top of page

Barbie’s Dream is a Feminist Nightmare

Updated: Jan 9

by Aliki Bitsakakis

“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” America Ferrara tells us in Barbie. She goes on to list all the contradictions that come along with being a woman, as we are criticized for being too thin or too fat, for being too loud or not aggressive enough, for being pretty but not too pretty. She says that she’s tired of seeing women tie themselves into knots so that people will like us. And she tells us how the plastic doll in front of us is the woman experience in a microcosm.
Is it just me, or does the Barbie movie express so little about being a woman?
Negative reviews of Barbie have been ignored for being written by men who feel the plastic revolution has threatened their hold on the patriarchy. I am a woman. I am 24 years old. I grew up playing with Barbies and I love film. I sat in that theater on opening weekend, surrounded by women and men in pink clothing (I celebrated the occasion by wearing bright pink lipstick, and a fully black outfit to prepare for my later screening of Oppenheimer), and as the credits rolled, those around me applauding and cheering, I have never felt so alone. 
Some could say that I was the target audience for this movie. If I, a woman who loved dolls as a child and is now constantly at war with her experience as a young woman in this world that does very little to support women, didn’t like this movie, well, there’s something wrong, isn’t there?
Barbie was marketed as being a revolutionary feminist film. However, it was very shallow in its representation of women’s issues. Now, reflecting on the film six months later, I can see that the reason the feminism portrayed did not live up to my expectations is because this movie was never about feminism. This movie was created to sell Barbie dolls to the next generation. Mattel used feminism as a marketing tool in order to rebrand the doll that has been heavily criticized in the past for making young women feel bad about themselves. And we all fell for it.
America Ferrara’s speech did not work for me. She touches on important issues but does not expand. She oversimplifies the female experience and compresses it into a digestible bite. When the Barbie doll was introduced in 1959, the fact that a woman had her own home, her own car, could be a doctor or an author or a physicist was indeed revolutionary. But that simply isn’t good enough anymore. We know that we can be doctors if we want to. That isn’t news and presenting that as if it’s news is a little condescending. The modern female experience is much more complicated than simply telling women we can be whatever we want to be, with no analysis about the obstacles that do still exist in that pursuit, such as financial independence, religious stigmas, and laws governing the female body, to name a few. At the start of her monologue she touches on body issues, how women feel the pressure to stay skinny, but not too skinny. That’s all precise and accurate, but we do not see that struggle anywhere in the film. Why don’t we talk to a Barbie who is not of the same body type as everyone else? Do little girls play with her doll less? Do the other Barbies criticize her? No need to delve into the way that women have internalized these body image issues, how most of the time, the people criticizing the way a woman looks is other women, how body types go in and out of style, how these trends come from Hollywood, from celebrities on Ozempic, celebrities getting butt lifts and lip injections and lying about it so the average woman feels bad about her natural body. No need to expand on the complex mental health issues that have arisen in young women through mainstream media and social media, through the lack of representation in billion dollar films, right?
In an interview with The New York Times, America Ferrara responded to my exact criticisms, that her monologue was an oversimplification of women’s issues. Her retort was that some people need “Feminism 101,” and that the monologue was mainly for people not well-versed on feminist issues, such as men who have never really thought about it, and young girls who could use the words for describing the culture around them. Responding to a criticism by saying, well this wasn’t for you, isn’t enough for me. According to the marketing of this film, with their nostalgic red carpet outfits that my mother recognized from her childhood Barbie dolls, to the Barbie-branded makeup palettes and Halloween costumes, the target audience of this film was very clearly women my age, a little bit older, a little bit younger. And you’re telling us that the most important moment of the film wasn’t for us? I felt spoken down to, is that not a valid complaint? Let’s accept her explanation for a moment. Let’s accept that some people in the theaters needed to learn the basics of feminism (can we even call being a woman is hard, feminist theory?). How hard is it to convey those themes in the story of the film, rather than plainly stating it? This is a movie, not a TedTalk.
