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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

Barbie and Birkenstocks: Feminist entertainment is so hard

It’s OK to want the Barbie movie to be feminist, but it’s not and it wasn’t meant to be.

Last time I saw a movie in theatres it was 2019, and I went to see Captain Marvel, alone. I was deeply taken by the film—it remains to date my favourite MCU outing and the one I rewatch most frequently and with the most fervour. I remember sitting in the theatre, and sitting with myself in the weeks and months afterwards, pondering how I could relate so deeply to the themes of female empowerment and casting off the shackles of patriarchy that I saw in the movie.

Oh, did I forget to mention that at the time, we all thought I was a man?

Fast-forward four years (and what years they have been). I’m Kara now and the first movie I am seeing in theatres since the start of the pandemic is Barbie. I’m seeing it with my still somewhat new-to-me neighbour rather than alone. I’m dressed all in pink, and I am loving every moment of it.

Both of these movies are enjoyable and entertaining, especially if you don’t expect them to save the world. But we have somehow contorted ourselves into a position where that’s exactly what we expect out of women-led productions, where everything must be “feminist” and everything women do in entertainment has to break barriers, shatter glass ceilings, and smash patriarchy. Except it also has to make a billion or three at the box office, so don’t smash too much of the patriarchy because the investors underwriting your production won’t like it.

We really need to stop saying a movie (or TV show, or book, or whatever) is “feminist.” The Barbie movie is feminist in the way that Captain Marvel was feminist in the way that Moxie was feminist in the way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was feminist—i.e., feminist only to the point of championing the self-actualization of a white, preferably blonde, cis woman. Almost all of our mass entertainment media is only “feminist” in so far as feminism can be profitable and not in any true dialectic sense.

Don’t get me wrong—I loved all of those films and that TV show (to the point where I have a whole podcast about Buffy. I really liked the Barbie movie. But if you were expecting it to be feminist, just because Greta Gerwig or Margot Robbie or whoever else is attached to it, just because of the trailers and other marketing, or just because the world is (as it increasingly seems to be of late) on fire and it would be really nice to have a feminist movie that is also a summer blockbuster bop … look, I don’t know how else to say this except, have you seen Hollywood lately? Or ever? We are talking about an ouroboros of an industry that will happily make movies about #MeToo or labour movements while doing nothing to stem the rampant sexual assault or exploitation of workers within its own hallways.

Most media cannot be feminist. The best we can do is critique media through a feminist lens. We can ask ourselves how media contributes to the wider conversation around issues that relate to the struggle for liberation from the patriarchy—though such conversations are of limited use unless they also admit a more intersectional perspective that recognizes patriarchy is rooted in white supremacy.

(Spoilers hereafter for the Barbie movie.)

This is something the Barbie movie fails to do spectacularly and on purpose. This movie goes hard on lampooning “the patriarchy” as a malevolent social force that sweeps up Ken and turns him Dark Side in less than a day. Its commentary in this respect is amusing, if rudimentary, even including a couple of male characters (Aaron in the Real World, Allan in Barbieland) who help demonstrate how patriarchy does not actually benefit all men and show the possibilities of being feminist and an ally even when you are not a woman.

The problem with this is that the movie positions patriarchy as something men do rather than as a structural element of our society that people of all genders reinforce daily. Patriarchy is not just manspreading and popping the top off a brewski handed to you by your long-term, long-distance, low-commitment casual girlfriend. It’s an inextricable outgrowth of European imperialism and colonialism. It’s true that the movie comes very close to acknowledging structural patriarchy with the Kens’ move to change Barbieland’s constitution. However, even this plot points remains firmly within the allegory of the struggle for women’s liberation. In so doing, Barbie refuses to acknowledge how documents like the United States Constitution historically were crafted not just to exclude women but also Black people and other people not racialized as white—because, even in a post–George Floyd world, America is still not ready to talk about race.

Barbie’s absolute neglect of intersectionality continues in its glaring omission of queerness. This is a very straight, cisnormative movie. You have Barbies and you have Kens, and the Barbies are into the Kens and vice versa. Yes, one of the Barbies is played by Hari Nef, a trans woman. Yes, both the Barbies and the Kens play with gender presentation and gender roles. But for a movie that is a riot of colour and dance in a way that clearly borrows from queer culture (and especially queer and Black subcultures), there is no acknowledgement of queerness in Barbieland. Where do nonbinary or genderfluid dolls fit into this world?

As an aside, having the movie literally end on Barbie going to see a gynecologist as the final confirmation that she has ascended into being a “real human woman” was not a comfy ending for me as a trans woman. I get that it’s a callback to earlier in the movie and the joke about Barbies and Kens not having genitals. But it’s just another moment where the movie chooses humour over true representation or liberation.

Make no mistake: the movie ends by reinforcing the status quo. The narrator literally says that Kens will one day have as much power in Barbieland as women do in the Real World—not that the events of this movie have changed the Real World in any way. Notice how Ken coming to power in Barbieland manifests a bunch of macho dolls in the Real World? Somehow the reverse happening isn’t true. The Real World isn’t altered for the better in any way by Barbie’s journey. Instead, the movie ends on a message of self-actualization of an individual white woman: Barbie ventures forth into the Real World to live as a real person, with all the attendant struggles and difficulties. She’s going to make something of herself, perhaps even pull herself up by her bootstraps (or Birkenstock straps, as it were).

Because if America loves anything more than empowering women, it’s empowering women in a way that is ultimately unthreatening to the status quo.

With all of this being said, there were moments where the movie genuinely touched me. Sasha’s devastating critique of Barbie is an entertaining way of depicting the generational divide between the third and fourth waves of feminism. America Ferrera’s passionate, almost Shakespearean monologue about the impossible contradictions of womanhood was a performance I think I can rightfully call a tour de force without feeling too pretentious about it. Ryan Gosling’s sheer willingness to be goofy as all get-out in every single scene means he is just a genuine delight throughout this film. And despite my reservations about the ending, Margot Robbie’s insistence as Barbie that she wants to be the thinker and not the idea touches on something truly deep and philosophical and gave me chills.

I liked the Barbie movie. I laughed. I teared up a bit. I will watch it again. I didn’t expect it to heal our world or fix our society. I didn’t expect it to be feminist, and it fumbles its way through its faux feminist agenda about as adeptly as I expected (by which I mean, not adeptly at all). I went into a movie theatre today for the first time in four years expecting something light and fun and silly and also preparing to critique the hell out of it, and that’s exactly what happened. That, to me, is a win.

And, to take one more cheap shot before I leave you, if I can weigh in on the whole Barbenheimer discourse: can we please stop attaching a moral value to the content we choose to consume? You are not a better person for seeing Barbie and eschewing Oppenheimer or vice versa or for watching both. You’re not a better person for criticizing Barbie or for praising it. This, this whole conversation about what movies we should and shouldn’t champion, is a very distracting tangent away from the existential threats to the entertainment industry, such as the ongoing depression of wages (union strong!) or the rampant racism that means white women’s movies get big marketing budgets while Black women directors get nothing.

The Barbie movie cannot be feminist because it’s a blockbuster made by a broken industry out of an IP owned by a toy corporation deeply invested in making truckloads of money.

The Barbie movie is (for some) very enjoyable.

Both of these statements can be true. I found Captain Marvel (and Supergirl for that matter—another show about a blonde white woman named Danvers!) incredibly powerful and moving. Barbie was less so for me, yet it was no less entertaining. I am not immune to the charm of mass-produced media carefully calibrated for the white feminist messages I have internalized over three decades of Canadian living. Let’s continue holding our media, and the corporations and people that produce it, accountable for the messages it puts out into the world. At the same time, let’s cut ourselves as viewers some slack when it comes to seeing what we want to see in these films.