When I got an email from DSI Training Coordinator Sarah Torsch about a DSI hosted private screening of Barbie with introductory remarks by Sarah Murray, I was—for the first time—so sad to be studying abroad in Brazil. To make up for missing Professor Murray’s introductory remarks, the two of us spent a couple of hours trying to make sense of Barbiedom over Zoom.

“When Grace [Wilsey] asked me to intro the movie, I thought it would be challenging to connect this film to the DSI’s annual Digital IDEAS institute theme [Digital Physical Entanglements: Environments, Bodies, and Space]. But as time passed and I watched the media tour for the film, I realized there’s actually too much to talk about.”

During our conversation, I also realized there’s actually too much to write about. Having both just seen the movie, our thoughts were not especially organized and we bounced around from embodiment, believability, labor, and gender. What resulted is the following conversation about our Barbie cynicism and how it ultimately leads to a sort of internet celebration. Our conversation has been very, very condensed for clarity.

Everyone’s a hater—

Sarah: All the examples of entanglements exist in this space of liminality, and I think that’s what’s really exciting to people [about the movie]. In some ways, Barbie represents a notion of believability that we’ve been preoccupied with culturally: make believe and play; believe women and the material semiotics of that; and the Republican backlash around [Barbie] which has been swift and vehement.

Júlia: I think in the US, people knew to expect something that was “feminist” or whatever because people recognize Greta Gerwig. The discourse primed everyone to have a hot take—like on the left you have people saying, “Oh, wow, you thought the Branded Doll Movie was going to be anything but neoliberal?” and on the right you have people being like, “Oh my God, can you believe this… feminism thing?”

Sarah: Right, what happens when you’re too jaded for a jaded version of Barbie?

Júlia: In some ways, I think I was the ideal viewer. Like, I had absolutely zero expectations of gleaning any sort of new feminist lesson from the movie—in fact, I actually expected to be annoyed by [the empowerment feminism]. My bad attitude actually resulted in me enjoying the movie more? I was expecting so little in terms of plot that somehow I ended up telling people, “Oh, yeah I had fun [at the movie].” It was easy enough to forget about the big speech that America Ferrara delivers, which was too on the nose, as one might anticipate.

Sarah: I was surprised that the speech got praised by critics. I think this has to do with this idea of believability. I think there’s something in Barbie that people really want to believe is possible, so some of the sentimentality gets forgiven in favor of the hopefulness: “Yeah it’s cheesy, but it’s also about the truth of culture.” Is there space for cheerful optimism even when we are feeling we’re in the end times? That said, I didn’t experience Barbie as comfortable with the glitches [about gender/sex/existence] it opened up. If you want a conversation about death, I’m going to want more of it. And if you’re going to have a conversation about gender and sexuality, I’m going to want a messier space. The best moments of the movie all happen in the first quarter when it was showing the possibility of a descent into darkness.

Júlia: I totally agree. The world building is really fun and feels like there’s space to imagine something—I’m not sure what. I mean, I’m sure a lot of people went just to look at the set (myself included). But after Ken introducing horses and misogyny, it sort of stops giving me that possibility.

Sarah: Yes, the bow-tying of the end forecloses the rips in the seams that [Gerwig] tried to develop. Like why couldn’t the Barbies have a moment where they realize they’re getting fulfillment from their relationality with other Barbies as they serve the men when Barbiedom becomes ruled by the Kens?

Júlia: I mean, on the note of this gender glitchiness, one of the weirdest things for me about the Barbie discourse was how completely different it was [in Brazil]. Like here, nobody cares about Gerwig, so the hype was really, fully BARBIE. The conservative backlash that started during the American media tour didn’t kick off until after the movie’s release here. A lot of people who have feminist or lefty politics were actually like, “I don’t want to see this movie because it’s going to be retrograde.” But maybe a day after the release a clip of the movie was uploaded to Facebook and that’s really when right-wingers started saying they were going to “boycott” the movie. I’m not sure what contextualized the clip—I can’t remember if it was someone being like, “yeah girls rock” or like, “OMG our Christian values!” But more interesting to me was how bad the clip is. It was filmed inside a theatre, so the color is super distorted. The scene looks dark and moody, and I saw this [clip] before actually seeing the movie, so then in the theatre when the speech scene is as bright as all the other Barbiedom scenes, I was really thrown off. But it was interesting to me how there was this discord between watching it circulating online and then actually watching it in the theatre—whether it’s [the movie] not delivering on the discourse or the cheap image circulation, it’s impacting how we receive the “correct” movie object in the “correct” movie space.

Extremely online and in theatres near you—

Sarah: Barbie is a cultural moment speaking to the physical and the digital—people are palpably excited to go to the movie theatre again, like the 1-2 punch of Barbenheimer.

Júlia: In Brazil, the movie theatres had some deal where if you bought an Oppenheimer ticket, you got a discounted Barbie ticket, so there were all these TikToks about dressing in Barbie-pink and then filming yourself buying an Oppenheimer ticket. I don’t totally get what the joke is—I guess that women are watching Oppenheimer, too? Or that people love a deal? I don’t know.

Sarah: It’s worth noting how much internet culture has driven the [hype] of the film. From a digital studies perspective, it’s interesting that a lot of the uncontainable dialogue happens online. My disappointment about the film isn’t really the film’s fault. The movie was a productive vessel for dialogue, but in the end, an hour and fifty-five minutes simply couldn’t contain or meet the expectations of that online discourse. The internet made Barbie a film that it couldn’t possibly have been, and there’s something cool about that.

Júlia: Yeah, I definitely agree. It’s also really hard for me to uncouple Barbie from Barbenheimer. These two movies are seemingly such different film objects (aside from being like mega production value auteur vehicles) yet the meme discourse made them the same in my head. Like, both in Brazil with the ticket deal and in the American media that I was seeing on my socials. Like did you see the Japanese backlash to all the Barbenheimer jokes? And how people started posting, like, Barbenheimer 9/11 memes? Which in itself just feels like so many levels of internet culture…

Sarah: It’s fascinating how Barbie caused geopolitical tensions—you wouldn’t expect it. The more productive glitches aren’t in the world of the movie, but rather in our real world. In that way, maybe the glitches Barbie opens up are actually in our online reception and not in the theatre, despite it being a movie that drove audiences back to the space of the movie theatre. The ways in which we shared and talked about Barbie using the tools of memes, circulation, and other cheap image creation ultimately gives us a more interesting glitch than the one posed by the film itself. [The internet] made Barbie a better film. I kind of feel bad for anybody who saw it without engaging in any of the surround because, for me, that was the actual film experience. Any disappointment I have in the film itself is recuperated in the discourse around it and the way the internet works.