Why “Barbie” isn’t the Feminist Film I Hoped For
Before you read this critique of the feminist themes in Barbie, I ask you to picture me as I was when I watched the film: in my best Barbie themed dress and chunky heels. My tickets were pre ordered, and I took about a million selfies with the Margot Robbie poster on the way in to the theater. I loved this moment in pop culture as much as the next gal, and I do think there are so many beautiful consequences of this Barbie movement in 2023. But we all have to normalize thinking deeply and critically about our entertainment, and the ways we participate in the narratives that surround it. Pop culture is influential, so we have to care.
What follows is my critique of Barbie and its claim as a feminist film. Spoilers ahead!
The theater itself sets the tone before the movie can. I am moved by the groups of women bunched together in matching pink outfits. There’s no mistaking what we’re all here to see. I think to myself — how lovely it is to have a movie inspire so many women to embrace an aura of hyper-femininity and proudly walk into a theater with all their best girlfriends. I look down at my own pink dress and think about how a younger version of myself, completely influenced by internalized misogyny, would not have been caught dead in such an outfit, would not be so excited to see something so “basic bitch”. The shift is beautiful.
The lights go down, and it’s time for the movie. We open on a narrative of Barbie and her role thus far, a journey that has brought her from being the white woman who could do it all (and quite before her time) to the now diverse array of Barbies that have hit the shelves, boasting inclusion in the form of Barbies that represent women of color, women in wheelchairs, and women in all shapes and sizes. The narrator cheekily suggests that this must mean that Barbie has officially solved “feminism”, and now that women are empowered, the work is done! Woo-hoo!
This self-awareness is immediately refreshing. I am optimistic. The question “will this just be a girlboss, white feminist, self-serving film that completely misses the mark?” starts to seem like something we’re going to get past. But I can’t say we always do get past it.
There’s great moments that feel like clarity and self-awareness — -in one instance, Barbie gets called out as a player in the capitalist machine — a little bit contradictory given the pink “Barbie capitalism” storm that has taken hold of so many strange and random collaboration deals between the Barbie brand and companies like Progressive Insurance, Xbox, Moon (for a Barbie toothbrush, of course), and many more. Still, it gives the impression that this script is out of the ordinary with its cheeky group of white men led by Will Ferrel running Mattel.
There’s other key moments that come to mind-America Ferrera’s character calls out a history of oppression of indigenous people in America and Barbie declines praise for saving the day when a brilliant speech on the struggles of women by America Ferrera’s character enlightens those around her (demonstrating how white women are often credited for making strides that women of color are responsible for).
Admittedly, I shed tears through Ferrera’s speech — the absolute climax of the film. She’s articulating the effects of patriarchy on the big screen and she’s not saying anything new — this is pretty much feminism 101. But the reality that it’s being said on the hottest blockbuster of the summer — that’s what is so moving. The audience is so much bigger, and so eager to take it all in.
As beautiful as this speech is, there are pieces missing. Incomplete. It makes the same mistake so many feminists have made.
It misses the key ingredient: intersectionality.
Barbie tries to advocate for intersectionality in some ways. As previously mentioned, the pointed way that Barbie won’t take credit for Ferrera’s speech, for one. The casting decisions showcase women of color in power in Barbieland, Issa Rae’s Barbie as president, for example, and we have (a small few) examples of plus sized Barbies.
But at closer examination, these strides fall short in their potential impact. Nowhere in Ferrera’s speech or Barbie’s awful reality checks (feeling an “undertone of violence” in the male gaze in the real world, for instance) is there an acknowledgement that yes — these are the horrible implications of being a woman in our patriarchal world — but if you’re a woman of color these struggles can be, and often are, much worse. “Stereotypical Barbie”, or Margot Robbie’s Barbie, as she is called in the film, and her Barbie group do not become “enlightened” to the problems women of color specifically face.
The other glaring lack of representation is that of queer people. Despite the casting choices that have Republicans fuming, such as Hari Nef, a trans woman, as a Barbie in the film, there is an absence of queer representation within the story. We are left to wonder: in Barbieland, where the gender binary is this glaring presence of Barbies and their Kens, what room is there for queer people?
When watching the film, I did wonder about Allan and Weird Girl. Outcasts in the way that they were — they were neither “Barbie’’ nor “Ken”, and they were always disillusioned, it seemed, to what was happening in Barbieland. I look to Allan, whose character basis is a doll that was emphasized as Ken’s “buddy”, and who fit into all of Ken’s clothes. Allan, who wanted to escape “patriarchy” in Barbieland. Allan who wasn’t a Ken, but was Ken-adjacent.
Then there is Weird girl, played by queer-icon Kate McKinnon, an obvious black sheep in the group and knowledgeable of the “real world”. Barbieland seemed to work for everyone (until it didn’t), except for these two characters. If this was an intentional metaphor in the mind of director Greta Gerwig, I applaud the effort, but it certainly does not feel like enough. The message almost seems to be, if you’re not a “Barbie” or a “Ken” (the representatives of the two-sided gender binary), then you may be an “Allan” or a “Weird Girl”, and that means that even in Barbieland, you are not ideal. (I will note, we do get an apology from the Barbies for the outcasting of “Weird Girl”, and perhaps there is something there, but it falls short.) Uplifting women and encouraging young girls to be themselves instead of the “perfection” that Barbie once represented is immensely important, but in Barbie, I see that outside of the cis-woman, there are still marginalized genders being left out of the conversation in this film. In all the beautiful displays of inclusion in Barbie, we find ourselves still discounting experiences. We’re left to “read between the lines”, peering at Michael Cera and Kate McKinnon and wondering…is that representation? Is this feminism…intersectional?
In regards to Barbie as a problematic icon, Gerwig has been quoted stating, “I’m interested in how life is complicated and messy and that there is nothing that’s either or, either good or bad, but it’s mostly it’s both…it can be all these things at once. And I think that felt like a rich place to start from.” I think it’s safe to say that the same goes for the Barbie movie. It isn’t the perfect feminist film I wanted it to be, but there were many things I loved about it. Above all, I love watching groups of people take pride in their femininity and selling out theaters to see this film. I love that it is bringing conversations to the big screen that need continued exposure. We need more films like Barbie to continue bringing forth challenging narratives, exposing (among other things) the way the world was shaped for the cis-man, and the cis-man alone. I just hope that when those films make their mark, they will improve upon the aforementioned critiques.