.

Adding fuel to this critique was the dramatic reaction of Ben Shapiro, a prominent figure on the Online Right. In a 43-minute video on YouTube, the commentator opens by igniting three Barbie dolls, describing the film as “flaming garbage” and “angry feminist claptrap that alienates men from women”. He critiques the portrayal of gender dynamics, asserting that “the basic sort of premise of the film, politically speaking, is that men and women are on two sides and they hate each other.”

In contrast, some on the Dissident Right or Extremely Online Right — take your pick of this vague, ever-shifting nomenclature — delve deeper into Ken’s journey and rebellion against the matriarchy, interpreting it as a symbolic challenge to the feminised system of governance. In a long and detailed thread one anonymous commentator, echoing the work of fellow anon Lom3z, suggests that Ken’s voyage takes him beyond the “longhouse” — a term used to describe a feminised and technocratic system of governance.

Josh Lekach, another Right-winger, argues that Ken emerges as the film’s standout character with an engaging and humorous narrative arc. He contends that “the woke stuff was the least persuasive aspect of the movie” and “almost made [the various diverse Barbies and Kens] into a mockery”. From this angle, Ken becomes a sort of clandestine protagonist, much as the Left perceived Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. This is fascinating: neither the far-Right nor the far-Left would seem to have much love for consumerism, yet people will bend over backwards to read their interpretations into a particularly strong cinematic performance. 

These divergent viewpoints within the younger and more engaged Right reveal old ideological fault lines: while figures like Shapiro and The Critical Drinker view Barbie as entirely irredeemable, others see the film as a hidden conservative epic. Of course, these intra-Right feuds have been heating up in recent months alongside Republican presidential campaigning, but pop blockbusters like Barbie profit from divisiveness just as much as widespread acclaim. 

Designed to provoke debate and drive ticket sales, the film has been successful in generating widespread public discourse. Whether scorned as “woke” trash, praised for its clever handling of diversity and gender issues, or read against the grain as an esoteric conservative “hero’s journey”, Barbie has unequivocally fulfilled its mission. It is not just a profitable corporate product, but also one capable of bolstering its marketing push with vast amounts of free discourse.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work