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Why The Barbie Movie Fails To Offer A Revolutionary Take on Feminism In The 21st Century

Posters for the 'Barbie' movie
Image courtesy of Brecht Bug via Flickr (under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

I can’t deny that I loved the Barbie movie. From Ryan Gosling’s hilarious performance (I cannot get ‘I’m Just Ken’ out of my head) to Gloria’s (America Ferrera) all-tοo-true monologue about the contradictory expectations of women in society, it was certainly a feel-good film. It seemed promising when my whole social media feed was filled with praise for its feminist themes and condemnation of the patriarchy, which grew my anticipation and excitement to see the film. Paired with its stellar cast and pop culture references, I expected Barbie to offer a refreshing take on feminist issues whilst also remaining nostalgic and paying homage to the doll familiar to many young girls. However, hours after watching it, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Where I expected a revolutionary piece of feminist filmmaking, I found myself thinking its message was lacklustre. It didn’t offer anything new and ultimately presented what can only be described as a surface-level form of feminism.

“Barbie is all these women. And all these women are Barbie.”

My first grievance with Barbie lies in its failure to present feminism as intersectional. Whilst it is true that we see Barbies played by racial minority actors, as well as plus-sized and disabled actors, it cannot be ignored that casting Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie summarises the film’s inability to be revolutionary. Μany of the Barbies intended to be representative of the diverse society we live in are not actually afforded this representation. The disabled Barbie characters are given no lines. The plus-sized Barbies have five. Even Issa Rae’s President Barbie lacks depth and exploration. There is no outright representation of any sexual orientation other than heterosexual, despite the online discourse surrounding the sexual ambiguity of characters such as Alan or Weird Barbie. These characters are not given the same level of complexity and character development that are afforded to Margot Robbie's character. Perhaps this is a reflection of white privilege, but it rather feels as though the inclusion of these cast members is a marketing ploy for Mattel to discredit any criticism they may be confronted with. Is it right to glorify a movie for its progressive feminist themes when it fails to be intersectional?

“Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.”

This diversion of criticism carries itself throughout the movie. It seems as though any criticism they anticipated is acknowledged, but not in a manner where Mattel takes any accountability for it. The Barbie doll has a long, complicated past with body image; perpetuating unrealistic body standards, the first Barbie doll released in 1959 was one of a slender build. With her blonde hair, long legs and make-up-adorned complexion, Barbie was a doll that conformed to the male gaze and exhibited an unrealistic body image. Even the seemingly progressive adoption of the plus-sized Barbie is wound up in criticism of Mattel, as studies have shown that when a plus-sized Barbie is upscaled to a real-life woman, she is a mere size 8. Selecting Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie perfectly summarises this point—an actress whose beauty is outstanding, but fails to represent the average woman. That is not to criticise her acting in the role, where she successfully embodies the character of Barbie, but rather to suggest that casting her reinforces the idea that in its origins, Barbie was created as a figure rooted in an idealistic, male gaze-oriented representation of women.

Although the film seems to satirise this controversy, it’s addressed in an underwhelming manner. The narrator’s blunt interruption that “Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point” during Barbie’s breakdown about not feeling pretty anymore offers comedic relief but does so in a way that feels counterintuitive. Just because Margot Robbie conforms to conventional beauty standards and is outstandingly gorgeous does not mean to say that somebody like her can’t experience issues with the way they look. To me, it feels like a shallow attempt from Mattel to poke fun at themselves and avoid the criticism they likely expected from such a casting choice.

“Barbie is a doctor, lawyer, and so much more than that.”

Another thing that made me feel uncomfortable during the film is that most of the Barbies’ worth is derived from their profession. We are introduced to a variety of women from a vast range of careers: a president, a lawyer, a doctor, a physicist, a diplomat and an author. And whilst this is commendable, it perpetuates the ‘girl boss’ narrative that fills me with dread. If we are defining women’s success in relation to their occupation and as an opposition to a male-dominated workplace, we define women in relation to their position in a capitalistic world. The ‘girl boss’ concept in fact perpetuates the commodification of women and forces them to take responsibility for their own empowerment and well-being. This trend has become popular amongst celebrities and female CEOs, suggesting that we can be just like them, perfectly encapsulated by Molly-Mae’s infamous statement that “everyone has the same 24 hours”. To an extent, it pits women against each other, placing pressure on themselves to succeed rather than effectively acknowledging the role of patriarchy and socio-economic factors in female success in the workplace. Celebrating women’s achievements in a patriarchal world is important, but it is also pertinent that we don’t define them solely on their achievements in the workplace. Women are so much more than their jobs and I wish the movie celebrated women more just for being ‘women’ in a world that actively tries to diminish them.

