Caught up in the frenzy, and per request, I took my daughter to see Barbie a couple of weeks after it premiered. The filmmaker in me was curious about the production value and exactly how much pink one film could exploit. It felt like a perfect mother-daughter outing even if Barbie wasn’t my ‘thing’ and hadn’t been since my early years. I remember having a Barbie townhouse when I was in first or second grade, the flimsy plastic framework constantly wobbling when the elevator went up and down. At some point my attention moved to Cabbage Patch dolls and my favorite was Strawberry Shortcake. This was probably due to my inability to relate to a doll that looked so different from me and often resembled women who were often cruel. I can’t remember having a traditional Ken, so my Barbie was either dating with my Michael Jackson figure, or when I was alone, with another Barbie.
As we left the theater my daughter turned to me and asked, “What did you think?”
Something about the film had left me unsettled, and I struggled to put it into words. Was the film funny? Clever? Entertaining? It touched all those qualities at different points. The dialogue was snappy and the production value of the chart. Where it left me hollow was the social acclaim of the film as a feminist achievement for a few reasons: the film embodies cis-white culture, it leans on white savior feminism, and because even in a film about a world of women, it took the journey of a man for Barbie to understand herself.
I know that Barbie’s storyline has always been as a heterosexual, white woman who is the center of her universe, with everyone else as extensions of her life, including the offshoot characters they poked fun of in the film, such as Madge and Allan. And I get that this at its core is a corporate film made to make money and push products. Yet, with Barbie being touted as a modern woman who could ‘do anything’, she clearly couldn’t cross the threshold of being queer, apart from (maybe) ‘weird Barbie’. Even that inference, however, is fraught with stereotype of queerness of how the world sees it. As a queer woman who explored my queerness at a young age through my dolls, I felt like it should have been time for Barbie in some form or fashion to embrace that possibility and allow for that representation. It just reinforces a hetero narrative for queer girls and women who not only struggle to find representation that is accurate and not debasing, but who are actively struggling to maintain their human rights in a country where the dominant culture is becoming increasingly controlled by the tenants of religious, white supremacy. Why mirror that world and simply pretend queerness does not exist?
Parallel to the absence of queerness is the lack of diversity in the world of Barbie. Is there a distinct diversity of women? Somewhat, more so on the side of the Kens. Are the woman and her daughter on the outside world who Barbie connects with diverse? Yes. Does this make the film diverse? No. Barbieland itself is homogenous, although they do throw in white variations of body size and hair color, so it gives the appearance of acceptance. At the end of the day, Barbie is still the lean, perfect blond scared of flat feet and cellulite and desperate to do what she can to avoid imperfection. Although there may be diversity in casting, the attitudes and rules of the world are still the same, which caters to a level of perfection impossible for most women to maintain. Is the president of Barbieland a black woman? Yes, but I was particularly irked by the scene where President Barbie, after her spirit is restored, walks down the stairs throwing out the word, ‘motherfucker’. Is she mad? Yes. Does she have a right to be? Absolutely. Yet, to distill the strength of black women and their leadership into street slang is to make her a cliché, which is anti-feminist and if we are being real, feels out of pocket for a white writer. Why do we feel a need to portray and exploit black women during moments of anger within conventional responses that mimic street justice or a lack of pedigree? What a horribly missed opportunity sacrificed for a comedic timing.
Just as vexing was the covert operation the Barbies had to initiate to ‘remember’ who they were in the face of overbearing patriarchy. Women don’t overcome systems of misogyny by whispering to each other or trying to remind each other who we are, as hopeful as the thought may be that women lifting women is enough to defeat oppression. It comes from dismantling framework built by men that requires men to be equal partners by recognizing their privilege and assisting in the deconstruction, which the Kens don't really do at the end. It is sweat equity, persistence, and creating ripples, however small, that hopefully create an iota of change if not for us, then for those who come next. And we don’t forget who we are. We minimize or shrink in proportion to the egos of the men who can’t surrender their power and control, lest they must face themselves as Ken did and discover that power is empty when applied for strictly personal gain and privilege.
To me, the most anticlimactic part of the film was Barbie witnessing the larger world and how she has contributed to its gender stereotypes and expectations but doing absolutely nothing about it. In the end, her choice to face mortality and live in the external world seems bold, except that Barbie brings nothing to the outside world to eradicate the sexism and prejudice that horrified her in the first place; instead, her focus and excitement is her real-life vagina. It’s certainly a witty ending but like Barbie herself, superficial to the topic and material the film pretends to explore.
Out of all the characters, in a film titled, ‘Barbie’, Ken has the most expansive journey, played to perfection. It’s his devotion and determination to Barbie that gains him access to the world where he discovers the concept of the patriarchy and returns to infuse it across the land of Barbie in search of his personal power to make her love him. The parallels and commentary on current society are spot on. Later he understands that the only way out is through reflection and self-discovery after Barbie encourages him to find himself. But it is only due to Ken’s self-realization, prompted by Barbie, that she finally recognizes that she needs to do the same. He is the mirror of her own self-doubt and insecurity, and it is only through his actions and his repercussions that she can finally face her own, but does she?
I think for all the hype, and billions of dollars later, I felt disappointed that we seem content to settle for such a simplified parody of feminism as a representation for our struggles and oppression. Barbie implies that in a world where women take center stage and dominate, that men in the shadow of women lack purpose and need our compassion and direction. What then of the countless women who have been sitting in darkness for centuries, still waiting for their moment in the sun? If we are going to explore these concepts in films such as Barbie, we can’t pretend that a shallow examination through snark and comedy is going to give us any depth of answer, and nor should we be labeling them as feminist. Perhaps ‘feminist-light’, or a ‘first wave’ feminist feature, as it rides the tide without intersection.
In the end, I recognize I am probably asking too much from a capitalistic, extended advertisement seeking to expand a toy company’s profit margin and endear the girls of now and their parents of yesterday so they can continue a product line and boost sales into tomorrow. Despite that realism, the film gave me one tiny hope: if there is a sequel, Barbie may evolve and finally explore her queerness. After all, by the end, she’s forsaken her signature heels for Birkenstocks.
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