Smash the patriarchy! Long live the gender binary!
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, your world may be awash in pink, as Barbie and Ken have come to life on the big screen. Rarely does a movie based on a character hated by feminists become such a hit among them that they flock to the theatre wearing hot pink. To understand why, consider the feminist reviews here and here.
As a sociologist, I will leave the film criticism to cultural theorists and analyze the real-world reaction to the film. I would have never gone to see it but for my friends’ endorsements and the reviews, and, like almost everyone else, I enjoyed it. I went to see Barbie with other sociologists and historians. We began the evening drinking pink cosmos and our hostess provided us with pink visors and boas. I was ready for an enjoyable, ironic evening but laughed and tapped my feet to the music. Who doesn’t love the Indigo Girls?
But what does it all mean? If you still need to follow the Barbie franchise’s historical, rise, fall and resurrection, let me provide you a brief summary (the full story is here): Ruth Handler, a Jewish businesswoman in the 1950’s wanted her daughter, Barbara, to have a doll that wasn’t a baby but rather a youthful woman who could be dressed in fashionable outfits.
As the movie’s opening scene captures, the baby dolls mostly available at the time only allowed girls to imagine they would grow up to be mommies. But Handler wanted her daughter to envision herself doing something beyond feeding babies.
In Switzerland, Handler found a “Lilli” doll with a big bust and a tiny waist. It is no coincidence that the Lilli doll started out as a comic-strip sex kitten, in provocative poses with suggestive dialogue. Men gave each other Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties. Why that particular doll, created for adult men, is the version of adult womanhood Ruth Handler brought back to America is a mystery.
What is not a mystery but a historical fact is that the doll was an instant success. Girls loved it, and Mattel made a fortune selling dolls and accessories. This doll taught young girls to aspire to a womanhood that required constant dieting, destroying one’s feet with high heels, and being primarily concerned with accessorizing.
Now, of course, Barbie’s life never included becoming a mother or sharing a home with Ken. Barbie’s single, free-wheeling life of privilege and fashion was far more glamorous than most imaginable alternatives in 20th-century America.
Stop reading now if you haven’t yet seen the movie and want to be surprised…
Spoiler Alert!: In the movie, when Barbie and Ken come to the “real world” and discover patriarchy, they react in opposite ways. Ken loves it, and imports it back to Barbieland, successfully turning it, if briefly, into “Kendom.” Barbie is horrified that in the “real world” none of the important actors are women.
Barbie and two women from the “real world” return to Barbieland only to discover that all of the Barbies have been brainwashed into submission in the new “Kendom.” The only thing that breaks the brainwashing spell is the real woman’s feminist analysis of womanhood. The “real woman” tells them to smash the patriarchy — and they do.
Good enough. What other mass movie has been about smashing the patriarchy lately?
And yet, there are three lingering concerns that leave me feeling queasy.
First, while this movie easily convinces all but the most right-wing commentators that gender inequality is a bad thing, it also essentializes gender differences. It almost screams “different but equal.” Women love pink, clean houses, and sisterhood. Men love horses, making a mess, and beer. The film teaches us that despite these differences between the sexes, we should still be equal.
But — critically — the film never suggests that not all women desire to fight the patriarchy while wearing pink pantsuits. Nor that some women love horses and don’t care for dressing up. Or that some men prefer clean houses to filthy ones. Simply put, the film implicitly endorses a gender binary in which women and men are from Venus and Mars. It does persuade us that Venetians and Martians should be equally valued. Rah rah, femininity! It’s just as good as masculinity! But the movie never asks us to stop and question where our notions of what is “feminine” come from or why. Why is pink synonymous with femininity?
Let me explain: Pink became a feminine color just about the time that Barbie was born. Before that, pink belonged to boys. In June 1918, an article in a trade cleared that pink is for boys and blue for girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” But then Mamie Eisenhower wore a pink gown to the inauguration and sent a fashion trend. Whether the color is pink or blue, what has not changed is the presumption that boys and girls are naturally different. Greta Gerwig, the director of Barbie, seems to agree.
Second, while the Barbie franchise has diversified in many ways, with Barbies of every nationality and ethnicity, a curvy Barbie, and even one in a wheelchair, all the Barbies remain indisputably beautiful by current cultural standards. The curvy Barbie reminds me of fashion magazines hiring women who are size 10 to model plus-size clothing. Really?
What do today’s Barbie dolls, sure to be hip once again after this movie that is as successful as product advertisement as art, teach today’s young women? That you can definitely be anything you want: doctor, mechanic, or astronaut. But you also still have to be beautiful and feminine. The film reminded me so of the difference between today’s college women and those of my generation. In an article I co-authored with Simone Ispa-Landa, we compared sorority women from the 1980s with those in school today. In the 20th century, women talked about “MRS” degrees, and admission to a top sorority required beauty, wealth, and the right connections, but career ambitions were unnecessary, even a hindrance. Not now. Today’s young women, brought up with Barbies dressed for success, must have a passion for their career to be considered eligible for admission to top sororities. But what hasn’t changed? They still have to be beautiful, thin, well-dressed, and feminine.
And one final quibble: Perhaps because my new research has focused on people who reject gender categories entirely, I found it surprising that the ultimate definition of being a “real” woman for Barbie was to have a vagina. So many of the people my team has interviewed insist that sex and gender are distinct, that one’s physical body parts do not necessarily match one’s gender identity nor predict femininity or masculinity. Just because someone has a vagina doesn’t mean they like pink. The final moments of the movie leave us with the moral that Barbie is finally a real live woman because she has a vagina and needs gynecological care. Somehow I think if JK Rowling were to write that, we’d hear about it, loud and clear.
I fear that the moral young women will take away from Barbie is that you can be anything you want to be, but real women do so while dressing up girly to remain beautiful as they run the world. And if being a feminine beauty is not your goal, maybe you aren’t a real woman; you certainly would be a misfit weird doll if you ventured into Barblieland.