“I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”
Both of this year’s summer blockbusters – Oppenheimer and Barbie – have prompted much commentary and analysis. I have already done an assessment of Oppenheimer, a movie that raises issues of strategy and morality, as well as historical accuracy. Now I turn my hand to Barbie, though I have no obvious expertise in this area. Nor are there any issues of historical accuracy as it is all pure fantasy. Yet all accounts of relationships between characters resembling humans raise issues of power and strategy, and Barbie is no exception. After all, to want to be part of “the people making meaning” could be a strategist’s creed. So, by popular demand and against my better judgement, here is my strategic analysis of Barbie.
Spoiler alert: this may make little sense even if you have watched the movie but will make none at all if you have not, and may contain sufficient information to spoil it if you intend to.
The most interesting aspect of Barbie to a strategic analyst is the revolution of the Kens, in which they install a patriarchy in Barbieland, and the subsequent successful counter-revolution which leads to the restoration of the matriarchy.
The story picks up on important themes in contemporary strategic literature, such as the emphasis on narrative and the value of an ideological hegemony as opposed to brute force in sustaining a durable political system. Barbieland, as depicted in the movie, is sharply bifurcated between the female Barbies and the male Kens. The females enjoy constitutional control, in charge of both the presidency and the judiciary. It can, however, be noted that this is largely role-playing as in the absence of any social, economic and political change, these roles do not actually require decision-making and the exercise of power. They are there to show that a matriarchy is possible rather than demonstrate one in action.
Barbieland represents a stable system in which the Barbies spend their time with each other, in harmony and prosperity. As they also have immortality, they do not need the Kens for reproduction. The Kens are confined to recreational activities even while occasionally yearning for female company.
[See also: Barbie can’t handle the truth]
The threat to this order is an external one. It turns out that individual Barbies can be affected, albeit only rarely, by the actions of their human owners. This becomes apparent when one of their number – Stereotypical Barbie – starts to show signs of ageing (cellulite) and has thoughts of death. To remedy this situation she is advised to leave Barbieland and find her original owner who must help restore her to her natural state.
In the real world, she is unexpectedly joined by her admirer, Beach Ken, who stows away in Stereotypical Barbie’s car. She finds her former owner, Sasha, but there is confusion because Sasha has rejected Barbie because of her unrealistic femininity. It is her mother, Gloria, who has played with the doll in ways that reflect her own anxieties. She does this while working in the heart of the Mattel empire, where Barbies are created.
Beach Ken makes his own discovery. He finds himself in a society in which men dominate and women are subordinate – even at Mattel. He is taken with the idea of patriarchy and steals books on the topic before returning to Barbieland. Meanwhile, Stereotypical Barbie is escaping from Mattel which – literally – wants to put her back in her box. By the time she returns to Barbieland, with Sasha and Gloria in tow, Beach Ken has successfully persuaded his fellow Kens to take control of Barbieland.
This appears to have been achieved without any strategy. The Barbie matriarchs have been convinced that life would be better in a subordinate position, and they become maids and housewives. One hegemony has been replaced by another. This is a simple role reversal. The society remains bifurcated because the Barbies and Kens still do not need each other for reproductive purposes. Only now the Kens have the best houses and enjoy partying; we are left to assume that this was a form of brainwashing. Brainwashing is a demanding process, especially with non-compliant subjects.
There is another oddity in the revolution of the Kens – they seek constitutional legitimacy through a vote on the new political order. As this has not yet taken place when Stereotypical Barbie returns, it provides an opportunity for resistance and counter-revolution. If Beach Ken had been sufficiently ruthless he would have eschewed any attempt at a constitutional transfer of power and imposed the new order by fiat. He has also failed to secure the patriarchy by rooting out potential dissident elements among the Barbies. He lacks secret police or even a network of informers among the indoctrinated Barbies. These methods are hardly Bolshevik. He is no Ken-in.
There is a small cadre of outliers who have kept their distance from the old order but are unhappy with the new, and have managed to avoid the brainwashing. One key figure is Weird Barbie, a product of earlier human interference who is able to explain to Stereotypical Barbie her predicament, and Allan, Ken’s friend who was never mass produced, and other discontinued lines. They meet up with Stereotypical Barbie’s group returning from the real world and together develop a strategy for reversing the revolution.
They must distract the Kens to kidnap the brainwashed Barbies and take them to a safe place. There they can be de-programmed and returned to their natural state. Freed, they are able to foment divisions among Kens, leading to a fight on the beach (probably not the kind Churchill had in mind). While that is under way the matriarchy is restored.
Here we can find some important strategic lessons (a number of which can be found in my 2013 book Strategy: A History – especially chapter one). First, the importance of coalitions. The counter-revolution depended on the alignment of the outliers, who knew what was going on, with Stereotypical Barbie’s group (which devised the strategy). Meanwhile the lack of unity among the Kens assured their defeat.
Second, indirect rather than direct means. Barbieland is not a violent place. Only in the real world do we see physical force actually being attempted. Even the civil war among the Kens is a lacklustre affair. Beach Ken leads a group on paddle ships while the rival Ken is carried into battle on the shoulders of his group who are riding stick horses. It turns out that the Kens do not understand the warrior role very well, and neither faction has a clear battle plan, leading to confused skirmishing.
Eventually the battle dissolves into a dance routine. While this is not a known conflict resolution technique employed by international organisations, given the success rate of their regular approaches it might be worth a try.
We are given no evidence that Kens are physically stronger than Barbies. But the Barbies demonstrate the potential of deception and misdirection. As Sun Tzu puts it, “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”.
Three, empathy. Put simply the Barbies are able to get away with their deception because they understand the Kens better than the Kens understand the Barbies. Much of the distraction depends on the Barbies pretending not to know things to allow the Kens to explain it to them at length.
Fourth, ideological commitment. Beach Ken does not really understand the patriarchy he is seeking to implement. He believes that it has something to do with horses and loses interest when he realises it does not. The Barbies understand the matriarchy because they have lived it before. More importantly, Gloria gives them a stirring speech of the sort expected by generals before battles (such as Henry V and Agincourt), explaining why it is important to win and to get over the idea that they must always be subordinate.
Fifth, legitimacy. Once the presidency and supreme court are restored in their old form, it is very simple to squash the rebellion. It may be the first time that they actually exercise power to affect change.
Sixth, strategic choices still have consequences. Stereotypical Barbie wishes now to return to the real world, which means reproduction (as the movie’s final line makes clear). In Barbieland there is some recognition that to avoid further rebellions more must be done to win over the hearts and minds (if not much else) of the Kens.
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece first appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.
[See also: We must resist the hype machine]