FELLAS: ‘Barbie’ fails as feminist film

“Barbie” doesn’t deliver on its feminist promise: The acclaimed film’s feeble messaging fails to challenge patriarchal ideologies, instead offering potentially regressive gender politics.
Graphic depicting Barbie reading Simone de Beauvoirs The Second Sex (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Graphic depicting Barbie reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

Editor’s note: This editorial contains spoilers for “Barbie” and mention of sexual assault.  

Greta Gerwig’s new film “Barbie” has received massive acclaim from reviewers and audiences alike, with a 90% critics score and 86% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Vanderbilt joined in on the fun with a tweet about the movie. Critics and viewers who loved the film largely praised its detailed sets and costumes, stellar performances and supposedly feminist spin on a doll that has long been spurned by the movement. CNN called it an “overt feminist message,” and Entertainment Weekly labeled it “deeply feminist.” One of the film’s stars, Simu Liu, said in an interview that the film would prove to be “the final nail in the coffin” for gender roles. Both Gerwig and the film’s star and producer Margot Robbie even labeled the film as “feminist.” Conservative critics appear to agree, with one headline reading: “Woke “Barbie” Drowns In Feminism.” 

I was initially excited about the movie; because I have followed Gerwig’s acting and directing career and saw and loved both of her other solo-directed films. However, after seeing “Barbie” on its opening night, I was disappointed. I disagree with both the left-wing praise and right-wing criticism, because I don’t think “Barbie” delivers on its feminist promise at all. 

One question that this discourse raises is whether it matters if the film is feminist. Many viewers simply liked “Barbie” for its aesthetics, soundtrack, performances and focus on female characters and abundance of pink. (I even participated in the trend of wearing pink to the premiere, as did many Vanderbilt students.) Amid this debate about the presence of feminism in the film, some viewers argue that because Mattel, the producer of the Barbie doll, was so heavily involved in the making of the film, it’s unfair to expect the movie to be challenging or radical. But I think this kind of rebuttal refuses to listen to the film. The movie itself purports to be a contemporary exploration of and challenge to patriarchy, with liberal use of the word in the script and references that place it clearly in our contemporary moment. Further, with a mix of high-brow references, like one to Proust, alongside more expected lowbrow ones, the film positions itself as an intellectual work, rather than just a fun-loving summer flick. Not every film needs to be “deeply feminist” or intellectual, for that matter — and I think it’s counterproductive to apply a feminism checklist to every piece of media — but “Barbie” asks to be taken seriously as a feminist film. In critiquing “Barbie’s” feminist failure, we evaluate the film on its own terms. Of course, there are many issues that the film does not address — one could hardly call it an intersectional piece, for example, as it does not discuss how a variety of systems of oppression work in concert with patriarchy — but in this article, I will not critique the film for what it left out, but rather for its troubling content. 

The movie follows “Stereotypical Barbie” played by Robbie as she travels from the seemingly utopian Barbieland, in which women hold positions of power to the human realm, which is, of course, a patriarchal society. In Barbieland, the Barbies run society and the Kens are secondary. But within mere minutes in the human world, Barbie, treated like a human woman, is sexually harassed and assaulted, while Ken, treated like a human man, finally feels respected. I take issue with the movie’s handling of sexual assault, because such a serious topic was immediately defused and made into a joke, with Barbie taking silly mugshots with Ken after being arrested for defending herself, alongside constant cracks about male construction workers sexually harassing Barbie. While “Barbie” is a movie aimed at children as well as adults, it’s possible to handle this topic with more sensitivity even when aimed at a younger audience — like Disney’s Maleficent (2014) did. 

