Barbie movie, Greta Gerwig

Is the ‘Barbie’ Movie Performative Subversion or Meaningful Rebellion?

Is the Barbie movie, like the Barbie dolls, a superficial attempt to co-opt feminist discourse? Or does it offer something substantial? 

Part of the discourse surrounding Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie is comical as the critique that the film obliterates certain nuances of feminist theories. Barbie is a film produced by a toy corporation, Mattel, collaborating with a film corporation, Warner Bros. It would be erroneous to assume Barbie catalyzed revolutionary ideas, particularly when a multinational company owns it. Barbie was created for the English-speaking, cosmopolitan, presumably economically privileged populace well acculturated to the Barbie dolls phenomenon. 

Barbie aims to present radical feminist theories in an easily consumable format at the level of ideas. But one cannot simply end the analysis with the film’s key ideological impact. It is integral to address the noteworthy consequences at the level of the inextricable material reality. Barbie‘s unintended consequences become evident when we observe the material conditions surrounding it. 

The Barbie doll brand has always remained relevant, reaching its peak in 2023 after the release of the mega-successful movie. Gerwig, as a director, is best known for her coming-of-age films like Ladybird (2017) and Little Women (2019). These films, including Barbie, have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and other esteemed nominations. 

Mattel has produced many Barbie films, but the 2023 blockbuster enters new terrain. The doll in Gerwig’s film is not a mere toy. It is still a medium to play with, but it acquires a new life suspended between the living and nonliving. The consequence of this approach to telling “Barbie’s” story was an enormous hike in its brand value.

Barbie Dolls’ History

Providing a backdrop on the Barbie doll brand may seem redundant, but redundancy does not condone omission. Inspired by German sex toys and paper dolls, Ruth Handler of Mattel designed the adult Barbie doll in 1959 for young girls. Her full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts, and she graduated from Willows High School in Willows, Wisconsin, and then attended State College. Introduced during the post-World War II American boom, Barbie emerged during a booming economy, a booming market, and a “baby boom”, fundamentally altering the landscape of play for many children. 

With the advent of globalization and neoliberal capitalism, Barbie became a worldwide phenomenon. The significant factor that has allowed most global brands to become proprietary eponyms is the strategy of glocalization. Barbie, too, has come to represent all dolls through its strategy of commodifying folklore. Ethnologist Jeannie B. Thomas explains this as “folklore and folkloric themes translated into marketable objects”. Barbie is neither a scholar nor a folklorist, and neither are her marketers. Instead, they draw on and present folk factors superficially and in digestible form. For instance, the box of the India Barbie (1997) represents a gross stereotype, “Most people eat only vegetables and rice with chapatti.”

Mattel incorporates various folkloric elements such as themes, images, terms, and customs, ranging from hair play to holidays, into the design and promotion of Barbie, effectively commodifying folklore to construct a sense of the exotic for consumers. While this marketing strategy has proven successful with Barbie maintaining high sales, there are troubling aspects to using folklore, often appearing superficial, manipulative, and stereotypical. The question arises: is the Barbie movie, like the Barbie dolls, also a superficial attempt to co-opt feminist discourse, or does it offer something substantial? 

The Barbie Movie’s Message and Meaning

Before we venture into the analysis of the film, let’s briefly address the various criticisms leveled against it. Some argue that Gerwig’s Barbie is anti-male. These critics are disconcerted because the narrative does not revolve around men. Proponents of this view reduce every feminist endeavor as a direct attack on the social structures that are allegedly already egalitarian.

In reality, the discomfort some experienced due to the Barbie movie’s balanced focus on the non-male perspective illustrates the normalization of popular media guided exclusively by the male gaze. Barbie deviated from this norm and attempted to present a balanced perspective on the pervasive influence of patriarchy. To its credit, the film also underscores the detrimental effects of patriarchy on men, as evidenced by Ken (Ryan Gosling) embarking on his path of self-discovery.

