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Barbie: A Strategic Analysis
‘I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.’
The two blockbuster movies of this summer – Oppenheimer and Barbie - have both led to much commentary and analysis. I have already done an assessment of Oppenheimer, a movie which raises issues of strategy and morality, as well as historical accuracy. In response I have been encouraged by a number of readers to turn my hand to Barbie, although 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 for you if you intend to.
The aspect of Barbie most interesting to a strategic analyst is the revolution of the Kens, in which they install a patriarchy in Barbie Land, 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 with the emphasis on narrative and the value of an ideological hegemony as opposed to brute force in sustaining a durable political system. Barbie Land, 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.
Barbie Land 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 reproductive activity. The Kens are confined to recreational activities even while occasionally yearning for female company.
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 the immortality of one of their number – Stereotypical Barbie (hereafter SB) - starts to show signs of aging (cellulite) and has thoughts of death. To remedy this situation she is advised to leave Barbie Land and find her original owner who must help restore her to her natural state.
She leaves for the real world, unexpectedly joined by her admirer Beach Ken (BK) who stows away in her car. She is successful in finding her former owner, Sasha. But this leads to confusion as Sasha has rejected Barbie because of her unrealistic femininity. It is her mother, Gloria, who has played with the doll in ways that reflects her own anxieties. The affect this has is explained by the fact that Gloria does this while playing in the heart of the Mattel Empire, where Barbies are created.
Meanwhile KB makes his own discovery. He finds himself in a society in which men dominate and women are subordinate – even in Mattel. Taken with the idea of a patriarchy he steals books on the topic and returns to Barbie Land while SB is escaping from Mattel who – literally – wish to put her back into her box. By the time she returns to Barbie Land, with Sasha and Gloria in in tow, Beach Ken has successfully pursued his fellow Kens to turn Barbie Land into a patriarchy.
It has to be said that this appears to have been achieved without any evident strategy. The matriarchs have been convinced that life can be better in a subordinate position, and they appear as maids and housewives. One hegemony has been replaced by another. This becomes a simple role reversal. The society remains bifurcated in that 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 brain-washing. Brainwashing is a demanding process, especially with non-compliant subjects (for example POWs captured by the communists during the Korean War but this took time).
There is another oddity in the revolution of the Kens in that they seek constitutional legitimacy through a vote on the new political order. As this has not yet taken place by the time that SB returns it provides an opportunity for resistance and a counter-revolution. If BK had been sufficiently ruthless he would have eschewed any attempt at a constitutional transfer of power and imposed the new order by fiat. Equally he has 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.
Thus there is a small cadre of outliers who had 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 SB her predicament, and Allan, Ken’s friend who was never mass produced, and other discontinued lines. They meet up with SB’s group returning from the real world and together develop a strategy for reversing the counter-revolution.
This requires first distracting 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 underway the matriarchy is restored.
Here we can find some important strategic lessons (a number of which can be found in my 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 SB’s group (who devised the strategy). Meanwhile the lack of unity amongst the Kens assured their defeat.
Second, indirect rather than direct means. Barbie Land 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. KB 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 have a clear battle plan, leading to confused skirmishing. Eventually the battle dissolves into a dance routine. While this is not a known technique employed by international organizations in the pursuit of conflct resolution, given the success rate of their normal techniques it might be worth a try.
We are given no evidence that Kens are even 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 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 they really do know to allow the Kens to explain it to them at length.
Fourth, ideological commitment. 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 (cf Henry V and Agincourt), explaining why it is important to win and 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. SB wishes now to return to the real world, which means reproduction (as the movie’s final line makes clear). In Barbie Land 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.
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