‘Barbie’: Subversive Feminism or Subversive Corporatism?

A Faustian Bargain

My granddaughter of 7 years of age is perhaps typical of a many little girls today, raised in a culture permeated by post 60’s feminist consciousness. She wears purple fairy wings, loves all things pink and glittery while simultaneously fearlessly scaling 50 foot trees in the forests of Costa Rica, her home. She is a bright, composite little character who insisted on having her curls transformed into tiny dreadlocks at age 6 (her father is African American). 

She stubbornly wears her wellington boots under her pink gossamer fairy dress and rides a bicycle like a little bat out of hell. Fiercely protective of those she perceives as vulnerable, my granddaughter will not hesitate to confront school bullies. Having been raised on a diet of child feminist literature (including heroines from African American and South American heritage), she has no doubts about women’s (or girls’) capacities. 

So, knowing this, and having long ago let go of my feminist fears of what Barbie or pink glittery shoes might lead to, I wasn’t that surprised, or disturbed, when Mattel came out with a Barbie movie. The lives of little girls (especially in the West) straddle and incorporate multiple passions and passing influences. Trying to ban them from their love affair with pink and purple no longer makes sense. 

I didn’t pay much attention to the phenomenon of ‘Barbie’ until a flood of accolades began pouring through my inbox from critics and film goers alike. Mark Kermode, Guardian film critic, waxed lyrically describing the film as “a riotously entertaining candy-coloured feminist fable that manages simultaneously to celebrate, satirise and deconstruct its happy-plastic subject.” Across the pond, CNN’s review praised Barbie’s “overt feminist message and desire to put Barbie in a broader sociological context”. 

However, it was Susan Faludi’s comments in an article by Jessica Corbett of the NY Times, that really got my attention. Faludi, as many know, is an award-winning journalist and author, who rose to fame in 1991 with her classic feminist text, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against the American Woman.

On July 25, Corbett’s piece was published with the title, I saw ‘Barbie’ with Susan Faludi and She Has a Theory About It. I was curious. Faludi is a feminist with a serious resume. Her books have tracked the influence of politics, media, and entertainment in undermining feminism. She has also explored the deeper currents and cultural shifts underlying the crisis of male identity, still rippling through Western culture today. In various essays Faludi has identified America’s obsession with celebrity culture and personal identity as posing real risks to progress on social issues. Questioning the “Faustian bargain” made with popular culture since feminism became “cool and fun”, she has warned of the rapid recent dismantling of women’s rights in the USA. 

Faludi’s description of the film ‘Barbie’ as “delightful” surprised me. But it was her comment that “You couldn’t write the script without 30 years of women’s studies” that upended my ‘bubble-gum’ pre-assumptions about the film. I decided then and there to see it myself. 

‘Barbie’ – the Experience

I entered the dark coolness of the cinema full of open expectation. The opening scenes of Barbieland, with a narration by Helen Mirren, wittily paid homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I settled into my seat prepared for an enjoyable ride. 

An hour later, despite a string of other brilliant cinematic references, I was beginning to choke a little on all that ‘pinkness’ and the plastic perfection of Barbieland. After two hours, I literally stumbled out of the cinema with the sensation of having gorged on soda and popcorn. I felt ‘empty’, in need of fresh air … and completely baffled by the encounter. Walking slowly back to my apartment, I was surprised when I recognised that distinct feeling of having been ‘ripped off’. The experience of flattened expectations. 

From the extensive reviews I had read, the film is portrayed as a combination of “riotous candy-coated” fun with a purportedly political message. It is this that has lifted it to dizzying cultural heights. For me it was around Barbie’s clear lack of genuine political message, that my expectations crashed.  

“What’s a Girl to Do?… Best Not to Overthink It”

So, what is ‘Barbie’ about and why the hype? It’s not that the film lacks a smart script. Greta Gershwig, director and screenwriter, is praised for finding that sweet spot in satirising and calling out Barbie’s parent company, Mattel, for its historic anti-feminist baggage, yet allegedly producing a “subversive” feminist artifact. Most reviewers recognise the inherent double jeopardy ‘Barbie’ presents with its clear intention to have a feminist face, and its obvious commercial objectives. Hence the tendency toward an “exhausting” overtly political self-awareness.

Following my experience, I researched further reviews, looking for a more nuanced view on ‘Barbie’’s feminist credentials. 