Let’s talk about intersectionality. This movie loved their blanket statements. It’s hard being a woman because of these reasons! But we don’t have time to get into how those issues differ for women of colour, or women of varying gender identities and sexualities, or women of different socioeconomic classes or religions or ethnicities. Intersectionality looks at how social categorizations, such as race, class, gender, are interconnected and need to be studied together to paint an accurate picture of human experience. In other words, when talking about a group of people and the struggles they face, you must also look at the overlap of identities, and see what new complicated issues that venn diagram brings out. The experience of women is not homogenous. For example, in the United States, white women won the right to vote in 1920. Black women won the right to vote in 1965. Under the federal eye, all women are not the same, and women of varying identities have faced and continue to face different struggles at different points. Looking at feminism through the lens of intersectionality draws a more accurate image of what it is like to be a woman. I was happy to see diversity in Barbie. I was disappointed to hear no discussion about the differing experiences of all these women/dolls. This movie has been marketed for women. It has been marketed as a feminist revolution. But not all women, or any woman other than the stereotypical doll woman, is represented in this film. We may see women of different skin types, body types, abilities, but there is no mention, no integration of intersectionality in the story. Do real kids play with Stereotypical Barbie more than President Barbie, who is Black? Why didn’t we have any other Barbies venture into the real world and discover not only how women are treated, but how women of colour are treated in comparison to white women? Why didn’t we have any discussion about Barbies with different body types? With disabilities? How are they perceived and how do they perceive themselves in this fantasy world? I understand that one film cannot capture the entirety and complexity of the female experience. But the opportunity was right there, and I was surprised not to see it, especially after the marketing convinced me this was a movie about feminism. 
Now. Ken. Let’s get one thing out of the way: bashing The Godfather is a hilarious attempt to destroy the patriarchy. It’s true, men have been running Hollywood from its inception. But this entire sequence is, again, an oversimplification of the relationship between the sexes. The sequence where we see the Barbies break the trance that the Kens have placed on them, and then pretend to be stupid to play to their egos just to take back control, is offensive to both women and men. It’s offensive to women because it’s showing how we are not allowed to share interests with men. And it’s offensive to men because it’s telling them that they’re a) stupid enough to fall for this and b) horrible enough to only like women who are mindless caterers to their egos. Not to say that some men don’t behave like this. But once again, it’s the blanket statements that strips this film of all credibility.
If I ever met Greta Gerwig, my first question would be: why did you open with a shot-for-shot remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey? This isn’t something we’ve never seen before, many parodies exist out there. But what’s the reason? Once again, we’re looking at a shallow statement about feminism, as we are taking a boy movie and repurposing it as a girl movie. If Greta Gerwig wanted to convey a similar theme, showing the evolution of the female experience through time and space, that’s a great idea, but why not create your own scene to convey that idea? Why use 2001? Because it’s quirky? Because it’s recognizable? It’s funny? Are we just admitting that men have created some great things as well? Sorry, that must be blasphemous to say. But society needs to be very, very directly told that just because an old white dude made something, that does not mean we must immediately discredit it. We need to look at things critically. There is absolutely a need to raise diverse voices in Hollywood. There is absolutely a need to usher women into directing opportunities, to tell diverse stories, to cast people based on ability rather than whiteness. Absolutely. But the past will always exist, and we should be glad it does, because that is how we learn.
