The "Barbie" backlash isn't just cynical: The GOP is abusing its own supporters

Relentless culture war is making Republican voters increasingly alienated — like members of a fading cult

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 25, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in costume for "Barbie" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/MEGA/GC Images)
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in costume for "Barbie" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/MEGA/GC Images)

For much of the country over this past weekend, the release of the movie "Barbie" was an unapologetically joyous occasion. The pink-drenched comedy based on the long-beloved Mattel toy captured the spirit of the summer of 2023. People are finally shaking off pandemic trauma, it seems, and just want to bop along to Dua Lipa tunes in a bubblegum-colored Corvette. Sure, everybody knows we still have a lot of problems that need fixing. But "Barbie" set box office records by reminding everyone that it's OK to make some time for fun. 

Republicans, of course, can't let people have a good time without getting angry about it. The right-wing propaganda machine whipped into high gear over the weekend, screeching at endless top volume about how America was being destroyed because Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were making campy jokes in an imaginary universe. These complaints, unsurprisingly, had nothing to do with Hollywood's addiction to rebooting existing intellectual properties or its chronic lack of creativity. Instead, the gripes were chaotic and hard to follow. Fox News was furious about the fact that one actor in "Barbie," Hari Nef, is trans. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was yelling about maps and China, airing a convoluted conspiracy theory that's not worth trying to figure out.  There was lots of yammering that "Barbie" is supposedly a man-hating movie, an almost inevitable complaint anytime women get prominent speaking roles — in a film directed by a woman, no less! — these days. 

It got so stupid that Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, in a truly pathetic effort to be the loudest "Barbie" whiner, set fire to a bunch of Barbie dolls on camera. Why? Who cares, honestly?

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Shapiro nonetheless lost out in the "biggest idiot" contest to right-wing podcaster Dave Rubin, who complained about Nef's presence in the film by saying, "Why do they go out of their way to have a biological boy play a girl who's supposed to be completely a girl in the Barbie movie unless they're trying to confuse kids?" 

As Rubin surely knows, no one is "completely a girl" in Barbie World, where the dolls have smooth plastic crotches instead of genitals. Like every other member of the GOP and right-wing punditariat who tantrumed over "Barbie," he likely doesn't believe a single word he's saying.  The emptiness of this gambit was illustrated by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, who was only too happy to preen on the red (or pink) carpet at a "Barbie" screening last week alongside his wife, Ginger Gaetz. But the happy couple played their role by latching onto performative Barbie-hate, with Ginger opining that Ken, a plastic doll with no testicles, is "disappointingly low T." 

This is how the right-wing noise machine works: It gloms onto an immediate cultural moment, whatever that happens to be, and emits a series of high-pitched whining noises. This is financially and politically profitable for two reasons. First, it draws eyeballs. Conserva-trolls attach themselves like ticks to "the discourse," drawing attention by becoming an irritant in a conversation that basically has nothing to do with them. Second, and more important, they use these cultural moments to reinforce a message of alienation and paranoia, separating their followers even further from the majority of everyday Americans and pushing them deeper into the world of hermetic right-wing nuttery. This tactic of isolating their audience from everyone else, including family members, strongly resembles the strategies used by cult leaders. 

The right-wing propaganda blueprint is so familiar it's almost automatic: Figure out what ordinary people are talking about, be a total jerk about it, persuade folks to start fighting about it on social media, and then sit back and watch.

Indeed, the blueprint used by right-wing propagandists in these exercises is so familiar that it's become as automatic as breathing. First, figure out what ordinary people are talking about. Then be a total dick about it, randomly claiming that it's all a plot to undermine the "freedoms" and "traditions" of "real" Americans, i.e., culturally alienated conservatives. Persuade folks to start fighting about these non-issues on social media, and then sit back and watch the media fall for it, with accelerating coverage of their dumb and sometimes blatantly fake opinions bringing in clicks and ad dollars, or, for GOP elected officials and candidates, hard-cash donations. 

It's true that people like Ben Shapiro or Ted Cruz attract mostly negative reactions by complaining about an enjoyable Hollywood movie. But there's a dark genius to this trolling strategy. Getting liberals to mock them on social media or, better yet, drawing "look at these weirdos" coverage in mainstream media, only helps to reinforce the overall MAGA message: Conservatives are the "real" victims here, and everyone is out to get them. They are misunderstood and mocked outsiders, the objects of constant scorn and derision from the "cultural elite." They can only be safe by burrowing ever deeper into the right-wing cocoon. 

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This process works pretty well, at least in the short term, for politicians and influencers who rake in money and power by stoking baseless rage and anxiety. Conservative audiences for this stuff, however, are being actively harmed. Raging about how "Barbie" is feminist-communist-LGBTQ garbage is a good way to make sure the kids and grandkids visit less often, for one thing. On a deeper level, it's way worse. We're talking about damaging people's souls with the relentless message that their only real source of pleasure lies in cruelty toward others, and that even something as innocent as a summer comedy is too "woke" to enjoy. 

Even that might be called a best-case scenario. The "everything mainstream is evil" propaganda narrative, which has been visible on the right for years, took an especially dark turn during the pandemic. The rhetoric now being used against "Barbie" is very close to the rhetoric used against COVID vaccination not long ago: Avoid this normal thing that millions of normal people are doing, because it's actually a secret plot against you. If Republicans boycott "Barbie," the consequences are admittedly minor: They seem like insufferable jerks. Boycotting the vaccines, however, led to many thousands of deaths. 

The anti-trans argument of the "Barbie" backlash, like the Bud Light boycott, is predicated on the vicious lie that trans people, merely by existing, somehow pose a threat.

Even when it comes to these sporadic pop-culture tantrums, the victim-posturing of right-wingers becomes a permission slip to victimize others. The anti-trans argument of the "Barbie" backlash, as with the Bud Light boycott before it, is predicated on the vicious lie that trans people, merely by existing, somehow pose a threat to society. The result is a notable rise in hate crimes against trans people. The insulting claim that "Barbie" is an attack on men offers its own minor-key permission slip for misogyny. If conservatives convince themselves that men are the "real" victims of everything that happens in our culture and society, they're more inclined to rationalize sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and even outright rape, as with the constant excuses for Donald Trump. This stuff can get dark fast: Country music star Jason Aldean openly flirts with a pro-lynching message in his recent hit song, packaging it as "self-defense" against the supposed excesses of "wokeism." 

It's true enough that "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig is serving up a feminist message about the impossible pressures faced by women. But few, if any, conservatives have even tried to engage with the movie's argument on its merits, in no small part because they know that's a losing gambit. More than that, it's because they don't actually care what "Barbie" is about. Gerwig's previous movies have also explored feminist themes, such as her excellent adaptation of "Little Women," and we heard nary a peep of protest from the right. What makes "Barbie" different is that it's a smash hit and an obvious culture-defining moment, meaning that right-wing pundits can get attention by getting their knickers twisted up about it. There's nothing legitimate or honest about this extended right-wing tantrum, but that's nothing new. As long as conservative audiences keep falling for this shtick, GOP propagandists will keep dishing it out. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti-feminist Anti-lgbtq Anti-trans Barbie Ben Shapiro Commentary Conservatives Dave Rubin Greta Gerwig Ted Cruz