It was Guardian writer, Adrian Horton, who got as close to a critique by mainstream media as anyone, noting the movie went to “great pains” to satirise Mattel. She observed the repeated use of the practice to “ avoid potential criticism” you “ call it out first, and fold it into your image”. And noted that “Barbie feels stuck in a loop of intense self-awareness”. Horton also called out the fact that the more-than-100 assorted brands that Mattel has signed licensing deals with, will inevitably extend Barbie’s reach and aesthetic. But even these attempts at a serious critique were upended in her closing remark in the face of the film’s alluring levity –  “What’s a girl to do?…Best not to overthink it”. 

This seems to be the implicit message ‘Barbie’ successfully delivers. In fact, “Life in plastic is mostly fantastic” writes Steven McIntosh, Entertainment reporter.

My own experience was a little different. 

Context is Everything

To start with, context is everything. I understand that with the long shadow of Covid, the growing abyss of inequality, and the perils unfolding around us from the climate crisis, there is a human hunger in all of us to escape – to seek laughter and lighter fare for our entertainment. But is feminism a wise choice of vehicle for this respite? Are we at a point, where laughing at patriarchy disempowers it? Especially given the last three years where we have witnessed the dismantling of decades of legislative victories by women in the USA. Surely this is testimony to the fact that although our world may not be “Ken’s world” anymore, we still live in a ‘man’s world’, as the champion Spanish women’s football team was reminded only minutes after their magnificent World Cup win recently.

Despite all the hard-won political, social, and legislative changes, in the West we have barely begun to find a new way forward together beyond a culture based on the unfettered consumerism that is destroying the planet. Had ‘Barbie’ stayed in her lane, I would probably not be writing this article. But it’s the film’s elevation to the status of being subversive, even revolutionary, that demands a deeper look beneath its shiny surface.

Many cultural commentators and activists point to the fact that we live in a self-created bubble – alienated from reality; a reality that is fast leading to system collapse. And it’s no secret that this is primarily due to the intransigence of First World priorities, desires carefully stoked and sustained by a cadre of corporations and billionaires. This elite generally accounts for the industries directly causing this collapse. And some, like Mattel, are merchants of distraction, luring us deeper into a “happy” (and at times needed) vortex of fantasy. 

At best, Barbie is a piece of delusional, pretentious, but enjoyable entertainment; at worst it’s a highly successful piece of marketing engineering (global box office sales of over $1bn) that succeeds in pulling off one of the biggest cultural hoaxes. 

As ‘delightful’ as the film may be, Barbie manages to attain new heights in faux wokism with its overt signalling to diversity, disability, feminism, and male identity issues. However, because its embrace of real social issues is in reality paper-thin, the film stumbles clumsily into regressive missteps – from its exhausting self-awareness, including the satirisation of Mattel, to trotting out a version of universalised First World feminism (long called out by feminists in the global south). The film is replete with feminist tropes of women’s aspirations, opportunities, and challenges – President Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Astronaut Barbie etc all living the life – gorgeously.

This could be seen as simply a light-hearted tribute to the very real achievements women have made. But ‘Barbie’ does not stay in the ‘lite’ zone. With all the top positions seemingly filled by women in Barbieland, apart from the absence of a Margaret Atwood style patriarchy, there is no reference to any real innovative perspective or radically different philosophy these new female leaders could actually inspire. 

Feminist Threads

However, in so far as Western feminism goes there are several threads developed through the film. ‘Gloria’ (American Ferrara), the assistant to Mattel’s CEO in the film, leaves her office job for a journey of self-discovery inspired by Barbie’s plight. Ferrara does an eloquent job espousing the torturous contradictory demands made on women filling the ‘liberated’ positions of what is still essentially a capitalist male edifice. No doubt this gives a major boost to the film’s feminist credentials.

Similarly young feminista, ‘Sasha’ (Arianna Blatt), Gloria’s rebellious teen daughter, aims the most direct missile at Mattel in her initial encounter with Barbie in the ‘real’ world. “You set feminism back by 50 years. You fascist!” she shouts at the nonplussed Barbie. Yet Sasha’s rebel goth appearance is dutifully replaced in Barbieland with a purple satin dress. 

The other notable feminist offering is a sisterhood created by mother and daughter, buoyed by girl-power slogans such as “You’ve got this, Barbie!”.

Less convincing, despite the entertaining quip (provided by Helen Mirren’s voiceover) on the dubious casting of Margot Robbie as ‘ordinary’, is Barbie’s existential moment of angst at being “ordinary”. This is quickly allayed. Despite Gloria’s bid for an ‘Ordinary Barbie’ with Mattel, Gershwig’s script itself makes it clear the company’s only interest would be its profitability. Despite this short detour, the theme message of ‘Barbie’ never strays from the feminist slogan still sold to young girls, “You can be whatever you want”. Clearly if you work in a sweatshop in Asia, this is not the case. 

