Mari Cohen (associate editor): Barbie, erstwhile indie darling Greta Gerwig’s latest blockbuster, is only the beginning. As Alex Barasch recently reported in an alarming New Yorker feature, the top brass at Mattel have already cooked up a whole host of future productions based on the company’s intellectual property, including a horror movie about the Magic 8 ball, spearheaded by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear writer; a Daniel Kaluuya-produced Barney feature; and a Lena-Dunham-directed live-action Polly Pocket project. In the piece, an exec fantasizes about getting Guillermo del Toro on board, citing his “worldbuilding” skills. As the IP takeover of the movie business marches on, what’s a culture snob to do? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Marvel movie all the way through, but I did gamely don big pink sunglasses and join for a Monday evening showing of the Barbie movie—I wanted to find out if I would have to hand it to Gerwig for making Barbie an actual work of art. Life’s small pleasures, etc.
As it turns out, there’s no great moral or artistic conflict to face here. Gerwig’s story of a “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie)—who suffers a rude awakening when she travels to the Real World to fix the imperfections popping up in her utopian Barbie Land life—offers plenty in the way of fun, and very little in the way of substance. The film’s built environment, of course, is breathtaking: Barbieland is a perfect plasticky pink and comes into view with a realism that remains unnervingly uncanny. The gags that play on the essential strangeness of the extended Barbie universe—the way the different adult women dolls are all just named “Barbie”; the fact that the job of the main Ken (a hilarious Ryan Gosling) is not “lifeguard” but “beach”; how Barbie’s feet are built in a perfect heel-ready arch—are legitimately funny, especially as they build in absurdity throughout the film (the apex of this is Ken busting out into a musical number as the background dissolves into surrealism).
All along the way, Barbie wants to assure us that it is in on the joke, that it gets how Barbie dolls have served as a symbol of unattainable white, airheaded beauty. It also wants us to know that it “disavows” that. As the critic Allison Willmore writes in Vulture, “There’s a streak of defensiveness to Barbie, as though it’s trying to anticipate and acknowledge any critiques lodged against it before they’re made, which renders it emotionally inert despite the efforts at wackiness.” These defensive gestures are mostly just that—gestures—that stop short of injecting any real subversiveness into the heart of the film. Sasha, the teenager who ends up saving Barbie Land with her mom, calls Barbie a “fascist” who makes women feel bad about themselves, but soon enough, she comes around to appreciating Barbie’s potential. Similarly, Mattel’s executive board is presented as a gaggle of hapless white men, but Will Ferrell’s portrayal of theCEO is so over-the-top and ridiculous that it steamrolls over any real critique of the brand. At one point, the movie’s faceless narrator (Helen Mirren), chimes in to point out that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a protagonist with Robbie’s doll-like beauty crying about how she “isn’t pretty.” But Robbie is still the movie’s center, and Mirren’s interjection mostly appears like an attempt to preempt some critic from making the same point in a review. Just like the corporate Twitter accounts that desperately volley “woke” memes at consumers to prove that they are both savvy and relatable, the movie is full of signifiers, but very little is actually signified. (Most of the bits have the appropriate size and depth for a high-quality comedy sketch, not an entire movie.)
At the film’s climax, America Ferrera, playing Sasha’s mom, delivers a cathartic monologue about the impossible pressures placed on women, which is affecting, but might land better if Ferrera’s character had been given any real depth, and which will feel mostly familiar to anyone who has been aware of feminism for more than five minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie’s feminism is of a corporatist, Hillary Clinton vintage, using the gender make-up of the Barbie Land Supreme Court, presidency, and boardroom as a proxy for assessing women’s liberation, as especially as compared to the real world, where they are woefully left behind. It doesn’t feel quite up to a moment in which one of the real-life Supreme Court’s women has been one of its most dogged supporters of stripping women of their rights.
The movie concludes with the point that, instead of having to choose between Robbie’s “stereotypical” beautiful Barbie or one of her superstar compatriots—astronaut Barbie; president Barbie; award-winning-physicist Barbie—we ought to be offered an “ordinary Barbie,” one who doesn’t have to be perfect in looks or intellect or ambition to have worth. Fair enough, but we’ve still had to spend the whole movie with the original one, who, despite Robbie’s best bright-eyed efforts, mostly remains a blank slate. The movie’s best material is reserved for Ken, who tries to rise above his sidekick station and seize Barbie Land for the patriarchy, prompting a long sequence of jokes about how a man would design his dream house, with mini fridges full of beer and endless showings of The Godfather. At times, it dips into easy cultural “heteropessimist” shorthand, but it’s overall an apt representation of how masculinity, too, can be confining. All said and done, it might not be a great look for Barbie that, despite all the feminist signaling, the male character is awarded the most interesting arc. No worries though—I’m sure the Barbies will still fly off the shelves.
Dana Bassett (director of finance and outreach): If you, like me, were made physically ill by watching bundles of notebooks Joan Didion had never even written in sell for $11,000 at her estate sale last November, then maybe you will find a bit of relief in the Hilton Als-curated exhibition “Joan Didion: What She Means.” The show boasts over 200 objects, including some of the late author’s personal ephemera and the work of approximately 50 visual artists, and gives Didion fans at least some chance of viewing the objects she left behind.
