Barbie, hypocrisy, selling out and the end of culture

Robin McAlpine

Here’s my pitch to Pixar; “it’s a story about understanding and redemption and how we can all find we’ve got more in common than we realised. Our hero is a cute little anthropomorphic nuclear bomb. One day he is told in class his purpose in life and he frets about whether it is a good thing or not.

“So he goes on a journey in which he tries killing people and not killing people to see which brings him more happiness. In the end there will be some plot contrivance I haven’t worked out yet which means he has to kill a lot of people – but for a good reason. Everyone is friends at the end and we realise that people who want to kill other people and people who don’t can actually learn to get along and be happy together. The end.”

Mostly when I write analysis and opinion I try to be useful rather than write about what I’m interested in. If I was writing what I enjoy I’d be writing a lot more on cultural studies, the field of working out how the ‘soft rules’ of society are changing and what it means. But since it’s a quiet week, and in particular because the fucking Barbie Movie is now ubiquitous, I’ll indulge myself.

(Just to save me some typing, could you just insert your own swearword in front of the word ‘Barbie’ from now on.)

I want to make three arguments which result from the existence of this film (which I haven’t seen – this is not a critique of its contents but of its existence and the reaction to it). The first is that we live in a society where ‘irony’ is now a euphemism for hypocrisy. The second is that society desperately needs to recover the concept of ‘sell-out’. The third is that we are perilously close to the death of culture altogether.

So let’s compare my ‘happy nukes’ pitch with the Barbie pitch. I believe that nuclear bombs are inherently bad. The problem isn’t their marketing but their existence. I believe the same about Barbie. You can create all the ‘special editions’ you want, Barbie is not a podgy black woman any more than KitKats are minty. Absolutely everyone knows what Barbie means and it doesn’t mean ’empowerment’. 

It is a gross distortion of what it means to be a woman and it will remain that so long as it exists. Why do I say that? Because it’s got a baby name. Barbie is not and never has been the name of an adult. To stop being toxic it needs to no longer be Barbie and no longer be called Barbie.

There is no scale of knowingness about the dark side of Barbie which can be put into a marketing campaign (that’s what the film is) which makes it no longer dark. The trick by which this is resolved is through the time-honoured methodology of being a hypocrite. The same people who wrote articles about how Roal Dahl must be detested because of his use of stereotypes about women are fine with Margo Robbie representing ‘womanhood’.

This hypocrisy is resolved in part through theory. You must have noticed this; critical and cultural theory from the last decade has turned into an obtuse process of deciding what you like in advance and then creating a theory to justify it. I watched this phenomena develop around superhero movies which ‘culture critics’ spent a long, long time trying to make really significant. (‘A black superhero? Move over Citizen Kane, this is the most important film of all time.’)

I’m watching it with great amusement again now. All over the place theorists who wanted things they didn’t like banned because they perceived them to be ‘problematic’ are finding complex ways to avoid noting how problematic this whole thing is (or noting it, and finding some way to then forget it again). 

Mostly they say ‘irony’, but that means expressing one concept by implying the opposite but drawing attention to the contradiction; simply disregarding a bad thing and pretending that it is actually a good thing is not irony but hypocrisy. Celebrating the Barbie Movie is not ironic, it is hypocritical. 

This hypocrisy will have consequences – you think young girls seeing this film are not going to absorb the idea that Margo Robbie is the real Barbie? You think this Halloween we’re going to be inundated with ‘disabled Barbies’ or ‘abused Barbies’, two other characters in the film? You think they’ll be dressed up as Barbie ironically? Hypocrisy has consequences.

It is even more painful that Greta Gertwig is the director, a genuinely pioneering woman in cinema. In the past this would have been considered one of the great sell-outs of all time, but the concept no longer exists. I mean literally no-one in popular culture any longer identifies with the idea of ‘selling out’.

This was utterly crucial to my generation. Sure it was false – Nirvana signed to a major label and the music didn’t get worse. But the concept of ‘selling out’ was important, because it helped to identify the difference between ‘art’ and ‘product’. An artist will, from choice, make art whether it is lucrative or not. Someone developing a product will not design something amazing if it won’t make them money.

Product can become art, art can become product. I’m not suggesting for a second that music or film snobbery is the solution to a declining culture. But it is one of the solutions. There is an important culture function in understanding the difference between art and commerce and it is being destroyed.

Everyone is on a hustle now. The indy music charts are sprinkled with ‘bands’ and artist who are making music as a means of ‘diversifying their portfolio’ away from streaming themselves playing computer games on Twitch or who tried two other methods of becoming a celebrity first and only tried music when those failed.

I’ve listened to their music. In fact I own albums by both of the bands/artists I’m referencing here, and they’re fine. They’re pleasant filler, couple of decent tunes, good production. I don’t hate them, but this kind of ‘content’ is basically all there is. 

I write music as a hobby and so read quite a lot about what is happening in music. What is happening is that streaming platforms have come to dominate and the algorithms all prioritise product over art. People use the algorithmic data to design the songs they write. Literally – I’ve read countless articles on ‘if you want your song to be successful you need to do these things’. Among them is ‘don’t have a bridge from verse to chorus because people on Spotify are impatient and skip to another song’.

We always had big commerce in music and it produced some of our greatest works – from Beethoven to Motown to Phil Spector to Madonna, music made to make money is some of the great music of our time. 

And yet Beethoven embraced commerce to escape the patronage of aristocrats which enabled him to write the music he did, Motown was great because of the underground black music scene of the pre-war years which it pilfered, Phil Spector was great because he hired actual artists who’d paid their dues to write songs and Madonna has cannibalised ever subgenre of music every to come out of the underground.

