From Barbie’s Oscar Trauma to Taylor Swift’s Drama

The internet moves quickly. By the time you are reading this article, it is likely you are already entrenched in one of two camps regarding the most popular stories about women artists in the last few weeks. Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie of Barbie movie fame were snubbed at the Oscars for Best Director and Best Actress respectively, or the backlash about their specific nominations was overblown or even wrong-headed. Similarly, Taylor Swift ought to have been named 2023 Time’s Person of the Year, or she is a bad choice because she has not accomplished anything of real note. What is most likely, though, is that you are in a third camp: “Who cares about these women, and why are we even still talking about any of this?”

While it may make one feel smug to be in the latter camp or to equivocate about awarding organizations’ decisions, the regular news cycle curtails women’s artistry—their feminine genius, as we might term it as Catholics—because it treats them as disposable clickbait, as objects, as content to be used, rather than appreciating their artistry on its own merits. In doing so, women as artists are demeaned in a repetitive, dismissive media cycle playing on repeats about feminine (and feminist) creative talent. The cycle goes like this:

1. Outrage by women if a female artist is not awarded. Outrage by men if women are.

2. Questions about whether this woman ought to be considered for the award and whether outrage is warranted at all.

3. A tearing down of the art itself as ever being good.

4. An objectification of the artist and/or her art focused on demeaning her and/or it physically or intellectually.

5. A turning away from the news cycle to go back to the status quo that treats women’s artistry, and all their cultural work, as subject to a distinct, and ultimately dismissive, form of scrutiny.

I will return to a discussion of the treacherous patterns inherent in this cycle in a moment, but first I will argue that stopping this endless cycle should matter for us as Catholics, if we care—as we claim we do—about the promotion of human dignity and fostering human flourishing for all. Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si’ that part of the ecological responsibility we share as humans is an awareness of our integral ecology, or the interconnectedness we experience as human beings to and within our environments. In our digitally saturated age, we ought not separate our concept of ecology from the online environment we experience with others.

Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical that “the destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” All one needs to do is glance at the comments section of any article about the Barbie movie or Taylor Swift’s Time Magazine win to discover debasing words about either. With that said, it is unlikely one even need venture that far to come up with a personal recent memory about an attack on these women.

At the end of Barbie movie, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) walks with her creator, Ruther Handler, in a blank room of nothingness. White walls and white floors create a seemingly blank slate. The room itself is reminiscent of English philosopher John Locke’s theory describing the mind as a “tabula rasa.” Locke argued that individuals are born with a mind devoid of innate content. According to him, it is experiences that shape one’s identity and understanding of the world above all other factors. In this moment, Barbie revisits her point of origin with her creator: she becomes a philosophical blank slate again.

In the background, Billie Eilish croons a song seemingly made for theological anthropologists, “What was I made for?” The film, self-consciously striving to “give Barbie an ending,” invites reflection during this concluding scene on the purpose and identity of the created in the context of divine intention and human—or in this case, doll—experience, running the full gamut of life and death. It even cuts to Barbie touching fingers with Ruth, the imagery evoked paralleling that of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” Just as the fingers of God and Adam nearly touch in the famous fresco, Barbie’s connection with Ruth symbolizes the feminine form as worthy of the same artistic rendering and divine attention as that of the male.

Genesis 2:7 states, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Man is made of dust of the ground, or clay. Barbie, we assume, is made of plastic, reformed of a composite created by man, not God. As Barbie contemplates her future while in the white void and considers whether to go to the Real World, she is reminded by her creator, “Humans only have one ending.” To be human means that one must think about eternity: one must reflect on death and, yes, experience it. Although it has become a meme-able moment in our cultural zeitgeist, what began Barbie’s heroic journey was one of memento mori. Translated to “remember that you must die,” the film furthers this concept with its artistic reminder of death’s inevitability and the transient nature of life. To be human is to die.

“Do you ever think about dying?” Barbie asks her friends when they are dancing, living life in the moment without thinking about the future at all. While with Ruth, Barbie must decide if she is willing to die. Like in the Christian story, dying in one life means Barbie will live in another. As the two hold hands, the created touching fingers with the creator, images of women at various stages in their lives flip through Barbie’s mind. If to be human is to die, then to be woman and human is to experience patriarchy before dying. Barbie must accept both before going to the Real World. While making her decision and contemplating her future, the film’s viewers are reminded of another, earlier scene where Barbie sits at a bus stop at Venice Beach.

