Unpacking “Barbie” as a feminist movie

  • Post Author
    by Talk
  • Post Date
    Wed Aug 02 2023

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Written by Olivia Bartman

This piece contains spoilers about the “Barbie” movie.

The iconic Barbie has recaptured the world's attention with the recent release of Greta Gerwig's feature film. “Barbie” has not only made waves as a box office hit, but it has sparked important dialogue. In the film, the titular character Barbie wrestles with her own identity as she departs the utopic “Barbieland” for the real world, where she is shocked to discover rampant misogyny. The characters grapple with their identities, considering how they fit within societal gender roles while exploring their own personhood.  

The film's message of equality has drawn criticism from some conservative critics who claim it promotes a “woke” agenda. “Barbie” certainly celebrates diversity, women's liberation and anti-patriarchy. However, it is far from radical. I was surprised to find that critics on the other side of the spectrum saw this as a fault.

I recently came across a post from the Instagram account Feminist, which boasts over six million followers. The post poses a question: “Is Barbie a feminist movie?” Their response is “it's complicated.” Feminist applauds the film for its diversity and accountability in Barbie creating impossible beauty standards, but it criticizes its narrative for the lack of queer representation and sticking “close to the gender binary.”

All of the criticism lobbed at “Barbie” by the Feminist account is legitimate. However, I believe that it ignores several key takeaways. The film features several very talented queer actors, yet no characters are represented as queer or shown in queer relationships. While it would have been fantastic to see a Barbie openly represented as queer, I cannot fault the filmmakers for this lack of representation. 

Barbie and Ken's relationship represents a societal ideal of a “perfect” relationship on the exterior. However, Ken is inwardly struggling because of his unrequited feelings toward Barbie, which culminates in his attempts to recreate a patriarchal society where women are subservient towards their male partners. This concept hinges on heterosexuality and strictly defined gender roles to maintain such a patriarchal society. Emphasizing these archaic stereotypical binaries draws the viewer's attention in a very obvious and direct way toward issues that must still be addressed in the real world.

America Ferrera's character Gloria has a brilliant monologue, in which she exasperatedly laments expectations for women to meet impossible standards, noting that women are expected to please everyone at all times. I fear that the Feminist team's criticism legitimized this. In a society where women already have to confront a long list of expectations, they are also expected to be “perfect” feminists. In reality, there is no perfect feminism. We can always do better, of course, but we must keep in mind that we are all doing what we can while in a system held up by structural oppression.

As such, “Barbie” is not a perfect radical feminist manifesto. Yet, it never claimed to be. The feminism explored in “Barbie” is surface level and easily palatable, punctuated by silly punchlines and campy fun, wrapped up in a sparkly pink bow. If you are searching for critical intersectional discourse, you should look beyond “Barbie.” The Feminist post admits that the film succeeds in its goal to entertain, which is all we can really ask of a PG-13 summer blockbuster based on a children's toy.  

“Barbie” asks audiences to consider their own identity alongside Barbie and her friends. The film's feminism is surface level, yet that does not mean it cannot be impactful. It could encourage viewers to assess the concept of male privilege, appreciate the bonds built by unity or reminisce on childhood dreams that have long been dismissed. 

So, is “Barbie” a feminist movie? The answer may be “it's complicated,” and that's okay.