Sorry, Ben Shapiro, but ‘Barbie’ isn’t woke

Complexity and infuriating contradictions within the female experience are at the center of ‘Barbie.’ And that’s not 'woke'—it’s just reality.  

The ‘Barbie’ movie is a smash hit, raking in $155 million in North America on its first weekend and making it the top movie of 2023. But with great popularity comes great discourse. The most notable hater of ‘Barbie’ must be conservative podcaster and Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro. 

In his review, Shapiro dubbed director Greta Gerwig’s latest “one of the most woke movies I have ever seen” and “a flaming garbage heap of a film.” Fair minds can disagree on whether a movie is trash or treasure, but ‘Barbie’ isn’t very woke. In fact, it supports at least some of what Ben Shapiro has advocated for in organizing male and female relationships. 

Let’s admit the obvious. Any mainstream film coming from Hollywood today, and especially director Greta Gerwig, will most certainly prioritize a leftward perspective on gender politics. But not all left-leaning views on sex and gender are synonymous with wokeness. 

The core conservative critique of “woke” messaging is that it’s an ideology out of touch with basic reality. In the case of sex and gender, it actively attacks the binary nature of human biology and conflates men and women, despite their innate differences and needs. It’s why transgenderism and gender fluidity have emerged as the most explosive topics of our time, pitting many traditionally staunch feminists against the younger cultural left of 2023. 

The casting directors do engage in one conflation by casting a transgender person, Hari Nef, in the role of Doctor Barbie, but more importantly, they do so without dialogue alluding to this fact. Casting trans individuals and making nothing of it is entirely different than making it known in the story and subjecting the audience to contrived dialogue suggesting that any Barbie could have a penis or that any Ken could get pregnant. 

No, ‘Barbie’ doesn’t sincerely entertain fourth-wave feminism and its signature value of shattering the gender binary. Instead, the movie plays squarely within a classic “battle of the sexes” narrative which correctly suggests that society has historically been ordered around the preferences of men, that it could also be ordered to match the instincts of women, and that neither of these arrangements is ideal. 

Shapiro must know this. Just last week on his podcast, Shapiro riffed rather eloquently in an episode titled ‘Why Are Men In Crisis’ about the alienation of American men in the post-feminist movement world. He begins literally with the words, “Well for a long time, the media have treated American men as sort of an afterthought,” leading me to wonder if Shapiro was asleep during the resolution of ‘Barbie’ when Ken and Barbie begin to reconcile, as Barbie tearfully apologizes to Ken for taking him for granted and treating him like the accessory he was invented by Mattel to be. “Not every night had to be girls’ night,” Barbie says to Ken.

The ‘Barbie’ movie progresses through several social orders beginning with matriarchy at the start, then switches to patriarchy in the second act, and ends with sex-based warfare that leads Ken to profess he just wanted Barbie’s Dreamhouse to be “their house,” together. 

Without the will to shape themselves into something worthy of women’s affection, men are just as content to live in barbarity, as we see when the Kens take over Barbieland. Every house is a frat house, and looking “cool” in the eyes of their male peers becomes just as alluring as home-building with Barbie. Shapiro in his podcast demonstrates a sharp understanding of why young men have flocked to new-age pimps like Andrew Tate but misses that Ryan Gosling’s Ken donning a ridiculous headband and fur coat to perform for his male peer’s approval is expressing a similar understanding of what can motivate men. 

At one point, Barbie tells Ken to take off the coat. “No, you look so cool!” whispers a different Ken, but at this moment he wants to get right with her, so Ken inches toward being civilized and ditches the fur.

Men and women were made for one another, that’s the normative rule. (Which doesn’t eliminate the possibility of exceptions.) When men lose hope of a future with women, then a ‘Lord of the Flies’ environment will ensue, as both conservatives and certain feminists understand. 

Shapiro makes a case for restoring respect and partnership between men and women that can be traced back to Genesis and Eve’s given purpose for Adam. Contrary to secular claims that it’s a Biblical pretext for subjugation, properly understood in Hebrew she is made for Adam as an “eber k’enegdo” or “helper against him.” Think yin-yang, two halves of the same whole which balance and fill in each other’s blanks. Shapiro takes issue with our modern culture, which devalues men’s need to be useful, because in the real world when they aren’t building things, they tend toward destruction. 

Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ almost perfectly reflects Shapiro’s concerns but starts from a feminine point of view, because, obviously, this is the ‘Barbie’ movie. 

And that’s the point. So much of what transpires in ‘Barbie’ feels refreshingly old-school for a world caught up in the ‘What Is A Woman’ moment, where gender ideology has obscured that Barbie and Ken do in fact exist, and that womanhood is not a “mental state,” but a fact. 

Any conservative can find some content to object to in the film. The opening sequence of smashing baby dolls is bleak and symbolic of feminism’s hostility to nurturing children, and the comedic sidelining of Pregnant Barbie (Midge) felt like an attempt to promote the norm of motherhood against the wishes of Mattel, but ended up just reinforcing their devaluation of mothers in the Barbie-world. 

Barbie eventually leaves to live in the real world, and in the ultimate feminist head fake where audiences think she’s about to go in for a job interview, Barbie ends the movie by meeting her gynecologist. It turns out there is more to being a woman than a career, no matter what year it is. 

Complexity and infuriating contradictions within the female experience are at the center of ‘Barbie.’ And that’s not “woke”—it’s just reality.  

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Stephen Kent
Stephen Kent
Stephen Kent is an entertainment contributor to the Washington Examiner, author of How The Force Can Fix the World, and editor of This Is The Way.