Inarguably, ‘Barbie’ draws some additional cultural credence by giving a nod to male issues. It reminds us that patriarchy is harmful for men as well, as is a simple gender reversal of power hierarchy. Like Barbie, Ken sets off on his own journey of self-discovery. Where this ends up though, after a deep dark dive into raw patriarchy, is little more than a version of palatable individualism as Ken and his bros discover the “freedom to be me”.

In reality, ‘Barbie’ reinforces the ideal of the American dream – lavish lifestyle, consumer laden culture, luxurious clothes, unlimited aspirations (“you can be whatever you want”) – classic symbols of American-style success. Against this, the message to simply ‘be yourself’ falls a little lamely.

Cultural Subversion or Commercial Appropriation?

On their own these nods to social issues are harmless; they could even signal the degree that certain issues have become part of mainstream consciousness. But what is questionable is the rush to embrace ‘Barbie’ as being subversive, as offering anything close to a serious comment on the complexity of gender issues. After reading mutliple reviews, I wondered whether citations of “female agency”,  “cognitive dissonance” and the frequent references to “patriarchy” are what imbued  the film with so much feminista credibility.

As Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge lecturer, wrote in a more probing review, “For all the inflated claims about its subversive, even revolutionary, nature and for all the dazzling diversity of Barbieland, the film has very little to say about the other oppressions which intersect with the patriarchy it sends up – racial, economic and climate injustice (the last, admittedly, is a bit hard for a doll made of fossil fuel-derived plastic to do).”

Feminism-lite can be OK; a bubble gum movie with feminist overtones generally aimed at pre-teens is not the concern, but the line-up of critics, actors, singers – Helen Mirren, Dua Lipa etc who lent their significant talent and thus endorsement, is baffling. Overnight, a light, easily digestible summer movie became a blockbuster. A coup by Mattel no doubt, which has struggled with declining sales. But instead of just celebrating the company’s marketing smarts, should we not also be questioning the cynical appropriation of real social issues as a tool to validate a product?

If ‘Barbie’ made no pretensions to be other than what it is, a piece of lightweight American escapist fun with some smart commentary woven into the “candy rush”, as Kermode calls it, then it would barely warrant mentioning, let alone lengthy critiques. Instead, the film is celebrated as a cultural centrepiece of feminist messaging.

A Long and Bumpy Road

How did we get here, and what is ‘here’? Is ‘here’ part of the dystopia so many point to, where lack of substance, caricature, and matrix-like fantasies are attributed the credentials of reality? As a culture, have we become so disconnected from ourselves, from the real world, that we struggle to distinguish between what is real, worthy, and of substance, and what is simply escapist fun? It’s the reaction to ‘Barbie’, more than the movie itself, that raises this question. 

Gershwig’s street cred lends its own significant weight. With ‘Barbie’s’ smart script it’s hard to avoid the reminders peppered throughout the film of Mattel’s misadventures… Palm Beach Sugar Daddy, the inflatable breasts on Skipper etc. However, this obvious transparency could be judged as lending authenticity to Mattel’s constant reinvention of its supremely successful product, resulting in its remarkable longevity. 

The context, however, for ‘Barbie’– the tsunami of consumer products (two years in planning) that Mattel set out to create, with over a hundred product licenses from ice cream to shoes, to a dream house in Malibu set up for Airbnb – arguably puts into question any authentic care for social concerns, least of all the women on the frontlines of capitalist consumerism, ie those paid a few dollars a day to produce Barbie’s world of “fantastic plastic”. 

In the bluntest of terms, Barbie is a candy-coated corporate marketing colossus laced with feminist washing. Despite its ‘delightfulness’, the film’s faux social concerns and self-conscious feminist awareness do not further feminist objectives. Gershwig and her co-writer, Noah Baumbach, may have done Mattel a huge favour, but it’s a long and bumpy road for Barbie with her origins based on a sex doll, to becoming a feminist artifact.

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Comments 3

  1. You know, I was intrigued as well about the phenomenon, but I rejected flat out to dig into understanding it better because it was so obvious entertainment. Distraction. Commerce. As you write yourself: “there is a human hunger in all of us to escape”.

    Whatever the useful bits in that movie are, society is taking every opportunity to be distracted from what really matters.

  2. A wonderful critique Mary. You have put into words the great discomfort I felt on seeing the film and its celebration as a win for women. If only!

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