From Barbie to Taylor Swift – why are men so afraid of girls?

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It’s a tough line to walk. How to dismiss the Barbie movie as a dumb movie about a dumb doll, while justifying your outsize, grown-man anger over a movie about, well, a doll?

Some right-wing media commentators outraged by the film have attempted to thread the needle, with limited success. US conservative media personality Ben Shapiro said the quiet part out loud when he videoed himself conflagrating a Barbie doll in protest, while denouncing the movie as woke, feminist dreck. Most men of his ilk at least attempt to disguise their contempt for the feminine; he wears his so openly it provokes him to pyrotechnics.

Barbie’s realm is huge in scale.

The film has excited strong emotions, and it would be silly to focus on the negative ones. Mostly, it has given joy, as anyone who has a girl in their life will know. There is a reason for the ongoing fascination girls have with Barbie.

When she was invented in 1959, the only dolls girls previously had to play with were baby dolls, which cast them as mothers. Barbie promoted her human owner to boss of a realm, and as the movie illustrates, Barbie’s realm is huge in scale.

In our house, it includes a Dream House with pool (accessed via a slippery dip from the top floor), a boat, a campervan, a school, a playground, a Corvette and an ambulance. Barbies live full and mostly happy lives there. They are subject to occasional calamities, but receive prompt medical attention.

The population is as varied as Barbie populations get. We have some fuller-figured Barbies, (which is to say, normal-figured Barbies), plenty of ethnic diversity, and a wheelchair Barbie. Counter-intuitively, the latter is more agile than her peers – she is the only one with jointed knees.

In the movie, as in life, Ken is an accessory who is paid little notice. Perhaps the outrage of Ben Shapiro and his brethren comes from the fact that while they have an intensity of emotion around Barbie, Barbie herself, and the girls who play with her, have no such intensity around Ken – masculinity’s sole representative and avatar in Barbieland.

Ken is occasionally roped in for a wedding, or perhaps flung into the campervan for a holiday, but he’s not key personnel, a theme the movie explores to hilarious and poignant effect. It is a confronting vision, I suppose, to see a world represented in which your gender is relegated to a low-status accessory.

This, in case my irony isn’t heavy enough, is a common experience for females who have consumed any popular or high culture, pretty much since humans began daubing hunting scenes on cave walls. Barbie is already one of the 100 highest-grossing films of all time, and the highest grossing film ever made by a female director.

Perhaps it will form a tipping point in which the producers of blockbusters realise that the traditionally female, or even the outright girlish, is capable of garnering huge audiences if treated with artistic respect.

Ken – not key personnel. Credit: Warner Bros

Indeed, the Barbie movie is only one example of the great flowering of Girl Culture we are witnessing at the moment.

Not so long ago, women’s soccer in this country was barely noticed by the sports establishment, or by sports fans. When it was, the players were ogled openly by the men who wrote about them.

Now the Matildas have become national sweethearts, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promising (Bob Hawkeishly) that he will declare a public holiday if they win the World Cup. This week Albanese paid tribute to the “inspiration” the Matildas are giving Australians, “particularly to young girls and young women”.

The Matildas, astonishingly athletic and utterly no-nonsense in their approach to the game, are a gift. They are so fuss-free they make the Australian cricket team, both rugby codes and the AFL look like drama-ponies of the highest order.

Their victory against Canada was the result of a team in true synergy, each player working to better the others. And through the Matildas, many women and girls are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to enthusiastically follow a team – to pore over detailed stories on calf injuries and speculate on the fate of coaches, to break off conversation to check results while you’re out to dinner or at the pub.

“Is this what it feels like to be a man?” a woman of my acquaintance recently wondered aloud.

Maybe? Whatever, it feels good.

Likewise, the frenzy recently experienced by anyone attempting to get tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Australia tour. If Barbie is the queen (princess?) of girldom, then Swift is its sage. The 33-year-old singer has been the locus of huge misogyny during her entire career, beginning with the scrutiny of her love life, and carrying through to contemptuous dismissal of her (superlative) songwriting.

In 2022, Damon Albarn, frontman of the band Blur, asserted during an interview with the LA Times that Swift “doesn’t write her own songs” and that co-writing “doesn’t count”. Tell that to McCartney and Lennon. Swift hit back, outraged, and said she does indeed write her own songs, and her close musical collaborators came to her strong defence.

In fact, Swift’s music chronicles the intensity, self-doubt, defiance and joy of girldom with such excellence she has literally been compared to Shakespeare by a noted Shakespearean scholar.

One is left with the impression that her detractors are too distracted by Swift’s subject matter to appreciate the music. And it never seems to occur to them, or to any of the commentators threatened by the great Girl Culture renaissance, that if they don’t like the movie, or the music, or the team, they can simply avoid it, and keep their opinions to themselves while the girls dance, sing and play.

Jacqueline Maley is a columnist.

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