Barbie in the real world. That's impossible!

20 July 2023

How does the childhood icon stack up to the feminist ideals of 2023?


By Dr Bonnie Evans and Professor Liz Mackinlay

Barbie (2023) – directed by indie darling Greta Gerwig – seems set to be the movie event of the year, releasing across Australia today (20 July). The competition from Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer has only added to the frenzy as movie goers pledge to watch both films on the same day in an unruly double feature, dubbed ‘Barbenheimer’.

The fantasy of Barbie – the luxury, the leisure, the beauty – remains potent and appealing, perhaps increasingly so in our current economic landscape, where across the Western world the cost of living is on the rise. But who is Barbie, and how does she match up to the feminist ideals of 2023?

Barbara Millicent Roberts has been a prop and presence in children’s play since 9 March 1959. Conventionally attractive, shapely and slim, toy company Mattel positioned the plastic doll we know as ‘Barbie’ as the ultimate American girl. While her primary purpose was as a toy for children, Barbie quickly became a symbol of modern femininity.

Perfect, perky, and pretty – Barbie’s fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, long legs, tiny waist and large breasts embody Western patriarchal ideas of feminine beauty, while at the same time placing her body mass index precariously on the edge of anorexia.

Her stiletto-ready arched feet have seen her march in and out of well over 200 careers, including astronaut, doctor, Chief Sustainability Officer, even the President of the United States of America. Before women were allowed to open their own bank accounts, she owned her own home.
Combined with a seemingly endless wardrobe and accessories, Barbie represents a self-sufficient material girl who has it all and can do anything.

In the make-believe of girlhood, Barbie represents an artefact of self-identity and self-imagining, functioning as a proxy for the aspiration, apprehension and angst about being female and womanhood that many young girls hold. In recent years, her makers have moved to ensure that a diverse range of girls across the categories of class, race, sexuality and disability can play in this fantasy world. However, in the real world, Barbie continues to ignite a range of emotions – from youthful wistfulness to feminist rage.

Should we thank Barbie for encouraging the belief that girls can do and be anything, or do we ask her to please explain the continued perpetuation of exaggerated white femininity and excessive materialism? Perhaps turning to Barbie the movie might give us an answer.

Is Barbie a feminist film?

This is Barbie’s first live-action film and the first film starring Barbie that is not explicitly intended for a child audience. The premise – a satirical Barbie movie with full involvement from Mattel – seemed like a quandary for a feminist filmmaker, but Gerwig insists that Barbie is a feminist film. What critique of Barbie could possibly arise in a film signed off by Mattel? And can the film comment on gender roles and representations, as epitomised by Barbie and Ken, in a way that would be palatable to the corporate brand identity it must serve?

In a trailer, Barbie draws parallels to what amounts to the first ‘coming of age’ in the Western imagination: the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, cast from God’s light into the harsh mortality of the outside world. The sneak peek sees Margot Robbie’s Barbie placed in a scene taken from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) known as ‘The Dawn of Man’ sequence. In the original, human’s ape ancestors discover an alien monolith and learn how to use bones as weapons. In Barbie, little girls carrying baby dolls discover Barbie, a giant Margot Robbie dressed in the same outfit the very first Barbie wore, and destroy their baby dolls in disgust, throwing them into the air.

The synopsis that Barbie and Ken are expelled from Barbie World and must find happiness in the real world further emphasises these creation parallels. However, Gerwig notes this dynamic in relation to Barbie is reversed.

“Barbie was invented first,” Gerwig says in an interview with Vogue magazine.

“Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”

Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age style
All 3 of Gerwig’s directorial outings so far have concerned female coming-of-age. Her first film Lady Bird (2017) is the prototypical example of this, following Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson during her final year of high school in California in the 2000s. In Little Women (2019), the female coming-of-age story follows the 4 girls of the March family as they grow into adults. Gerwig’s film, unlike other adaptations and the book itself, splits the story across 2 timelines – in one, the girls are children, and in the other, they have reached adulthood, slowly leaving childhood behind.

This theme of female coming-of-age is not only a characteristic of Gerwig’s directorial output, but also defines some of her most famous onscreen roles in films like Frances Ha (2012) and 20th Century Women (2016). As media scholar Jessica Ford notes in a recent article for The Conversation, “From her mumblecore films through to Lady Bird and Little Women, Gerwig has infused her work with a kindness, a sharp wit and a reverence for femininity”.

Her coming-of-age oeuvre does something remarkable; it takes seriously the things about girlhood that girls (and the women they become) love. Gerwig presents Little Women as a serious study of girlhood, womanhood, and authorship. She turns a suburban girl from Sacramento, who dyes her hair pink and calls herself Lady Bird, into a dramatic protagonist, and treats the ups and downs of her teenage life with gravitas and compassion. And in Barbie, Gerwig turns a doll loved by little girls into a metaphor for the creation of life itself and a meditation on identity and subjectivity. Furthermore, she does so with a clear love for the things about Barbie that generations of girls have loved – her hair, her clothes, her smile, her positivity, and the colour pink.

Can Barbie tackle the gender norms inherent to the Mattel universe?

Barbie challenges the same gender norms that she once naturalised in a scene where Ryan Gosling’s clueless Ken tells a doctor she must let him perform surgery because he’s 'a man'. This moment functions as a genuinely funny critique of the gender norms inherent to the Barbie universe. Similarly, before Barbie journeys to the ‘real world’, she’s offered a choice reminiscent of a scene from The Matrix, between the pink heel (the blue pill) and the Birkenstock (the red pill), emphasising the hyper-femininity Barbie represents, comically juxtaposed against the utilitarian Birkenstock. When gender roles are made visible in a way that draws attention to their artificiality, perhaps we may see them slowly unpicked and unravelled.

Barbie’s enduring appeal as a toy is partly due to her endless mutability. She is everything to everyone. Children and adults alike can fill in any details they wish. They can move her, change her clothes and her hair. They can rip her apart and put her back together. They can populate her world with everyone or no-one, putting her alongside Ken or her other Barbie World friends, or all by herself.

Barbie as an idea is similarly plastic (pun intended). While she represents the continuing dominance of white femininity as a beauty standard and relentless materialism, she also has many other meanings that coexist, including a powerful feminist potential. As the film’s trailer states, humans only have one ending; ideas live forever.