Greenwashing Toxic Fantasies in the Media
At one of the war fronts of third-wave feminism is Barbie Roberts, a woman who did not have a surname until well into this century and if that surname is an indication of her ethnic heritage, she’s a Scot like myself. Canonically, she has been many things but Mattel has settled on making her a high school senior in an almost platonic, barely romantic, but genuinely loving relationship with her BFF/boyfriend, Ken, and resident of the famous bourgeois suburb of Los Angeles of Malibu, California. In her evolution in this century, she has gone from being mostly a doll to the protagonist of a media franchise. That media franchise has gone from her living in a world of literal plastic to making her fictional world fleshy, organic, and more relatable and from being a fashionista with the pretensions of a young adult Blair Waldorf or Regina George to a much kinder, late adolescent, without gainful employment whose hobby is being a social media influencer who is openly anti-racist and pro-feminist.
Owing to her pivot, her franchise has successfully dampened the cries from self-image oriented feminism. Did it work? Is she woke, now? That would be contingent on how one defines woke. I would argue that she isn’t woke enough in the right ways. Most of all, because she is a vicarious fantasy of the hedonistic lusts of most of her audience. While not as flagrantly consumerist as she used to be, she does live in a large suburban house with a driveway and seems to commute around the relatively small geography of Malibu with an internal combustion engine. That fantasy is harmful both for reasons of the environment and housing. Ten miles to the southeast of her home are 85,000 homeless people camped out in Los Angeles, a significant number of which are undoubtedly children who count themselves among her fans.
Personally, I think her pivot to wokeness should have had her become a surfer version of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street where she should have kept her cool California chick and fashionista vibe but with devotion to service and a true compassion for fellow humans and instead of Malibu, she and her friends would live in lofts in downtown LA to promote higher density to increase housing supply and decrease carbon emissions. She should also return to gainful employment, as an educational communicator with a degree in psychology and communications. Possibly with student loans and a life subsidized by her parents. Also, giving her a diverse friend group in terms of disability, religion, gender, class, and politics. Being of Scottish descent, one imagines she is a mainline Protestant and that would be the least problematic in terms of global politics if Mattel would like to keep their protagonist (and thus franchise) palatable to Tehran, Tel Aviv, Lhasa, and Sarajevo. Episcopalians offend no one. And that some of her friends would be in the homeless camps of that most fair city. That would all make it less toxic and more wholesome.
I use her as an example of a wider issue in the media. The values that she represents are having everything you want and making no sacrifice out of love. Whatever gesture she makes in the direction of moderate feminism and anti-racism, she makes none in the direction of humanity while continuing to live the dream the NIMBYs in her home state are fighting to preserve at the expense of millions of people and the whole environment. There are lots of “liberals” willing to endorse ostensibly progressive stances on identity politics if it doesn’t involve bringing the icky people into their purview.
The fantasy she represents is the reason there are 85,000 homeless people in Los Angeles who she has never mentioned or volunteered in charity for ever in her life despite living a mere ten miles away from them and being a proficient driver. Growing up in special ed, none of the shows I watched on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon had special eds. While they would often have token racial minorities, they had no one with disabilities. That was because they were vicarious fantasies of bourgeois suburbia where the characters were who they wanted to be, attractive and popular, and as I grew into adulthood, while the content became more sexual and violent, it didn’t become much more inclusive in its casting or kind in its messaging. Homeland, Game of Thrones, Keeping up with the Kardashians were all vicarious fantasies of rich people with no stigmatized characteristics or altruistic ambitions.
Even relatively famous examples of inclusiveness fail laughably, such as the vintage example of Titanic in which Jack Dawson, despite being officially poor, shares none of the hardships of the average Edwardian poor person and, when compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is apparent that the deuteragonist is actually a rich white person sanitizing poor people to be just like modern rich people (that is rich but without the class or etiquette, those things being the only real difference between Jack’s and Rose’s respective cultures as the poor wanted for nothing and had every material pleasure they desired) for the comfort of the audience.
Also, the poor wanting for nothing and being seemingly middle class in comfort in Titanic suggests empathy isn’t needed. The only helping people that needs to be done in the piece is lifting social restrictions. It treats class conflict as identity politics. It is a world where no one is really oppressed and no one has to sacrifice for people less fortunate than them. In fact the only real sacrifice is a poor person dying for a rich person and it only happened in an extreme and unlikely circumstance, absent that then no one would have sacrificed for anyone. For all intents and purposes, there was no love, no sacrifice, no empathy like most of the pieces in pop culture like it.
While there are certainly exceptions to this trend, the most successful and most common media sell to people’s ultimately base fantasies to the detriment of everybody because, returning to Barbie, a large suburban house in Malibu makes people in South-Central homeless and the lifestyle is selfish both in its hedonism and its lack of any charity or altruism. She isn’t woke and for all of the vices she has abandoned and virtues she has gained, the lifestyle her brand is pornography of is toxic to the planet and callous to the humans on it. It is shallow virtue signaling of upper-middle class liberals who support progressive values until and if those values raise their property taxes or force them to socially miscegenate with the lower orders of society. Barbie Roberts may or may not still cause self-image issues for girls but the lifestyle she advertises and contributes to the mass pursuit of does give the Gulf Coast hurricanes and people making less than $35,000 per year the adventurous fun of urban camping and it is a world where Asperger’s people like me don’t exist. And so does every show more adult than hers which sells itself as a vicarious fantasy of selfishness and affluence and an exclusivity toward anyone different or socially marginalized.