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The Barbie Movie Does Not Need To Be Feminist

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated Barbie created somewhat of a cultural renaissance, catapulting both the franchise and merchandise back into the mainstream. Like most people, I was immediately thrilled for the film’s release, and having seen Gerwig’s other work, I was excited to see her take on the infamous Barbie, which I expected would include feminist critiques of the doll and what it represents. 

Before discussing the more serious themes within the movie, I believe it is important to recognize that media pieces can simply be enjoyed for what they are. Oftentimes, when a story centers around a marginalized group, there tends to be pressure on both the creators and viewers to perfectly cover all grounds and consider all nuances; the political dynamics of the story become more pronounced. There is no shame in enjoying the shameless embrace of all things pink and girly, and participating in a cultural experience; in this case, one that creates a sense of bonding among women, allowing us to ravish in things we are supposed to loudly reject if we want to be taken seriously.

That being said, I can’t help but analyze any piece of media I consume; to me, it is another layer of engaging with media. Entertainment and intellectualism, in my opinion, are equally valuable. I went to see the movie, decked out in all pink, and fully enjoyed all aspects of the marketing campaign I was exposed to, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also equally enjoyed the conversation that followed with the people I saw it with, and the bond we got to share, as we were given space and opportunity to discuss shared struggle (as prompted by the movie).

I have seen and read different reviews of Barbie, and unsurprisingly there is a wide range of opinions on the film and its feminist themes, and most of them are completely valid. Personally, I’m having a hard time deciding if Gerwig’s Barbie is worthy of getting the feminist stamp of approval. 

barbie movie behind the scenes 0003?width=1024&height=1024&fit=cover&auto=webp

When analyzing the feminist politics of the film, I believe there are two aspects to consider; the plot and story within the film, as well as the real world implications from the creation of the film to the marketing. 

Because of the nature of this movie, and the fact that it caters to a specific (marginalized) audience, the simple creation of it is, in and of itself, political. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, for example, while it certainly can be and is enjoyed by everyone, are very traditionally “masculine”, and there hasn’t really been a feminine counterpart, and definitely not one that is nearly as culturally and critically acclaimed. Entertainment catering to masculine interests is undoubtedly prioritized and given more respect; “chick flicks”, as indicated by the name, are reduced to silly boring movies, largely regarded by society, for years, as a less serious form of entertainment, a treatment not extended to superhero movies. The live-action Barbie movie, in my opinion, emulates the almost child-like excitement many have for the MCU movies; an opportunity for women and femmes to embrace and reclaim what, for many, was their first engagement with femininity and girlhood.

While we are on the topic of MCU, another comparison I would like to draw between their and Barbie’s social impact, is the resulting political discourse. The Barbie movie encapsulates, by most standards, very mild, non-threatening feminist messaging ( a point I will discuss later), and does not portray violence or any, even slightly, inappropriate scenes, yet it has been banned in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Kuwait, and many others. The countries banning the film have done so in fear of its “feminist propaganda”, while simultaneously allowing Marvel movies, which feature a considerable amount of violence. It is quite telling to find more threat in an innocent, moderate dose of female empowerment, than in stories revolving around war and physical violence. 

The mere societal perception of a feminine, woman centered film, exposes quite a lot about the societal perception of women and feminity. It is no secret that masculinity is placed on a pedestal in our society, while femininity is ridiculed, both overtly and in subtle unspoken ways, and national bans of something as harmless as a barbie movie, in fear it would glorify womanhood too much, exemplify that.

For the reasons I just mentioned, I find myself reluctant to criticize the film for “not being feminist enough” with its storytelling. Has the movie done its job in terms of societal impact, because it prompted oppositions and conversations about the subject matter? If the film contained no feminist messaging at all, and was merely a live-action movie about dolls, would it still be considered “feminist”? Is the act of merely enjoying the girly aspect of the movie, and disengaging with masculinity, empowering? Is it more or less empowering than exerting the emotional energy it takes to analyze the feminist politics of the story?

It is just as hard for me to answer these questions as it is to decide what makes something “feminist” or truly “empowering”. Just like the barbies in Barbie land, real women are diverse and lead variously different lives, therefore finding empowerment in variously different things. Femininity, girlhood, and all things pink can represent empowerment to women who wish to reclaim the simple, unadulterated joys of womanhood, while other women see oppression in those very same things. Some people’s empowerment comes from femininity,and for others it comes from the rejection of it. Moreover, every woman’s experience with sexism and the patriarchy looks different. The issues discussed by the characters in the film, and the struggle of the “female experience” outlined by their conversations, may not be applicable for every woman; those struggles vary significantly across women of different races, religions, socioeconomic status, etc. 