That is not to say that the film doesn’t broach the issues that women experience on a daily basis. I do think the film highlights the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal environment quite well, although again it only investigates it at a surface level. I found myself nodding along to America Ferrera’s monologue regarding the cognitive dissonance of existing as a woman under the patriarchy, where it is quite literally “impossible to be a woman”. It ignited the frustration I experience daily about the struggle between conforming and rejecting the patriarchy, of fighting a male-dominated system that feels impossible to conquer. She perfectly summarises the discord between the expectations placed on women and the double standards perpetuated by the patriarchy, where “you’re expected to keep yourself pretty for men, but not so pretty you ‘try them too much’”. For me, it was the standout scene of the movie and resonated with me in a way that was far too painfully true. This is where Barbie feels like it achieves its recognition as a feminist movie, although it still does not render it a revolutionary one.

“Thanks to Barbie, all the problems of feminism have been solved.”

Wrapped up in a capitalist pursuit to save face, a quick search on Google shows Mattel’s falling sales in the past few years, with a steady increase following the film's success. Mattel’s extensive marketing budget and involvement in the film render it impossible for Barbie to be anything other than a financial incentive for the company. At the end of the day, Mattel is a business, and for them, the movie has created great financial gain. This is emphasised by the sheer amount of brand collaborations, where I struggle to think of a company that has not released a Barbie collection, or even the fact that Mattel’s release of the Margot Robbie Barbie doll reached number one on Amazon for new doll releases.

Mattel’s involvement allows them to take control of the narrative and subsume much of the controversy that has surrounded the Barbie doll since its creation. The company itself rejects the idea that this is a feminist film, opposing Gerwig’s obvious intentions to make this a bold feminist statement. By using the movie to highlight the oppression of women, the company mocks themselves, as seen most directly in the all-male boardroom in Mattel headquarters, and as a result they absolve themselves from their controversies. Mattel utilises the character of Barbie as an embodiment of ‘all’ women, manipulating the narrative of a ‘girl boss’, hyper-feminine woman for their own benefit. With the recent resurfacing of bimbofication on Tik Tok and the celebration of hyper-femininity, Mattel jumps on the bandwagon to utilise the figure of the Barbie doll as one that embraces the ‘girly girl’ aesthetic. Previously a negative term to describe hyper-feminine women, the notion of a ‘Bimbo’ encapsulates femininity, hypersexualisation and pink, perfectly summarising the appearance of the Barbie doll and Margot Robbie in the film. But is this an empowering image? Given Mattel’s complicated history of perpetuating unattainable beauty standards, I would contend that Mattel’s doll feeds into this negativity rather than reclaiming the degrading term ‘Bimbo’. As someone who is not a ‘girly girl’, it is not for me to comment on whether Barbie is empowering to those who describe themselves this way. However, instead of challenging the traditional standards of femininity that are wrapped up in its typically ideal image of the female body, Mattel manipulates the hyper-feminine woman to present the Barbie doll as one that embraces the ‘girly girl’ aesthetic, benefiting the doll's appeal without addressing the real issues of its past. Although Greta Gerwig does an outstanding job as the director of the film, and it is important to celebrate her record-breaking success with the biggest opening weekend for a female director, Mattel’s involvement in the production leaves us with a film that could never truly criticise the figure of the Barbie doll.

Ultimately, Barbie is a good starting point for broaching the subject of patriarchy and understanding its negative impact on women. However, it offers the same discourse that has surrounded feminism since the ‘60s. It’s not a revolutionary piece of feminist filmmaking, and perhaps it was never intended to be, given its marketing to a mainstream audience. Maybe my ambitions were too high for a mass-market film, where my experiences as an English student widely reading on feminist theory means that it wasn’t a film targeted to myself but rather displayed what can be considered a ‘Feminism 101’ course on explaining the basic, fundamental ideas of feminism and patriarchy. To make it a revolutionary feminist film means that it would definitely have generated much more criticism and feasibly dissuaded many from watching the film. Therefore, I think it is important not to be extremely critical of Gerwig’s choices as a director, however, one should remain aware of Mattel’s complicated past in regards to the Barbie doll and address the shortcomings of the film in relation to its lack of intersectional feminism. This is not to take away from it being a well-directed, feel-good movie. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and would watch it again, essentially, I just wish Barbie had given us more than a surface-level interpretation of feminism. It is certainly not revolutionary in the depiction of feminism that it offers a 21st Century audience.

Read our review of 'Barbie' here.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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