Since July 21st, not a day has passed that I have not read about or discussed Barbie. Having finally seen it, I can say with certainty that I get the hype. Margot Robbie proves her incredible talent and range once again as stereotypical Barbie in the film. The sets and costumes lived up to every Barbie fantasy my 6-year-old self could have dreamed of. And the cherry on top was the use of the iconic Indigo Girls song, “Closer to Fine” as the anthem for Barbie’s journey from Barbieland to the real world.
Barbie as a product sold girls like me the dream that we could be anything, but as a 17-year-old woman, I now know the situation is a bit more complex. The Barbie movie plays with this contrast in ways that help us see the hollowness of American feminism, but the question remains what to do about this hollowness, and the movie doesn’t offer much help with that question.
Barbieland is the fictional world where the feminist campaign slogans thrown around by corporations, politicians, and influencers actually hold true. The President of Barbieland is a black woman, and their Supreme Court is entirely female. Organizations, especially large corporations, will often use cute slogans along the lines of “She can” or “Girlpower” as a marketing tactic. “Wokeness” is in, which means that generally appearing to support gender and racial equality, climate action, etc. is a means of increasing profit. When you step outside this marketing bubble, you see that little or no substantial work is being done to address the systemic inequalities that are on full display in their office buildings.
Barbie’s portrayal of Barbieland and the real world (an exaggerated version of the male-dominated, patriarchal world of today) places Mattel itself as the example of these two worlds. In the movie, Mattel’s all-male executives are shown discussing how Barbieland empowers women. While this self-critical plotline attempts to call out the hollowness of corporate feminism, it, ironically, falls into the same trap. Across their corporate website, Mattel only directly mentions gender equality once, as a piece of their commitment to the United Nations’ “Thriving and Inclusive Communities” Sustainable Development Goal. Here, they merely set a goal to “increase representation of women at all levels of the organization,” but offer no legitimate actions backing it up, a problem sometimes also referred to as the Say-Do gap. This words-not-matching-actions problem exists across different levels of society and has been called out in women’s philanthropy by such influential bodies as the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.
To center our focus once again on Barbie, I shall give due credit to Mattel by saying this: many of the roots of sexism lie embedded within capitalism itself, and no singular movie can take on that load. Where Barbie’s feminism succeeds is in forcing millions of people to come face-to-face with the lack of action that accompanies all the cultural buzz about woman power, which is a rare message to be so visible in the media. There is great potential value in introducing this idea in a digestible format to such a large audience.
Mattel did what Mattel does best: they put their product in a pink, pretty box to sell it to the mass market. This time, rather than a plastic doll, the product on display was feminism. And like the thousands of Barbie dolls produced each year, the public bought it. Time will tell whether their message has any teeth that can take a bite out of the patriarchy by actually changing behavior and improving the lives of women and girls.