This setting symbolizes another transient space in the movie. Barbie glances over to find an old woman sitting next to her. Rather than being scared because we are to assume that in Barbie World she has never seen anyone age, Barbie pauses, thinks, and then tells the old woman, “You are beautiful.” The woman responds with a broad smile: “I know,” she says. Whereas our culture would tell us that it is Barbie who is beautiful and not the old woman, these women, at different states in the age spectrum, recognize that the old woman is the one who is most beautiful, imbuing a countercultural ethos about femininity.

St. Augustine once famously said, “Since love grows within you, so beauty grows. For love is the beauty of the soul.” He can help us to think through this moment. With him, we are reminded that the old woman is more beautiful not because she is older temporally but because she has loved more in her life. Her soul has more depth. Throughout his writings, Augustine makes a distinction between a lustful affection for transient, physical beauty (the Latin cupiditas) and a higher, spiritual love for eternal rewards (the Latin caritas). In Barbie’s material qualities, that is her physical attractiveness and her associations with the capitalist marketplace (think: dreamhouse, high heels, and an endless wardrobe), we see cupditas. In the old woman, with her laugh lines, self-assuredness, and willingness to connect with others, we see caritas. For the first time in her life, while sitting next to this woman, Barbie sheds a tear. She realizes that she does not have what this old woman has, even though she has youth and, at this point, immortality. She longs for something bigger than herself; she longs for what the old woman has shown her is possible.

What makes Barbie decide to become human with its inevitable end and uncomfortable moments (like visiting the gynecologist) brings us again to the idea of women’s artistry and its treatment by the media. Barbie looks to Ruth and confirms after being instructed that she must understand fully the scope of being human, “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is being made.” This line conveys the tension of the woman artist in the world. And yes, to use an oft-employed phrase from Gerwig’s movie, it is the special tension of the woman artist in the world under patriarchy.

If Barbie is to go into the world and make meaning, she must realize that she, like the old woman, will suffer the real consequences of aging, of being human. One commentator wrote after Taylor Swift won Time’s Person of the Year designation that it was shameful in part because Swift, at thirty-four, is “aging.” For women, a realization of death presents an obstacle to their artistry, their meaning-making, that does not affect men in the same way. With age, there is more spiritual love, more caritas, but there is also less of cupiditas’s power. Ultimately, Barbie decides to become human—to age, to die, to risk.

I now risk showing my cards, which you have probably already guessed. I admit that when Ryan Gosling was given the nod as lead actor and Margot Robbie was not provided the same recognition, my heart sank. I was in that first camp mentioned at the beginning of this article: I was outraged that Margot Robbie was passed over while Ryan Gosling was celebrated. During Robbie’s performance, I was moved to tears and laughter, and then to tears again. As the lead actress, she had to play a character that was an idea that millions of girls and women project their hopes and dreams onto throughout their lives. She is a character that girls fling their full imaginations on as children, and she played that doll-idea while still being distinctive enough to be relatable as a particular human. Robbie was a doll, an idea, and a specific human with unique characteristics all at once, shifting from one mode to another, and from comedy and seriousness, without skipping a beat.

For me, Ryan Gosling acted as a one-note, bland character. He played Ken as a comedic, farcical, doll-only persona throughout the entire movie. Regardless of whether he was in the Real World or the Barbie World, he was “just Ken.” I found his plot points amusing and, yes, him charming, but I was never emotionally moved by his acting. Plus, there were moments, especially when Barbie breaks up with him at the end of the movie, that I wanted more from him, I wanted to be able to feel for his losses, but I could not because of the campiness Gosling used in his portrayal. I even rewatched the film after the nominations came out, wondering if I had missed something in Gosling’s performance. On re-watching, he still felt as if he was playing a caricature of a man—a Ken-doll only—and it began to feel even a little demeaning that this was how Gosling thinks young girls imagine boys, without depth or feeling. Notably, I did connect with Margot Robbie as an artist for having to deal with such a flat co-star.

Like many others who watched the film this past summer, I nursed a sinking feeling Ryan Gosling would be given the Oscar nod for his leading role while Margot Robbie would not. As a literary scholar, I am reminded of words from Virginia Woolf’s famous 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” She writes, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” From where I stand, Margot Robbie made Ryan Gosling look better than he was because her performance felt flawless. The standards are different for judging women’s creativity and abilities because the bar is higher: male co-stars often shine with less-than performances because female co-stars help them look better. Gosling’s one-note patriarchy sparkles in its awfulness, which appears “twice its natural size,” as Woolf writes, while Robbie’s depth of complexity feels real and thus smaller in a way that women everywhere can likely relate. Likewise, while Greta Gerwig was nominated for best adapted screenplay (a behind-the-scenes role), her director snub feels worse when combined with the fact that her composition was deemed as adapted rather than original. Although the movie script was completely new, the fact that Mattel’s dolls were in existence took her out of the running for best original screenplay. Her creative genius was belittled, seen as mimicry rather than appreciated as originality.