Back to Ken. For a movie being about women, I found myself envious of the men in the theater. Ken had a complex emotional arc. He went from being a second-rate citizen in BarbieLand, to learning how to take agency of his life and exert power over the women of BarbieLand, to his illusion of world domination being squashed, to learning that he doesn’t have to be what others expect of him, and he can take his time to figure out who he is. Right now, he’s just Ken. And there’s nothing wrong with being just Ken. It’s an uplifting story to tell men, showing them that they do not need to have everything figured out right now, and not sitting on the throne is not a bad thing. Barbie on the other hand, went from being top dog in BarbieLand, to going to the real world and discovering white women who look like Margot Robbie have a really hard time (stop being so hard on Margot for being beautiful, you’re probably thinking. The film undercut her emotional breakdown by saying Margot Robbie wasn’t the best choice to convey this point, so I’m just following their uncomfortable lead), to coming back to BarbieLand and learning what Ken has felt all these years in his subordinate position, to tricking the Kens to fight amongst themselves and rescind power to the Barbies, to going back to being top dog and having full control over the governance of BarbieLand. And…we’re supposed to sympathize with Barbie in this situation? My jaw was on the popcorn-littered floor when the Barbies took full control over Congress again, rather than settling on a system of equal representation with the Kens. No. This is not the solution. We are fighting to have more women in positions of power, to have more women in government, to have women direct films, in order to diversify the perspectives of those in charge. What we are not trying to do is go full French Revolution Reign of Terror and overthrow the evil oppressors only to become them ourselves. If the roles were reversed, do we really think Kens and only Kens being in charge would be accepted by the audience?
I know why the movie ended this way. I know why the main conflict of the film was between men and women. I know why criticisms against this movie are labeled as being anti-woke, labeled as being vouched for by old white men who feel threatened by women being in charge.
Capitalism often pits one group of people against another, so they fight amongst themselves rather than against the system. The real enemies should have been Mattel, because they’re the ones who have created these dolls that for ages have made young girls feel bad about themselves. They’re the ones who created Ken as an accessory. They’re the ones that are making the most profit off of this movie. But they were shown as bumbling idiots in this film, in order to lower their threat level. They hired Greta Gerwig to seem altruistic. I have absolutely nothing against Greta Gerwig, I actually do feel indebted to her for paving the next generation of female writers and directors. But. There is nothing in Gerwig’s filmography that made her the perfect fit for this film, despite what producer Margot Robbie has claimed in interviews. Gerwig has made movies centered on women, but all have been offbeat, independent films. She was not chosen for this film for her ability, but because Mattel needed a female director, and Gerwig is currently popular with the Academy. Gerwig is just another pawn in the grand evil scheme of Mattel. And, we all forget, but Noah Baumbach wrote the movie as well. But he cannot be shown in the media at all, because the presence of a man would dilute the impact of the film (he also skipped out on the premiere carpet in solidarity with the WGA strike). Mattel has thought of everything, and everything points to them getting as much money as possible out of women’s purses.
In an age where more kids are playing on phones and fewer kids are playing with toys, this toy company had to do something. And sales of Barbies have skyrocketed since the release of this film. Every brand has their Barbie eyeshadow palettes, their Barbies keychains, their pink hats. It’s all marketing. And we fell for it. The marketing campaign surrounding this movie was absolutely insane. And in one weekend we all flocked to cinemas to see a historical epic about a man filled with guilt, and a two hour long commercial. 
Mattel has used feminism (or, the promise of feminism) for personal gain. They do not actually care about women, please remember that.
I’m a woman. I did not feel seen by Barbie. I felt manipulated. I felt that my concerns with society were diluted. I felt hopeless and alone. I don’t need to be told, you can be whatever  you want to be! I need to be told that my autonomy is protected by law. I don’t need to be told, it’s hard being a woman! I need to be told, yeah, it sucks, and here’s what we’re going to do about it. I don’t need to be told, even Margot Robbie has bad days! I need to be told, we see you, and here you are, just as you are. 
Also, for what it’s worth, no man forced me to watch The Godfather. I watched it because I love film, and that is also why I wrote this review. I love film too much, I see it to be too important in influencing us and capturing the human experience and connecting human beings on an emotional level. In the toughest times, humans turn to art. And that is why I care.
Actually, I’m usually the one who forces men to watch classic films. Every woman is different, I guess.

241 views0 comments
bottom of page