Perhaps Gerwig’s Barbie did not make the ultimate nuanced feminist statement that is perfectly applicable and relatable to every woman; but does that mean it failed to make its point? I don’t believe so. 

margot robbie in a barbie movie
Warner Bros

As I mentioned before, stories centering the experiences of marginalized communities (in this case, women), are more frequently subject to criticism by said marginalized communities for “not doing enough” or not accurately portraying the community’s struggle. This claim is arguably true, and Barbie is not an exception. The movie mostly recognized struggles faced by heterosexual gender conforming women; it is not by any means intersectional in its storytelling. The specific struggles of women who are marginalized in ways other than gender – Disabled women, women of color, etc. — are not explicitly highlighted. However, I would argue that the simplicity of the feminist messaging is even more effective. 

In terms of storytelling, I do not believe a more “intellectual”, radically feminist plot line would translate well. Barbieland is meant to be a fantastical, “perfect” world. All the feminine things that are seen as “silly” in the real world are embraced in Barbieland. As the plot implies, Barbies were invented with the purpose of “empowering” young girls, giving them an option other than baby dolls to play with; an aspirational “perfect” woman –what every young girl should aspire to be. Here we see the first “contradiction” in the film’s feminist politics. The implication that Barbieland is a “perfect” version of the real world carries a lot of weight; in a perfect society without patriarchy, would patriarchal beauty standards still exist? Are the barbies wearing makeup and heels daily contradictory to the idea of a “perfect world” where the male gaze has no impact? Or is the physical appearance of the barbies a manifestation of perfection? The claim that Barbieland is perfect and a safe haven for women leaves room for questions about the film’s perception of what a world without patriarchy would look like. I do not believe this is a shortcoming of the storytelling, though; in fact, I appreciate the light-hearted tone of the movie and the campy feel of the plot. The film’s intention, in my opinion, is not to reimagine a world without patriarchy, but rather to limit the scope of “ending patriarchy”, so to speak. 

The dynamics in Barbie Land help create a limited plotline. The plotline resembles the real world evolution of patriarchal thinking and behaviors. If we were to view Barbie Land as a depiction of childhood, and the real world as a depiction of adulthood, the simplicity of Barbie Land becomes much more impactful. In the beginning of the movie, our main Barbie, as well as the other barbies, embrace femininity with joy and pride; not seeking the Kens’ approval, but not worried about their disapproval either, the Barbies prioritize their relationships with each other. When Barbie and Ken visit the real world, we see Ken slowly discovering the patriarchy, and we witness the drastic shift in his behavior, specifically his treatment of Barbie. In my opinion, this perfectly illustrates the transition from childhood into adolescence and adulthood, and how patriarchy plays into that. The effects of the real world – or in this analogy, adolescence/adulthood – are evident on both Barbie and Ken. As they arrive, we see Barbie immediately getting exposed to sexualization and harassment, while Ken has a newfound confidence – borderline arrogance – and a newfound sense of empowerment upon being viewed as a man. His previous feeling of inferiority to Barbie is replaced with resentment, and eventually harm to her and the other Barbies. When they are back in Barbie Land, Ken successfully mobilizes the other Kens by sharing his new patriarchal thinking with them. The Kens successfully manage to drive a wedge between the Barbies, and the joyful sisterhood we saw in the first few scenes is replaced by a world that feels all too familiar.

The movie makes it clear that its main objective is discussing patriarchy. The complexity that is in the nature of true intersectional feminism would simply derail the plot, creating an entirely different tone and messaging for the movie. As a depiction of the evolving dynamics between girls and boys as they become men and women, the movie is definitely a success. The increasing resentment and anger from the Kens and the decline in Barbie’s confidence, in a addition to the divide between the Barbies caused by the Kens, and the eventual solidarity and mobilization between the barbies is a perfectly laid out representation of real world patriarchy, and the way it effectively damages relationships across gender lines.

To be clear, I am just as opposed to empty representation as most people are. I believe if a movie is going to benefit from the diversity of its characters, it should do the due diligence of accurately portraying their experiences and/or struggles. However, I do believe Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a successful portrayal of a generally universal experience. It may have not acknowledged every nuanced consequence of the patriarchy, but it certainly prompts a deeper discussion, from the controversy surrounding its release to the themes discussed within the story. 

Political Science student, interested in Feminism & Gender Analysis, media, and especially their intersection.