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The Hollow Feminism of 'Barbie'

The limits of corporate-funded cinema



After months of relentless “he’s just Ken” marketing and complaints from male critics deeming it “man-hating” quickly rolling in, I was hopeful as I took my seat for the Barbie movie, excited for what promised to be a feminist feat of cinema. In my eyes, Greta Gerwig could do no wrong. However, I left the cinema disappointed. While Barbie definitely succeeded as a fun, silly blockbuster, it failed to go any further than this, despite what its marketing seemed to promise. I started to wonder whether this anti-climax was a result of my own misjudged expectations. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was the case.


Throughout the film, the audience is continually, and rather painstakingly, reminded of just how clever and self-aware the film thinks it’s being. Overly-simplified and palatable at the expense of meaning, Barbie is frustratingly indifferent, dedicating a large segment of the film to a “but what about the Kens” storyline. An ambivalence that could perhaps have been discerned from its tagline: if you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you. It seemed like it was consciously trying to stop criticism in its tracks but as a result failed to really say anything at all. As a viewer I felt I was being led by the hand and told how to react to each moment. My true reactions, however, were quite far from what the film seemed to be trying to make me feel. The many didactic monologues presented as rousing and profound were so unsubtle and poorly integrated; they just fell flat, leaving Barbie feeling like one long and at times preachy Mattel advert. It’s not that I wanted Gerwig to go full-Nolan. Sometimes simplicity is key but there’s something about having everything spelled out quite so plainly — even to Barbie herself — that dulled the film’s impact.


The lack of true critique is unsurprising, perhaps, when we consider that it is being funded by the very corporation it claims to criticise, ultimately limited by its source. The result is a surface-level interrogation of what Barbie signifies to young girls. Ruth Handler, the creator of the doll, said, “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” While the film certainly engages with this aspect of the franchise, focusing on Barbie as a career woman, it never properly grapples with the other side of this messaging: you can be anything you want to be, if you’re impossibly proportioned. In 1994, a group of Finnish researchers famously published a study arguing that a real-life woman with Barbie’s proportions would not menstruate.


The interests of Mattel further limit the transgression of Barbie through binding its feminism with consumerism, with its true purpose seeming to be to sell more Barbies. Unfortunately, this is not a connection unique to the film as the mainstream empowerment of women seems to be increasingly caught up with capitalism. Similar to the way Pride Month is monopolised by companies to increase sales, female empowerment is now frequently used as a marketing tool to make women buy more things.


Advertising and corporate funding pose an increasing threat to creativity and transgression in the film industry, with Barbie being the perfect example of a film made overly palatable to appeal to large audiences and centre the product. It’s worth questioning whether it’s even fair to look to blockbusters for astute social commentary when they are so limited by the forces that fuel them. I think, however, that it’s a dangerous precedent to equate mainstream art with simplicity or a lack of originality. Rather than accepting and justifying blockbusters as palatable and unproblematic, we should demand them to go further. Barbie’s two-dimensional, wikihow-esque feminism seems also to be rooted in a complete underestimation of the audience, simplifying its messaging to the point it lacks any real meaning. It’s time directors stopped underestimating the consumer at the detriment of their own work. It’s actually rather horrifying that such an inoffensive film received quite so much backlash from the right. But, however disappointing, it’s pretty much inevitable that a film centred on the female experience is going to receive a lot of criticism, so if people are going to hate it anyway, why not strive to go further, to say more? But, what if Barbie couldn’t go further? You can only be so critical of your creator. It seems we've reached a sorry stage of the film industry if now only independent films can be truly transgressive and so few blockbusters actually have something to say.


Fear not, though. I don’t think the future of mainstream cinema is all bleak. Despite my criticisms, the Barbie film is not without merit. Feminist discourse is important and to have these messages reiterated to such large audiences is certainly a positive thing, with the number of women moved by Barbie testament to its worth. However, the fact this feminist messaging comes from within the corporation itself, puts its productivity into question. Gloria (played by America Ferrera), the woman who enlightens Barbie, is a high-level executive assistant at the Mattel headquarters. Therefore, despite its empowering moments, Barbie heralds corporate feminism, which lacks intersectionality and fails as a real model for women’s liberation, ultimately fuelled by an inescapable dollar-sign gaze.


Image: Creative Commons



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