As I have presented outrage in the last few paragraphs—what I present as Step One of the media cycle about women’s artistry—I suspect many have already leaped ahead to the next standard response: questioning whether this woman ought to have even been considered for the award. In line with this second step, Whoopi Goldberg said of the Oscars, “Everybody doesn’t win. . . . They’re not snubs, and that’s what I want to sort of point out. And it’s not the elites. It’s the entire family of the Academy Awards who vote for best picture nominations.” Goldberg, like many who are defending the nominations, believes the snubs (or lack thereof in her mind) ought not be perceived as a personal slight against Robbie and Gerwig.

Indeed, other women directors and actresses were nominated, and those of us who feel slighted are not paying attention to a more logical picture. If there are other good women artists, why focus on these particular women artists? The same narrative occurred when Taylor Swift won her recognition: are not the other options simply better? Business titan Elon Musk or Chinese President Xi JinPing, both shortlisted, are both “provocateurs,” and perhaps should have gotten the nod instead, media stories intoned. Moreover, Swift, according to one journalist, was chosen by Time’s team purely as a “marketing ploy,” not because she is deserving of the award. If the media cycle were to stop here, on Step Two, my outrage might be dubbed only that—outrage. We might be able to have serious discussions about women’s artistry and how it ought to be acclaimed, or not, in the world at large.

To this camp, I would suggest taking into account that Barbie amassed a staggering $1.4 billion in global box office revenue, making it the highest-grossing Warner Bros. movie worldwide and the top-earning domestic film of the year, as well as putting Gerwig at the top as the highest-grossing women director ever. That the numbers are what they are suggests a snub occurred to the women who led the film. Women (and men alike for that matter) prefer this movie’s artistry over others, showing so with their pocketbooks. They ought to be listened to, I suggest, because the feminine gaze that the artistry is producing speaks to and conveys their experiences.

Likewise, that Taylor Swift’s Eras tour is the highest-grossing music tour of all time, surpassing $1 billion dollars in revenue and that, as of January 2024, she holds the record as the solo artist with the highest number of weeks at number one on the US Billboard 200 Chart, among numerous other records she has set, I would say that she is worth the nod as Time’s Person of the Year. Naming her thus is in no way a “marketing ploy” but rather an acknowledgment of her vast influence on the music industry and popular culture. Still, we could argue these points, and I could find credence in others’ positions. And, as you can imagine from what I wrote above, I have argued these ideas already with my spouse, my office colleagues, and friends alike.

Step Three, however, happens quickly—the tearing down of the art itself as ever being good. It is here that I believe we foster a cultural paradigm that hurts all those who partake in it—the female artists, their fans, and their decriers—all of whom contribute to our digital ecosystem. It is a slippery slope from Steps Two to Three, and often, I feel outraged at step two because I can anticipate what is to come. It is within Step Three that I believe we begin to discourage other potential women artists from trying their hands altogether at creating.

Earlier this year a work colleague, to whom I had expressed my outrage at the Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig snubs, sent me Pamela Paul’s New York Times article, “Barbie is Bad: There I Said It.” In the article, Paul not only criticizes any notion of the movie as an artistic masterpiece, but also those who found value in it. She writes, “For those who hailed it, there was a manic quality to the ‘Barbie’ enthusiasm, less an ‘I enjoyed’ and more of an ‘I endorse.’” What a nod we have here to women’s choices of art and their ability to judge aesthetic compositions! One culture warrior unsurprisingly takes this view a step further, commenting that those who are upset about the Barbie snubs are quite simply “brain damaged.” One need only to Google Taylor Swift’s music and there are similarly no shortage of articles discussing how bad it is and how “Swifties” cannot think for themselves or appreciate good music. Mostly women, the Swifties might also be lumped in as “brain damaged.” One popular article that came up at the top of my Google search was titled, “Why Taylor Swift is Everything Wrong with Modern Culture.”

