Tilting at Kenmills

Tilting at Kenmills

As any schoolboy knows, the foundational satire of Western literature is Francis Bacon’s Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  The book (or books, technically) is complex, multi-layered, and brutally funny.  Cervantes’ and his poison pen viciously and obviously mock chivalric romance novels and those who read them, but they go deeper as well, satirizing the entire chivalric tradition and the efforts of lower nobility (hidalgo) to emulate their social betters and elevate their own social status.

For most of this week, I was in Texas, attending the State Financial Officers Foundation conference (which is always quite good and quite productive).  As I sat in the airport and then flew home yesterday, I listened to my “Valley Girl” playlist, which consists of punk, post-punk, New Wave, and alt. pop music from the late 1970s and 1980s.  And as I listened, I noticed something interesting, something that I hadn’t ever noticed before: as it turns out, nearly half of the music on the playlist is by all-female or female-led bands.

Even setting aside the playlist’s eponym, there are some obvious names on it.  There’s Blondie, of course, and its beguiling vocalist Debbie Harry.  There’s the most successful all-female band of all time, the Go-Go’s.  And there’s the second-most successful all-female group of all time, The Bangles.  There are also a handful of other, less obvious, but nonetheless important names.  There’s Missing Persons with the enigmatic Dale Bozzio; Siouxsie and the Banshees, featuring Siouxsie Sioux; ‘Til Tuesday and the spectacular Aimee Mann; and, of course, The B-52’s with the dynamic duo of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.

Also on the playlist are a handful of bands that may not have been female-dominated, but which nevertheless featured influential (and often founding) female musicians: Talking Heads and its co-founder/bassist Tina Weymouth; Pixies and their co-founder/co-vocalist/bassist Kim Deal (who also founded The Breeders); and Sonic Youth, featuring co-founder/bassist/guitarist/vocalist/guiding spirit Kim Gordon.

Obviously, this list just scratches the surface of the alternative music scene in the 1980s, which was incredibly deep and eclectic.  But it also does not include chart-topping and record-breaking pop-rock singers like Cyndi Lauper, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and countless others.  In other words, the 1980s was almost inarguably the decade that female singers and artists came of age and began constituting a significant share of the pop and rock music sales.  Sure, there had always been female singers beforehand, and many of them were hugely successful and influential.  Still, in the ‘80s, popular music changed – to the benefit of female artists.

Today, of course, female artists dominate pop charts and pop radio.  Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour is expected to top out at over $1 billion in revenues and will almost certainly be the highest-grossing concert tour series of all time.  The prerelease ticket sales for the MOVIE of Swift’s concert were nearly $40 million, and it is headed for an expected $70+ million opening weekend in early October.  That’s more than some Star Wars movies.  Between Swift and Beyonce (and Billie Eilish and a few others), female artists own the popular music scene.

Now, as I flew, listened, thought, and occasionally dozed, it occurred to me that most of the country (if not the world) is inarguably missing the point of the only entertainment phenomenon this summer that will outgross Taylor Swift’s mega tour, that is, the Barbie movie.  Barbie has already grossed over $1 billion, and it is still chugging along, raking in money hand-over-fist.  And yet, no one seems to get it.

Conservative reviewers of the film say that it’s not especially entertaining and was never really meant to be entertainment.  Rather, it is a 90-minute infomercial for feminism and “smashing the patriarchy.”  They think that’s stupid.

In one scene, a patriarchal Ken is forcing a Barbie to watch the Godfather and mansplaining Robert Evans to her.

In the next, a Ken is explaining to a Barbie what “Stephen Malkmus did for indie rock.” (Stephen Malkmus is the based lead singer of 90s band, Pavement)….

For a movie that is a rebuttal to “bad” and archaic female stereotypes, it sure does reinforce a lot of “bad” male stereotypes! I’m surprised they didn’t include a moment of a Ken punching a Barbie in the face, or a Ken date-raping a Barbie.

Liberal reviewers, for their part, say that it’s not especially entertaining and was never really meant to be entertainment.  Rather, it is a 90-minute infomercial for feminism and “smashing the patriarchy.”  And they think that’s awesome!

Barbie does not just make the ills of patriarchy clear for women but also issues a warning for men. The patriarchy, Barbie suggests, makes it easier for men to succeed than women, and in doing so, creates an expectation for men that they’re entitled to the success that the system of patriarchy promises; where patriarchy teaches women that their dreams are conditional, it teaches men that their dreams are ensured. In fact, before Gosling’s Ken goes back to Barbieland, he attempts to become a CEO, a doctor, and even a lifeguard in the real world, despite having no qualifications beyond his Barbieland job of “beach.” However, his introduction to the patriarchy makes him believe that he’s entitled to respect and upward mobility just based on being a man. And when Barbie returns to Barbieland and attempts to reason with Ken, he’s incensed at the notion that he and the rest of the Kens should have to relinquish any of their power.

Thankfully, the Barbies mastermind a plan that takes advantage of the Kens’ entitlement to regain their power. They employ Gloria to help wake the patriarchally indoctrinated Barbies up through her speech of feminist revelations about sexist double standards. They then play on the Kens’ insecurities to push them into all-out war, complete with dance numbers and beach brawls. When the dust settles, the Kens realize the Barbies have retaken their society, and Gosling’s Ken suffers a breakdown. Stripped of any influence, he has essentially no idea who he is; he’s not a leader, he’s not in charge, and he’s certainly not a romantic option for Barbie — he’s just Ken.

Ultimately, Ken’s frustration is a direct byproduct of the patriarchy he introduced into Barbieland.

We hate to rain on everyone’s parade here, but they’re all wrong – conservatives, liberals, independents, whoever.  They all miss the point, the subtle but brilliant satire of the film.  The film’s director and co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig is truly amazing!  She is the 21st Century’s Miguel Cervantes.  While everyone watching the film thinks it’s about the patriarchy and its wickedness, Gerwig is laughing all the way to the bank.  In Barbie, she offers a multi-layered, Cervantes-esque parody, lampooning feminist films, the people who watch feminist films, and – most notably – contemporary feminism itself.

How else does one explain this brilliant piece of art?  How else does one explain how Gerwig – one the most successful and acclaimed screenwriters of the last decade – could make a film about “the patriarchy.”  You know those female artists that we mentioned before who achieved parity with male artists in music?  That was FOUR DECADES ago.  Hollywood may not be as “progressive” as the music biz, but it too has shed all vestiges of anything resembling a patriarchy.  And it did so long ago.  Moreover, only a complete and utter moron would think that American women – who earn 100 bachelor’s degrees for every 74 men earn and a near majority of whom now report that they make as much or more than their male partners/spouses – are, today, being oppressed by American men.  Indeed, the idea is so patently absurd that…well…satire HAS to be the explanation.  What else is there?

We’re pretty sure that someday, many decades in the future, your great-great-great grandkids will sit in their Western Civ. classes and will read the great satirists of history: Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire and, of course, Gerwig.

What are words for?” Dale Bozzio wonders.  That’s obvious.  They’re for mocking people who believe in the patriarchy.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.