Why Barbie’s Feminism Is Kenough
Another (Belated) Article About Barbie
If you spend any time at all on the internet, you will, even if just by osmosis, have heard about the Barbie movie.
It’s been almost impossible to escape the brilliant marketing campaign for the summer movie of 2023. From the moment it appeared on my radar, I knew that I would enjoy this movie and that it would be a welcome escape from the gloomy movies normally marketed towards teen girls. From its bright, technicolour inspired palette to its obviously feminine aesthetic, and everyone dressing up in pink, it’s a movie that signals to people that it’s for the girls. It is perhaps unsurprising then that it has received criticism from all sides of the political spectrum for the way it portrays feminist messages. Many of those reviewers have neglected to ask themselves the question of why it is that they are so focussed on Barbie’s feminism and whether the Barbie movie even needed to be feminist in the first place.
The most common criticism I came across was that the movie’s representation of feminism was very simplified and not intersectional enough. Quite frankly, I think this criticism, at its core, is true. Yes, the film’s feminism was very much so a feminism 101 but maybe this is not as much of an issue as many reviewers have made it out to be. Barbie is incredibly self-aware about the way it portrays feminism in simple terms and I think this makes sense in the context of the movie. At the beginning, Barbie, the character, was naive and child-like and had never even thought about gender relations. It is only when she enters the real world that Barbie and Ken face the reality of sexism and the patriarchy. A character who has never been sexually harassed, or even heard of such a thing, certainly couldn’t understand the intricacies of white capitalist “feminism” and why it’s bad. Even if Greta Gerwig and her co-writer Noah Baumbach had wanted to explore these nuances, Mattel would have surely, and perhaps has, shut down this kind of discourse in connection to their corporation. Everything we get then, are little nods to the ways in which Barbie‘s feminism is not ideal, for example when the young girls complain about how she has set unattainable beauty standards, or in Barbie’s name as ‘Stereotypical Barbie’.
Additionally, while this criticism is still more than fair, I think what has been forgotten as well is that many people, even some women, still need feminism 101 before they can fully grasp the intersectionality of living under patriarchy. For example, every time I would see my (male) cousins who lived in a different country when I was younger, I would have to explain incredibly simple concepts, such as the fact that women are being discriminated against in the workforce, especially in roles of authority. Similarly, I also had to give my mother a crash course in feminism because she just hadn’t been taught anything about it at school or university.
So while to most of us, the feminism in Barbie seemed too simple and not intersectional enough, many viewers may not have been aware of even these basic truths about sexism.
It’s good, in general, that we’re having talks about feminism, particularly with a movie that has been such a huge commercial success, but how many reviews and articles there are about Barbie’s feminism is slightly ridiculous. How come there’s hardly any conversation had about Oppenheimer’s sexism? We all know Nolan is bad at writing women, so I guess it’s fine that Oppenheimer doesn’t show a woman speaking for the first 20 minutes. As this direct comparison shows, I think there’s an expectation for movies written and directed by women that they have to be explicitly feminist and that their feminism needs to be perfect. Just like the fact that not every decision a woman makes has to be the perfect example of feminism, not every movie a woman makes has to do the same. There’s a line in the movie about the way in which not even a doll of a woman is left unscrutinised. As we can see, not even a movie about a doll of a woman is left unscrutinised.
This is not to say that Greta Gerwig, or Barbie, is beyond reproach. We can absolutely criticise her work and its feminism but the frequency and intensity with which this has been done is what’s bothering me. Maybe we can just enjoy the movie for what it is. As Aisha Harris proclaims in her widely read Barbie review ‘sometimes corporate propaganda can be hella fun’. And there’s much to enjoy about Barbie's portrayal of feminism: The fact that all the men are supporting characters (although Ken is still afforded more empathy than many female characters frequently are), the scene of all the Kens serenading and mansplaining to the Barbies, all the women accepting praise without question when so many women are conditioned to think less of themselves. I don’t want to fall into the trap of writing another article about whether or not Barbie was feminist, or feminist enough (kenough if you will). Why can’t the answer be ‘kind of’ or ‘not really but it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me dress up with my friends and embrace my femininity’?
Could Barbie have been queerer, more intersectional, more nuanced in its takes on feminism? Absolutely, but in a world, where women and girls are so often slammed for what they like, the impact of having a commercially successful movie that is so unabashedly feminine and pink cannot be understated.
When I imagine young girls all dressing up in pink and celebrating their femininity, it makes me very happy. Especially as someone who grew up wanting to distance themselves from their femininity because of internalised misogyny. As a side note, I hope dressing up to go to the cinema becomes a thing now because it really is a whole lot of fun. The last point I wanted to make, that’s semi-connected to this, is that the bright colours of the film are also a nice departure from the gloomy aesthetic of shows marketed to teen girls. I remember being very disheartened when I saw that the Winx remake was going along this route when the original Winx Club’s appeal was partly due to its colourful clothes and show design. So I guess what I’m saying is, every once in a while, let women enjoy things.