Wolfe in Barbieland
There is a theme in “Barbie” that resonates as Wolfeian. Ken feels that he does not exist until Barbie looks at him with admiration. He therefore spends his life doing things he hopes might draw her attention and approval — the first effort we see in the film is of him failing to do so, even as he’s doing what he knows he does best — “beach.” Frustrated that the person he most craves attention from is mostly drawn to other things — for stereotypical Barbie, its her other Barbies, their clothing, their parties, their together-happiness — he resolves to create Patriarchy, where all his bros can orchestrate a society where they can pretend they only need women as supplements to themselves. They’re married, rather, to their mini-fridges, and their horses. No bullshit.
You often find in Wolfe times where the main protagonist remarks how he, after drawing a woman’s admiring attention…. a mother, or a lover, felt ten-feet tall! She looked at me and I swooned! But it also can be a very rare thing, that admiring look, something to be remembered forever (as for example the look Nettle gave Horn after he “rescued” the great Silk), perhaps for its rareity, and many often end up wondering if these woman really had any interest in them at all.
Severian judges this, after he overhears Thecla summarizing him as just some boy she used to pass away some prison time with, Peace’s Alden Weer judges this after his time with his replacement mother, Olivia, is finally over (I was just a boarder to her), and There are Doors’ Green probably worries about this when he learns that the person he must have thought loved him, Laura, sought him out owing mostly to his being someone others wouldn’t bother listening to, not a nobody, but a society’ castoff, a mental patient. Like Ken, most of them end up expressing a great deal of anger over this, with perhaps Able being the best example, when he explodes at Idnn after she shows her focus on him was because she saw before her a useful tool.
Ken conjures Patriarchy, a shield against being hurt again (for Wolfe, there are other means: in Free, Live Free, homosexuality is means to never be hurt again by a woman). Severian has all-male guilds, which exclude women because of the pain they can inflict. Able joins an all-male guild of knights, but a guild of knights which show the same means of being undone in their Patriarchy that is exploited by the barbies in Barbie. In the movie, to restore matriarchy, the Barbies exploit the fact that the Kens, whatever their patriarchy, are still at base very dependent on their approval for their self-worth. They end up switching partners, abandoning, all of a sudden, the Ken they were with, for some other Ken, making each one feel insignificant and lost, and this leads to great battles where champions war against one-another: a WW2 of great carnage. And while they lay waste to each-other, the women reclaim the constitution. In the WizardKnight, King Arnthur’s wife, Gaynor, switches off her support of her husband onto Able (she’s suspected of sleeping with other knights). Even if he were as poorly endowed as a Ken, stipulated in text, she’d still like to see what he’s like underneath his pants (she expresses a dove’s moan when he refuses to disrobe). Every knight, every “k(e)night,” desperately desires to serve as her champion, be the one picked to fight for her favour. Like Kens, they don’t fight for themselves, but for the approval of women. Gaynor expects that he will die, but even as Able knows he won’t, even if he knew what he was eager to agree to was suicide, it wouldn’t have balked his pleasure at an opportunithy to please her, earn her declaration that he is the only friend she has of all the forty Ken-Knights in her possession). She doesn’t do so to enact matriarchy, but one does note that WizardKnight ends with great battles between men, with the great men departed, and with three queens in charge. A similar fate occurs after the battles in the whorl as well. Mint and the Triv., rule.
In the movie, stereotypical Barbie ends up apologizing to Ken. She says she was definitely wrong to abandon him like she did. Sometimes, she says, I really should have stayed with you, not departed for my Barbie-parties. He thanks her for saying this (it’s a nice moment; bravo to both of them!), and is encouraged to find out a different way of having self-worth other than gaining her approval, or in the Patriarchy he contrived to pretend he never needed her in the first place.
Something of this feeling is to be felt in some Wolfe’ books. In There are Doors, Green finally has Laura — his Barbie, and a very close simulacra of stereotypical Barbie — recognize him. This doesn’t lead to his finally not needing her attention as much, but it feels like a first step. Other books, though — Short Sun in particular — deal with male protagonists who lost that admiring look from their partners, and we’re left with “Kens” who conduct themselves vis-a-vis their partners so they can barely risk seeing if their partners could come to take them seriously or not. Horn-Silk admires himself for being able to actually look at Nettle, straight in the eyes rather than downward a good bit, after he acknowledges he brought the entity who preyed on her precious son Sinew, the inhumi, back to her as an ostensible daughter, as someone she would be expected to receive generously, and, indeed, this WAS pretty brave. It’d be like Ken looking to gain Barbie’s approval after creating Patriarchy. No chance.
Another part of “Barbie” involves stereotypical Barbie helping restore a mother who is falling apart. Barbie learns that to restore herself, to keep her becoming worse off than Weird Barbie, she has to restore a mother, someone currently playing with the Barbie doll, who is distraught at aging, at the loss of her daughter, as her daughter moves on to her own adult life, and at the prospect of death. It is possible to argue that the whole plot of New Sun involves that of a hero’s effort to restore a Mother Urth that has become ill. The concept that a whole realm might find itself assunder — which is what it feels like when the original Barbie, when stereotypical Barbie, starts being not-Barbieish — is seen in WizardKnight, as giants involved in a battle against a nemesis, against humans, pretty much stop everything to find some means of finding at least a temporary cure for a mad mother who makes a sudden very visible appearance in battle. Stop her pain, getting her quick into the therapy shop, the Room of Lost Loves, or the realm itself, dies, is the feeling. Silk talks about having a mother who was so depressed he could barely entertain her out of her isolation to attend to him. He, like Remora, end up finding themselves in professions — for Silk, a great… the greatest, politician; for Remora, pretty much the inverse, a common priest tending to the poor– which brings great joy to his/their mother(s): they are what their mothers had intended for them to be (Skip, in Home Fires, hopes that whatever he is doing on earth is helping heal his dead mother’s pain, a dead mother, who may he thinks actually be alive, watching him, in some other place).
Horn himself refuses this outcome, he actually leaves behind his sick mother — one must, or one doesn’t grow up, he contends — whose intentions for him were destroying him, and he is perhaps “Barbie’s” closes equivalent to the girls we see in the first part of the film, whose autonomy isn’t quiet but involves trashing everything sentimental in sight. It also makes him close to Interlibrary Loan’s Adah, one of Wolfe’s great pariahs.