Hollywood is Proving Barbie’s Point

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

Jo Koy made a lot of bad jokes at the Golden Globes. His dig at Taylor Swift got the most attention and I’m glad TayTay iced him for it. But that one paled in comparison to his take on Barbie. “Oppenheimer is based on a 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Manhattan Project, and Barbie is on a plastic doll with big boobies,” he announced.

“Who cares?” you say. “It’s just a stupid awards show, arguably the stupidest awards show.”

“Nobody takes Hollywood people seriously anyway,” you say. “They should learn to take a joke.”

“Well, Barbie is a doll with big boobies,” you say, clearly having missed the entire point of the movie or, more likely, not having bothered to see it. “Why are you overreacting?”

Ever since the Globes aired on Sunday night, I’ve been thinking about writer/director Greta Gerwig’s reaction to Jo Koy’s idiotic “joke” about her masterpiece of a film. Her expression in that moment haunts me. I don’t even know what to call it–disappointment? resignation? disgust? recognition? Whatever it was, we’ve all felt it. It’s that moment in the meeting when a man makes the observation you made five minutes ago to crickets, but he gets lauded. It’s that feeling when your boss tells you it was such a hard decision, but ultimately your male coworker got the promotion. For me, it was the time in sixth grade when my beloved teacher pulled me and Martin aside and explained that we were the smartest in the class but only one of us could be awarded the prize dictionary at elementary school graduation, and that even though my grades were higher it should go to the boy. Greta Gerwig’s face, her tight little smile, the smile that’s expected of women in that moment of unfairness…that was my smile while my 12-year-old heart broke.

And let’s be clear, it wasn’t only Jo Koy’s jokes at work for the patriarchy during the Golden Globes. It was the Globes itself as the night wore on, handing out awards to the very Manly and Important and utterly expected winner, Oppenheimer. No shade to Oppenheimer or Christopher Nolan, it was a good biopic and he’s a great director. We all knew from the minute that film was announced that it was going to be an awards contender, didn’t we? That’s how Hollywood works for Great Men. But it doesn’t work that way for women. As the Golden Globes were handed out, producer Margot Robbie’s expression began to mirror Greta Gerwig’s. I could feel it on my own face as well: Here we go again.

Barbie smashed all expectations, made a boatload of money, reinvigorated the theater-going experience and brought joy to the movies in 2023. People dressed up! They went back multiple times! And along the way learned about how sexism is bad on multiple levels, from the historical to the capitalistic to the internal to the societal. It brought the concept of patriarchy to a mainstream audience that doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time reading think pieces online, and demonstrated how said patriarchy hurts not only women but also men. And did so while making us laugh and sing along! While looking great and throwing in homages to movies as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Singing in the Rain. The writing was sharp, the directing inspired, and Robbie’s acting a master class in tightrope-walking between the ridiculous and the heartrending.

And what did Hollywood do in response? Six months later, Hollywood patted Barbie on her head with a consolation award made up just for this year’s show (“Best Spectacle” or something like that), handed all the real awards to the Important, Manly film about a weapon, and announced from the stage that Barbie was a movie about “big boobies.”

And you could see it right there on Greta Gerwig’s face, on Margot Robbie’s face, what was happening. We’re all watching in real time as those amazing women filmmakers–and all the women and girls who felt empowered by the success of Barbie–are pushed back into our place. Cut down to size. It’s the perfect real world example of this:

So I’d like to offer a little edit to the Golden Globes’ despicable monologue, an experiment if you will. Why not think of a world in which Jo Koy’s reductive, misogynistic joke were structured the other way around?

Barbie is based on an iconic symbol of women’s freedom to blaze career paths beyond the traditional wife and mother roles prescribed by a patriarchal society, and Oppenheimer is about some nerd who likes things that go boom.

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