Is The Critique of Consumerism Dead?

Today’s left seems less inclined to critique advertising, consumerism, and pop culture. Should we be more skeptical?

The new Barbie movie is, of course, a giant infomercial. It is other things, too—a feminist satire, an homage to Gene Kelly musicals, a carnival of “wokeness” that seems to have been written specifically to irritate Ben Shapiro, etc. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, toy manufacturer Mattel is depending on the film to increase sales of Barbies. The company “needs moviegoers to pick up dolls and Dreamhouses to boost its fortunes” after a recent slump in profits. 

The Barbie marketing blitz has been intense. Mattel has launched tie-ins with over 100 other brands. In some deals “a brand pays Mattel a flat licensing fee, while others will give Mattel a five to fifteen percent cut of sales.”    

At the mall, there are Barbie and Ken T-shirts from the Gap and pink gingham Barbie cardigans at Hot Topic. Neiman Marcus will sell pink Barbie handbags from Balmain, and at Bloomingdale’s there will be life-size Barbie DreamHouse installations. Ulta Beauty has hot-pink Barbie electric toothbrushes. Target and Amazon have Barbie pool floats. Microsoft made a Barbie Xbox. 

This is just the beginning. There is the traveling World of Barbie exhibition, the special Barbie Crocs (currently sold out), and partnerships with General Motors, Progressive Insurance, and Google. The entire front window display at Bloomingdale’s in New York is a giant Barbie dreamhouse installation. More products are popping up every day. (“You, Too, Can Be ‘Kenough’ with a Sweatshirt Just Like Ryan Gosling’s in ‘Barbie’”)

It has been called the “marketing campaign of the year,” and has been estimated to cost $150 million, more than the film’s entire production budget. The president of Warner Brothers’ marketing department says that at a certain point, it “stopped becoming a marketing campaign and took on the quality of a movement.” The ubiquity of Barbie marketing inspired jokes every time something pink popped up in nature—the Barbie marketing team must be at it again. 

It all paid off spectacularly for Mattel. The company’s stock prices are up 20 percent. The movie “had the biggest domestic opening of any movie released this year” and “generated more than $356.3 million in worldwide box-office sales in its opening weekend.” Mattel, the Journal tells us, saw the success rival toymakers Hasbro and Lego had with film franchises, and “now has 14 other live-action movies in the works, including one about Hot Wheels, the game card Uno and the purple dinosaur Barney.” Lena Dunham is set to direct a “Polly Pocket” movie for Mattel. It now “sees the growth opportunity in these franchise deals as ‘exponential.’”

But perhaps the most surprising thing about all of this is that the Barbie movie itself has received rave reviews. The critical consensus is that it’s “hysterically funny, perfectly cast, and affectionately crafted,” a “thoughtfully self-aware, laugh-out-loud comedy that benefits from a flawless Margot Robbie and a scene-stealing Ryan Gosling.” They’re not wrong. I saw the movie the day after it opened (I am drawn to hot pink like a moth to a lantern). It truly has something for everyone. (Except Shapiro.) For example, I happen to be a huge fan of the 1940s British movies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and as director Greta Gerwig has explained, she includes explicit visual tributes to those movies in Barbie

The choice of Gerwig was a masterstroke by Mattel, and something of a risk. She’s an auteur filmmaker who is too thoughtful and creative to make a predictable Barbie movie. Barbie is a Movie of Ideas, a meditation on gender relations and patriarchy and beauty standards that incorporates the longstanding feminist critique of Barbie dolls (“You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented!”), while staying fun and colorful and weird. Even socialist magazine Jacobin’s reviewer had to concede that while “it’s ultimately another grotesque, high-profile, yay-for-capitalism intellectual property movie celebrating successful products like Air, Tetris, BlackBerry, and Flamin’ Hot (Cheetos),” “it’s amazing that the film manages to be as good as it is.”

Right-wingers are losing their minds over the “wokeness” of the Barbie movie, and it’s true that it is “progressive” on race and gender, in the sense that the population of the fictional Barbieland is diverse (the president of Barbieland is a Black woman) and Barbie has lines like “Giving a voice to the cognitive dissonance required to being a woman under the patriarchy robbed it of its power.” But as leftists often point out, “neoliberal” feminism often pays close attention to questions around representation (e.g., the gender demographics of corporate boards) while all but ignoring issues of class. That’s certainly true in the Barbie movie. When Barbie goes from Barbieland to the “real world,” she runs into a lot of problems that didn’t exist in the Girl Power utopia (cat-calling, condescension, aging, reproductive health issues), but they are the problems that face both rich and poor women. A monologue delivered by America Ferrera about the difficulty of being a woman in our society focuses on things like the pressure to be thin and not complain (“You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.”) It doesn’t, however, mention the pay gap or the amount of difficult unpaid labor women have to do, a strange omission given how long and seemingly comprehensive the speech is. I realize I will sound like the most ridiculous caricature of a leftist if I fault Barbie for “not having an economic analysis.” But it’s a movie that is packed with social satire. What it will not touch is corporate consumer culture or capitalism, because ultimately, as we have seen, Barbie is a device for Mattel to sell products.