When Ken learns about patriarchy by reading books about it in a human library, he decides to install his own version back in Barbieland. The other Barbies, who were originally introduced as strong career women, immediately conform to an image of female submission — donning stereotypical “French maid” costumes, fetching beer for the Kens and acting as cheerleaders for the Kens’ athletic pursuits. Barbie and two human women hatch a plan to restore order to Barbieland which takes the form of a classic but problematic trope in which women “let the patriarchy work for them.” The Barbies must pretend to be docile and essentially seduce the Kens with their stereotypical and submissive behavior. This trope is outdated and suggests that women can benefit from patriarchy, a system which oppresses us as a class subject to men. It further plays into the harmful idea that women manipulate men by exercising sexual power over them. It sees patriarchal oppression as a passive force, rather than a violent system. 

What I found to be most disturbing about the film is Barbie’s fate. At the end of the film, she chooses to live as a human in our world, rather than as a Barbie in Barbieland. On one level, this decision appears to be a celebration of the richness of the human experience — Barbie’s experiences in the film have rendered her complex enough to accept the pain of human experiences like death, alongside beauty and happiness. But for this ending to work, Barbie would need to be more convincing as a doll. At times, the film seems to forget that she’s a doll at all. She’s never left without agency in Barbieland, controlled like a puppet or incapable of thinking for herself. She has human subjectivity, she can pursue any career she wants and she has friends and a home of her own. Functionally, Robbie’s Barbie does not make the choice to move from “dollhood” to “humanhood,” because that isn’t a meaningful distinction within the premise of the movie. The most meaningful difference between the two worlds is the fact of patriarchy. 

Robbie’s Barbie does not make the choice to move from “dollhood” to “humanhood,” because that isn’t a meaningful distinction within the premise of the movie. The most meaningful difference between the two worlds is the fact of patriarchy.

It is also worth noting that Barbieland is not represented as a perfect reversal of our human world because the Kens do not appear to be oppressed. Barbieland features an all-Barbie Supreme Court, for example, but we never see them enact laws that oppress or even apply to the Kens. Barbie tells one of the humans that she doesn’t even know where the Kens live, suggesting that Barbieland is less a system of hierarchy, but rather, the Kens just don’t appear to be integrated into the Barbies’ society.

For Barbie to choose to leave a system in which she has agency and community for one that is largely defined by its oppression of women (and its bioessentialist perspective on gender, illustrated in the film’s final line) is baffling and suggests that women submit to their own oppression. I am not suggesting that this is the intention of the filmmakers, but rather, I am taking seriously the messaging within the film, and following it to its logical conclusion — which is a depressing one. 

Similarly, I was troubled by a line from the film that has been deemed by many, both in criticism and on social media, to be among the most powerful in the film. The line, spoken by the creator of Barbie, played by Rhea Pearlman, characterizes motherhood as a worthy sacrifice: “we mothers stand still, so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” This line conjures an image of motherhood as a static position, from which there is no room for development or advancement; in becoming a mother, a woman is reduced to a yardstick against which her ever-evolving daughter measures her own growth. While there is certainly some truth to the idea that, for some women, the transition to motherhood leads to the subordination of one’s own identity and desires, the film’s self-effacing image of motherhood is demeaning. Martyrdom should not be venerated as a mother’s primary aspiration. 

While many fans of the film have expressed the sentiment that, although “Barbie” isn’t radically feminist, it is still a step in the right direction and a good introduction to feminist ideas, I view it as a failed attempt to deliver a feminist message. I would have preferred a lukewarm and rudimentary “patriarchy is bad” message to the film’s misguided and harmful one. I appreciate seeing a female director and a diverse cast have such a successful opening, and, ideally, this showing will usher in more opportunities for marginalized people in the film industry. However, the film’s shaky message begs the following question: Is representation enough to cover up regressive content? I am disturbed by reviews that laud this film as “deeply feminist” because if people, and women especially, accept such a lackluster message as empowering, how will we ever achieve liberation?

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About the Contributors
Nora Fellas, Staff Writer
Nora Fellas (‘24) is from New York and is in the College of Arts and Science studying English literature and Chinese. In her free time, she loves to read, listen to music and play with her dog, Maisie! You can reach her at [email protected].
Lexie Perez, Graphics Director
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Comments (14)

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Ste
3 months ago
  • I agree mostly that Barbie is far from a feminist film, but I do think the author of this article is being overly pessimistic regarding patriarchy in the real world. And for that matter, overly forgiving of the matriarchy and it’s cruel treatment of men in barbieland. Something that Is paralleled in the film itself.

