'Barbie' and the Feminism Problem: How Greta Gerwig has Confounded the Film Girls, by Nya Hodge
DISCLAIMER: This article contains spoilers for Barbie (2023).
I enjoyed the Barbie movie. Check my Letterboxd; I’ve logged it twice.
It was good, warm, girl-tastic fun. Cotton candy fun. Watermelon fun. Y’know, the kind of sugar that you love the most during summer time.
However, I've been seeing a lot of discourse on Twitter, or “X” (Elon Musk is not welcome here), with some saying the movie is calorically deficient, lacking in any real substance, and others saying that Greta Gerwig is a feminist genius and that Barbie’s critiques are what the narrative internally satirizes.
But the question of how we got here is even harder to answer. How did a movie so inherently and innately girl become so contentious amongst feminist moviegoers and misogynists alike?
Let's start with why a more feminist watcher might critique the film:
The movie has a disproportionate amount of Ken.
One could make the argument that Ken is under the Barbie brand and plays a huge part of this brand as one of Barbie's closest relationships: her boyfriend. Furthermore, the movie is called Barbie — which could be an easy way out of centering Barbie, the character, and instead centering “Barbie,” the sellable concept and idea.
But the movie follows Barbie, the character. And Ken’s story serves as B-plot to Barbie’s overall narrative, capturing the viewer’s attention and leaving Barbie with a half-baked existential crisis.
The film teeters between Ken and Barbie’s stories in a way that sometimes requires you to shut off the fact that you’re consuming an ad in order to immerse yourself in the story. But it also offers the quintessential questions of the film.
Who is Barbie? What is Barbie?
Barbie, as a character, is lovely and charming to watch. She's kind. She's funny. She’s witty. She has endless amounts of love for her friends and other women. And she doesn’t do any of these things necessarily on purpose because she’s not truly a “person.”
Her view of the world is satirized and endearing in a way that is intentionally unrealistic. She has these flickers of humanness – but she is not a person. Not until the end, where she’s turned into a human woman or whatever the magical Pinocchio rules of this world dictate.
In the movie, the idea of what it means to be human is emphasized just as much as what it means to be a woman. (This, however, might get lost or muddled in the haze of the baby pinks and lime green roller skates. Which were still awesome, by the way.)
Margot Robbie has a stellar, heart-wrenching performance. She cries. She laughs. She lovingly gazes at the other Barbies and America Ferrera’s character, Gloria. This is not only a coming of age movie, but a coming into being movie. Robbie’s performance lands heavily because she makes the experience of grief but also the resounding joy of growing up tangible. Robbie’s performance says to the viewers that when a lot of girls reach womanhood, they think there’s nothing left for them. But there is. There’s always something left.
It's miserably relatable. It's insanely jarring for the viewer to feel so much for a doll coming to life.
Because that’s the result of girlhood turned womanhood: a doll coming to life.
That’s where as a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, Gerwig has me hooked into Barbie’s story — but also why, as a film analyst, I acknowledge that what holds the story together is not necessarily feminism.
Barbie is a story about women. The experience of women is symbiotic to misogyny, and the cure to misogyny featured in the movie is feminism. However, the movie does not commit completely to the intricacies of feminist ideology. It’s apparent in the empathy we’re somewhat expected to extend to Ken.
The narrative foil that’s supposed to be created by patriarchy and matriarchy is also not a sound through line.
Patriarchy is gross. Its goal is oppression. Communally created safe spaces for women as a result of this oppression aren’t fairly comparable. But womanhood and manhood, both of which are brutal as a result of patriarchy, are now put in the “What if the roles were reversed?” scenario.
Barbie employs this scenario and in return we see a beautiful, close-to-utopian society.
And that’s why feminism is almost the undercurrent of the Barbie movie — the conflict wasn’t that Barbie was missing out on being an empowered woman, because there were empowered women all around her. The central conflict is that Barbie realized that she is missing out on being complex and real. She desires to take part in the entire spectrum of emotions of womanhood, not just the part that gives her killer outfits and beautiful hair. She wants it all. The entire human experience.
But this isn’t feminism. And the choice that Barbie makes isn’t a logical feminist choice. She shouldn’t suffer the horrors of misogyny when she already lives in a beautiful, supportive society.
But could the movie even end with Barbie going back to Barbieland without making the women in the audience feel like the world they live in is destitute and horrible?
Probably not, because feminism isn’t necessarily the resolution to Barbie's problems. (Besides the whole Ken-tyranny thing… that needed feminism, bad.)
What is thematically unsound about Barbie is also something we wouldn’t ask any other movie to render. The Barbie movie is fun. It's a beautiful story about women. It made thousands upon thousands of women create community and cry together. There is something wonderful about this expression of communal joy. And the expectation that a movie about women must innately progress feminism, especially when womanhood is a complicated journey with more to say for it than suffering, is also misogynistic.
We can’t get so caught up in analyzing and critiquing movies that we forget that one of a movie’s ultimate purposes is to get us to feel.
Barbie invites us to care for women as people, and while this might not be the next feminist manifesto film, it does have something meaningful to say.