Barbie isn't just a children's movie about a doll. We all know that. It evidently carries a feminist message, but does it succeed? Since its premiere, Greta Gerwig's film has been a box office sensation, receiving mostly positive feedback. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the high expectations, some argue that it isn't a good feminist film.
They point to countless more feminist movies that didn't achieve the same recognition. This may be true, but is it necessarily a bad thing?
Note: this is an opinion piece with significant spoilers. It's also essential to mention that different perspectives on the feminist representation in Barbie are entirely valid. Why, in my opinion, are there such diverse views among feminists? Possibly because it isn't a deep analytical film about the subject.
In Barbie, the issues with patriarchy are presented somewhat exaggeratedly, showcasing the extremes. On one side, Barbie's initial world where women hold the power, and on the other, the new paradigm imposed by Ken upon entering the real world. While these may not be realistic extremes, which has upset some feminists, it's an intriguing way to address the issue, especially to young girls and teenagers who might think they're merely watching a doll's life.
Saying ‘No' Without Fear
A striking moment in the film's early scenes is Barbie's firm refusal when Ken invites her to stay at his house. “No, because I don't want to.” She says this with a smile, not intending to hurt but merely expressing her feelings.
Barbie lives in a utopia, where she's never experienced the discomfort of a man pressing her for time or fearing some men's (not all) reaction to rejection. Thus, she voices her opinions freely.
This event sets the tone for the film's narrative – a deep dive into feminism from extreme angles, and of course, with a touch of humor.
If Barbie chooses to party with her friends, she declines Ken without hesitation.
Feminism Through Patriarchy's Stereotypes
Some criticize Barbie for being filled with clichés. In my view, clichés are a problem when used unintentionally. In Barbie, however, they are piled deliberately to resonate with girls, teenagers, women, and hopefully some men.
Women have recently begun discussing these subjects openly. Previously, we might have shared these topics among ourselves but not publicly. The silence is problematic, as unspoken issues seem non-existent. Barbie may exaggerate, but the situations are rooted in reality.
For instance, the film aptly illustrates mansplaining – when men condescendingly explain things to women who already understand. Almost every woman has experienced this. Journalist Rebecca Solnit captures this in her book “Men Explain Things to Me,” starting with a man attempting to explain her own book to her.
In Barbie, Kens take pride in explaining topics ranging from cinema to computing to Barbies well-versed in those fields. The movie also portrays men fighting over women as if they were trophies, relegating them to mere pretty faces whose role is domestic labor.
This old-school patriarchy, fortunately, is fading. But when Barbie and Ken step into the real world, we see challenges women still confront today.
The Glass Ceiling Issue
When Ken seeks employment in the real world, he's told that women have it easier now. Many employers lament that women receive undue advantages, when in reality, the aim is to level the playing field historically dominated by men.
This equality is still a goal rather than a reality. Mattel's offices exemplify this. Despite a female founder, all its executives are men. When Barbie inquires about the absence of women, they boast of having had a female director in the 90s.
We're again shown an exaggerated reality. But this bias is present in numerous sectors. Science, for instance, witnesses the glass ceiling phenomenon. Even in careers dominated by women, leadership roles are predominantly male. Multiple factors contribute, including career breaks women often take for motherhood, which isn't always supported and is sometimes even penalized.
Also, past barriers mean many women today lack the professional experience their male counterparts have. They're at a distinct disadvantage, making initiatives to support them not about placing them above men but about achieving equality.
This is referenced in the film. Towards the end, when the characters attempt to return to the initial Barbie world, Kens are allowed to assume more responsible roles, though not as high-ranking as the Barbies. They have years of catching up to do, paralleling real-world gender disparities.
From Perfect Barbie to Normal Barbie: A Feminist Statement
Barbie has evolved significantly since its inception. Initially showcasing an unrealistic body that many girls unfavorably compared themselves to, diverse Barbie models were later introduced with varied sizes, skin colors, and careers. This aimed to convey that girls can be anything they wish – from veterinarians to astronauts.
But Barbie also addresses another issue: What's wrong with being ordinary? One of the film's pivotal scenes features Gloria, a Mattel employee, discussing the pressures of female perfection with Barbie. Even today, women strive for perfection in appearance and roles – as students, mothers, daughters – to be taken seriously.
Men and women face different societal standards. A man with multiple partners is a ‘ladies' man', while a woman with similar experiences may be labeled negatively. If a man discusses sex, he's open-minded; a woman doing the same is desperate. Men's societal boundaries are blurry, but women's seem painfully defined.
Barbie, therefore, benefits feminism in my eyes. Girls and teens watching might just enjoy the humorous scenes, like Kens battling with rubber arrows and toy horses. But perhaps, deep down, a seed is sown that might sprout when they encounter mansplaining or job interview questions about motherhood intentions. If this seed blossoms at the right moment, Barbie has served its purpose. I believe it can.
I'm a big fan of short stories about people – I'm a pro at tech and smartphones, serial literature, and writing in my spare time.