In fact, Barbie is a kind of brilliant work of selective subversion, biting everything except the hand that feeds it. Oh sure, Gerwig is a bit mean to Mattel itself, with its board portrayed as a bunch of clueless white men. But Mattel clearly knew it would only help them to appear able to take a joke, and Gerwig knew implicitly the kinds of jokes about Mattel she could make versus the kinds she couldn’t make. (I am reminded of Donald Trump’s rule for his Comedy Central roast that comedians could make cracks about almost anything, including his hair, as long as they never implied he was lying about how much money he had. In other words, they could not undermine the “Trump brand.”) Gerwig did not, after all, do anything in the film that implied people should stop buying Barbie dolls. Instead, she served Mattel brilliantly, by bringing an amusing self-awareness to the promotional aspect of the film, including a full-length parody of a Barbie commercial. As Gerwig has said, “Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.” But can they? If an artist “sells out” to a corporation, making successful commercials for that company’s products, how can they possibly be “subverting” it at the same time? I doubt Mattel feels especially subverted by Gerwig’s critiques; they’re going to be pleading with her to take on the Uno movie next, and hoping she includes some digs at the corporate suits in the script that will get audiences saying the name Mattel. 

Instead of thinking of the Barbie movie as both “doing the thing and subverting the thing,” it makes more sense to apply the analysis laid out by Thomas Frank in his classic book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Frank demonstrated how the advertising industry had co-opted the rebellious imagery of the ’60s counterculture in order to sell products. Pepsi told young people they were part of a “Pepsi Generation” that valued freedom and nonconformity. Apple portrayed its desktop computer as a strike against the Orwellian establishment for those who “think different.” Apple even had an ad showing pictures of people deemed nonconforming “crazy ones,” including Einstein, Bob Dylan, Richard Branson, Ted Turner, Amelia Earhart, MLK Jr., and John Lennon, implying that King and Lennon would probably have used Macs had they not been assassinated. This wasn’t even the most shameless appropriation of King’s image for commercial purposes. That would be the time Dodge ran a commercial for Ram trucks with a King voiceover—excerpted from a speech where King actually criticized car commercials! Mattel is just trying to do the same thing with Barbie: Barbie dolls were critiqued by feminists, but why not try to rebrand Barbie as a feminist icon, so that when people buy Barbies, they feel like they’re part of the project of female empowerment? 

Why is it so objectionable when corporations do this? Well, corporations are at their root devices for turning money into more money. The corporation’s job is not to serve the social good, to practice certain values, or even to make toys. It is to serve the interests of its owners. So a Mattel Barbie movie does not come about because someone has a deep artistic vision for a Barbie movie. It comes about because the corporation “sees the growth opportunity in these franchise deals as ‘exponential.’” (The fact that the director hired to make the movie does have a deep artistic vision doesn’t change that fact.) John Lennon and Albert Einstein were used by Apple to make money, not even because someone honestly thought they would have used Macs, but because an advertising firm realized that they could create an association between rebelliousness and Apple products that would drive sales. What is perverse about advertising is that it is built on dishonesty and bad faith. It says “you value freedom, the product embodies freedom, thus you should buy this product,” but the person crafting the message doesn’t care a lick about freedom. They just know you do, and that they can make money from your values by pretending to embody them. 

This is, incidentally, why the conservative critique of the “woke corporation” is so off base. Christopher Rufo argues that leftists have staged a “long march through the institutions” and taken over corporate boards, which is why you see Pride flags and #BLM slogans coming from giant corporations. But that’s based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the corporation. They exist to sell products. If it were true that when you “go woke,” you “go broke,” they wouldn’t go woke. We can see precisely what happens when social justice conflicts with the bottom line rather than serving it. When Bud Light made the “mistake” of supporting a transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, creating an insane conservative backlash, the executives responsible were quickly placed on leave, and the company made zero effort to support Mulvaney as she was menaced with public hate. Money, not morality, determines corporate behavior. If Barbie had flopped, you’d never see another feminist message in a Mattel movie. Now that it has shattered box office records, don’t be surprised if the Uno movie uses the different colors of cards to send an unsubtle message about racial harmony.

