Barbie The Movie Is Surprisingly Great Feminism 101 For Those Who Don’t Have A Clue

I believe the main message of Barbie the movie was a feminist one. It will give men and women who don’t really understand feminism a perspective on the inherent inequity in society.

We didn’t have Barbie in India when I was young. I do remember asking for a Barbie when a relative come from abroad, but was told something about how playing with Barbies killed the imagination. I am not sure if it was my mother who decided Barbies were unsuitable for me to play with, or my aunt, but I do know I never had one. Since nobody I knew had one either, I didn’t really miss having a Barbie either.

I was in high school by the time Barbies were introduced in India. Far too old to even consider wanting the toy! Besides, by then, we had already started reading about Barbie, and how she can setting unrealistic goals, and that her vital statistics were so weird that she would have kept toppling over had she been a real person. There was also all the criticism of how Barbie perpetrated gender stereotypes by doing nothing more than dressing up and looking pretty. By then it was popular to look down on the overtly sexualised Barbie, and I did so too.

I disliked all that I thought Barbie stood for

All Barbie seemed to do was change clothes and look pretty. Even the so called ‘Professional Barbies’ were clones of each other- overtly sexualised, unattainably thin and wearing those impossibly high heels. I blamed Barbie when companies created pink versions of consumer durables and targeted them exclusively at women- I didn’t want to pay a premium only for the colour. Over time, the dislike turned to indifference; and I was not even aware that Mattel had brought in diversity in skin tones and body shapes.

Then, earlier this year, Barbie re-entered my life through social media. “This Barbie has [insert passion]” memes started popping up.

The pre-publicity for Barbie the Movie was like a tsunami this summer. It seemed like a cute movie, but I didn’t even think of watching the movie till my son told me that it was a deeply feminist film, and that there is one scene I would particularly enjoy. I couldn’t imagine how a toy that has been criticised for perpetrating unrealistic body standards and gender stereotyping could star in a feminist movie, so decided to watch it.

*Contains some minor spoilers*

The plot of Barbie the Movie, by now,  is well known

The Barbies exist in a fantasy land called Barbieland where all the Barbies ever made wear their beautiful clothes and live their perfectly perfect lives where “Everyday is the best day ever, and every night is girls night, from now until forever.” While the Barbies have their cool professions, the Kens just hang around waiting to be noticed by Barbie.

Then, Ken and Barbie are forced to venture into the “real world” where Ken discovers patriarchy, and returns to Barbie world to infect it with patriarchy. By the time Barbie returns to what has now been renamed Kendom, the Kens are in charge, and the Barbies are serving them. Barbie and the discontinued Barbies, with some help from her friends from the real world, regain control.

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In the new Barbieland, the Kens are given more rights than they had previously, though when Ken asks for a seat in the Supreme Court, he is asked to work his way up from the lower courts!

The storyline is a takedown of patriarchy and is certainly feminist

The pivotal scene of the movie is the “It’s literally impossible to be a woman” monologue by Gloria, the woman from the real world who befriends and assists Barbie. “It’s literally impossible to be a woman,” she tells Barbie. “You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” You could see women nodding along while she described the many ways in which the system is rigged against women.

While to feminists the monologue was merely Feminism 101, it did force other women and sympathetic men to acknowledge the ways in which women are imprisoned by the need to live upto everyone else’s expectations.

The line, ”you’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood”, for instance, not only exposed the Beauty Trap but also the pressure to Lean In and be part of the Sisterhood. Left unsaid was the fact that men are untouched by so many issues that literally paralyse women.

The fact that both the original Barbieland, where the Kens were merely accessories, and Kendom were dismantled sends out the clear feminist message that any world where one gender holds all the power at the expense of the other is not a sustainable world. In the new Barbieland, the positions of power are still controlled by the Barbies, but the Kens are given the opportunity to work their way into it- hopefully the Kens will face fewer obstacles than women do in the real world.

The movie also explores the criticism against Barbie

Gloria’s tween daughter, Sasha, is vehemently anti-Barbie. When Barbie strides in expecting to be loved, Sasha tells her exactly why she dislikes everything Barbie stands for. Barbie cannot refute that, though she tries, because the reality is that Barbie does initiate young girls into unrealistic body standards, and many, including Lisa Ray have publicly stated that playing with Barbie led them to suffer from body dysmorphia and anorexia for years.

On the other hand, the fact that there were President Barbies, and astronaut Barbies, and journalist Barbies, and physicist Barbies and Barbies following every other profession, means that young girls were told that their gender did not prevent them from having whatever career they wanted. Even though these Barbies were literally indistinguishable from the Barbies leading the suburban dream of every American housewife (minus the husband), they did show girls who may not have other such role models that a woman could be anything she wants to be.

Unfortunately, this messaging has been lost in the pink and the hype surrounding the movie. When Malala posts a picture of herself and her husband in a Barbie toy box with the caption, “The Barbie has a Nobel Prize. He’s just Ken.”, you admire the confidence of Asser Malik, because it is not easy for any man, least of all a man from the subcontinent, to admit he is “just Ken”.

But you are also disappointed because nobody should be a “just Ken”. Every individual has an identity and is deserving of respect. If the takeaway from the movie is merely the line “He’s just Ken”, then the movie didn’t achieve what it set out to do- to get people thinking of a more equitable world.

For me, three scenes sum up my thoughts about the movie

Scene one

The first scene is where Barbie and Ken, upon entering the real world duck into a store and walk out wearing brand new clothes. The shopkeeper chases after them to pay for the clothes, and they seem unaware of the existence of monetary transactions.

This is one of the criticisms levelled against Mattel- that people who play with Barbies don’t realise that they need to pay for all the stuff she owns, and that they grow up unaware of the consequences of swiping a credit card to buy something they cannot afford.

Scene two

The second scene I loved was when Barbie is sitting on bench trying to make sense of the real world. And older lady comes and sits next to her. Just to be kind, Barbie tells her she’s beautiful, and the old lady smiles and says, “I know”.

Not only was this a tender moment of Sisterhood, through those two words “I know”, the director of the movie conveyed that beneath all the hype and pink, real beauty was something only the heart can see.

Scene three

The third scene was when Gloria swerves the car off the road. “How did you learn to do that?”, Sasha asks. “From this man I dated”, replies her mother vaguely. “You mean Dad?”, asks a wide-eyed Sasha. Even tweens seeped in feminism can’t imagine that their mothers existed before they became their mother.

Feminists are often guilty of similar thoughts- each new wave of feminism builds on the foundation erected by the earlier ones, and while criticism is both valid and necessary, it is not right to completely denounce a feminist from an older generation- had she however flawed not existed, we may not be around in a position to critique her.

Personally, I loved the movie because it delivered a powerful message in a light hearted, fun way. While watching the movie, it is important to separate Barbie the toy from Barbie the movie. The toy was controversial and the debate about whether Barbie the toy has a positive or negative (or mixed) impact on young girls will continue long after the movie leaves the theatres. But the main message of Barbie the movie was a feminist one. It will give men and women who don’t really understand feminism a perspective on the inherent inequity in society. They may choose not to use the word feminism, but the idea matters more than the name.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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