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Barbie is a feminist and everything is fine

Everything is pink lately: from the aggressive Barbie marketing to the discussion online after the release of the movie on July 21. One of the main debate about the Barbie movie is to know whether the iconic doll is a feminist or not. Being a feminist myself and having watched the movie, I have a strong opinion. (There may be some spoilers: you’ve been warned!)

Since April 2022 when the first picture of the actress Margot Robbie as Barbie was released, people have been talking about Barbie everywhere, especially online. And discussions, particularly about feminism, have been even louder since the release of the movie. One of the reasons why people talk so much about feminism is because of the movie’s explicit intention to be a feminist movie. Not only did Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, stated in countless interviews that "it most certainly is a feminist film", in the movie, the word is also explicitly used various times and Barbie is considered as a feminist figure.

But is Barbie really a feminist?

As much as I enjoyed watching the movie with its many jokes and irony about patriarchy in our society, I don’t think it is feminist. It’s funny to see the absurdity of sexism through Ken when he discovers patriarchy and implements it in Barbieland which becomes Kendom. But this kind of feminism, which is sometimes referred to as "white feminism", is not enough in our day and age. We need more and we cannot expect it from a movie.

A reference to "2001: a space Odyssey". Credit: Warner Bros

My first issue with the movie is the use of Barbie as a feminist figure. The first scene is a reference to "2001: a space Odyssey" by Stanley Kubrick and its point is to show Barbie as a human revolution. Although, this scene could be interpreted as ironic, the rest of the movie still tries to position the doll as a feminist. So is the scene really ironic or is it just Mattel, the company that produces Barbie, pushing a specific message to the consumers to stay relevant and keep selling products?

This can also be seen in how the movie presents Mattel. The company is criticized for its lack of female leaders but it’s not because they point the finger at themselves that changes will actually happen.

What I see is a movie that acknowledges sexism on a very superficial level. Not only the film doesn’t touch on darker sides of sexism such as domestic violence, it also completely washes away intersectionality with other forms of discrimination like racism, ableism or classism.

And this leads me to the second issue I have with the movie, the elephant in the room: it completely ignores capitalism. And that is what white feminism is. This type of feminism is very well accepted (and used) by companies because it doesn’t challenge the systems that are in place. It doesn’t question the connection between sexism and racism, ableism or classism. Its main focus is on all women having the same rights and opportunities, especially in the work place to feed the capitalistic machine. This completely disregards what women want because it assumes all women want the same thing. It also ignores challenges faced by women around the globe by considering that women only need emancipation in their careers.

"You can do what you want, you have the right to do what you want" Mattel seems to say with this movie. But in my opinion, capitalism and feminism are opposed.

The only time, the movie actually goes a bit deeper is when Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt), a teenager who as a difficult relationship with her mom, meets Barbie in the real world. Sasha confronts the doll with all the issues she has created by her very own existence in a monologue. For example, she talks about the unattainable body standards Barbie has created in girls’ minds which is one of the biggest critique Mattel has faced throughout the years. "You’ve been making women feel bad since you were invented" she says to Barbie. For instance, in 1965, the company created a sleepover Barbie Kit and, in it, there were a scale with 110lbs (50kg) written on it and a book with the question "how to lose weight" on the front and the answer "don’t eat" on the back.

Sasha also points out the fact that Barbie is "killing the planet with [her] glorification of rampant consumerism" which is another problem I have with calling this movie feminist because it doesn’t acknowledge the link between environmental issues and sexism.

Barbie is a plastic dolls and Mattel is fully responsible for not only abusing workers’ rights in its factories but also using resources for its production and contributing to more plastic pollution around the globe.

Unsurprisingly, the movie never comes back to the issues raised by Sasha and – because Sasha is portrayed as the angry teenager who hates the whole world – the movie doesn’t take her seriously. In my opinion, this scene was a way for Mattel to gather as many people as possible to watch the movie and give "the woke gen z" someone they can identify with.

The true mastery of this movie is not the fact that a blockbuster talks about feminism but rather that Mattel was able to direct the discourse in a convenient way. By using Barbie as a feminist figure, the company turns the attention to its doll instead of the real changes that need to happen in our world. For Mattel, independence for women can only be found in consumption, in participating in the very system that feeds on inequality and discrimination.

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