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  • Gem Kirwan

Barbie: How the patriarchy’s mascot became a feminist icon

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

Barbie was never meant to be a feminist. For decades, Barbie dolls have young girls’ first encounters with the unrealistic beauty standards that will be forced upon them by society – her skin is flawless, her feet permanently contorted to accommodate high heels, her bra size double that of her waist. It’s an image a real-life woman could never attain, with skin that inconveniently blemishes and wrinkles, and feet that remain stubbornly flat on the ground. Additionally, a well-known 2011 study also found that, on a life-sized adult, Barbie’s proportions would indicate severe malnourishment, and the weight of her chest would place such a burden on her otherwise minuscule figure that she’d be forced to walk on all fours. The doll’s real-life admirers would never be able to survive like this, never mind juggle 250 different careers and keep a Dreamhouse in tip-top shape all at the same time. Far from being the role model Mattel promised, since 1959, Barbie has instead taught countless girls that they will never be as beautiful or accomplished as a 12-inch lump of plastic.

That is, until the release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie this summer. The characters in Gerwig’s Barbie Land exist in a utopia where every Barbie can have their own version of a perfect life no matter their body type, race, or gender identity. The film’s message – that women should prioritise their own happiness rather than spending a life time attempting to consolidate the patriarchy’s infinite contradictions – is by no means revolutionary, but is important nonetheless. It’s for this reason that Barbie has proven so successful, breaking the record for the highest-grossing film directed by a woman in mere weeks.

With this incredible level of success, Barbie has also garnered significant criticism from right-wing public figures. Critics have claimed that the film is preachy, overly-political and a work of ‘feminist propaganda’, and, in Kuwait and Lebanon, moves have even been made to ban Barbie for promoting supposedly unacceptable moral values. In his 45-minute-long critique of Barbie, which begins with a doll and a lit match being thrown into a bin, right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro asks ‘Barbie is supposed to be an idiot bubble-head piece of plastic from Barbie Land. How does she know what a fascist is?’ His question unwittingly sums up the fear that the film’s success has inspired in its critics: that a lighthearted film about a sentient doll has the power to create serious change. Perhaps this is because the film’s message is not just powerful in its simplicity, but in its delivery; after all, it is Margot Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’, the embodiment of every misogynistic beauty standard in the book, who reminds the audience of their futility. Though the character eventually accepts her cellulite as a part of life and trades in her heels for Birkenstocks, Stereotypical Barbie still manages to find her voice without sacrificing her beauty, femininity, or likability. Using such an iconic tool of the patriarchy to expose its contradictions is an undeniably powerful choice. Likewise, it is one that effortlessly dispels the myth perpetuated by misogynists and the mainstream media that women must choose between being obedient and beautiful or independent but unattractive and despised.

Further to this, Barbie resists transphobic and racist views perpetuated by Republican politicians like Ron De Santis, that have culminated in the banning of LGBTQ+ education and Critical Race Theory in many US schools. For instance, while right-wing public figures work to convince people that the transgender community – in particular trans women – pose a danger to the public, Barbie subtly but effectively refutes this notion. This can be seen in the casting of Hari Nef, an out transgender actress, as ‘Doctor Barbie’. Nef, whose gender is not mentioned in the film, has faced significant backlash, her character in the film is no threat to the other Barbies around her, but is instead the one who is there to protect them from harm. Similarly, the President of Barbie Land, portrayed by Issa Rae and inspired by figures including Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama, is seen to be a natural-born and well-loved leader, in stark contrast to Ryan Gosling’s straight, white, male Ken, whose incompetence is seen to cause total chaos in a matter of days when he attempts to take usurp Rae’s character. This storyline, though also subtle, presents a clear challenge of white male privilege and power, as well as providing representation for women of colour in leadership roles. These characters work alongside Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie to demonstrate the power women can have if they work together, embrace their differences, and cast aside the damaging stereotypes society has forced upon them – it doesn’t come as a surprise that the patriarchy’s most ardent supporters are so keen to dismiss them as unrealistic and puerile.

Interestingly, Barbie has been the subject of so much criticism because of its strengths – its storyline is entertaining and its visuals are aesthetically pleasing, allowing the filmmakers to deliver their message to a mass audience in an appealing and accessible way. After all, if Barbie decides that her perfect life is no match for being a real woman – even if it means buying questionable footwear and developing an enthusiasm for gynaecological health – why wouldn’t her women audience members learn to see the value in their supposed imperfections, too? Barbie shows us a world crafted by feminists, and far from being a dystopia in which women spend their days wallowing their own misery and hideousness, it is a world in which women are celebrated in all their forms, regardless of their seeming flaws. Critics of the film can’t seem to cope with the thought of being sidelined like the ‘superfluous’ Kens in Barbie Land – and, of course, like the women in the real world they are ironically used to represent. Gerwig presents a utopian vision of society in which every night is ‘girls’ night’, portrayed through the lens of a figure over which misogynists used to have total control, and it’s no wonder that this has proven to be so effective in disarming them.


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