Barbie: a shallow attempt at profundity

“It’s literally impossible to be a woman.”

As Gloria (America Ferrera) gave her climactic monologue on the hardships of womanhood in the 2023 blockbuster hit “Barbie,” I couldn’t help but sigh. Her speech, while undoubtedly moving, wasn’t anything revolutionary — more like a cliched regurgitation of what feminists have been saying for decades. While I merely nodded along in agreement with Gloria’s monologue, the older woman sitting beside me had a stronger reaction.

“Oh my God,” she muttered to herself with wide, teary eyes glued to the screen.

In this response lies the importance of the “Barbie” movie; while critics have shunned “Barbie” for its lackluster attempt at celebrating feminism, the movie’s message about the patriarchy — albeit watered-down — is important because it brings conversations about feminism out of radical activist spaces and into the mainstream. No matter your age or gender, the movie’s message touches everyone in some way. While the movie falls short of how far feminist theory and activism has come, any portrayal of feminism on the big screen is impactful.

Directed by Greta Gerwig, an artist known for exploring themes of girlhood, motherhood and feminism in her work, “Barbie” has been well received by audiences, achieving an 83% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Some loved the movie’s pretty pink visuals, others liked the catchy soundtrack and many appreciated its feminist message. Yet, though Gerwig has said “Barbie” is “most certainly a feminist movie,” many critics question the movie’s feminism. There are many details throughout “Barbie” that deliver a questionable message in terms of feminism. For instance, Barbie’s fate: Throughout the movie, Barbie grapples with her purpose, ultimately deciding to leave Barbieland for the real world and become human. So, Barbie leaves a place where she is respected in order to live somewhere where she is constantly objectified and harrassed? All because “humanity is special?” And the one thing she is shown doing in the real world is going to the gynecologist? As put by gender studies scholars at Women’s Agenda, by making this storytelling choice, “female identity is reduced to being a biological phenomenon.” Further, the Barbies gain back control of Barbieland from the Kens by luring them with docile behavior, suggesting the problematic message that women use sexual prowess to hold power over men and that women can benefit from the patriarchy — a system specifically designed to oppress them. 

The most glaring failure of “Barbie” are the portrayals of Allan (Michael Cera) and Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon). Both characters clearly lie outside of the gender binary of Kens and Barbies, but this difference is never meaningfully explored, resulting in a missed opportunity to address gender and sexuality as it relates to the patriarchy. And with such an obvious message about the struggles of women throughout the movie, this oversight almost feels pointed. Allan’s non-hetero sexuality is constantly alluded to, but never addressed. The audience is forced to wonder: ‘Is this representation?’ Rather, Allan and Weird Barbie are used for comedic relief, resulting in failure of intersectionality within the movie’s message.

Undoubtedly, “Barbie” scratches only the surface in its portrayal of the patriarchy. Widely lacking in intersectionality — defined as an analytical framework for understanding how a person’s various social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege — the movie’s message is mild, clearly made more palatable to appeal to the general public. From its “edgy” quips about women hating women to a trite moment when the Barbies trick the Kens by acting confused about “The Godfather,” “Barbie” is so chock-full of reductionist stereotypes that the movie feels more tone-deaf than radical — or even productive.

While the patriarchal themes of “Barbie” are certainly superficial, the movie’s feminist message has also been criticized in the opposite way as well, with many seeing the film as an “anti-male” flick. For instance, Piers Morgan, in the New York Post, wrote an article titled, “If I made a movie that treated women the way Barbie treats men, feminists would want me executed.” Yet, one must ask, is that not the entire point of the movie? Barbieland is a satirical alternate reality to the real world, one where all gender roles are reversed. One is not meant to applaud the absolute dominion that the Barbies hold over Barbieland. Instead, the jarring inequality of Barbieland is meant to highlight the problems with such an unequal social structure in order to criticize patriarchal society — even if this criticism is meekly expressed. The movie is not meant to serve as an insult to men, but rather a mirror in which to consider the gender-informed power dynamics of modern society.

Despite its shortcomings, “Barbie’’ and its subpar feminist message are important to the social conversation about the effects of the patriarchy. While the movie certainly is not radical nor revolutionary, any depiction of feminist theory is impactful if shown on the big screen. When a mainstream movie discusses such topics, the message reaches a wider audience, transcending demographics of age and gender. From the validation the woman sitting next to me in the theater felt to the outrage expressed by Morgan in the Post, these reactions are evidence of a larger conversation, one that showsthatwehavealongway to go in furthering the feminist movement. Thus, “Barbie” can serve not only as a springboard for more conversations about feminism in the mainstream but also as a sign that there is more work to be done.

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