The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Watching 'Barbie,' 'Top Gun Maverick' & 'Mission: Impossible'

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 9, 2023 - 05:30

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Three recent blockbuster movies, “Barbie,” “Top Gun Maverick” and “Mission: Impossible -- Dead Reckoning” have one thing in common. They invariably deal with the compelling issues we are now facing in this challenging era. “Barbie” delves into the core issues of feminism. “Top Gun Maverick” portrays the virtues of the maverick spirit that we need to cope with the international crisis caused by countries that are threatening to use nuclear weapons. “Mission: Impossible” deals with the challenges of technology, such as the danger that rogue AI would pose to humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.

Obviously, these movies owe much of their enormous popularity to the end of the pandemic, which has liberated people from long confinement at home. Undoubtedly, however, the main reason for their success is that viewers, who are frustrated by a psychological cul-de-sac due to stifling domestic and international conditions, feel a sense of catharsis by watching them.

“Barbie” is about America’s most famous collectible fashion doll, created by Ruth Handler and manufactured by Mattel since 1959. For a long time, Barbie had an image problem, in that she seemed to embody the cookie-cutter ideal image of women embraced by a culture biased in favor of white men. Thus, Mattel began creating new versions of ethnically different dolls and different body shapes to suit radical social changes.

In the movie “Barbie,” the protagonist Barbie and her fellow Barbies reside in a matriarchal society called Barbieland where women dominate and men are dependent, unable to find their identities without women. One day, Barbie travels to the real world, which is the opposite of Barbieland. She finds that the real world is a patriarchal society where men rule the world.

In the real world, Barbie meets her owner Sasha and her mother, Gloria, who is an employee of Mattel. Gloria, frustrated by the predicament of a woman in a patriarchal society, says, “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard!” Then she continues, “It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you.”

At the end of the movie, Barbie decides to leave Barbieland permanently for the real world even though it is full of challenges. Barbie says that she wants to be a part of a group that makes meaning, not a thing that is made. From now on, she declares she will be truly independent and self-confident in a patriarchal world, even though it takes women’s efforts for granted and has glass ceilings to break.

The movie “Barbie” met some challenges. Vietnam banned the movie because “Barbie” displays a map of Asia with the nine-dash line, a controversial maritime border claimed by China in the South China Sea. The Philippines requested Warner Bros. to blur the lines in the map.

In “Top Gun Maverick,” Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is much older now, after 30 years of being Top Gun. Still, however, his maverick spirit is undeterred. Maverick is now a US Navy captain who is a test pilot. His former Top Gun rival, Iceman, has become an admiral, and yet Maverick has not been promoted to a flag rank despite his outstanding accomplishments, because his defiant spirit has resulted in charges of insubordination.

Rear Admiral Cain reminds Maverick that times have changed and the former Top Gun’s heydays are over now. Cain points out that drones will replace old-fashioned crewed fighter aircrafts soon, saying: “The future is coming -- and you’re not in it.” Then, Maverick answers, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.” Maverick boldly refuses to be categorized as old-fashioned and accomplished a seemingly impossible mission of destroying a hostile country’s nuclear facility hidden in an underground bunker in a canyon, heavily defended by superb GPS jammers and cutting-edge missiles

Despite his age, Maverick is an embodiment of the American frontier spirit, independence, and individualism. Overcoming ageism and prejudice, Maverick encourages today’s older generation hopelessly pushed to the margins by the technology-oriented younger generation these days. The movie also appeals to South Koreans, who have to live with a belligerent nuclear-armed North Korea.

In “Mission: Impossible -- Dead Reckoning,” an advanced AI in a Russian submarine goes rogue and kills all the crew by sinking the sub. Ethan Hunt and his fellow agents hunt down a rogue AI called the Entity, the most lethal and terrifying weapon ever created, which has the power to destroy all of humanity. Surely, it looks like a “mission impossible,” and yet Hunt successfully accomplishes the mission and saves the world.

In reality, it seems impossible to solve the problems feminism confronts. It also seems to be a “mission impossible” to end the Ukraine War, the South China Sea dispute and North Korea’s threats with nuclear weapons. In fantasy, however, our movie heroes such as Barbie, Maverick or Ethan Hunt accomplish seemingly impossible missions, thereby giving us catharsis.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.