There are still areas in the world where inequality exist I know, but the idea that patriarchy is suppressing women en masse, especially across the anglosphere, is mostly nonsense; then again America is regressing of late.
However, the idea that reducing men to accessories for women isn’t oppressive is utter bullshit. The kens are the cheerleaders and exist at the whims of the Barbies at the beginning. Which is no better than the reverse that comes later.

The movie fails because the barbieland is as dystopianly sexist and unequal as the imagined patriarchal centric narrative it imposes upon the “real” world. The film contains too much woe is me victomhood preaching propoganda from the left.
Which is unfair to all of the strong successful women and strives society has made to create gender equality.

A
Amity Hotchkiss
5 months ago

I really appreciate your review and the courage it took to write it. As a long-time feminist, I truly agree with you. The film also perpetuates gender stereotypes, not solving anything by the end. It’s true: why would Barbie leave Barbieland?

R
5 months ago

As a Vandy grad (76) who has now seen the movie three times, I was disappointed with the perspective of this review. While this was not a perfect movie, using its imperfections to tarnish the entire movie is malicious.
I encourage the writer of this review to read the poetic essay of Theodore Roosevelt “It is not the critic who counts”.

H
Henry Burnett
5 months ago

I encourage Robert Speth, Ph.D., to actually read the article he is commenting on. No fair minded and reasonable reader could accuse the author of malice. If he disagrees with the review he should explain why, rather than resort to personal attacks. Seeing that he takes great pains to highlight his Ph.D., I am reminded of something else Teddy Roosevelt said: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

E
Emma (he/him)
5 months ago
Reply to  Henry Burnett

Can we stop quoting Republicans? It is giving me anxiety.

D
6 months ago

Excellent article. I will add, as Left wing radical artist, that if you are interested in authentically revolutionary or feminist filmmakers you should watch the works of Fronza Woods, Lizzie Borden or more recently “The Love Witch” by Anna Biller. I have no idea on earth why everyone thinks Greta Gerwig (the Brooklyn Bourgeois Princess) is a radical Feminist and would even care to challenge patriarchy when she doesn’t really give a second thought to the racism and misogyny in our culture. A lot of what is happening in identity politics is simply adding fuel to the fire with the mob mentality contributing a bizarre definition of what “this” or “that is.” Things in the USA (alone) are not only worse then they were 40 years ago—they are more gravely championed. White racism has found a new reclamation. Rape and assault culture has been absorbed by millennials and now Gen Z as not someone to be eradicating but to be almost casually expected; things are disintegrating.
“Woke” politics (another term the media made popular) is just a way to sell something. The only radical ethos of the “Barbie” movie is its patronizing consumerist iteration of what “Feminism” is. Lastly, to expect Hollyweird to have an interest in criticizing toxic masculinity and the abuse of women is like acting the KKK to take an interest in how the police are inherently racist and what they can do to stop it. Hollywood’s feeble attempts to address a “Feminist” ideology flowered in more ways via the early role of Meryl Streep, Faye Dunaway, Jill Clayburgh. Outside the mainstream, John Cassavetes own roles written for Gena Rowlands tells us more about how women are treated (particularly in certain classes and white worlds) than nearly anything by Hollywood. In fact, Bette Davis’ acting alone could be a masterclass in “feminist acting” if you wanted to take it there and it would be justified. Gerwig’s movie is just a hustle. A hustle and a business deal wrapped up in white privilege and a haughty laugh behind the doors. It was almost as offensive as seeing Ice Cube ride around in his car with Tucker Carlson. The future is here. They got us good. We are losing. Will the real artists in this world please stand up and risk everything— to give us some truth?

