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This Barbie Wants Narrative Change


This Barbie Wants Narrative Change

Ruth Taylor reflects on the underlying narratives found in the new Barbie movie.
This is a blog by Ruth Taylor
Ruth works for the Common Cause Foundation.

[This blog contains (minor) spoilers of the Barbie movie.]

Undoubtedly, there can be very few human beings on the face of the planet that have managed to escape the knowledge that, this summer, a new pink-tastic blockbuster movie hit cinema screens across the world. Directed by the once indie-filmmaker, Greta Gerwig, the Barbie movie came with one of the most extensive marketing campaigns ever created. We’re not just talking about the usual advert-on-the-side-of-a-bus affair, but about building a real life Malibu Barbie dream house available to rent through AirBnb; Google drenching our screens in pink sparkles should we search ‘Barbie’ or any related term, and elaborate corporate partnerships with just about every brand under the sun.

Although a true Barbie-obsessive as a child (much to my Mum’s dismay), my love affair with the unrealistically-proportioned doll came to an end some two decades ago and I’ve not given her much thought since. Nonetheless, as someone unable to resist the latest cultural phenomenon, I traipsed off to my local picture house to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t really know what to expect from the film, billed as “a tongue-in-cheek but very self-aware comedy that reflects on femininity and gender identity, consumerism, and the roles that they play in self-actualisation’. After watching it, I am left feeling that Barbie is an acute example of how pop culture can encourage us to recognise (and celebrate) how far we’ve come, whilst also reminding us how far we still have to go.

The film has received much praise from progressive pundits in dusty corners of the internet. It’s been heralded as “a riotous, candy-coloured feminist fable” by The Guardian; “a delightful spectacle of funny moments that add up to something pretty good” by Jacobin, and “a gleeful messy (feminist) romp” by the Daily Mirror. (Interestingly, most of the bigger alternative media platforms, like Novara Media, haven’t praised the film, but neither have they offered any criticism.) 

I, for sure, chuckled along with jokes, tapped my foot to the dance sequences and nodded knowingly at the very on-the-nose social commentary about what it’s like to be a woman (notably, a white, cis, able-bodied, middle class woman) in today’s world. I liked how the movie didn’t follow the done-to-death hero narrative and instead saw Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) join forces with her fellow Barbies, and through a strategy of collective action, liberate themselves and fellow Barbieland residents, ‘the Kens’, from the clutches of (a very horse-centred) patriarchy. 

I found it comforting to relish in the fact that this movie, with its focus on smashing the patriarchy, couldn’t have come out and been anywhere near this commercially successful ten years ago, which perhaps mirrors changes in the zeitgeist.

Despite feeling somewhat of a party pooper to criticise such a successful movie – especially one directed by a woman, starring a talented cast of diverse women in leading roles and written specifically with a female audience in mind (unlike so many of the biggest-grossing movies today) – I’m putting on my ‘This Barbie is very serious and boring’ t-shirt and getting to it. For all its sequins, clever throwback jokes and feel-good references to the sisterhood, I think the film leaves a lot to be desired, narratively-speaking.

Gerwig, and fellow writer Noah Baumbach, had quite the task on their hands to revamp Barbie, long chastised for negatively affecting young girls’ self-esteem, into a feminist icon. ‘Leaning in’ (reference to the book by Sheryl Sandberg very much intended!) to the idea of Barbie as the ultimate girl boss, Gerwig et al, depict Barbie in the movie as the girl with it all – she’s successful, glamourous, popular, powerful, and even has her very own dream house – before suffering an existential crisis, accompanied by the life-shattering discovery of cellulite, which causes a series of shenanigans that ultimately leads to patriarchy finding its way into Barbieland. The movie subsequently takes the audience on a journey to see Stereotypical Barbie and her fellow Barbies regain their girl boss status and rid Barbieland of outdated, unequal ideas about what it means to be a woman.

Although its girl-power message filled a Spice Girl-shaped hole deep inside me that I didn’t know I had, fundamentally what the Barbie movie gives us is the age-old narrative of individualism. Off the back of centuries of campaigning by cis and trans women in the real world, finally we find the message in a mainstream film that women should absolutely be able to choose the life they want to live. However, what’s missing is any acknowledgement of the underlying capitalist economic system through which a particular group of privileged women get to live their girl boss dreams, often at the expense of other marginalised women. 

Instead, we look at Barbie and are reminded that what it really means to live a good, happy life is to be conventionally attractive, wealthy and to be respected and liked by others – these are the things that we should value. The type of feminism advocated in Barbie simply champions that to be successful and powerful should also be on offer to women and not just men. It’s feminism dressed up to mimic liberation, but fundamentally being used as an apparatus of neoliberal ideology. 

Perhaps this is of no surprise considering the Barbie movie is basically a two-hour long advert for Barbie-maker, Mattel (set to release films centred on other Mattel products such as Polly Pocket, Barney the Dinosaur and Hot Wheels in the not so distant future). Regardless of the genuine intentions that may exist among Mattel staff, the creative team behind the film, and the cast, a corporation’s ultimate motivation (and legal obligation) is to make money – it is not to serve the public good and so we really only get this ‘feminist’ story because Mattel were confident that the Barbie movie would be profitable (and according to their latest sales figures, it looks as though they were right).

In a world where we face catastrophic climate change, it seems bonkers to be celebrating a film which ultimately champions excessive consumption. My poor Mum knows all too well that it’s nigh on impossible to buy just one Barbie for your demanding child. There’s her dream house to consider, her beach buggy and all her numerous friends, accessories and outfits. A single Barbie takes more than three cups of oil to produce and is basically unrecyclable, meaning that tens of thousands end up in landfill every year. As Alexis Normand, co-founder of Greenly, points out “… there doesn’t seem to be any climate change in Barbieland”. How convenient. 

On the surface, Barbie might appear to be a film championing equality and social justice, packed to the rafters with satire and stirring monologues, but dig a little deeper and you discover a film reinforcing the very values and worldviews underpinning consumer culture and capitalism. Regardless of whether the Barbie line of dolls becomes more diverse, or whether Mattel are able to find a way to make her using two cups of oil instead of three, ultimately her cultural and symbolic impact is the same.

It’s true that blockbuster action movies, like the Marvel franchise films, are released every single year along with their own accompanying plastic merchandise and problematic narratives and yet they don’t generate even half as much criticism as the Barbie movie has. However, I would remind readers that not many action movies self-promote as a feminist critique, or have such staggering marketing campaigns. Perhaps, Barbie deserves a bit of extra scrutiny.

To my mind, it seems that many progressive commentators today are focused on who’s making money out of pop culture, who’s being represented on screen and who’s in the writing rooms coming up with the stories we see on our TV screens. Although I absolutely agree that this is needed, I don’t think we should stop there. We also need to consider the overarching cultural narratives that are being reinforced and strengthened in the content we are making and consuming – explicitly and implicitly – so as to ensure that we are not simply dressing up capitalism, consumerism and individualism and praising them for helping to bring about social and environmental justice.

Barbie can be a fun, lighthearted movie to watch, and yet it can fall short of the values and narratives we need to champion in order to see lasting systemic change. In the way that this movie could not have happened ten years ago, I hope that Barbie will become increasingly problematic and outdated as we work to shift the underlying myths that our world is currently founded on.

Other articles you might find interesting on the Barbie Movie:

Photo by Sandra Gabriel on Unsplash

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