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Barbie's Battle of the Kens Is Liberal Feminism Trying and Failing to Tame the Warrior Male
Thoughts on a very silly movie scene
“If the film has a serious weakness,” I wrote in a recent review published elsewhere of the strange summer hit Barbie, “it is [director Greta] Gerwig’s understanding of Kens.” In her film, “‘patriarchy’ is not really analyzed or explained so much as transmitted from the real world to Barbie-world by mere knowledge of its existence.”
The battle of the Kens in the third act is cartoonish, a lampoon of intergroup violence scenes in the age of Marvel superheroes. Gosling’s Ken and the Ken played by Simu Liu are set up as antagonists from the beginning; Barbie stirs the rivalry of all the Kens, and the rest of the Kens simply fall into line behind Gosling and Liu.
Thus the newly-violent politics of the Kens derive from individual jealousy, but rather than every Ken for himself against all the other Kens, they divide into teams of Kens and battle collectively. This is a yawning plot hole — not just in Barbie, but in feminist analysis of war. War is just a dumb thing boys do. Kens are interchangeable and so are their wars. Who cares about that stuff when there are fashionable outfits and glitzy earrings and vintage boots?
To be clear, the battle scene is hilarious. It is meant to be a comic moment in a movie for little girls. But it is also a window of the feminist view on the beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, and by extension, every combat narrative ever portrayed on film. Watch the scene and try to imagine it happening with, say, GI Joes. It only works because Ken dolls do not come with weapons; the scene uses random playtime accessories instead.
Kens (they are all Kens) ride hobby horses into battle because the Gosling Ken has confused horses with manhood (“they’re just man-extenders,” he later quips.) It is Gerwig’s way of trashing John Wayne and remarking on the glorification of masculine violence through film. If only men would stop trying to be cowboys, her film suggests, then the whole world would be happy and at peace. What rot.
Gerwig is postmodern, postliberal, postfeminist, and too cool for deconstruction because the Barbie-world has no walls, anyway. Her success as a movie-maker is her incoherence as a philosopher, for if she was any more consistent that way, the film would be unwatchable.
Her ‘battle scene’ suggests that a world run by women will not have wars because everyone will be too busy looking fabulous at the beach and holding house parties every night, blissfully unattached from one another, atomized in their consumption. This is fashionable narcissim, a promotion of disconnection. Sold as the path to happiness in a free society, it is instead a prescription for lonely misery. Human beings are rarely healthy on their own. As evidenced by our wars, we are social creatures.
Wars have been blamed on wife-stealing since antiquity; see Helen of Troy, or the first few pages of Herodotus. Jealousy over women, especially in polygamous societies, is a key factor in the absurdly-high homicide rates that anthropology has found in the Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon. But the Greeks who filled the thousand ships that Helen’s face launched were not all setting out to have sex with her. Yanomamo men do kill one another and claim new brides, even teaming up to murder an enemy and redistribute his women. But they do not fight whole battles this way. No one does.
Instead, we fight over status, and then ideology is how we explain that fight to ourselves, to others, to history. As Thucydides observed only a few decades after Herodotus, the explanations humans create after the violence begins will vary among fear, power, and interest. Agamemnon was trying to galvanize his rule over the Achaeans, securing his status. His attempt to seize Briseis from Achilles after he was forced to return Chryseis to her father, Apollo, is clearly driven by the fear of losing status to the better warrior. His hatred of Troy is about the status of Greece, not just lust for the spoils of war.
When humans go to war, an unconscious process happens first, followed by conscious acts of rational mind, in what combat veteran and anthropologist Mike Martin calls a “justificatory process” of cognition. Human males evolved to identify with our peers, kill in the interest of our peers, in order to raise our esteem among our peers, justifying ourselves in the eyes of our peers, all in that exact order. Agamemnon wanted a war and got an excuse to start one. The Achaeans followed him because they identified with their leader, and with one another.
They got into the famous ships and sailed off to war because their friends were going.
This understanding of war as a product of human biology, and more specifically male bonding, challenges fashionable ideas about intergroup violence. Conflicts are supposed to be the result of someone, somewhere being greedy, or having wrong ideas about religion or politics or race. We are not supposed to notice that war is primarily a male sociological phenomenon, which Gerwig acknowledges, or that most women are enthusiastic participants in the rally-round-the-flag effect of war, which she does not.
