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“Barbie” Lets Us Laugh at the Patriarchy, But Not at the Expense of Corporations

Unsurprisingly, Mattel asks women to be bosses, not to fight them.

Margot Robbie stars in Barbie (2023).

As of this week, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has broken several records and earned a stunning $1 billion in global ticket sales. There is no question that people, women and girls in particular, in many parts of the world, are going to the theater to see a white, blonde, telegenic Barbie muse about death and patriarchy.

And why not?

Pink Tide and the Apocalypse

The last few pandemic years have been miserable for most people, and again, for women and girls in particular. In the United States, it is estimated that 2 million women left the workforce in order to provide unpaid care labor to children and the elderly when schools and social services abruptly closed down. According to the UN Population fund, globally, there were 1.4 million unintended pregnancies in just the first year of the pandemic as nearly 2 million women in 115 low- and middle-income countries lost access to contraception services. As we all “sheltered in place,” domestic violence against women and children rose worldwide. As if this were not enough, Roe v. Wade was overturned in the U.S. amid a devastating rise in violence, both legal and physical, against trans people. In India, the openly Islamophobic government, led by Narendra Modi, oversaw a needless carnival of death when its COVID policies, or lack thereof, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Russia invaded Ukraine, constituting the largest military attack since World War II. Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires reminded us all that the planet had had enough of capitalism.

Amid this rolling apocalypse, if a film comes with its magic wand and grants us reprieve from it all for a few hours, how can we refuse? Barbie, for a brief moment, returned films to their original primal function: to soothe and entertain.

There is something more specific, however, to the crowds of women and girls, mothers and daughters, friends and cousins, flocking to the theater. Barbie gave them a rare permission — to be frivolous and childish. Scores of films exist that insist on granting endless childhood to men. From Star Wars and Marvel Comics to the entire gaming universe, a dizzying array of choices exist for men on how to continue to live in this ever-expanding Neverland of battles, superheroes and, frankly, very loud noises. For women, the filmic choices are romance or poignant bildungsroman pieces. But don’t you sometimes tire of poignant? Barbie takes women to their doll-playing days but without pious reminders of the passing of time, or some lofty moral lesson. The furniture, the clothes all resonate, laden with memory for many women, but you don’t have that worthy aftertaste of regret and longing that you do with many coming-of-age films. Instead, you come away with froth and bubbles laced with an Oprah’s book club analysis of patriarchy. In a world where abortion care is severely limited and the planet seems to be on fire, that is not a bad thing.

Barbie, Inc.

If you have seen the film, you will know that Barbie does race and gender reasonably well. Consider when Ryan Gosling as Ken, fascinated by the sexist real world, exclaims, “Why didn’t Barbie tell me about patriarchy?” