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As a cinematic experience (despite a few loopholes in the plot) and fashion inspiration I enjoyed the Barbie movie, especially because it had been hyped in my creative maker bubble for weeks so I paid special attention to costumes and set design.

From a feminist perspective I find it more conflicting than expected. 

Let’s ignore the massive marketing and consumer industry (that pushed, and keeps pushing, women into buying cheap fashion, make up, beauty treatments etc.) or the fact that, besides a few token characters & one comment from the off, unrealistic beauty standards remain very obviously unquestioned. This was to be expected and is just so perfectly in line with a liberal (pseudo) feminist ideal (about which I have written before1) that I am not surprised. 

What I disliked much more is the level of abstraction that, to some degree, equals the matriarchal Barbieworld with the patriarchal reality (poor Ken), plays upon old chauvinist tropes like “the friendzone” (“Where I see love she sees a friend”) and pretends that you just need to *tell* women about the detriments of patriarchy to magically “wake them up”, as if this wasn’t a deeply structural issue where many women have become complicit in upholding patterns of oppression (especially if we consider intersectional discrimination). Intersectional discrimination is a concept developed by Black feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw that considers multi-layerd and “intersecting” forms of discrimination like gender, race, sexual orientation, class and ability. Black feminists, and women from the global South, have long held white women accountable for their reproduction of oppressive patterns towards non-white women.  

I found the constant switch between highly theorized feminist messages and the simplistic translation into motion pictures too ambiguous. I rather would have seen less “textbook” feminism and more proof of action. Somebody remember bell hooks’ call for “doing feminism”2 rather than just pretending it’s a (cool) lifestyle?

I am not surprised about the many male commentators who see Ken’s “suffering” as proof for their anti-feminist sentiments, and isn’t it interesting that “being KENough” has become the catchiest take-away from the movie – but not necessarily in a way that questions ideas of toxic masculinity. 

I am aware that this ambiguity, or even reverse effect was not the director’s intention, and that for individual feminists the own knowledgeable positions can put the movie in a very different perspective (especially in combination with nostalgia). I don’t want to badmouth any of that. But from my perspective as a feminist academic I left the cinema feeling very uneasy, and public response to the movie has confirmed my initial thinking. 

If anything, the movie shows that radical feminist visions are tough to merge with the interests of a multi-million dollar toy & movie industry, so in that context – well done for bringing to the big screens just how much patriarchy sucks (and how ridiculous it really is, if you think about it, with or without horses). 

What do you think? Did I completely miss the point or do you agree?  

1) Discussing the questionable beauty image of Barbie & the Barbie movie

2) Referencing bell hooks (1984). Feminist Theory from Margin to Center.

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