Is Barbie a feminist movie? 8 books attempting to subvert pink

Is Barbie a feminist movie? 8 books attempting to subvert pink

by Suswati Basu
Stack of feminist books with pink covers as Barbie movie comes out
Barbie loves pink, and these feminist books have subverted the connotations around the colour

The iconic Barbie franchise has been a subject of debate for decades, praised by some for empowering young girls and criticised by others for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards. The latest movie, “Barbie,” adds another layer to this ongoing conversation by portraying a matriarchal society called Barbieland. While the film attempts to challenge gender norms and empower women, it also faces criticism for reinforcing certain stereotypes. “Barbie” can be seen as both a feminist and anti-feminist movie, delving into its portrayal of gender dynamics, self-identity, and empowerment, and the books showcased highlight how writers are attempting to reclaim pink.

The article ahead contains spoilers:

Barbieland: A Matriarchal Society

One of the film’s central themes is the matriarchal society of Barbieland, where women are depicted as self-confident, self-sufficient, and successful. Unlike their Ken counterparts, who are engaged in recreational activities, the Barbies hold esteemed job positions such as doctors, lawyers, and politicians. This portrayal is a refreshing departure from traditional gender roles, challenging the notion that women are limited to domestic duties or less important roles.

Female Empowerment vs. Unattainable Beauty Standards

While the portrayal of powerful and successful women is commendable, the movie does grapple with the age-old criticism of Barbie dolls promoting unrealistic beauty standards. Barbie’s existential crisis, triggered by concerns about mortality and changes in her appearance, opens the discussion about body image issues and self-esteem.

Weird Barbie: The Symbol of Embracing Individuality

Weird Barbie, an outcast with physical differences, plays a significant role in challenging societal norms. Her wisdom and individuality inspire Barbie to embrace her uniqueness and embark on a journey of self-discovery. This character emphasises the importance of accepting oneself and others, regardless of societal expectations.

Ken’s Evolution: A Reflection of Patriarchy

The portrayal of Ken’s character also raises questions about gender dynamics. Initially, Ken is depicted as seeking a relationship with Barbie and appearing unfulfilled without her. However, he later discovers a sense of acceptance and purpose within the patriarchal system, leading to a power struggle between the genders.

The Complex Role of Gloria in Barbie Movie

Gloria’s character, Barbie’s owner’s mother, is both compelling and controversial. As Barbie’s existential crisis is linked to Gloria’s identity struggles, the film highlights the potential influence of adults on children’s perceptions of beauty and self-worth. However, the representation of Gloria as the catalyst for Barbie’s crisis may reinforce the idea of mothers passing on unrealistic beauty standards to their daughters.

Barbie’s Transformation: From Doll to Human

Barbie’s decision to become human and return to the real world marks a symbolic turning point. It signifies her pursuit of a more authentic and multi-dimensional identity, independent of societal expectations. This transformation highlights the importance of embracing change and evolving one’s identity.

‘Consumer-friendly feminism’

There's no doubt Greta Gerwig's satire on this iconic and polarising toy is fairly meta in the same way Netflix hosted a TV show about the last ever Blockbuster store. For years there has been debate and backlash against Barbie for showcasing an unrealistic standard and whitewashed ideal of beauty and that's what the film addresses head on. 

Under the guise of a consumerist movie, Gerwig presents how an ideal matriarchal world does not exist in our reality. And Barbie definitely is given this harsh wake up call by being called a fascist by a group of young teenage girls. 

At the same time, Ken (or as he calls himself 'And Ken'), realises the real world is a total reversal of Barbieland, where he isn't a trophy or sidekick, his existence isn't based on Barbie, and patriarchy allows men into most areas where women are practically invisible. What we see is how incel culture thrives as Ken returns bringing patriarchy with him. This consisted of essentially dumbing down the women, removing them from places of power, and having their lives revolve around men.

What Ken also comes to see is that patriarchy doesn't benefit him either, as his life's purpose was to be with Barbie, which was not reciprocated. This means he needs to find his own identity, or as his T-shirt says "I am Kenough".

Barbie also eventually realises that her life is without meaning and purpose as she begins to experience real emotions, and therefore understands she no longer fits into the Barbieland mold. Her humanity and complexity is what makes her like any other woman.

My only bugaboo is the lack of intersectionality showcased in the film. Women with intersectional identities have more than just sexism they have to contend with, which it did not touch upon. And a disabled Barbie was seen in the periphery only twice in the film, with very little role. 

The film is an indictment on our current society, hence it's hardly surprising it's raised the hackles of the right wing press. It's  definitely a start in raising the issue in a consumer friendly way, but let's not forget Mattel are coming out on top with this.

Feminist books subverting pink as Barbie movie comes out

  • The Patriarchs by Angela Saini. A history of patriarchy and how it has shaped the world.
  • Misogyny by Jack Holland. An exploration of the different forms of misogyny and how it affects women’s lives.
  • The Smart Girls Handbook by Scarlett V. Clark. A guide to helping girls become confident and independent.
  • Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. A look at the ways in which women can be complicit in their own oppression.
  • Living Dolls by Natasha Walter. A critique of the way that women are often treated as objects.
  • Baby Love by Rebecca Walker. A personal exploration of the author’s experiences of motherhood.
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. A collection of essays about the challenges of being a woman in the world today.
  • Stories for South Asian Supergirls by Raj Kaur Khaira. A collection of stories about South Asian girls who are breaking down barriers and achieving their dreams.

“Barbie” is a thought-provoking movie that attempts to explore complex feminist themes while navigating through various stereotypes associated with the Barbie franchise. Its depiction of a matriarchal society and female empowerment offers a refreshing perspective on gender roles, inspiring young audiences to embrace their individuality and pursue their aspirations. However, the film also faces scrutiny for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and reinforcing certain gender stereotypes. As the Barbie franchise continues to evolve, it presents an opportunity to spark meaningful discussions about feminism, self-identity, and societal expectations.

Read: What is Patriarchy – with The Patriarchs author Angela Saini

This article contains affiliate links, where we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you – we have not been paid to highlight books.

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