On July 20th, 2023, a day after watching “Barbie” by Greta Gerwig I opened my phone to scroll on TikTok, the usual. After only a few scrolls, I saw the first video on “Barbie” and its perfect representation of feminism. Three scrolls later, another one. Soon enough, my phone was filled with videos praising the feminist grounds of the movie. Was I the only one perceiving the feminist issues of the movie? The only visible issue in the media was the male criticism of Ken’s character. The simple and humoristic characteristics attributed to Ken are undeniable but it appears for white closed-minded men that the character is so hollow that it misrepresents men and their place in society. In my opinion, this criticism is only proof of the movie’s targeted public. The goal of Ken and his ‘dumbness’ was to represent the reversed roles in Barbieland compared to real society. While in the real world, women are considered ‘stupid’ and dependent on men, in Barbieland Gerwig created the opposite. Besides, Gerwig only maintained the actual purpose of Ken, a supporting character dependent on Barbie’s attention.
Before starting this article, I would like to acknowledge the progressive aspect of “Barbie”, especially for an American movie, mentioning both patriarchy and womanhood. I believe that Gerwig does not address feminist activists particularly but addresses those who are still unaware or uninterested in gender issues and patriarchy, and for this purpose, the movie is a success. As a feminist, I think the movie still needs improvement. All the same, it remains a movie sponsored by Mattel. Although Margot Robbie insists that Mattel did not influence the ending, the sudden change of opinion by Mattel after their trip to Barbieland argues the opposite. This change also highlights the need in Western movies to have a ‘happy ending’ and create entertainment, thus profit. On the other hand, the movie can and should be criticised for further improvement. In my opinion, the actual criticism around “Barbie” in the movie should not be Ken, as I presented above. My issue is rather the sudden embodiment of feminism Barbie represents and the lack of concrete societal representation. Thus, I opened my computer to present the possible forms of improvement on body image, general diversity and gendered grounds.
The ‘perfect body’ created by Mattel for Barbie was always a personal ongoing problem, and, in my opinion, Greta Gerwig failed to represent the diversity of struggles with patriarchal body standards. Barbieland remains a land of underrepresentation for women and misrepresentation for men. Most actresses hired to represent the different Barbies have a thin body type. All actors hired to represent Ken have muscular bodies. Body representation in dolls needs improvement; a huge criticism in the past that now seems to be forgotten.
The representation of the male gaze on women’s bodies also suffers from the lack of body diversity. Margot Robbie is the only Barbie that appears in the real world; a thin, good-looking woman with shapes. The point I want to make here is not to undermine the experience and the catcall represented in the film but to highlight the fact that a woman with different features would have received a different treatment. Patriarchal standards lead men’s behaviour to vary depending on women’s body type, triggering different types of inappropriate behaviours/remarks. A fat woman will not be subject to the same comments as a thin woman, but the movie simplifies womanhood around the image of Margot Robbie.
America Ferrera represents those different experiences in her monologue: “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin”. The whole monologue represents the difficulties of womanhood and receives a lot of admiration. Similar to Barbieland and the glimpse of Margot Robbie’s real-world experience, I believe it still lacks concrete representation. Although society does implement a thin beauty standard, which is not pointed out in the monologue, not all women wish to be thin. Others may even crave the opposite of thinness, which is not even considered a possibility in the dialogue. It is implied that everybody would want to be thin but would be stigmatised for it, while in reality people would be stigmatised for not being thin. By simply opening social media as many of us do nowadays, we can see concepts such as the “almond mom” or “girl dinner” that consists of a packet of crisps and coffee. In my opinion, the association between thinness and health is a current issue in society that needs to be addressed and is not done by Gerwig. The monologue also forgets the struggles of thin women and their perceived ‘unfemininity’ because of their lack of shape. The movie does not improve when it comes to male depiction and struggles, completely omitting the diversity of men’s bodies and the struggles that can ensue.
While my point above officially stands for the lack of body diversity, it can also underline a general lack of representation. Ryan Gosling, as Ken, arrived in the real world as a white, heterosexual man, facilitating the inclusivity and dominating position felt. Besides the already considerable difficulties faced as a woman, Margot Robbie remains a white woman. In my opinion, both experiences could have been radically different depending on the ethnicity, sexuality or even social background of the person. I would have found it interesting for Greta Gerwig to send a group of Barbies and Kens in the real world, with different skin colours and sexuality. It would have added an intersectional approach to the movie, improving the progressiveness of a Western movie. While I acknowledge that Barbie and Ken, as dolls, are white characters, the struggles faced in the real world are whitewashed, silencing a different type of experience. The character of Alan supposedly questions the stereotypes of masculinity of the muscular, attractive, heterosexual man and I agree that he is an important character in the movie, for that matter. He also shows an interest in men participating in the feminist movements. However, he is washed out and practically ridiculed for his progressiveness and ‘lack of attractiveness’, strengthening male stereotypes and heteronormativity.
As a final point, I believe the movie strengthens gender standards. Greta Gerwig managed to bring back the original idea of Barbie; the inspiration for little girls. By showing a reversed system of the real world, I thought Gerwig managed to tackle the idea of Barbie as a pretty, blond woman by representing a matriarchy where women manage to control their lives and access high ranks, something not as easily achievable in the real world. However, my opinion remains divided. By representing Barbie as this inherently ‘girl’ toy, Greta Gerwig strengthens gender norms whilst clinging to the idea that this gendered toy will make a change in little girls’ lives. Mattel supposedly created Barbie as a door-opening toy but maintained heterosexual norms through the creation of Ken. While Gerwig criticises heteronormativity through Margot Robbie’s disinterest in a love life with Ken, the inspiration Barbie represents remains an inspiration for ‘little girls’ specifically. Though women are majorly blocked in their access to the corporate world, reducing the toy to a little girl’s playdate strengthens the gendering of Barbie. In my opinion, dolls and Barbie were marketed towards girls and I believe Gerwig strengthened that idea by also titling the movie “Barbie”. Some men were sceptical about attending the screening of the movie because of the association of Barbie with women. I saw the movie with my partner, and many believed that I was forcing him to watch the movie when he genuinely wanted to know the content of the film. As I stated above, I believe the movie targeted an uneducated audience on the issues of patriarchy and womanhood. By titling the movie “Barbie”, Gerwig manages to gather a younger audience to educate from a younger age, but loses a part of her audience, mainly the male audience, who perhaps also need this introductory education.