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Barbie's Office Politics
Hollywood hates the office - here's why
London, 28 July 2023
Well, Hallo. Sharing a photo taken last night in a booth at a Vue Cinema in London to show I am contributing to the summer revival of cinema (today I go see Oppenheimer), and to show off my friend Andrew’s marvellous ‘Kenergy’ t-shirt.
You may ask: Where’s the work angle?
Trust me, it’s there. Because in addition to the feminist take on society and our most iconic image of ‘stereotypical Barbie’-as-woman and the work all the Barbies do and indeed what men do. But it’s about something else too.
Barbie is also about the workplace. and specifically the office.
And it’s not the first time a blockbuster movie has had an anti-office, anti-work agenda hiding in plain sight. I’ll come on to that in a minute.
Consciously, Barbie is all about what-women-can-do-what-men-don’t-realise schtick. It works and it’s lovely to see it in a blockbuster film (kudos to director Greta Gerwig, and to her co-writer Noah Baumbach).
So. Not only do we have Barbie doctors, a President, and Barbie Nobel Prize winners who are women, and a character who fights for ‘ordinary’ Barbie who doesn’t have to rule the world and can still be a woman with agency in her life. These women, all women, have to fight to regain their rights against ‘Kenworld’.
It’s the depiction of this ‘Kenworld’, versus shiny Miami-Venice-Beach bubblegum pink ‘Barbieland’ which is the big reveal for me.
Because Kenworld, immortalised by the admirably self-deprecatory offices of Mattel, makers of the movie, is grey. Grey and grim. And male. The message? Not only do men want to put Barbie back in her box - they want to put *you* in one too: back in your cubicle farm.
Enter Will Ferrell (nice touch with the pink tie). The offices themselves? Gigantic sterotypical grey cubicles. There is a lot of comedic vaulting over these too-high-to-escape from traps. This is the office as dinosaur and it’s telling. Ditto the swipeout turnstiles which allow Barbie to….well I won’t spoil it.
EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE
Where else have we seen this image of the office as a place of grim entrapmen? Well it’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, which won Best Film at this year’s Oscars and best actress and best supporting actress for Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. Their characters become strangely united by realising that the grim confines of offices and what they represent (Jamie Lee Curtis is never finer than as a behind-desk tax official) must be resisted.
So my take? Hollywood hates offices. It may champion all sorts of other things but it’s actively campaigning - however subconsiously - for change in the way we work. That’s bigger, even than Barbie.
Well, I would say that wouldn’t I?! More soon on the culture of work and how it hides in plain sight in our songs, movies, TV shows, art and literature.
In Barbie, Ken’s only role in life is to be ‘Beach’. So if you are on the beach, and you fancy catching up with the many splendid voices we’ve harnessed in our first four seasons of The Nowhere Office Podcast, here’s a taster for you.
We’re back on Labor Day in September - and so am I.
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