J
Jessica
6 months ago

The hardest thing for me to understand in the movie was why Barbie apologized to Ken. Sure, they kind of hinted that no one really worried about any of the Ken’s, but they also showed Ken getting mad at Barbie for not being able to spend the night, for not being the only dance partner she had, and for over all “friend zoning” him.

The way the movie’s storyline went on, it felt as if Ken brought the Real World’s patriarchy over to Barbieland because he was rejected. Yet, they seemed to want to viewer to feel by the end of the movie that Ken’s wede just oppressed in Barbieland. Yet, they weren’t.

And I didn’t even touch on the fact that he literally stole her house and kicked her out of her own house. He even mentioned that he thought both of them would life there before she apologized. Why in the world would he think that and why would she feel the need to make him feel better about that weird belief?

It gave off the feeling that women should apologize to men for making them sad because the men expected more out of them. It was really off-putting to me when I otherwise enjoyed the movie. I didn’t expect it to be overly deep into feminism, but I also didn’t expect it to reinforce diminishing women’s boundaries.

K
Karen
6 months ago

I agree with all of this. I was also bothered by how many times Barbie clearly said no to Ken and then at the end told him “every night didn’t have to be girls night”, why let him sleep over just because he was sad? And after he uses the patriarchy to destroy her house and life she is the one sent up to console him? Gross. Plus, maybe I need to see it again, but the montages of the human experience seemed to be heavily focused on taking care of babies and family and I kept waiting to see women in powerful roles as well but instead there was a clip of bowling??

V
Vandy Feminist
6 months ago

I would much rather live in Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela or North Korea than in some oppressive country like the USA.

J
Jacqueline
6 months ago

Feeling like part of the minority, I was happy to stumble upon this very well written review which confirms way more eloquently than I could ever express, my take on the film. I saw Barbie today, I deliberately refrained from perusing reviews because I didn’t want other people’s opinions clouding my experience. I wanted to love this film so much especially after all the hype but I found it somewhat meh. For me it dragged on a bit, I yawned a few times and I just didn’t find myself engaged or really even rooting for the protagonist… I’m actually kinda bummed (fan of Gerwig) I thought I would be utterly enthralled, but for me it just fell flat. Visually speaking it was a pretty film, Barbieland was like a ride at Disney World, the apparel was gorgeous, the good looking people, the choreography and music was fun and it wasn’t without charm, dotted with humor and Robbie exudes poignancy effortlessly but something felt off. Barbie is being touted as a feminist film with a strong message at its core and yet Ryan Gosling’s Ken in my opinion, stole the show (talk about patriarchy) he had some of the best scenes throughout and was allowed to tap into this layered and complex range of emotions and self discovery, not to mention he completely slayed that Matchbox 20 cover, I mean c’mon Greta. Also, as the mother of a grown daughter I appreciate your take on that whole martyrdom line at the end and couldn’t agree more, on the flip side of that and also as the mother of 2 grown sons I was mildly put off by some of the male stereotypes. But in the end it is just a movie, entertainment and maybe we can all just relax a little bit, I mean afterall we are talking about Barbie and Ken.

C
Confused Vandy Student
6 months ago

What are Barbie’s pronouns?

M
marnie
6 months ago

This is a really well written critique. I actually liked the movie a lot when I saw it last weekend, and I still think it’s a fun movie, but this article definitely has made me think a little bit more critically about some of the themes. I really appreciate this more against the grain reading.

A
aoife
6 months ago

i’ve been looking for an opinion like this on the film. i really struggled to make sense of my thoughts when i first saw it and especially because everyone praised it so highly online and called it so empowering. it felt really hollow to me but i couldn’t really articulate why, the motherhood bit especially. everyone was obsessed with it online but i felt really off about it and this totally explains why it’s so flawed. thank you for putting this into words.

M
melissa casey
6 months ago

i respect your opinion on the movie, but found this article very disheartening. to say this movie misses the mark on being a feminist film is not entirely fair in my view. i’m happy that this film is opening up further discussion on topics such as feminism and intersectionality, however i disagree with your all or nothing view on the movie.