Last week, Representative Matt Gaetz and his wife, Ginger, arrived at a Washington reception for “Barbie” in matching pink, grinning in photos along the “pink carpet,” mingling among guests sipping pink cocktails, admiring a life-size pink toy box.
They left with political ammunition.
“The Barbie I grew up with was a representation of limitless possibilities, embracing diverse careers and feminine empowerment,” Mrs. Gaetz wrote on Twitter. “The 2023 Barbie movie, unfortunately, neglects to address any notion of faith or family, and tries to normalize the idea that men and women can’t collaborate positively (yuck).”
When another account scolded Mr. Gaetz, the hard-right and perpetually stunt-seeking Florida congressman, for attending the event at all — citing the casting of a trans actor as a doctor Barbie — Mr. Gaetz replied with a culture-warring double feature.
“If you let the trans stop you from seeing Margo Robbie,” he said, leaving the “T” off the first name of the film’s star, “the terrorists win.”
The non-terroristic winners were many after the film’s estimated $155 million debut: Ms. Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, finding an eager audience for their pink-hued feminist opus; the Warner Bros. marketing team, whose ubiquitous campaigns plainly paid off; the film industry itself, riding “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to its most culturally dominant weekend in years.
But few outcomes were as nominally inexplicable (and probably inevitable) as the film’s instant utility to political actors and opportunists of all kinds. For a modern take on what was long a politically fraught emblem of toxic body image and reductive social norms, no choice was too small, no turn too ideology-affirming or apparently nefarious, for a bipartisan coalition of commentators and elected officials to see value in its dissection.
“I have, like, pages and pages of notes,” Ben Shapiro, the popular conservative commentator, said in a lengthy video review, which began with him setting a doll aflame and did not grow more charitable. (He said his producers “dragged” him to the theater.)
“Here are 4 ways Barbie embraces California values,” the office of Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, wrote in a thread hailing Barbie as a champion of climate activism, “hitting the roads in her electric vehicle,” and of destigmatizing mental health care.
If there was a time in the culture when a giant summer film event was something of an American unifier — a moment to share over-buttered popcorn through big-budget shoot-’em-ups and sagas of insatiable sharks — that time is not 2023.
And, as ever, the political class’s performative investment in “Barbie” — the outrage and the embrace — can seem mostly like a winking bit.
What does it mean, exactly, when Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, says of himself, “This Ken is pushing to end maternal mortality”?
Certainly, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has summoned practiced gravity in accusing “Barbie” of working to appease the Chinese. (Some Republicans have fixated on a scene that features a crudely drawn map that supposedly depicts the so-called nine-dash line, which indicates Chinese ownership of oceanic territory that is disputed under international law. Vietnam has banned showings of the movie in the country over that image.)
“Obviously, the little girls that are going to see Barbie, none of them are going to have any idea what those dashes mean,” Mr. Cruz told Fox News. “This is really designed for the eyes of the Chinese censors, and they’re trying to kiss up to the Chinese Communist Party because they want to make money selling the movie.”
The response on the right is not a one-off. For a generation of conservative personalities, weaned on Andrew Breitbart’s much-cited observation that “politics is downstream of culture,” Hollywood and other ostensibly liberal bastions are to be confronted head-on, lest their leanings ensnare young voters without a fight.
Recent years have provided ample evidence, some on the right say, for a “go woke, go broke” view that progressivism is bad business. Last year’s apolitically patriotic “Top Gun: Maverick” was a smashing success, as was this year’s kid-friendly “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” By contrast, critics on the right contended that Disney’s remake of “The Little Mermaid,” with its title character portrayed by the Black actress Halle Bailey, failed to match its producers’ hopes. (Of course, there is no way to trace exactly what determines any movie’s success or failure, and many observers adhere to the screenwriter William Goldman’s axiom: “Nobody knows anything.”)
“Barbie” cannot be said to have gone broke. But its purported politics, conservatives have argued, did damage it by making it less entertaining — “a lecture,” in the words of The Federalist’s Rich Cromwell, “that self-identifies as a movie.”
Kyle Smith, a reviewer at The Wall Street Journal, complained that the film “contains more swipes at ‘the patriarchy’ than a year’s worth of Ms. magazine.”
The film seems at times (gentle spoiler alert) to be engaging with “the patriarchy” ironically, infusing it with knowing Southern California vapidity, décor that seems inspired by hair metal and a heavy emphasis on weight lifting and “brewskis.”
When it comes time (less gentle spoiler alert) to reclaim Barbie Land, the Barbies distract the Kens by indulging their tendency for exaggerated gestures of malehood like playing acoustic guitar and insisting on showing a date “The Godfather” while talking over it.
Mr. Shapiro has sounded unconvinced that the movie is broadly in on its own jokes.
“The actual argument the movie is making is that if women enjoy men, it’s because they have been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” he said in his review.
He called the film, with a straight face, two hours he will rue wasting as he sits on his deathbed.
“The things I do,” he said, “for my audience.”
Anjali Huynh contributed reporting.