Barbie is poised to join the billion-dollar box office club. As feminists, we ponder its remarkable success.
1. Is Barbie a feminist film?
Yes, even though it's not an intersectional feminist film. Let's say it's a White feminist film. However, not only does Mattel not want to call it feminist, even Margot Robbie (actor-producer) and Greta Gerwig (director, co-writer) seem hesitant to embrace the film as feminist. During an ABC interview, Gerwig says Barbie "mostly certainly is a feminist film", but then Robbie jumps in to qualify that, saying that's "one slice of the pie." Gerwig laughs and contradicts Robbie saying it is a "pretty big slice of the pie", but then describes how it's a humanist film. It's a cringe-worthy moment. It's hard to forget that "humanist rather than feminist" has always been used to negate feminism and to frame feminists as selfish and "too radical".
So, can we embrace the film as feminist if its makers can't? That depends on whether you agree with Roland Barthes, who suggested that authors' intentions shouldn't heavily influence the meaning of a text. The film has plenty of feminist elements for it not to count as a feminist film. Even the climax has something to do with the patriarchy infesting Barbieland.
2. Why isn't Barbie's feminism intersectional?
Barbie is a film that commodifies and coopts feminism to benefit a patriarchal corporation like Mattel. But its feminist isn't intersectional primarily because Stereotype Barbie is still the protagonist, the other Barbies are relegated to mere sidekicks of their blonde, thin, able-bodied, and (very likely) heterosexual iteration. It's a film produced and directed by White people. Director Gerwig wrote the script with her partner Noah Baumbach so that's a hetero duo. It barely raises any questions about the gender binary, racism, or disability—issues central to intersectionality.
Non-white, trans, and disabled characters are represented in tokenistic ways, echoing the marginalisation these communities face in the real world. Stereotype Barbie and her crisis become central to the struggle of all Barbies and human characters combined in the film. It's a stark reminder of how White feminism functions in the real world to homogenise feminist struggles to centre White cishet women.
3. What does the film do for body positivity?
Very little. Stereotype Barbie is hyperfeminine and blonde. Yes, she has (barely any) cellulite in the film, and while it's refreshing to see the perfect Barbie bogged with insecurities, Margot Robbie is the white skinny blond type, which is not a marginalised body type. Robbie's rise to stardom means we will be flooded everywhere with her images and interviews and the White standard she represents will be idolised over and over, alienating and othering Black women and women of colour and other marginalised bodies.
Moreover, Mattel will continue producing Barbie dolls that remain unattainable role models for many—big boobs and dangerously unreal bodily proportions that leave no room for human organs. Platinum blond hair salon requests have skyrocketed thanks to the film. 'Totally hair' blonde Barbie's ankle-length blond hair continues to be Mattel's bestselling doll.
4. Does that mean we can't enjoy the enjoyable bits?
Of course not. Barbie has many entertaining moments, and no one is a bad intersectional feminist because they had fun watching the film. We can enjoy the enjoyable bits as long as we are engaged in critical thinking. Misogynists are getting tied up in knots about the film—clearly it's striking the right notes. Some of us never played with Barbies, but the fact remains that it has a massive appeal among those who can afford the toy. The doll is a cultural icon whether we like it or not. The struggle against patriarchy seeping into this make-believe world is very welcome.
The film seeks to subvert norms and offers innovation, though it may not be a cinematic masterpiece. However, considering many films considered masterpieces are directed by cishet men, is aiming for such recognition even a respectable ambition? At any rate, Gerwig & co have taken the toy-film genre a step ahead of older hits such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) or Toy Story (1995), where filmmakers used animatronics or CGI. Creating a film with real-life characters playing with toys in a doll universe is original. Barbie drives out of a perfectly pink Barbieland in her pink Corvette, standing out bright in a drab mean real world. Seeing Barbie and Ken pass off as perfectly human in the real world works wonderfully.
5. Is the film a marketing stunt?
Of course. It's a giant marketing stunt for Mattel but also a delightful one—a paradox that is a challenge for our feminist critical thinking. Who'd have thought a corporate promo exercise could take the form of a feminist film? We laughed out loud when the jokes were on Mattel. Seeing the all-men board at Barbie's headquarters and the CEO (Will Ferrel) asking Barbie to step into the box is hilarious. At one point, when the idea of "ordinary Barbie" is floated in the film, but the CEO says no. The very next second he's told it will bring profits; he instantly approves. A similar reasoning is obviously behind Mattel producing a film with an overtly feminist theme. Though feminism isn't the biggest driving factor in the film's success. Barbiecore, which is defined as "a girly aesthetic inspired by Mattel fashion doll Barbie" plays a key role.
6. Is the film pushing us towards overconsumption?
Yes. The film has spurred beauty trends and Barbiecore, not feminist slogans. Hashtags such as #barbienails, #barbiemakeup, #barbiebeauty and #barbiehair are trending. With a marketing budget of 150 million USD pushing people to buy more plastic dolls, doll-accessories, phone cases, clothes, and beauty products that will probably end up in mounds of trash once the Barbie fever comes down. Interesting (and alarming) factoid: 60 million Barbies are produced yearly. That's the equivalent of burning 1.7 billion litres of petrol, according to thecommons.earth. The film is a giant marketing campaign for Barbie merch, beauty brands, and even Barbie blond hair dye.
7. Isn't Ken amazing?
"Every day is a good day for Barbie, but for Ken, a day is good only when Barbie looks at him." That's funny not only because in the heteronormative world we live in, the the reverse is often true, but also because way too many live under the coercive control of their cishet men partners. Ken's vulnerability does have a great appeal though his petulance and immaturity are somewhat realistic because they mirror the real-life behaviours of macho men.
Ryan Gosling fans love his platinum blond avatar—the stereotypical strong super-fit white guy. There is a certain allure in how he's always dressed flamboyantly and often in pink or at least a dash of it—stepping away from a rigid performance of masculinity—at least in the earlier half of the film. Though some of the laughter could be emanating from a Eurocentric bias that sees bright pink as frivolous. Nevertheless, Barbiecore does make pink trendy and joyous. For Indians, there's not much novelty in that as the colour has been forever in vogue.
Ken's experiment with patriarchy is part amusing and part alarming. It's not as if he is entirely insignificant to the plot, no matter how much we are made to believe there is always "Barbie and Ken" but never "just Ken". Along with Barbie's existential crisis, the Ken-induced crisis is also essential to the narrative. He isn't as marginal to the plot as Gosling makes it out to be in his interviews. But let's not go overboard making this about Ken.
8. Is Barbieland a matriarchy?
Yes. Barbies are in control everywhere, and Barbieland is a matriarchy. Replacing patriarchy by matriarchy doesn't create a feminist utopia. That's an entirely distorted view of what feminists want. Even the idea that Barbies have more than two hundred professions isn't so radically feminist. Encouraging girls to dream of having all kinds jobs in a capitalist world is a limited idea of liberation. Besides, the doll is always being designed assuming only girls would be playing with them.
9. Is Barbie a feminist icon henceforth?
Yikes, no. See all the reasons stated above.
10. Should you watch the film if you haven't already?
Go ahead. We are loathe to promote Mattel and aware of the shortcomings of this kind of feminism, but it's not every day an extravagant original film such as Barbie comes along. It is a step in the right direction, let's say.