Corporations don’t just respond to public demand. They also create it. There was no preexisting public hunger for a Barbie movie. The $150 million marketing campaign is an investment meant to yield a return by shaping public taste and getting people to hand over dollars. Because corporations manufacture desires through propaganda (for instance, by convincing people that they are cooler if they wear a certain brand of more expensive shoe), it’s crucial to analyze and understand how our culture itself is shaped by the profit motive. 

And yet: I would argue that there is less of a “left critique of consumer culture” than there once was. Books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and the satirical Adbusters magazine, seem relics of a different era in left discourse, where advertising, branding, and the commodification of culture were subject to more intense scrutiny. My amateur theory here is that today’s left is more concerned with production than consumption, by which I mean that a socialist magazine like Jacobin is much more interested in the question of who owns a corporation than in what it sells. From this perspective, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an “awesome” “ colorful and inspiring show,” marred only by labor exploitation on the set. (I don’t have an opinion on the Power Rangers, I only note that this is a common type of socialist critique, which leaves the cultural object itself entirely untouched and focuses entirely on injustices in the production process.) The Jacobin or DSA socialist is interested in getting the workers of a Mattel a fair deal that shifts as much power away from shareholders as possible. This doesn’t necessarily leave room for a critique of Mattel’s actual business model, or its products, because ultimately it’s in the interest of the company’s workers, just as much as its owners, to sell as many Barbies and Hot Wheels cars and Uno decks as possible. 

I am a firm economic socialist, by which I mean that I believe in a democratic economy where industry operates for the benefit of all, and is owned by all, rather than being operated to serve the narrow private interests of a small class of capitalists. But there’s much more to my socialism than moving wealth and ownership rights around. Let’s think, for instance, about cigarette companies. One problem with cigarette companies is that they use propaganda to try to convince people that smoking is cool, but their product is ultimately deadly and kills many of its customers. You could change the ownership structure of a cigarette company, so that it was owned by its workers. Or you could put a cigarette company in the hands of a sovereign wealth fund, so that the public at large received dividends from cigarette sales (like Norwegians and Alaskans get from state oil revenues). This might create “socialism,” in one sense of the term, since it would be collective ownership. But you would not have touched the problem of an institution that makes its money through ruthlessly manipulating people into slowly committing suicide. 

Benjamin Fong, in his fascinating new book Quick Fixes, discusses why drugs present something of a conundrum for the left. On the one hand, leftists detest the war on drugs, and want to see drugs legalized. We don’t want to be puritanical morality police condemning drug use, Reefer Madness style. On the other hand, cigarettes and alcohol, perfectly legal drugs, destroy many people’s lives. Is there a left critique of this? What is the specifically leftist grievance against the selling of harmful products? Is it a lack of worker control? The pursuit of profit? If there is demand for the harmful product, would it be wrong for a state-owned, not for profit entity to sell it in response to public demand? Will there be cigarettes under socialism?

I think that the left needs a lot more and deeper cultural critique than we currently have. I don’t just mean takes on whether a particular movie has a status quo justifying message or a subversive message, although I think political film criticism is important. I mean I’d like to see a lot more leftist analysis of architecture, art, theater, children’s toys, YouTubers, talk radio, pulp novels, museums, religion, television commercials, graphic design, board games, and pop songs. I try to publish some of this kind of analysis at Current Affairs. For instance, one of our earliest successful pieces here was a critique of the assumptions underlying the hugely successful “Hamiltonmusical. One of my favorite of my own pieces was a long study of the National World War II Museum, showing how it contributes to crafting a dangerous national mythology. I’d like to encourage more leftist thinking and writing that focuses on the messages and lessons to be found seemingly trivial things. (I think the Michael and Us podcast does this very well.) 

I detect a strain on the contemporary American left (to the extent that there is a contemporary American left) that fears socialist critiques of pop culture will be elitist and irrelevant, preferring to focus on more consequential matters like who has healthcare, whether the planet will be wrecked, and who controls industry. That set of priorities seems completely reasonable to me. And we don’t want to end up sounding humorless and un-fun, the Very Serious Socialist Left that can’t enjoy the Power Rangers. Become too critical, and you become like the World Socialist Website, scolding Jacobin as “the voice of the affluent, complacent ‘left’ petty bourgeoisie” for enjoying Barbie. 

But I also think that work like that of Klein and Frank, who exposed how corporations manipulate and fabricate desire, adds something crucial. And if we must have a cycle of popular discourse about the Barbie movie, I think it’s just as important to discuss how people can be manipulated into suddenly wanting to wear something pink as it is to discuss whether the feminist message of the film landed. Part of the job of left criticism is to dig deep and figure out how corporations can cause us to want what we want and do what we do. 

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