Here, finally, we reach Step Four, which happened in a flash to Margot Robbie and Taylor Swift. If you remember, Step Four is “an objectification of the artist and/or her art focused on demeaning her and/or it physically or intellectually.” I remind you here of what Barbie told her creator before she became human in Gerwig’s movie: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is being made.” I have decided not to link to the following for ethical reasons, but you can find what I am about to discuss easily in the Internet’s ecosystem—which I hope you find unsettling, if not terrifying. When the Oscar awards were announced, a TikTok featuring Margot Robbie that is AI-generated began trending again, after its first popular stint when the Barbie movie came out. This TikTok features a lookalike cosplaying the real human, the real artist. Similarly, as of today, January 28, 2024, you cannot search for “Taylor Swift” on X because explicit AI images of here were generated and disseminated without her consent. The others on Time’s shortlist, the “provocateurs” one article above suggested she is not, are not experiencing this same treatment. All of the individuals shortlisted besides Swift were men, and none of the rest on that list are being treated in the same way digitally. None of them are at risk of being “the thing that is being made,” rather than being appreciated for the making, for creating.[1]

As participants in this ecology, we now have a decision about this process, Step Five, and I believe this decision can help set apart Catholics in this world. Do we act as we have in the past? Or, do we, as I have articulated usually happens in Step Five, turn away from the news cycle and the status quo that treats women’s artistry, and all their cultural work, as subject to a distinct, and ultimately dismissive, form of scrutiny? Right now, it feels pertinent to remind you that these are the two most famous stories about women’s artistry in the world right now. Do we act as our Church would say that we ought and speak out against women’s use and abuse in this way?

Whether we agree with their choices, or even their art, these artists are those who young women are looking to as models today. Their imaginations are tied to Taylor Swift’s music and the dreams that Barbie’s world helps them to form. The news cycle treats women artists as disposable, part of what Pope Francis would articulate as “a throwaway culture” that “quickly reduces things to rubbish.” In turning a blind eye and waiting for the next news cycle, we reduce these women to rubbish and treat them as “things.” I contend we should do more than simply wash, rinse, and repeat.

How many other Gerwigs, Robbies, and Swifts are there in the world who are afraid to stand up for, or create art because of the specific scrutiny and abuse given to female artists, those who will never create because the focus is not on their art but on their gender? How many of the women whom we would like to see as Catholic role models specifically might not step into such a role because they are aware of how they will be treated?

As most readers likely know, Taylor Swift’s original music catalog was acquired in June 2019 by Ithaca Holdings LLC, a company owned by Scooter Braun. Swift expressed outrage that her recordings were sold without her consent. In turn, she decided to re-record her earlier songs, a strategic move aimed at regaining control and ownership of her music. By revisiting and re-releasing her catalog, Swift is not only reclaiming artistic control but also endeavoring to secure financial benefits and assert her autonomy in the music industry.

Perhaps, like Swift, we ought to hold fast to our own versions of stories about women’s artistry, placing them at the center and no longer participating in perpetuating news cycles that degrade them and inflict harm on the young women they can and will inspire. In a now-famous article she penned for The Wall Street Journal, Swift wrote, “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet . . . is that they all realize their worth and ask for it. Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable.” We might bicker over Swift’s specific definition of what is valuable, as Catholics we find value in art because it reflects a divine gift to humanity that points us to God’s love and his creative genius—but the rest of what she says makes sense.

When I think of the image of a young woman touching her fingertips to her creator’s, like we have in the Barbie movie, I am reminded that God does not choose among his favorites. Women are as much image-bearers of God as men are. Our artistry matters just as much as men’s. “You belong with me,” we can imagine God saying as he divinely inspires women’s art, no different than words he might speak to a male artist. After all, Romans 2:11 reminds us that “God does not show favoritism.” Women, whether they win or lose, are treated in the digital ecosystem as disposable, and we are failing to provide a media-rich environment that is conducive to their human flourishing. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that in a throwaway culture, “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” We must remind women what they, and their art, are made for.

Indeed, in asking, “What am I made for?” Barbie invites this question for all women to ponder. Men and women alike ought to reflect not only what women artists are made for but also what we, as a society and as individuals, are made for in our online and market-driven responses to their artistry. Just as Barbie seeks meaning and connection in the human experience, so too should we, as consumers and critics, strive to appreciate and contemplate that art, without participating in or repeating a cycle of denigration. As Catholics, we can work together to build a digital culture of life that resists the collective impetus to treat women’s artistry as more disposable than their male colleagues.

We are specifically called to participate in a “love story” as Taylor Swift phrases it, but ours encourages communion with the divine and aligns with God’s will. In embracing a love story guided by caritas, that divine love that transcends favoritism, we cannot leave women artists alone to combat patriarchy. We ought to work with women artists to “make meaning” of their stories alongside God’s calling for each of us to use the aesthetic discernment he provides us. In aligning our contemplation of women’s art with the divine love story, we can contribute to a new collective narrative, a narrative where, finally, everyone belongs on God’s stage—yes, a global stage where we all belong with him.

[1] Gerwig, while she is behind the scenes, is watching her creation being used in ways she did not imagine. Many of the Margot Robbie images are of her in her character as Barbie.

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