Barbie’s Feminisms?

Curator's Note

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie opens in the middle of a problem, as indicated by narrator Helen Mirren’s tongue-in-cheek description of Barbie Land as a stunning utopia where “all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.” The satirical tone intensifies when the storyline quickly shifts from pure fantasy toward something more believable as “Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence.” The same upending description packages the DVD case: “To live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place. Unless you have a full-on existential crisis.” Such antonymous framing may explain the critical split between the “slickly subversive” and “inescapably corporate” camps, and it is clearly an invitation, as with the trailer: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.”

The adventure humorously depicted in Barbie actually posits that Barbie Land—the world where Barbie “lives”—is a cultural site on a continuum and sharing a membrane with the “real world.” Barbie has schooled generations in the pleasures of consumer culture, particularly of the normative, cisgender sort, and the icon’s existence is arguably intertwined with the lives and play of ordinary people who may accept, modify, reject, or queer the lessons (Rand), at times turning them against or at least playing with apparent intentions (I enjoyed making a house for Francie and Barbie out of discarded cardboard boxes, watered down paint, and scraps of wallpaper from my single mother’s own budget-conscious DIY updates). The megaspectacle or media event of costumed and likely nostalgic moviegoers filling theaters around the world in the summer of 2023 seemed to verify the doll-human connection. In this light, Barbie is a female biopic of a fashion doll, a star image, a celebrity. Rather than depicting “real” people, this hybrid genre of contemporary film fictionalizes biography and emphasizes the constructed, dynamic nature of stardom. Barbie obliges and neatly fits the genre’s focus on the idol of consumption, a consumer product or commodity that is also a celebrated conspicuous consumer, allowing fans (and anti-fans) both vicarious enjoyment and critical distance (Bingham 5-6).

Interpreting Barbie and its representation of Barbie celebrity at least in part as a dramatization—fantastic, comedic, and spectacular—of some contemporary feminisms provides useful corroboration of this conjuncture, when the visibility of feminisms is forcefully shaped as much by the dynamics of late capitalism and neoliberalism as by resurgent patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy (Banet-Weiser et al 19). As in the real world, in Barbie Land, postfeminism, neoliberal feminism, and popular feminism are all in high-profile conversation, simultaneously legible, limited, and “gently feminist” (Singh-Kurtz); they overlap, diverge, and disconcert.

The film opens by casting sardonic doubt on the idea that feminism is something no longer needed, and it repeatedly illustrates that the culture of Barbie Land is filled with contradictions about feminism and the status of women, particularly concerning their surveillance and disciplining in self-responsibilization projects. The Gloria monologue delivered by America Ferrera laments, condemns even, the characteristic postfeminist sensibility of the perpetually flawed self that is nonetheless expected to continually work on the self to be perfect, happy, and make others happy (Gill 149). This paradox, and Barbie’s “fascism” in perpetuating impossible contradictions, which drives the rejection of the doll by Gloria’s daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), are precisely what precipitate the “thoughts of death” (and flat feet) that disrupt Barbie’s stereotypical Barbie perfect existence and that are the narrative occasion for Barbie’s story. As Sasha watches her mother from the background of a scene that emphasizes different and cross-generational relationships to Barbie, Gloria passionately contests the untenable terms that declare women must be a part of “the sisterhood” and “always stand out,” are “doing everything wrong” and required to “always be extraordinary.” Margot Robbie’s Barbie character listens intently and seems to comprehend that “the system is rigged.” Although Ferrera as feminist spokesperson is in ways consistent for the actor, commentators have also remarked on the slippery irony of Ferrera’s casting as Mattel employee and Barbie fan since her work, including Real Women Have Curves (2002) and Ugly Betty (2006-2010), “represents all that is not Barbie,” particularly in its explicitly Latina challenge to fat phobia and to whiteness as a universal standard of beauty (Singh-Kurtz). It is crucial, in fact, that it is not Barbie who delivers the critique of postfeminism. To be sure, and reflecting much about the present, Gerwig’s Barbie does not play the undeniably critical role(s) she played in Todd Hayne’s far more serious biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987).

Neoliberal feminist logics underwrite Barbie’s claim to Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie that, “We fixed everything so all women in the real world can be happy and powerful.” This “we” recognizes inequality in only narrowly gendered terms and defines happiness and power as gendered entrepreneurialism and acquisitional enterprise for women—as in Barbie’s continual career makeovers—while disavowing other dimensions of structural oppression, such as poverty, ableism, racism, and transphobia, and apparently justice for all people. Toward the end of the film, the Barbies mobilize themselves to distract and overthrow the Kens to restore their constitution, drawing from popular feminism’s playbook a high visibility, safely affirmative and happy action (think “Girl Power”) that appeals broadly through commercial networks to generalized values of equality but does not challenge the deep structural inequities embedded in liberal democratic societies (Banet-Weiser et al 11).

If for many spectators Barbie’s feminisms humorously but frustratingly confound a progressive intersectional gender politics, and Gloria’s variation on the “’cool girl’ monologue from Gone Girl” is weird but not weird enough (Willmore), the film does index recent dramatic reassertions of male supremacy, anti-immigrant nativism, and white Christian nationalism in the US, Barbie’s “homeland.” From the removal of a woman of color president/political leader (played by Issa Rae), to the reaffirmation of patriarchal authority on the supreme court, to the repossession of the Barbies’ dreamhouses and economic independence, to the horrified response to and normative re-expulsion of discontinued pregnant Midge, Barbie serves as a portal for reflection about this moment, a time of immense disruption and upheaval, retrograde disenfranchisement and violence. As Eliana Rozinov points out, “It is no coincidence—and no joke—that Gerwig’s Barbie ends in a gynecologist’s office. But it is not Midge who gets an appointment. The film ends, as it begins, with the birth—and rebirth—of Barbie.”


Sources Referenced

Banet-Weiser, Sarah, Rosalind Gill, and Catherine Rottenberg. “Postfeminism, Popular Feminism, and Neoliberal Feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill, and Catherine Rottenberg in Conversation.” Feminist Theory, vol. 21, no. 1, 2019, pp. 3-24.

Bingham, Dennis. Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Rutgers UP, 2010.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2007, pp. 147-166.

Rand, Erica. Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Duke UP, 2007.

Rozinov, Eliana. “For Promising Young Women: A Smidge of Midge.” LARB, 12 October 2023,

Singh-Kurtz, Sangeeta. “Into the Dollhouse.” The Cut, 13 July 2023,

Willmore, Alison. “We Shouldn’t Have to Grade Barbie on a Curve.” Vulture, 21 July 2023,

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