I went to see the Barbie movie three times, once with family, once with friends, and once by myself. I’ve had treasured moments with close friends for whom the film opened doors and provided words to speak about their experiences. I’ve also had conversations with those who argue that the movie didn’t go far enough. I found the underlying principles and ideas very similar to the ones we have here at THIS IS GENDERED, namely education and illumination while not taking ourselves too seriously. So don’t worry, this won’t be a Screen Rant style preach about the movie, this will be a dive into Barbie, her history, and the roles she’s played in creating, or disseminating, gender roles.
Barbie was created first and foremost as a fashion doll in 1959. Initially, she encompassed everything that was seen as ‘good’ for a woman: tall, slim, and light-skinned with long blonde hair and ‘perfect proportions’ (I use the word perfect here to represent the views at the time, not because I agree. In fact, if Barbie had been a real human, her BMI would have been so low it is unlikely she would have been able to menstruate). Whilst this original Barbie provided a new style of play to young girls, she very much continued to reflect and influence dominant societal views of women’s role in society.
However, Barbie’s creators, Mattel, have allowed Barbie to evolve alongside changing perspectives on play and representation, namely by introducing a variety of ethnicities, body types, disabilities, and most famously, careers, although Barbie need not worry about the motherhood penalty or the gender pay gap in Barbieland. The Barbie we see today now challenges some gender norms around play, arguing that the dolls are for all children regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or disability, and in turn that those children can be anything they want to be, just like Barbie. Barbie is everything, and so are you.
So now we get to the movie. Yu Yutian, a freelancer from Beijing, encouraged her followers to use the Barbie movie as a test to see whether or not their man was “a normal guy with normal values and stable emotions”. For many women who have been alert to feminist issues, the Barbie movie presents nothing controversial. It talks about redefining yourself not based on your relationships, or even your career, but looking inside yourself and seeing the power that comes from within. This message applies to Kens just as much as it does to Barbies. The movie argues that the cage of patriarchy is a trap for men just as much as for women, even though the men hold the power in these systems, they are equally damaged by them.
For Yutian, any viewer should be able to pick up on this message, and should not find it offensive, but as we know, the backlash on the Barbie movie has been extreme. Some have argued that it represents a hatred of masculinity, is disrespectful, or encourages women to treat men as nothing more than an accessory. And while the last point is not entirely mute (Ken was literally an accessory for Barbie) I think the movie deals with the relationship between Barbie and Ken very tenderly: she does not belong to him, she does not love him, she owes him nothing, but she says all this without intentionally hurting his feelings.
However, Barbie is not beyond critique and still embodies those dangerous notions of beauty and consumerism. As Yu Yutian puts it, “I think it may be the best feminist expression that can exist in the commercial environment.” Barbie is still a fashion doll, and children are still encouraged to own every single accessory, and the promo for the movie, whilst genius, was a capitalist fest. The sheer amount of merchandise and collaborations is enough to blow anyone’s mind and anyone’s wallet. We may see the full Chevrolet advert in the middle of the movie as a beautiful ode to Barbie’s campness, but it does leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth.
This is with the knowledge that, as the movie points to, all but one of the current executive officers of Mattel are men. That’s not to say that men cannot intrinsically represent the interests of women, but the fact that these men have such power to determine what young girls will consume is quite a dark notion. The hilariously executed line: “We sell dreams, imagination, and sparkle. And when you think of sparkle, what do you think of next? Female agency.” says it all, there is an acceptable level of freedom and independence for women, a level that is palatable for men. From a very young age, our consumption and resulting thought processes are guided by those who control toys, media, and even Hollywood movies, and Barbie is far from immune to this.
Also, we cannot forget that everything to do with Barbie is made of plastic. Toys are the most plastic-intensive consumer goods in the world, and often cannot be recycled. Researchers estimate that every 182 gram doll causes about 660 grams of carbon emissions, including plastic production, manufacture, and transport. Mattel does have a recycling scheme where you can send the toys you are no longer playing with back to them for repurposing or downcycling, but this is only available in limited regions of the world. They have also announced that they will be making some new dolls out of ‘Ocean Bound’ recycled plastic, but these are minimal efforts, and arguably greenwashing.
Similarly, the movie’s relationship with gender itself has been criticised. Barbie and Ken are toys being played with by children so they necessarily imitate based on what they see and hear around them in a classic Butler-style gender spectacle. The reversal of typical gender expressions, in regard to relationships especially, strongly highlights the power dynamics behind the societal creation, and maintenance, of gender roles. When the Barbies are in charge, the Kens are free to do what they want, when the Kens discover patriarchy, the Barbies are forced to wait on them and wear sexy outfits.
In our world, this reality is much more violent. There are also questions being asked about this essentialism. As writer Emily St. James puts it, “The film’s storyline and its politics set up a kind of pure distillation of womanhood that seems specifically rooted in the cisgender experience and affords little room for anything outside a rigid understanding of gender.” She goes on to say that transgender women she knows are especially critiquing the film’s last line where they argue that Barbie’s visit to the gynaecologist is conflating having a vagina with being a ‘real woman’. Emily St. James takes a different reading, arguing that the film’s finale is about the reality of life, the messiness, the hardships, and one of the painful things we have to do is go to the gynaecologist. In the end, Barbie exists within a specific context, and we cannot remove her from it. She is a toy for young children, and so has an effect on us from an extremely young age, whether that is to inspire us to chase our dreams, or to make us believe we have to be beautiful to succeed. We can be encouraged by the journey that Barbie has been on, moving towards diversity and inclusivity as opposed to away from it. There are certain things that Barbie will never be: not conventionally beautiful, freely available to all, or not made of plastic, but at least she’s been to the moon, which is more than we can say for any woman on Earth.