‘Barbie’ and why we still need feminism

August 7, 2023
Barbie doll
'Barbie' confronts patriarchy and power and engages with feminism and social change. Graphic: Green Left

Evidence of Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated Barbie film is everywhere. Mannequins draped in magenta adorn shop windows. If you tune into the radio or read the headlines you’re likely to hear acclaim, quips and gripes about the film and its cast. Cinemas are selling out for the first time in years.

Some friends and I joined the excited, pink throng to watch Barbie soon after its release. As Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling beamed vibrantly into the dark theatre, the story unfolded as a kaleidoscope of emotion and sociopolitical commentary. I was stunned. Any scepticism I initially had about the film engaging with feminism on more than a superficial level melted away.

The brilliance of Barbie is its hard and gentle confrontation of patriarchy, and power more generally. Through the eyes of a toy, Gerwig invites the viewer to play the role of child, and through play to engage with the heart-breaking realities of society. Humorous and aesthetically charming, the film equally portrays the power of solidarity and revolutionary process.

There are many people who dislike Barbie. The doll has come to represent the conflicted relationship between women’s liberation and women’s representation in popular culture. The criticisms are just. This 1959 invention perpetuates society’s obsession with the female form, and the judgements women and girls experience about their bodies.

These judgements come with a high cost. Socialising children into the pursuit of unattainable beauty standards is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing significantly, and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

There is also the glaring whiteness of Barbie. Despite the existence of racially diverse Barbies, most of the Barbies in the world are white, blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

Then, there is the way Barbie indoctrinates children into capitalism and the pursuit of wealth; not only does she have a luxurious array of clothing and accessories, she also has lots of assets including houses, planes and cars that have been custom-made for her. They bear her name and her shade of pink.

How then could a Barbie film even hope to be feminist? The film explains to us that Ruth Handler had a different intention in mind when she created the first Barbie doll. Named after her daughter Barbara, Handler wanted to develop a toy that reflected the increasing opportunities for women in the Western world, and to inspire girls to have aspirations beyond motherhood.

In the film, matriarchal Barbie Land has solved “all the problems with feminism”. The issue of gender oppression and its solution is reduced to the individual and symbolic; “women can be anything because Barbie can be anything”. Gender is clearly understood by the Barbies and Kens as socially and not biologically constructed.

Barbie Land functions as an autonomous democracy, where the Barbies, at least, live day after perfect day. The Barbies’ and Kens’ varying identities and knowledge are predetermined and not based on economic value or merit; hence our protagonist is “Stereotypical Barbie”, and the antagonist Ken is simply defined as “Beach Ken”.

The competition among the Kens is not present between the Barbies, who celebrate each others’ successes and their collective mythos as having achieved feminism once and for all in the real world. As the crisis develops, Barbie and Ken change as a response to the social context the find themselves in, for better and worse.

The film explores how alienation is experienced by oppressed groups, and how it is used by the oppressive group to perpetuate and maintain dominance. As the crisis deepens, it is through solidarity and a deepening collective consciousness that a social movement is built, that sees the over-throwing of an oppressive system.

All the characters grapple with self and society, some using the crisis to move towards self-actualisation, others use it as a new opportunity to exploit others, while others who are already privileged show they have no intention of giving this up.

In one sense, the film oozes cynicism. It gives a nod to the many revolutions and uprisings in history that have seen an unfortunate frequent return to the pre-existing social order and conditions. The viewer is made aware of the fragile nature of social movements, where significant inequality results in only minor change, with empty promises of further rights and representations to come.

The co-opting and commodification of social movements by capitalist corporations is also made explicit, however not resolved in the film. Barbie manufacturer Mattel will no doubt profit enormously from the film and Gerwig satirically alludes to this through the inclusion of Mattel in the plot.

If you decide to see Barbie, you can expect a playful exploration of power that is both emotionally crushing and exhilarating, for Stereotypical Barbie also represents the average worker. In this way solidarity shines. Barbie learns that awareness of one’s own oppression can be overwhelming, but connection with others and collective action helps transform awareness into empowerment and liberation.

Barbie’s investment properties, snazzy outfits and custom-made assets can’t compare to this priceless truth.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.