Barbie Girl in a Consumer World: A review of “Barbie” 

Photo by Sandra Gabriel on Unsplash.

(includes spoilers)

The movie of the summer, “Barbie,” directed by Greta Gerwig, swept theaters by storm and features 95 minutes of pink scenery and dance sequences — with a side of consumer-friendly feminism. More than just a fun and lighthearted movie, many moviegoers have praised “Barbie” for its feminist message and celebration of girlhood. The criticism “Barbie” has faced as “anti-man,” shows the existing tensions within today’s political and cultural environment. “Barbie” is rightly celebrated as a heartwarming and witty movie, and further, the idea of women’s empowerment that “Barbie” preaches is valuable and starts an important conversation. 

While “Barbie” makes a good-faith effort to right the wrongs of Mattel’s rocky past and paint Barbie as a feminist icon — rather than a symbol of unrealistic beauty standards — it would be amiss to ignore the selective subversion that the film employs. While it criticizes some elements of patriarchy, it ignores some of the broader socioeconomic issues that impact women. Despite the upbeat soundtrack and message of female empowerment, I couldn’t help the sinking feeling that I was watching a pink and campy commercial for Mattel as the film attempted to cleverly rebrand Barbie as a feminist icon and move beyond its problematic past to sell countless brand deals and its up-and-coming slate of blockbusters. 

Played by Margot Robbie in the film, Barbie lives in the idyllic world of Barbieland alongside a group of diverse Barbies who collectively run politics: all the problems of feminism have been solved and everyday is perfect. In Barbieland, all the Barbies love and support each other, and all the Kens’ existence revolves around the Barbies. 

The main tension in the movie occurs when Barbie begins to experience un-Barbie-like symptoms, like flat feet (gasp!), messy hair and thoughts of death. Barbie consults “Weird Barbie,” played by Kate Mckinnon, who tells her that she must enter the Real World to return back to her perfect life. Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, is Barbie’s himbo-like sidekick who “only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.” Ken accompanies Barbie on her journey where he becomes entranced with real world patriarchy where men rule everything.

When Barbie enters the real world, she’s shocked to find out that women face constant sexism and meets the stressed Mattel employee, Gloria, played by America Ferrera, and her snarky teenage daughter, Sahsa, played by Ariana Greenblatt. Ken returns back to Barbieland where he turns the Dreamhouse into the “Mojo Dojo Casa House,” and the Kens take over Barbieland. Barbie, Gloria and Sasha later return to Barbieland and use feminist one-liners to convert the Barbies back to their normal selves, after which the Barbies take back their world as the Kens fight amongst themselves. Eventually, Ken comes to recognize that patriarchy isn’t the solution to finding himself and commits himself to finding out his identity outside of Barbie. 

Many moviegoers and online commentators have praised Barbie as a feminist movie — and for good reasons as the film is filled with a diverse cast, women in positions of power and a clear message that patriarchy is harmful to all. Critics have raved about Gerwig’s sly commentary and praised the film as “…an ernest and vulnerable take on womanhood…” by the Indepdendent’s Clarisse Loughrey. The Barbie craze has taken over popular culture with people praising the film as celebrating girlhood and spreading a positive message. Online, debates have sprung up with several critics — such as from political commentator Ben Shapiro — as they argue that the movie is “too woke.” It’s easy to see how the Barbie controversy shows the larger political and cultural battles going on surrounding women’s rights and right-wing criticism of culture that is viewed to be “woke” due to its emphasis of women’s empowerment and commitment to diversity. 

There are a lot of things “Barbie” got right in its message, and as I watched the movie in an audience mostly of women and girls who dressed up in pink, it was pretty clear that this movie was special in many ways. In the audience, there were lots of laughs as relatable moments, such as the Kens playing guitar “at” the Barbies when attempting to serenade them and mansplaining movies. The movie resonated with a multitude of women, many of whom cheered when America Ferrera delivered her now famous monologue on the double standards that women experience in society. In many ways, the film had more depth than expected from a movie about a doll, especially with touching moments of Barbie experiencing human emotion and a heartwarming montage of home videos of women and girls.

