Barbie: Satire as Critique and/or Praxis

Fig.1 Gerwig 2023 – movie still

I finally got around to watching Barbie (Gerwig 2023) last week (Fig. 1). The movie’s satirical payload occurs when Ken encounters patriarchy for the first time. Ken, previously sidelined, emasculated, rebuffed, and redundant in an intercourse-free matriarchal mirror world, collides with a 21st century LA in which men are powerful. Ryan Gosling is pitch perfect and the moment is deliciously funny.

Gerwig pulls off two feats here. First she renders invisible privilege visible. A female assistant is waved away so peremptorily that the dismissal reads as brutal. A woman asking Ken for the time becomes, through his eyes, an act of stunning deference. Second, as well as making concrete manifestations of the patriarchy visually arresting, Gerwig succeeds in making male power look sublimely ridiculous, partly by foregrounding its frequent banality, partly by playing into exaggerated stereotypes, partly by having Ken commit gross misunderstandings of patriarchal symbolism, and finally by camping up those aspects of masculinity most readily construable as homoerotic. The epitome of Ken’s patriarchal imaginary is the figure of a buff, depilated, bare-chested Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone, bedecked with jewelry, cloaked in fur, astride a rippling, muscular stallion.

My interest here is in the potential for humor in general, and satire, mockery and ridicule in particular, as emancipatory technique. 

Does Gerwig’s film contribute to the project of resisting and revolting against the patriarchy or merely poke fun at it? Worse, might the affect of humor diffuse righteous female anger or risk normalizing unjust gender dynamics through a comedically cathartic and hence defanging representation of them? 

There are two audiences for this film: the oppressor, who is mocked, and the oppressed, who enact or enjoy the ridicule. I think savage humor has a useful part to play with both audiences.

One model of laughter is that of relief, characterized by Freud as a “cathartic release of energy” (Nielsen 2019, 34). This is where the perceived risk of diffusion lies: anger or other useful negative emotions are catalyzed by comic technique into laughter, which provides the subject with relief from what might otherwise be unrelenting earnestness or embitterment. To which it’s hard not to say: so what? I can’t see any issue with psychic release valves. The relief is temporary, helping the subject stay sane, frankly, and does not preclude anger or other emotional stances towards the object of ridicule either now or in the future.

What’s the effect on the object of ridicule? Mockery can be extremely effective in turning the tables on e.g. some pompous white guy talking over or down to a woman in the room. According to one dichotomy, the wronged party here can either calmly articulate what’s harmful about the man’s behavior or become upset at it. Neither has much impact on the aggressor. Unemotional responses are absorbed into a discourse of objective male rationality and rebutted. Emotionally inflected responses are dismissed as irrational, hysterical. Laughter ruptures the rational/irrational binary, being neither rational nor emotional and hence not open to a charge of counter-rationality. Laughter is something else.

Moreover, mocking laughter belittles, shames, threatens, degrades, silences, marginalizes its object. In other words, it manages, in a heartbeat, to project exactly the qualities of the oppressed onto the oppressor. Better still, it is very difficult to absorb, appropriate or neutralize critique that takes the form of savage laughter. The butt of the joke can acknowledge the joke and laugh along self-deprecatingly, perhaps affecting some shade of irony. But to laugh with the mocker is still to side with them, to side with their values, norms, position.

Nielsen argues that in so far as satire and irony involve the juxtaposition of incongruous elements, the humor generated is able to stimulate critical thinking and can therefore be treated as a form of immanent critique. 

In this sense, incongruity-humor can be emancipatory because questioning the meaning of norms and normative language is a part of questioning the very system and structure of power that creates repression and injustice.

(Nielsen 2019, 44)

In response, I can’t help but feel that the idea of satire leading to enlightened self-reflection on the part of the oppressor is somewhat optimistic. Sure, it might be what the satirist desires, but there are whole worlds of wishful thinking out there.

I think it’s helpful instead (as well) to use non-ratiocinative concepts as yardsticks of enlightened thinking/feeling, of emancipatory success. I want to use words like echoes and shadows, infection and contamination, specters, halos and hauntings. If Barbie is successful at undermining the patriarchy or encouraging men to confront toxic masculinities, it’s because moments from the movie cast a shadow of stupidity on everyday activities and concrete objects that had been cloaked in the invisibility of the ordinary: fist bumps, gym rats, fancy watches, priapic pickup trucks, horses, police uniforms, business cosplay, bank notes, mini-fridges….It’s not that this stuff isn’t obvious if you think critically about it, it’s rather that there exists, I think, I hope, the possibility of a deeper, longer-lasting contamination by dirty affective residues which continue to resonate long after the initial confrontation.

Two more examples below, both by Daren Cullen, an artist committed to political satire in the wild.

Fig.2 Cullen 2020 – Thanking Our Heroic NHS Nurses
Fig. 3 Cullen 2023 – Apartheid Hummus

If these works are effective at changing anything, it’s not because they’re funny, caustic, and incongruous (which they are) nor because of the surprise of stumbling across them in the public realm (which is delightful) but because they lastingly contaminate experiences of shopping, infecting nectar points with the bathos of leftist timidity and defiling hummus with the genocidal consequences of zionist imperialism. 


Cullen, Darren, 2020. Thanking Our Heroic NHS Nurses. [Outdoor advertising].

Cullen, Darren, 2023. Anti-apartheid Supermarket Price Tags: Apartheid Hummus. [Retail intervention].

Eckman, Paul and Harriet Oster 1979: ‘Facial Expressions of Emotion’, in Annual Review of Psychology, 30 527-54.

Gerwig, Greta, 2023. Barbie, Warner Bros. Pictures

Nielsen, Anne-Sophie Sørup 2019. The Politics of Laughter; A Philosophical Analysis of the Critical and Emancipatory Potential of Political Satire. [Masters Thesis]. Freiburg, Germany: Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.

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