Last week I blogged that a friend invited me to see the Barbie movie with a group of women.
I appreciated the invitation but Barbie? Pass.
Until I read all the hype and learned that my 25-year-old daughter, a mini-me feminist, the last person I expected to go, planned to see it.
While watching the movie I laughed, clapped and involuntarily cheered to the point a curious (but not angry) teenage girl turned around. I nearly did a standing ovation when the credits rolled.
Not that it’s that good, this is Barbieland we’re talking about.
But in some ways the movie is brilliant.
Campy and ridiculous with feminist messaging wrapped throughout. Women laugh and nod because they’ve lived it, men laugh and nod because they get it.
Growing up I loved Barbie. The 1970’s blond impossibly thin-waisted, exaggerated beauty and boobs original. I loved her hair, clothes, perfected make-up, high heels and glitz.
The full girliness of all of it.
But as an eventual feminist and mother to a daughter (I bought her a few Disney character Barbies), Barbie wasn’t exactly my idea of female body positivity and empowerment. She was an impossible beauty ideal and bubble-headed arm candy.
And while I love a good satire I assumed the movie would be nauseating.
When my daughter was little we watched every Disney movie, and never once did I suck the fun out of the boy-saves-girl Belle or Cinderella tropes.
Why would I?
Until middle school, the entry hell of puberty, full of fragile self-esteem, gender expectations, and overwhelming insecurity.
That’s when I taught my daughter about the fight for equality, and the importance of being assertive (to the degree her shyness allowed). And that creating boundaries doesn’t mean “bitch or difficult,” it means self-respect.
And that it’s okay to have a healthy squishy body (all while I worried about gaining weight).
It’s clear I haven’t been paying attention to evolving Barbie. She’s grown into an individual and kept pace with every complex wave of feminism.
“Third-wave feminism, in the 1990s, took a more complicated and nuanced view of the world, writes M.G. Lord in the LA Times piece, “Yes Barbie is a feminist, just don’t ask her creators.”
“It enshrined, among other things, the idea of a woman’s right to control her own sexual expression, and, you could even say, her right to pleasure. When it came to Barbie, this form of feminism advanced the daring idea that some women might actually take pleasure dressing like the dolls, a practice that some second-wavers might have interpreted as retrograde and submissive to patriarchy.
The largely online movement of fourth-wave feminism that began around 2012 had a big impact in Barbie’s world. It embraces intersectionality and body positivity, challenging the idea that there is only one ideal body type.”
The movie is over-the-top ridiculous, but with playful unexpected existential messaging for both our plastic protagonists (we see Barbie lying on the ground trying to grapple with “Who am I?”).
No major spoilers, but she gets a taste of the patriarchal real world outside her female-centric Barbieland and she’s devastated.
Ken too, experiences patriarchy and becomes fast addicted to the highs of the boys club, finally appreciated as alpha male-powerful, rather than merely Barbie’s beach buff lovesick shadow.
The movie isn’t, as some conservatives insist, a male-bashing bashing angry feminist roar. It’s real-life flipped upside down inside a matriarchy.
Outside her pink utopia, Barbie deals with catcalls, ass-grabbing, sexual harassment, and being patronized and dismissed.
One man who commented on my first post wrote:
As a *cishet male, I was not remotely offended or threatened by the movie. Definitely not “male bashing”. I hope we see more movies like this. I hear Mattel is already planning a sequel” ~ Daniel.
My guess is the movie’s message didn’t threaten him, it merely illuminated what he already knew.
While another man added this thought-provoking critique:
The movie is for men, perhaps a bit of a Rorschach test for their ego. While my husband won’t attend a women’s rights rally, he respects strong accomplished smart women. His activism is in his beliefs and behavior.
During the movie we watch Ken go rogue then struggle with toxic masculinity “bro” nonsense. Ultimately we leave the theatre understanding the value of not, bashing men, but rather, bashing gender expectations.
The movie is a good time but in no uncertain terms, a feminist film, although one covered in candy-coated bawdiness, “I’d like to see what nude blob (Ken) is packing under those jeans”
Co-director Greta Gerwig doesn’t shy away from the fact that she made a feminist movie.
Mattel does. Hoping no doubt, to avoid scaring off some viewers.
But controversy invariably draws crowds and Barbie is a box office smash.
Some people are going because of its feminist messaging.
Some because they think the movie is the antithesis to conservative family values. “See, more wokeism indoctrination!”
Most people, like friends I talked to, go because they liked Barbie growing up, or their kids want to see the movie.
A friend’s teenage son went and afterward told her, “Mom, my friends and I liked the movie but it was a little….feminist”
He wasn’t disgusted, she said, he was confused. Not a bad thing for a teenage boy to admit when clobbered over the head in a funny way, with a reality he doesn’t fully understand.
Barbie today is every woman. Every color and shape. Every career, or homemaker. Every position of power. Glamorous or earthy.
The movie isn’t remotely an “All men suck” diatribe. No-thinking woman thinks this, as no-thinking man believes all women are “bitches.”
What we shouldn’t miss is the message for Ken.
That, while Barbie is no longer the poster girl for a one-dimensional female ideal, Ken too, has always been more complex than what people expected of him.
Ken isn’t threatened by feminism, because Ken finally knows who he is.
*This two-part identity means that a person is both cisgender and heterosexual. A cishet person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, and they choose romantic partners of the opposite sex.