And now there is no underground. Everything is a sell-out so nothing is a sell-out. ‘Influencer’ and ‘artist’ have merged, and it is having an effect on wider society. If a musician can’t ‘sell out’, can a politician? Starmer thinks not. It’s all a product.

That, sadly, is my final fear. I cannot see how anything good can come of this. Sticking with music for a second (which I know best), I am far from being one of those people who only thinks music of the era when I was young is actually good music. I buy perhaps ten or 15 contemporary albums every couple of months and listen to them carefully.

There is some wonderful music being made. There was some crap music being made in the 1990s. But there is something below ‘good and bad’ which also tells you about the health of culture, and that is evidence of experimentation and risk-taking.

The 1970s was a phenomenally innovative decade, producing new genres from singer-songwriter to punk, disco to heavy metal. In the 1980s we saw the breakthrough of rap and electronica, as well as post-punk and what we loosely call ‘indy’. The 1990s brought massive difersification in electronica, EDM, grunge, pop punk and trip hop.

Since then? There were big developments include the subgenre of rap known as Trap and the emergence of the vibrant UK Drill scene, but these are rare exceptions. The last 25 years have been dominated by nostalgia and ‘retro’. Perhaps all the good ideas have been taken. Or perhaps the algorithms favour the lucrative safety of nostalgia and retro. And it’s the latter.

Again, this was always the case (Stock, Aitken and Waterman, 1990s ‘landfill indy’). But there is now almost no way to break an alternative. Only Spotify can give you momentum. And for music, also read cinema, a discipline which basically now only makes reboots, brand tie-ins, franchises and remakes. Every day there is a new analysis piece on whether Holywood is finally dead.

I’ll probably watch the Barbie Movie. I’ll keep listening to music I know was made for money. I spend plenty time with the streaming services which are killing Holywood. I remain determined not to sell out, but I am also determined not to be a hypocrite. I just like things that are good, and I’m not going to avoid something good because I don’t like its business model.

But we’re in a perilous state now. The far reaches of the dystopian imagination used to create a world not unlike the one we’re moving into, where you can have all the non-conformity you want so long as you pay for it. And of course the only thing you can pay for is conformist by nature.

No, I’m definitely not celebrating the Barbie Movie. My hero of the week is the late Sinead O’Connor (who died this week), a woman accidentally famous from signing one of the most amazing songs of the last 40 years who deliberately sabotaged her commercial career so she was free to make creative, imaginative music.

Our society will not be saved by Barbie but by Sinead O’Connor – or it won’t be saved at all. Arts is only the tip of the culture iceberg. Where the arts take us, so our ethical standards, social mores and hopes and expectations go with it. This is about the fabric of what we actually believe our society is – a diverse community or a curated list of commercial opportunities.

Culture matters – and our era of hypocritical sell-out is converting culture from being the exciting and unpredictable force that changes things into an oppressive and repetitive force which keeps everything the same. Forever.

5 thoughts on “Barbie, hypocrisy, selling out and the end of culture”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    Excellent! We do not spend enough time on ‘cultural’ studies. Indeed, I did not spend much time myself until my daughter enrolled in a masters course at the University of London about 15 years ago. It certainly was an eye-opener to me when she began discussing what she was doing with me.

    We must learn to learn from our children and grandchildren.

    From the opening section of your piece I had assumed that you were going to discuss the linking of Barbie and Oppenheimer which some of the ‘influencers’ in the media have been trying to do. The latter really is about the production of nuclear weapons. My first degree was in physics so the topic and especially the politics and the cultural effect it had has always interested me.

    The science curriculum I was taught in school between 1960 and 1966 was a new one which had been developed as a result of the fear of the Soviet Union having been able to produce an atomic bomb. It was marketed as part of the mendacious ‘Atoms for Peace’ propaganda of the Eisenhower administration.

    I have two contrasting feelings as I look back. The first is anger at the duplicity and the fear these weapons have unleashed on billions. The second is that it was a superb science curriculum, far better than what had preceded it. It was based on sound psychological and pedagogical principles and was supported by a wealth of excellently produced resources. Millions of people benefitted from it.

    Life ain’t simple!

    Thanks again for the intellectual challenge.

  2. Joseph Farrell

    I have not read your article, nor have I seen the film Barbie, so I take it this fact entitles me to comment on both. Is that so, Robin? Come on! I admire your clarity of thought and depth of knowledge most weeks, and I suppose everyone is entitled to an off day, but I do not expect your off day to see you behaving like a Daily Mail editorialist! I have read only the first lines of your piece, but I have already reached a dogmatic view on it. BTW, I have not the slightest intention of actually going to see the film, which holds no interest for me.
    I will instead comment on Oppenheimer, which I have seen. This is a deeply serious film which would disprove any facile notion of ‘death of culture’. Here irony is not synonymous with sell-out. This is a deeply serious, committed movie on one of the great issues of our time as seen through the conscience and consciousness of a man singularly capable to seeing the irony of his own position. It is worth your time going to see it, honestly! And then I look forward to reading your judgement of it.

  3. florian albert

    ‘Our society will not be saved by Barbie but by Sinead O’Connor’

    I must confess that I am one of those who never anticipated that our society would be saved by Barbie.
    I am equally dismissive of the suggestion that it might be saved by Sinead O’Connor.
    This damaged and chronically troubled woman has died at a young age. For all her talent, fame and fortune, would any
    sensible person wish the life she lived – endured might be a better verb – on a sister, a daughter or a friend ?

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