Originally staged at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the exhibition is now on display until (if the earth even makes it this long) January 2024 at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Let’s not mince words—Joan wouldn’t. The title is a bit overly ambitious: I found the exhibition to be more about where Joan lived throughout her career, the many subjects of her writing, and what she means to us (or maybe Hilton Als specifically), than a strong statement on what her oeuvre means to the many genres and movements she touched. To be fair, how can one really pin down what a writer like Joan means, when she really means so much to so many?
Despite this, and the confusingly bifurcated layout of the exhibition (which is staged over three galleries, two of which are contiguous and the third is clear across the museum’s second floor), I loved every second of this bricolage portrait of Didion. The objects on display include family heirlooms too precious for the auction (including her step-grandmother’s chamber pot), ephemera and clippings that span her long, illustrious career, and visual parallels to various snippets of her writing. How can you not love such a detailed visual explication? It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in a wry world of hippies, movie stars, politics, and place. I found the most charming aspect of the exhibition to be the sweet, if a bit saccharine, handling of Didion’s life by Als: pieces from his own personal Joan collection. These lend a human touch to what otherwise might feel like an overly didactic pairing of artworks with excerpts. A taped interview between the two plays over speakers in the last room, titled “Sentimental Journeys: New York, Miami, San Salvador” and features work from mainstays of the Miami art world, Felix Gonzales-Torres and Ana Mendieta (paired, of course, with excerpts from Miami). Something about listening to these two converse while my eyes traveled up Felix’s string of lightbulbs just felt right.
There were a few other moments that prompted me to think, “Wow, is Hilton Als this good of a curator, or did the Hammer curatorial assistants take a heavy hand?” There was a huge “Monotone” painting by Silke Otto Knapp, drawings of pages out of Didion’s books by Jack Pierson, a giant rope “River” by Marine Hassinger, and what appeared to be a stack of melted and burned papers by Noah Purifoy titled, “Watts Uprising Remains.” In other words, the art was good, too.
The exhibition is also unsurprisingly dominated by photography, both fine and documentary. Visitors will see a mix photographs of Joan, such as the iconic Juergen Teller portraits of Didion in her signature oversized Celine sunglasses (a pair of which fetched $27,000 at auction), and of important historic moments referenced in her writing, including a Jeffrey Henson Scales portrait of Huey Newton (alongside the appropriate corresponding selection from 1979’s The White Album), various works by Diane Arbus, and photographs of a pregnant Sharon Tate by Jay Sebring. There are also photos of Didion’s Malibu home, taken by Henry Clarke in 1972 for Vogue, yearbooks with their pages open to images of her class photos, and pictures of her daughter’s christening in 1966. Like Didion’s writing, there is simply so much.
Of course, an exhibit this dense invites repeat visits (which I will hopefully be able to do) and, as is custom, a giant exhibition catalog. You can of course buy this oversized tome at the gift shop, along with a selection of reissued Didion books and Als’ White Girls. For those who aren’t able to see the show in person, I suspect that the art book version of Joan Didion: What She Means is an above average companion to what was an engrossing visual experience—one fit for the Joan Didion-headed amongst us and the average museum visitor alike.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Since the 2008 release of his controversial study The Invention of the Jewish People, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has often been dismissed as a crackpot. But having now read this book for the third time (once in French, twice in English), I can confirm that he is nothing of the sort. In fact, Sand’s main point, that the Jewish people are an invention, is perfectly unobjectionable.
To be clear, Sand does not say that the Jewish people doesn’t exist now. He claims only that the idea of a unified Jewish people with a shared origin and history is little but “mythistory.” His analysis is inspired by two major writers on nationalism, Ernst Gellner and Benedict Anderson, with the latter’s absolutely brilliant and essential book, Imagined Communities, providing the foundation for Sand’s thesis. Following Anderson, Sand argues that all nations and nationalisms are artificial constructs, built around myths and founding texts. As he writes: “Just as the French were persuaded that their ancestors were the Gauls, and the Germans cherished the idea that they descended directly from their Aryan Teutons, so the Jews had to know that they were the authentic descendants of the ‘children of Israel’ who came out of Egypt.”
Central to this founding myth—which was later used to “justify the right that [the Jewish people] claimed over Palestine”—is the notion that after the defeat of the rebellion in Judea in 70 CE, the Jews were expelled from their land. Chapter by chapter, Sand chips away at every part of the story. He shows, most importantly, that there is no evidence of a mass expulsion from Judea anywhere in the archaeological record or written sources from this era. Moreover, Sand points out that exile was not the typical Roman way of dealing with defeated peoples, nor would it have been feasible, considering the marked shortage of trucks and trains in the first century. There was thus no unified people from which we all sprung, but rather various pre-existing diasporic communities, augmented over many years by converts, since opposition to proselytism was not a feature of Judaism until much later. The most debatable part of the book is Sand’s acceptance of the widely contested “Khazar thesis,” which claims that Ashkenazi Jewry descended from a multi-ethnic group of Turkic peoples. Sand is convinced by this theory—which, as he demonstrates, was widely accepted by even Zionist scholars until the 1960s—since there weren’t enough Jews in Germany in the Middle Ages to populate the Jewish regions of Eastern Europe.
Sand is clear in his belief that once a myth takes hold a people is formed, whatever the legitimacy of the original claim. He even insists Israel has the right to exist, though only in a truly democratic form. Indeed, the most crackpot thing about The Invention of the Jewish People is Sand’s admirable hope that at some point Israel will become a democracy for all its residents.