However, this is not to assume that every critic with this opinion is rooted in misogyny. Many scholars assert that the Barbie movie simplifies complex feminist theories. While the grounds of such claims are arguably valid, the alleged simplification is the goal. The film is an attempt to introduce feminist concepts to the collective lexicon. For instance, Gloria’s (America Ferrera) iconic monologue is free from jargon, straightforward, and meant for a general population. 

The general tendency of academically cognizant individuals to view only esoteric works as valid must be problematized. Although I grant that this criticism is legitimate, I maintain that we must acknowledge that the Barbie movie introduces vital aspects of intellectual discourse to the world of popular culture. It portrays the basic idea of patriarchy, the pretense of equality that garbs its hegemony and its psychological control. 

The first task is to analyze the film as an entity with a life of its own. The Barbie movie is not simply a feminist endeavor. It is also a coming-of-age, classic Greta Gerwig narrative. Stereotypical Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) journey shatters the original claim that the erstwhile Barbie Land is ideal. When facing existential dread, she has to deconstruct her notion of the perfect Barbie world.

For instance, her flat feet deviate from the norm, which evokes a petrified reaction. Her experience is a deviation from the norm. She is only perfect as long as she is a conformist. Ultimately, through her journey, Barbie realizes how “she wants to be the one that makes meaning, not the idea.” It is the rite of passage for Stereotypical Barbie that undergirds the plot. 

Another notable aspect of the Barbie movie is the expanse of intersectionality depicted. It accurately captures the diversity of Mattel dolls. But how Gerwig tackles the intersections mimics Mattel’s strategy, i.e., through a superficial tokenistic representation. I recognize the immense challenge of authentically representing the diverse Barbies and deeply developing their narratives. This approach may be an intentional tactic to satirize Mattel.

The more appalling yet ignored critique concerning intersectionality comes from a particularly jarring remark by Gloria, who is portrayed as the most ideologically conscious character. When Gloria witnesses the patriarchal order of Ken Land, she says, “Oh my god! This is like in the 1500s with the Indigenous people and smallpox. They had no defenses against it!” This comparison is a cause of indignation for many indigenous viewers. The political stance that the statement implies is not the problem, but rather, the trivialization of violence against a people is grossly irresponsible. Film writer Antonella Gugliersi notes, “Gloria’s comparison… appears logical, but it downplays a heinous historical event by comparing it to a fictional story development.”

Structural Issues in Barbie Land

Despite the overall direct messaging of the Barbie movie, the structural flaws of the original Barbie Land are not depicted with the same simplicity. Nonetheless, it is imperative to note how Barbie Land, an ostensible utopia, reproduces a social order determined by inequality and exclusion. For instance, Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) is excluded because she does not conform to the normative standards. They dismiss her simply because she is played too hard and thus suffers some damage, using this ambiguity as a flimsy excuse to ostracize her. Weirdness often connotes difference, but it also implies a sense of contempt. When difference becomes grounds for prejudice and exclusion, it becomes unjust. 

Only towards the end of the Barbie movie, after the reconstruction of the existing order, do we see the assimilation of the Weird Barbie into the main collective. It is troubling to imagine an assumption that her reintegration into the dominant social order is contingent on the role she plays in the collective’s salvation. Finally, we see her ask for sanitation as a cabinet role. This again highlights her plight of living on the outliers, possibly denied basic rights like hygiene and sanitation. This parallels the experiences of Allan (Michael Cera) or Pregnant Barbie/Midge (Emerald Fennell), who, though not physically ostracized, continue to exist on the peripheries.  

The Barbie movie ends with Ken Land collapsing under its weight, closely echoing Karl Marx’s assertion that capitalism contains the seeds of its destruction. Ken Land, too, rests on a fragile foundation, resulting in a revolutionary reconstruction of the society as the subjugated Barbies gain consciousness. 

There are two points of consideration here. Firstly, the narrative of deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction, central to the Barbie movie’s plot, underscores the unsustainability of the older societal order. However, the continued invisibilization of characters like Allan also gives us the space to problematize the latest social order. The new Barbie Land is imperfect but it’s close to realizing the envisioned utopia.

