For decades, the feminist movement has been on the frontline of activism including for representation. The influence of media portrayal on societal perceptions is profound. Feminists introduced evaluative tools like the Bechdel test, which assesses films based on criteria such as the presence of at least two women engaging in conversations unrelated to men. Remarkably, even three decades since its inception, some films continue to fall short of passing the Bechdel test, highlighting the ongoing need for feminist advocacy in the entertainment industry. Throughout the years, Barbie’s development has mirrored the ongoing discourse surrounding popular culture. In the present day, the film’s ability to convey messages challenging the constraints imposed by patriarchy stands as a significant win for feminism. In this article, we delve into the significance of Barbie Land and its crucial role in providing insights into the ongoing feminist movement.
Barbie and the feminist movement
Barbie, to feminists, may not initially appear as the archetypal feminist symbol. As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminists of the 1970s chose to define themselves in contrast to Barbie, the material embodiment of “everything we didn’t want to be but were told to be.” During that era, Barbie epitomises the ideal figure that the media encouraged women to aspire to be worldwide; not only did she conform to narrow beauty standards, but her perceived perfection was reinforced by the fact that she didn’t cause any trouble. Barbie was often portrayed as a shallow but agreeable character, catering primarily to male preferences. This skewed representation of women has too long gone unchallenged.
The concerns of the feminist movement to Barbie were multi-layered, some were totally against the doll and some didn’t believe that it represents all women in their shapes, sizes and also characters. Back then, Barbie was simply a product, just like all products, judged through the supply and demand equation. In this context, Barbie had to adapt to the evolving societal changes and to incorporate the conversations about diet culture, diversity and inclusivity. While the feminist movement played a vital role, civil rights movements were equally instrumental in challenging social norms, paving the way for more progressive societal beliefs.
Fast forward to the 2023 Barbie film, where Barbies exhibits greater inclusivity. Barbie Land, in contrast, is a place where women occupy the center stage of power, with everything revolving around them. The Barbies embody limitless capabilities and leadership defined by core values like cooperation, tolerance, and respect. The introduction of patriarchy, a dominant system oppressing all, with women and non-binary individuals as its primary targets, entered the equation when Ken decided to import it into Barbie Land. Despite the universal impact of patriarchy, certain individuals reap its benefits, predominantly men. The film succeeded in sending multiple thought-provoking messages about feminism, but perhaps the most significant insight is the direct and unequivocal link between patriarchy and instability.
Understanding Kens and/vs Allan’s Masculinities
Violence and unrest began in Barbie when the Kens discovered how the patriarchy empowers them through rewarding their masculinity. The trouble began when men assert their entitlement to be primary characters rather than mere background figures and they set out to change the rules of Barbie Land to match the real world, a world where gender inequality is the norm.
The concept of masculinity could be problematic, for in many societies, it equates to power and with power, you have access to even more power and resources and to preserve this, you have to protect any challenge to your masculinity and even use it as a tool to oppress others. This is what happened when Barbie and Ken had a chance to drive out of Barbie Land and into the real world. The real world in this case is inhabited by humans and their deeply embedded values and norms that subjucate women unlike Barbie Land where the Barbies rule and life is in order. Barbie realises this quickly when she starts to be sexualised and her abilities are doubted while Ken discovers his privileges as a man in the real world and its intersection with his masculinity. The only way to preserve his newfound comfort is by importing patriarchy into Barbie Land. The film quickly shows us how masculinity turns toxic and Ken takes up arms, highlighting the undeniable link between patriarchy, instability, and violence.
By the end of the Barbie film, the Barbies take advantage of the Kens fighting to resinstate their rule. This mirrors the real world in which women are leading massive peace efforts to reinstate peace in conflict-ridden societies and this is why WILPF champions feminist peace which is about women being at the center of the peace process.
Our work for rights will not end soon, but maybe for once, we can take a few moments to celebrate success especially when we are able to see some strong messages through popular mediums such as the Barbie film.
After this brief celebration, we get back to work because we still have a lot to do as Natalia Petrzela notes in her article on Barbie, “the recent reversals to women’s progress have been so fast and furious that we should really reflect before being too readily swept up in an intoxicating swirl of Barbie pink.”