“Is Barbie a feminist? No. She’s a toy in a capitalist machine. But she can carry messages that are. She is a cultural vector that can be made to say whatever you want, depending on the context”. – Illana Weizman, sociologist

No one could have missed the cinema release of the Barbie phenomenon, in a feature film directed by Greta Gerwig. A far cry from existing feature films about the doll, this film claims to be feminist, overturning the image of the sexist doll that activists may have, bringing it up to date and, in the process, boosting the image of Mattel, who also produced the film. After watching the film, there is no doubt about it: Barbie is a feminist. But is it as simple as that?

The history of the infamous doll

Barbie is a 29 cm doll marketed since 1959 by Mattel, an American toy company founded in 1945 by Harold Matson and Elliot Handler. Elliot Handler’s wife, Ruth Handler, created Barbie, named after their daughter Barbara, in 1959 using the characteristics of Bild Lilli, a long-legged, stereotypically beautiful cartoon character from the German newspaper Bild. When she was created, the Barbie doll took on her characteristics. She is blonde, with long hair and European features, slim and with a marked waist, reflecting the standards of beauty of the 1950s. With measurements that transcend realistic bodily standards and always flaunting an unattainable form of perfection, Barbie reflected the dark sides of the patriarchal fantasy, actively contributing to the creation of complexes and fixations for many women and girls. It is for her role in advancing discriminatory standards and in portraying women through the lenses of the patriarchy that the doll became the target of heavy criticism, quickly turning into a representation of a sexist and objectifying perspective on women’s bodies.

Greta Gerwig’s Film Adaptation

After directing pictures like Lady Bird and Little Women, the endorsement of director Greta Gerwig to the Barbie project raised a lot of concerns among viewers, critics and the general public, but the Barbie film nonetheless took the world by storm. Cinemas flooded by a tidal wave of baby pink, social media trends revolving around the hashtag “barbie-core”, thousands upon thousands of tickets sold, were all clear indications of the interest of the public in the ever-living Barbie phenomenon.

Yet, among the pastel pinks and the plastic-coated exterior, Gerwig’s adaptation, through the words of its own director and its star-studded cast, unapologetically considers itself feminist. After viewing Gerwig’s Barbie, we believe it could be considered a feminist film, a rather whitewashed and bourgeois feminism, but still feminist. Although the picture does not back down from the marketing that we have become acquainted with when it comes to American movies, representation is still prominent and the criticisms of the social substrate that once constituted the original audience of Barbie is still surely present. In the film, the juxtaposition between the idyllic feminist utopia of Barbie World and the patriarchal shortcomings of the real world serves as a clear depiction of this shift in narrative.

And still, to the disappointment of many narrow-minded critics, men are not turned into a marginalized and enslaved group in Gerwig’s narration. Although somewhat relegated to a secondary spot, just as a companion of the iconic Barbie, they are never objectified, attacked or discriminated against – a condition that countless women in the “real world” do not have the blessing of experiencing. This underlines Gerwig’s core message: feminism is not anti-male, it is more often anti-patriarchal oppression.

Although still featuring many shortcomings and missing the mark on many opportunities to further develop its messaging, the Barbie film does not fail to understand the importance of “deconstruction”. The breaking-down of Barbie’s view of the world and her departure from the beauty standards she so desperately latched onto both trace back to the overall goal of the film to convey the need to go beyond stereotypes, expectations and established standards, to instead, as the narrator herself states at the end of the picture, “feel”.

Feminism or pinkwashing?

“Pink-washing”, also known as “gender-washing” or “women washing”, involves a brand projecting an image of commitment to gender equality, even though this commitment often lacks genuine implementation, leading to a perception of hypocrisy associated with the brand’s commitment.

Barbie, the first instance of a doll designed not as mother and caretaker but as an individual capable of dreaming of something bigger, was initially created by women for girls, helping them discover the variety of possibilities ahead of them. Barbie could have a career in any job she wanted, doctor, teacher, pilot, astronaut, veterinarian, president, potentially constituting a prominent ambassador for women’s empowerment. And yet, with the development of the women’s rights movement, Barbie’s (and inherently Mattel’s) shortcomings in promoting a cohesive feminist agenda and a perception of women that was unbiased and inclusive were subjected to a lot of criticism. In response, Mattel progressively embarked on a transformation journey, broadening its definitions of beauty and inclusivity. The company initiated efforts towards diversity as early as 1967, with more systematic endeavours from 1980 onward, transcending Western norms and stereotypes. Nonetheless, the introduction of a “curvy” doll in 2016, though attempting to represent diverse body types, drew criticism for falling short of adequately capturing morphological diversity.

However, the introspective and self-deprecating tone of Mattel’s 2023 portrayal of Barbie underscores its recognition of the necessity to contemporise its image and align itself with prevailing themes such as feminism and the critique of patriarchy. Undeniably, an element of pinkwashing is at play: the brand’s image overhaul seeks to boost sales and recapture a prominent position in popular culture. Mattel aspires to be aligned with the progressive trajectory of history, actively participating as a force for ethical transformation, but profits are always taken into consideration.

Life in Plastic not so Fantastic

The global premiere of the Barbie film has clearly garnered global excitement, yet it brings to the forefront a crucial concern for human rights defenders – sustainability. While celebrating Barbie’s cultural significance, the environmental impact of plastic waste generated by the toy industry, especially Barbie dolls, must not be overlooked. Each iconic Barbie doll contributes a significant carbon footprint due to plastic production and related processes. Addressing this challenge requires collaboration between toymakers and governments, emphasizing the importance of investing in sustainability and recyclability.

Indeed, concerning the picture itself, beyond the focus on women’s representation in the film, there is a notable absence of ecological consideration and, in 2023, environmental concerns cannot be relegated to a secondary status. While Barbie represents women’s bodies, it also perpetuates themes of hyper-consumption, fast fashion, and unsustainable practices like air travel. The film’s marketing further reinforces these aspects through special collections and partnerships with brands, most of which have practices that violate human rights, fundamentally highlighting how, despite any feminist aspects, Barbie’s environmental impact remains unproven, raising questions about her true credentials in this regard.

In conclusion, the release of the Barbie film marks a significant shift in the perception of the iconic doll, presenting a more feminist narrative that challenges traditional gender and societal stereotypes. Despite its quite whitewashed and bourgeois – and binary – vision of feminism, the film still manages to address past criticisms and engage with social issues, emphasizing the need to break free from established standards and expectations. Nonetheless, the concept of pink-washing comes into play, as Mattel’s attempt to align Barbie with contemporary feminist themes also raises questions about authenticity and profit motives.

While the film’s portrayal of Barbie takes steps towards inclusivity and empowerment, it falls short of fully embodying a diverse and genuinely intersectional agenda. The topic of the queer representation for example, which was at the centre of the public debate given the casting of several queer actresses in the film, remains evoked in a relatively-superficial way. Indeed, it does not give way to a necessary critique of the gender roles and stereotypes that hold countless LGBTQIA+ individuals prisoners of the gender binary. Ken’s femininity, for example, which in the “real world” would immediately be associated with alleged queerness, was unfortunately not transformed into an opportunity to tackle topics like gender expression and traditional masculine attributes.

As society navigates the evolving complexities of feminism, representation, and ecological responsibility, the Barbie phenomenon exemplifies the intricate interplay between cultural shifts, corporate interests, and societal values. It becomes evident that while Barbie may be embracing aspects of feminism, her journey towards a truly progressive and environmentally conscious identity is a work in progress, requiring ongoing reflection and action.

Barbie by Greta Gerwig, 2023, 114 minutes. Currently in theatres.

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