Secondly, we must question the implication of a capitalist enterprise, Mattel, backing a film that disseminates ideas closely aligned with Marxism. Mattel is not primarily a movie producer. It is a company driven by the pursuit of profit through the production of toys. Historically, all of Mattel’s cinematic endeavors have ultimately ensured Barbie’s persisting pertinence. This contradiction between Mattel, as a multinational capitalist enterprise, and the ideological framework of the Barbie movie points towards the commodification of revolutionary concepts for capitalist gain. 

Barbie and Mattel: Contradictions and Commodification 

Although some might claim that Mattel’s profit orientation is unrelated to the Barbie movie, the latter is intricately embedded in the contemporary economic mode of production, i.e., capitalism. To situate my argument in the pre-existing episteme, let us utilize the critical theory framework posited by Adorno and Horkheimer.  

In their seminal work Dialectics of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer assert that capitalism is sustained by producing a “culture industry”, wherein the mass production of cultural goods like films, music, and theatre ultimately serves to reproduce the economic system. Under capitalism, we are witnessing a homogenization of products, which stifles any space for critical thinking. The culture industry ultimately offers a limited selection of pre-approved content wherein consumers are presented with the illusion of choice while simply absorbing the dominant cultural narrative. Therefore, passive consumption becomes a norm of society, and criticality disappears.

One could argue that the Barbie movie does not directly fit into this framework because it ostensibly represents discursive concepts. However, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, “Films, radio, and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.”

The culture industry is well aware of the strategies it needs to curb discontent by incorporating subversive notions into its products. The Barbie movie’s pseudo-revolutionary themes do not affect the ownership or production of Barbie dolls. Therefore, we must place the film and its parent, Mattel, in the macrocosm of the culture industry and capitalism. 

This claim is easily supported by noting Mattel’s relationship with the Barbie movie. Firstly, the film is an incomparable profit-making tool for Mattel. The marketing campaign is remarkable, as Mattel secured over 100 brand deals for the film. Collaborations with brands such as ALDO, Airbnb, UNO, NYX Cosmetics, GAP, and Bumble were just a few highlights (Wiener-Bronner). 

Some of these collaborations, however, illustrate how the brand continues to associate itself with the very ideas that the film intends to subvert. For instance, the Barbie movie has beauty collaborations with the brand Truly, which advertises products like anti-cellulite cream, while Margot Robbie, as Barbie, embraces the symbols of human mortality. This leads us to question whether Barbie’s representation in the film reflects performative subversion or meaningful rebellion.   

Gerwig articulated, “Things can be both/and”, implying her intention to do the thing while subverting it. However, this strategy has proven elusive when considering production and consumption dynamics. Despite aspirations to subvert established paradigms, reality remains constrained by the observable material consequences of the processes.

The marketing and brand associations are indubitably concerning. However, even as a cultural symbol, Barbie is not meant for all. Both the Barbie movie and the dolls are intended for an urban audience, especially one considered cosmopolitan and oriented towards Western culture. The basic requirement for the Barbie movie’s success is to capitalize on the nostalgic connection that the target demographic shares with the doll. Those who resonate with the doll are now in the age range of independent consumers. However, this emotional bond is not a common experience for the majority.

Is the Barbie Movie Performative Subversion or Meaningful Rebellion?

Ultimately, is the Barbie movie a meaningful pursuit and, therefore, a case of performative subversion? The answer – like the film itself is not straightforward. In the larger scheme of things, the material impact has been negligible and essentially antagonistic to the ideas portrayed in the movie. 

Marketing rhetoric latches on to the demands of the present, fashioning the narrative to sell the product in line with what people want. Feminism has become a widely recognized social movement, shaping the demands of the present consumer. But it is also necessary to recognize the relationship between the vital ideas promoted by social movements and capitalism appropriating them for profit accumulation. The Barbie movie takes an important step historically, and this article is not meant to diminish the well-deserved attention the film receives. It is simply a call to recognize the nuances of reality. 

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Wiener-Bronner, Danielle. “‘Barbie’ Is a Hit. and All Kinds of Business Are Hopping on the Bandwagon”. CNN Business. 29 July 2023.