The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
Episode 4: Man Up! (whatever that means)

Episode 4: Man Up! (whatever that means)

The villain in "Barbie" isn't patriarchy. It's much worse.
Barbie merchandise display at the Warner Bros. Studio Store in Burbank, CA.

All this for a doll? REALLY???

Yep. And for good reason. The words “cultural phenomenon” get thrown around, but Barbie definitely qualifies. I was all ready for Oppenheimer to be my “movie of the summer”, and once that was done I’d make time for the plastic doll who’s got it all. Truth is, Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the man who helped unleash the atomic bomb was brilliant… but not, in my opinion, as thought provoking as I expected it to be. I loved the movie, but it didn’t leave me with as much to talk about.

Barbie had me yakking like a Chatty Cathy. And I instantly knew what I wanted to say.

This week I’m breaking down this movie (with spoilers). Surprisingly, there’s much more to it than most of us expected. Barbie is about a children’s toy, but it’s not really a children’s movie. No wonder a lot of critics didn’t get it, or want it, and some couldn’t contain their burning hatred of it. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s hatred literally burned: his video review began with him appearing to light a Barbie & a Ken doll on fire, leaving them to scream in agony.

Here’s the thing, though: I believe a lot of the movie’s fans missed its deeper point, too. To many of them, this movie was largely a takedown of patriarchy in its depiction of Barbie’s existential crisis and her conflict with Ken. That’s… kind of true? But you don’t need a movie to do that — I think we’re already clear on whether we support the relegation of women or not! (For the record, I’m a solid “not”.)

Patriarchy is no more the villain of Barbie than the ring is the villain of The Hobbit. That’s just the weapon. The real enemy is the impulse that led to the weapon’s use. That’s the case I make in this episode. Didn’t expect it to be as emotional for me as it was, but… well, I guess I needed to watch this movie more than I thought I did.

The Barbie review starts 31 minutes into this episode. Again, with spoilers. Even if you don’t plan to ever see the movie, you should definitely listen: I run through the entire storyline for you. That way if someone you know wants to talk about the film, you’ll be clued in.

Masculinity is one of the many taboo topics I’m eager to talk more about. It’s had something of a political moment lately, as Politico Magazine examined in a recent issue. Before we talk movies, this episode begins in conversation with that issue’s editor, looking at the politics of manhood today. The word “manhood” seems to be an all-purpose container for all kinds of traits and virtues. A number of writers have been considering how we might sharpen this definition. Who knows if we’ll ever resolve this debate: even John Adams and Alexander Hamilton disagreed on what it means to be a “real man”.

(Ed. Note: in the episode I accidentally said “Thomas Jefferson” when I meant Alexander Hamilton. I caught the error just as I was about to publish the show and noted it in the episode. Sorry about that.)

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has made this one of his signature political issues. Back in 2021 he spoke at the National Conservatism Conference, arguing that the virtues needed to safeguard liberty include what he called “the manly virtues”. If that sounds a bit chauvinistic, then you should definitely listen to the episode’s first segment. A Politico/Ipsos poll shows some meaningful overlaps in how Democrats and Republicans view masculinity today.

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Next week’s episode breaks down the controversy over country star Jason Aldean’s latest single, “Try That In A Small Town”.

It just came out a few weeks ago, and the video has already been edited to remove some Black Lives Matter footage. We’ll dive into it with Prof. Adam Gussow from the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

And in two weeks, I’ll be doing an Ask Me Anything episode! It’s been about a month since the show launched… that seems like a good time to mix things up a bit. Now, we’re all adults — you know what I mean by “anything”, right? Right! You can ask about me personally, about something in the headlines, something fun or anything else you can think of. I’ll be as much of an open book as I can. Feel free to email me your questions if you’ve got something in mind now — I’ll remind you closer to the date of the AMA.

As always, thank you for supporting The Night Light with Joshua Johnson. Take care of yourself, and keep on shining. Someone, somewhere, needs your light right now.

The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
Bright, nonpartisan insights on news & culture from former NPR & MSNBC host Joshua Johnson.