Opinion: Is Barbie Feminist Kenough?

As I sat in Joe Coffee writing about Barbie and feminism, three men sat down at the table directly behind me and began talking about – you guessed it – Barbie and feminism. At first, I tried to drown out their voices. But then, I heard one of the men say that as he and his wife walked out of the movie theater after seeing Barbie, they got into an argument. He felt that the movie was “anti-men.” I also overheard him use the term “feminist propaganda.” He said that his wife argued that it “wasn’t feminist propaganda, but also wasn’t feminist enough.” I didn’t hear any other specifics, just snippets here and there that I couldn’t quite piece together. With the little commentary I overheard, I began wondering what it means for something to be feminist, or feminist enough. Of course, this is subjective. No one person can, nor should, have the ultimate authority to decide what it means to be feminist. In fact, having one rule or standard that applies to everyone else is antithetical to true feminism. However, one thing that I hope we can agree on is that feminism is about choice, which is Barbie‘s exact premise.

As a Barnard student who keeps tabs on the happenings of alum Greta Gerwig, I went into Barbie knowing it would address the topic of feminism in some capacity. Though, I also knew from the movie’s trailer, which declared that you would enjoy it regardless of “If you love Barbie” or “If you hate Barbie,” that it wasn’t just going to be a feminist Barbie hate train. Plus, I knew it was going to be a wildly popular blockbuster film, given TikTok’s heavy anticipation of it and its star-studded cast. Given its status as a high-profile Hollywood production, it would be impossible for it to meet every single feminist standard, as it was created by and for the capitalist system that is one of feminism’s greatest enemies – but that’s a whole other topic. Looking exclusively at the content of Barbie, which never claimed to be a feminist manifesto, there is no doubt in my mind that it was feminist enough, or should I say, Kenough. 

Some argue that having the main character be “stereotypical Barbie” – a  beautiful, thin, blonde, white, able-bodied, cisgender woman aptly portrayed by Margot Robbie – automatically makes the movie not feminist enough since true feminism should be intersectional, and thus a woman with more privileged than targeted identities should not be the lead. While, yes, feminism absolutely should be intersectional, and yes, the film industry absolutely should center the experiences and stories of women of color, queer women, and so on, that is simply not what Barbie was about. Barbie was about Mattel’s Barbieland which, despite slight diversification of the dolls over time, has never been a truly diverse, inclusive, or representative place. I, too, am upset both on an individual and societal level that the Barbie doll girls grew up playing with and looking up was this stereotypical Barbie, and I bet Greta Gerwig is upset about that too. Nevertheless, she did not make this movie to antagonize that Barbie.

One of the main things I took away from this movie was that, even though stereotypical Barbie has been and continues to be harmful to society by setting impossible standards, it is not her fault. She too has been pigeonholed into an impossible role with impossible expectations. She discovers that being connected to the “real world” means that she cannot continue just being perfect, even though at first she wishes she could, and that the position she had as stereotypical Barbie made her life perfect and conflict-free. Girls in the real world were upset at her and made her cry because they couldn’t have that same privilege. But it is not Barbie’s fault. Being mad at her is an antifeminist waste. Barbie is not the enemy. She is a product of the enemy – of capitalism, of patriarchy, of a history of oppression. 

The point of Barbie was not simply to say “Oh look how bad it was when the Kens made the Kengdom and the patriarchy and made the Barbies serve them! This is the way the real world is! And this is why women should rule only! And f*** men!” Evidently, some people, like the man in Joe Coffee, perceived it that way. But that view fails to see Barbie for what it is – a movie. And yes, I say this despite my actively taking a deep dive into the meaning of Barbie and feminism, but I also recognize that, in some regards, it’s really not that deep. Barbieland is not a perfect metaphor for the real world. I would say, without a doubt, that the Barbies of Barbieland lead far easier lives than the men of the real world. It wasn’t fair to the Kens when only the Barbies were in charge, and it wasn’t fair to the Barbies when only the Kens were in charge. Barbieland is a ridiculous, over the top, spectacular fantasyland – and that’s why Barbie chose to leave it.  

Someone I saw Barbie with was disappointed in this ending of, as my friend put it, “Barbie getting a vagina.” She said, “That’s not a happy ending. Being a real woman sucks.” But if Barbie told me one thing, it was that Barbieland, that perfection, that hiding behind privilege, is not the answer. Barbie made the choice to face the struggles of the real world. At the end, she goes to her gynecologist smiling ear to ear because, even though the gynecologist can be a place women dread, she chose to be there. She chose the pain, fear, beauty, and rawness of being a woman over the ease of being plastic – she chose Barbara over Barbie. And in doing so, she showed us that we are more than stereotypes. We have no idea how Barbara ends up, what job she ends up having, if she ends up with anyone. All we know is that she chose to be a woman in the real world, that even though she knew what it was like to live a life of privilege and perfection, she saw the power of womanhood and the power of choice. If that’s not feminist enough, I don’t know what is.

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