The Shocking Success of ‘Barbie’

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Barbenheimer—the one-two punch releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer—will go down in history as an astonishing success. Together, Variety reports, the films made more than $244 million in their opening weekend, the fourth-largest in US history. Barbie’s $162 million was the biggest ever for a female director, putting Greta Gerwig ahead of Patty Jenkins’ $103 million debut for Wonder Woman. It’s been such a smashing success that pundits are declaring the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on theatergoing officially “over.”

Talking heads are also issuing big “wow”s over the surprising accomplishments of Barbie in particular. How did a film, awash in pink and feminism, climb to the top in a season normally dominated by superhero capes and dudes in souped-up cars? The short answer here is that the movie is fun—its coup shouldn’t be a shock. But the more complicated explanation is that Barbie managed to do this despite the many things working against it.

The most obvious of these, I would guess, is misogyny. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, the common wisdom remains that movies by and about women don’t do well, especially ones with overt feminist messaging. Yet, even as conservative commentator Ben Shapiro called it “one of the most woke movies I have ever seen” and Senator Ted Cruz from Texas called it “Chinese communist propaganda” (long story), audiences embraced its messaging to the tune of millions.

But that’s just the beginning. Those dustups probably would have happened no matter what. Barbie’s more surprising obstacles came in the form of Hollywood’s dual labor union strikes, which greatly impacted promotion for the film. After talks with the major studios broke down and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) began their work stoppage, SAG members—every star in the movie, basically—could no longer do interviews or go on social media to promote the film. Barbie’s big pink-carpet premiere happened before the strike began, but after that it was lights out.

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SAG’s strike also meant that influencers were loath to promote the movie. Not all influencers are members of the union, but many aspire to be, and participating in promotion of the film by going to events or sharing their reactions on social media could endanger that. As one TikTok influencer told The New York Times this week, having to decide between doing their work and supporting the striking actors felt like being “in a really messy family feud,” adding, “You don’t want to be one of those people that was willing to take a check instead of standing in support of people fighting for actual livable wages.”

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