Two weeks into its release, Barbie is undoubtedly one of the great marketing successes of our time, having transformed a two-hour company commercial into cinema with indie-street cred and pulled vast pink-clad audiences to see it in its opening weeks.
The film is produced by Mattel, the same company that makes the iconic dolls – in need of an advertising update in the face of declining sales – and directed, in a canny corporate choice, by film director, Greta Gerwig, who, as a maker of independent films, has a non-corporate reputation.
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I don’t doubt that a great many of those tens of thousands who flocked to the film in its opening week enjoyed themselves hugely. There are sequins, fun dance numbers, campy allusions to other films, good-looking lead actors and gleaming pink – lots of it.
Moreover, in affluent societies which have achieved wide immunisation, we believe ourselves to be on the other side of the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has given many people joy to be able to crowd into cinemas in close and daring proximity. The opening weekend of the film was perhaps less about the film itself than the pleasures, finally, of a mass social gathering indoors.
The truth is that the movie by itself does not explain the crowds. As a generally sympathetic review in the magazine Vanity Fair puts it, the film has a couple of moments of real laughter but is otherwise only mildly amusing in places with far too many knowing jokes “clunk[ing] around like cheap plastic”.
Unable to be a really hard-hitting film – the doll’s corporate paymasters were hardly likely to permit it to go that far. What Barbie ultimately offers is a mildly satirical take on gendered double standards, corporate boardrooms, and boys inclined to behave badly given the chance. Nothing terrible, other than a tellingly ill-conceived ‘joke’ about Native Americans and smallpox epidemics, but also nothing brilliant – and quite a lot of surprising dullness.
Barbie is a popcorn film at the end of the day, even if a few fragile male egos found it unpalatable. There’s no need to require more of it.
Yet, a lot is being made to hang upon this glittering confection, nothing less than the present and future of feminism and, of course, as always, liberal American feminism lays claim to nothing less than the universe of women.
The film has received fulsome adulation from politically progressive quarters. A number of academics have been thrilled by the film’s sly allusions to gender studies and literary theory (done to death, Vanity Fair grumbled, with some justification). We are so used to being ignored or denigrated as a profession that the novel joys of being acknowledged are perhaps understandable: ‘Female agency’! ‘Cognitive dissonance’! ‘Patriarchy’! ‘Archival’! Point taken.
The high-profile feminist writer, Susan Faludi, has gone so far as to claim that “you couldn’t write the script without 30 years of women’s studies“. The liberal platform, Vox, described the film as “just about as subversive as a movie can be while still being produced by one of its targets“.
Meanwhile, the venerable left-wing US publication, The Nation, pronounced that more than the feminism, the greatness of the film lay in how it ennobled “a kind of love that is rarely taken seriously: the love of artifice, objects, and surfaces”.
The Nation’s publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, argued in the Guardian that Barbie herself embodied emancipatory aspirations around gender justice that the American right-wing feared, embodied in the doll’s motto: “We girls can do anything.”
The exultant joy that Barbie has been greeted with in these progressive quarters is testimony to the continued power of a dangerous American patriarchal conservatism which has undoubtedly wrought a lot of damage in recent years. The film “wants girls to imagine the possibilities”, Vanden Heuvel declares, “and for conservatives, those possibilities are unimaginable”.
There is, however, a real danger that in focusing so heavily on what conservatives don’t want, feminism ironically ends up – once again – limiting its own imagination to the generic female ‘choice’ individualism that Barbie ultimately proffers.
The film pivots around ‘Stereotypical Barbie’s’ (played by Margot Robbie) discovery of cellulite, fallen foot arches and thoughts of death, instigated by her adult human owner’s (America Ferrera) personal crisis. She must journey into the real world in order to address these ‘problems’ and in the process, experiences a real transformation which entails leaving her life as a doll behind.
While Barbieland embraces restored constitutional rule after an attempted coup by Kens (political allusion needs no spelling out) and women are back in charge by the end of the film, Stereotypical Barbie makes the choice to leave Barbieland and become human. Fortunately, there are no immigration rules constraining her from crossing the membrane separating the worlds and being rendered ‘illegal’ as some women’s individual choices and achievements reign supreme again.
For what it’s worth, the film reminds us that patriarchy is harmful for men as well, with Ken (played by actor Ryan Gosling) setting off on his own journey of self-discovery declaring that he is “Kenough”. At the end of the day, Barbie the movie, like the 240 types of Barbie made by Mattel, gives us little other than that American holy grail: individualism.
In a time of authoritarians everywhere, women’s individual choice is not to be sniffed at. At the same time, not questioning the larger economic and racial structures – by which all patriarchy is shaped – within which these choices are made, is something of a dead-end.
As American women are urged to be anything they want to be -meaning, really, middle-class professionals like doctors, lawyers, and astronauts, with a few Nobel Prize winners in the mix – we are left with silence about the capitalist economic order in which the relative affluence of those women who can make these choices in facilitated by the indigence of millions of women globally whose choices are rather more constrained.
Yes, more women in Mattel’s boardroom. Yes, more successful Latina actors like America Ferrera to make Hollywood less white. But will our imaginations encompass liberation for Sweatshop Barbie and the women labouring to make President Barbie’s clothes – and indeed, the dolls themselves – in Asian and Latin American factories? The women and families displaced by wars American presidents were involved in? Women sexually assaulted by the foot soldiers of the grinning authoritarians and chauvinists embraced by American foreign policy?
For all the inflated claims about its subversive, even revolutionary, nature and for all the dazzling diversity of Barbieland, the film has very little to say about the other oppressions which intersect with the patriarchy it sends up – racial, economic and climate injustice (the last, admittedly, is a bit hard for a doll made of fossil fuel-derived plastic to do).
Ultimately, perhaps, the movie is a paean to middle-ness as exemplified by America Ferrera’s ‘show-stopping’ monologue which decries the multiple contradictory directions in which women are pulled as they are enjoined to have and do it all.
Ostensibly about all women, in fact, this speech invokes a very specific kind of woman, the proverbial ‘girl boss’ with a career and aspirations to wealth but who feels the pressure also to be at once thin and healthy, a leader and a nice person. These are not the difficulties of the positions in which most women in this world – indeed, even most American women – find themselves.
Of Barbie, the film, as they say, it is what it is and will soon be forgotten as the next IP franchise rolls along. But unless our own imaginings of liberated futures can be more critical of the world we live in and expand beyond middle-class professionals and girl bosses, the future, feminist or otherwise, comes to us in varying shades of grim.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.