If anyone was primed to love the Barbie movie, it was me. But I didn’t.
Sure, I got a kick out of the dazzling pink re-creation of Barbie’s homes and outfits, and the jokes about obscure and ill-advised real Mattel dolls, like boob-growing Skipper and pregnant Midge. Somebody has to buy me a Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken, right now!
I would have enjoyed “Barbie” far more if it hadn’t tried to say Something Serious About Feminism, because what it came up with was a very 1990s gender-binary utopia where all women are girlbosses and all men are idiots. That a film about male uselessness also has zero queer pairings, either in Barbie Land or the Real World, feels like both a failure of nerve and a bleaker assessment of gender relations than you’d expect from its relentlessly inspirational vibes.
Gender studies scholar Asa Seresin coined the term “Heteropessimism” in a 2019 article in The New Inquiry. Seresin defines it as a mode of discourse where male-female coupling is both inevitable and unsatisfying, even politically suspect. It masquerades as feminism without actually improving anything.
Heteropessimism consists of performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience. Heteropessimism generally has a heavy focus on men as the root of the problem. That these disaffiliations are “performative” does not mean that they are insincere but rather that they are rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality. Sure, some heteropessimists act on their beliefs, choosing celibacy or the now largely outmoded option of political lesbianism, yet most stick with heterosexuality even as they judge it to be irredeemable. Even incels, overflowing with heteropessimism, stress the involuntary nature of their condition.
The movie’s Barbie Land is an alternate reality where Barbies have all the prestige, intelligence, and possessions. In the Barbies’ social life, the Kens are either mocked and excluded, or tolerated like endearing but none-too-bright puppies. When Barbie and Ken visit our world, she’s crestfallen that the dolls’ feminist fantasy world didn’t do more to inspire social change. Meanwhile, Ken discovers that real-world governments and corporations are run by men just as stupid as he is. He leads a short-lived patriarchal takeover of Barbie Land that mainly consists of bros drinking beer and explaining “The Godfather” to their girlfriends.
Notably, when the status quo is restored, the Kens’ legitimate grievances are still ridiculed. (Seresin: “A certain strain of heteropessimism assigns 100 percent of the blame for heterosexuality’s malfunction to men, and has thus become one of the myriad ways in which young women—especially white women—have learned to disclaim our own cruelty and power.”) With an obvious wink, the female president promises to allot them spaces in the halls of power…exactly to the extent that women have it in real life, i.e. not much. I guess what makes this a fantasy is that the men react with sentimental tears rather than incel violence.
In this sense, heteropessimism is, to borrow Lee Edelman’s phrase, an “anesthetic feeling”: “a feeling that aims to protect against overintensity of feeling and an attachment that can survive detachment.” Heteropessimism’s anesthetic effect is especially seductive because it dissociates women from the very traits—overattachment and “the overintensity of feeling”—for which straight culture is determined to make us ashamed. That much heteropessimist sentiment is delivered in joke form coheres with Henri Bergson’s idea that comedy delivers “a momentary anesthesia of the heart.” Unlike traditional comedy, however, heteropessimism is anticathartic. Its structure is anticipatory, designed to preemptively anesthetize the heart against the pervasive awfulness of heterosexual culture as well as the sharp plunge of quotidian romantic pain.
If everything in Barbie Land is supposed to be a feminist role reversal of our flawed world, the Barbies’ indifference to their lovesick Kens seems to offer relief from the pervasive pain of coupling with a man who exercises power by not giving a shit about anyone. But if you ask me, a utopia full of man-babies is too much like the world we’re trying to leave behind.
At our trans men’s support group last weekend, we read aloud some passages from the 1995 memoir-in-essays S/HE by Minnie Bruce Pratt, the recently deceased lesbian poet and partner of Leslie Feinberg. In one piece, Pratt mused about how it felt patronizing when a man opened a door for her, but exciting when a butch woman did it. One scenario carried the assumption of superior male strength, the other had the potential for playing with gender roles between equals. Coming from a Southern feminine upbringing, in her generation, Pratt must have seen a lot of chivalry-as-patriarchy. But I was like, I’d be thrilled if the average young man today opened a door for anybody. Modern heteropessimism is at least as much a reaction against the kind of men who make up the essay collection The Bastard on the Couch–educated Gen-X and millennial guys who feel infantilized by their wives’ competence, and have decided to lean into the privileges of being useless.
There have been several think pieces about queer-coded elements of “Barbie” but I’m tired of settling for that. See also, “Across the Spider-Verse” and every other superhero movie that appropriates the emotional arc and metaphor of being closeted. Straight storylines with a gay aesthetic are as old as Puccini. It’s hard to beat Madame Butterfly for heteropessimism! The effeminacy of the Ken doll is so well-known that Autostraddle ran a humor piece “75 Lesbian Ken Dolls, Ranked by Lesbianism” when Mattel redesigned the doll in 2017 with a slimmer, more androgynous look. In the Barbie movie, though, this effeminacy is only played for laughs, as proof of the Kens’ immaturity and inferiority. It was hard to enjoy this movie because it would have given me massive dysphoria not too many years ago. Dysphoria that didn’t have a name for itself, other than “there’s no place in the world for the thing that I am.”
I made Stylin’ Stripes Ken my Facebook profile picture the year before I came out as nonbinary.
Beachy Tropical Shirt Ken is the 25-year-old trans guy that all of us dad bods with T-induced hair loss are sooo jealous of.