This phenomenon is the ‘ingrouping heuristic,’ and it was displayed in the capitols of various European states during 1914 as enormous crowds turned out to cheer the declarations of war. Pacifism has spent more than a century trying to explain this moment away: the people were naive, they were lied to, they did not know what was coming. These arguments fall flat under examination, however. Until each combatant nation was coming to the limits of their ability to sustain the war, it remained uniformly popular with the masses. Meanwhile, pretensions of international working class solidarity instantly evaporated immediately at the outbreak. Nationalistic feelings that had not existed in 1914 were endemic in 1915. Hatreds, even French revanchism, did not account for the war starting. Hatreds were a product of the war starting.
Nationalism “is something you learn through experience,” psychology writer Shane O’Mara explains in a recent Substack post. It is constructed out of “collective memory.” Nationhood, indeed any group-membership, is a psychological concept.
Hierarchies set the order of access to resources within each group. Norms of fair dealing allow those resources to flow easily between group members. When we all lived in hunter-gatherer societies, it was “evolutionary suicide” to be shunned for not fighting, Martin says. Thus, “the brain has evolved to motivate fighting when others in the group are fighting, so as to maintain group membership.” Oxytocin, the social bonding hormone, creates solidarity in the group and reduces status competition within that group.
Whereas wars are often blamed on competition for resources, “human homicides, for males at least, appear to be driven mostly by status disputes,” Martin writes. “That is, men most often kill other men over questions of who is higher than whom in the hierarchy.”
Young males have not developed the prefrontal cortex to manipulate their way to status nonviolently, nor have they lived long enough to accumulate much status. Yet adolescent testosterone makes them keenly aware of their low status, and therefore impulsive in pursuing greater status. The higher rate of risk-taking in adolescents, particularly males, corresponds with this period of intense status competition in the human life-cycle. War is one way that young males have always taken risks in order to gain status. Armies prefer young men for this very reason.
The Achaeans did not want to be left behind. They got into their ships and sailed off to war because they wanted to chase status with other males of their in-group.
The surest proof of these observations is the existence of ‘basic training’ in modern militaries. Drill training inculcates this sense of unity by treating the subjects as a unitary whole, indeed as a ‘unit.’ This fosters mutual support and cooperative behaviors. To have an in-group identity, people need an out-group.
The American Psychological Association calls this entitativity, “the extent to which a group or collective is considered by others to be a real entity having unity, coherence, and internal organization rather than a set of independent individuals.” The French term is esprit de corps, whereas medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun uses the word a’sabiyya. Key to this process, however, is that the group must have a rival.
Consider this marching cadence: We ain't Alpha, ate-up Alpha. We ain't Bravo, bugged-up Bravo. We are Charlie. The mighty, the mighty, the might mighty Charlie. A company of soldiers (C company) thus verbally separates themselves from A company and B company of the same battalion, developing their own unique identity despite wearing the same uniforms and sharing a command structure.
When the battalion must operate as a larger unit, these company divisions can seemingly disappear until it is time to fall into formation again. After all, the enemy is even more of an out-group than another company of the same battalion. A larger in-group thus contains many in-groups. As seen in the literary example of Homer’s Iliad, conflicts can indeed develop between in-groups that are part of a larger in-group. When the Trojans come out to fight, however, the distinctions disappear.
Only one man ever refuses to fight Troy: Achilles, who is upset with Agamemnon over his commandeering of Briseis. Gerwig’s thesis of war does not admit two ancient ‘Kens’ can quarrel over a woman while remaining on the same side of a conflict.
Modern ‘liberal feminism’ sees itself as the liberator of all humanity, not just women, and the liberation of humanity from war as a primary project. While it is understandable — 21st century warfare is indeed superbly harmful to children and other living things, as the hippie motto of the musical Hair says — this universal liberatory mission has quite un-made feminism. Energies are wasted on trying to uninstall the warrior nature from every male. Little wonder that young men, and also young women, increasingly reject a liberal-feminist agenda that denies their differences and goes against their evolved human nature.
At its best, feminism has broken the shackles that constrained female freedom. At its worst, feminism loses the plot and disconnects Ken from Barbie, leaving them both alone and unhappy, and then disconnecting the Kens from one another. This deconstruction does not reveal any new or profound truths, nor does it offer humanity a way to eliminate war. Barbie portrays war the way a feminist who knows nothing about war, or men, imagines men at war to be.
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