The message and cultural impact of “Barbie” is one that is important in today’s society, but it would be naive to cast “Barbie” as a feel-good movie that uplifts women without recognizing and addressing the legitimate criticisms surrounding the Barbie doll and Mattel. To this Barbie-skeptic, it seems misguided to praise “Barbie” as a subversive or progressive movie. For some people, including myself, the connotation and message that the Barbie doll carries is a challenging and problematic one as the doll arguably epitomizes the white, blonde, thin ideals of American beauty. Growing up, it was evident to me that Barbie did not represent me and served as a reinforcement that beauty was white, tall, thin and had unrealistically large breasts. 

Mattel has recently attempted to undo the harms that Barbie dolls have inflicted upon girls by distorting their body image and promoting unrealistic standards of beauty. However, to some critics of Barbie, the message seems ironic and insincere: the same company that launched a Slumber Party Barbie with books telling girls “Don’t Eat” is now attempting to rebrand as a feminist and socially-conscious. Of course, this move matches the current corporate climate in which brands use progressive slogans and latch onto social movements to sell more products. 

As I watched “Barbie,” I couldn’t help but see “girlboss feminism,” which is a specific brand of feminism that commodifies women’s empowerment to sell products and promotes women’s liberation as being productive members of society under capitalism. “Barbie” seems to be the epitome of “girlboss feminism” in which Barbieland is portrayed as a feminist utopia because women can be any profession and women’s liberation is as simple as taking back their dream houses and returning to work. 

While it’s unrealistic to expect “Barbie,” a movie about dolls, to touch on all aspects of intersectional feminism, it’s notable that aspects of inequality such as class, sexuality and race are basically absent from the feminist message under the assumption that Barbieland is a utopia because Barbies and Kens of all races and sizes coexist. “Barbie” clearly confronts some of the real-life issues and systems of oppression, mostly the notion of patriarchy, but in the most inoffensive and simplified way possible. 

According to “Barbie,” patriarchy is exemplified in montages of men making money, objectifying women and transforming Barbie’s pink world into the “Mojo Dojo Casa House,” filled with horses and cowboy decor. While objectification and the relegation of women to lower positions are certainly characteristics of patriarchy, the more noxious elements of patriarchy are barely addressed: the persistent wage gap, systemic erasure of women’s reproductive rights and the intersection of other oppressions that often impact women, such as racism, ableism and homophobia, to mention a few. 

Further, the movie’s portrayal of patriarchy fails to address the systemic and embedded nature of sexism by showing that patriarchy is “over” when Barbies take back Barbieland and the Kens, the patriarchal oppressors, were largely misguided and insecure men. This seemingly misses the mark. Patriarchy isn’t easily defeated nor is it merely misguided; it’s an intentional structure of power that cannot be toppled over the course of a few dance sequences. Mattel is clearly launching its largest marketing and rebranding campaign off of the same demographic that it used to sell dolls that promoted white, thin beauty standards. 

Throughout the movie, the film pokes fun at Barbie’s problematic past, often through the snarky teenager, Sasha, who acts as the voice of criticism. However, it seemed as if the valid critiques Sasha brings up are laughed off or largely unresolved. The movie is clever, and it makes sure to let the audience know as it slips in jokes about Mattel leadership being full of white, incompetent men who act as the antagonists who try to put Barbie in a box. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the movie prompts its audience to wonder how the stuffy Mattel suits would let these jokes slide. Viewed critically, these self-deprecating jokes can be seen as a ploy to reconstruct the viewers’ perception of Mattel as a hip and self-aware company, rather than a remote and unrelatable corporation.

Overall, “Barbie” is a great movie if you’re expecting a fun and lighthearted film, but just like the doll, its feminist message is plastic and not very deep. 

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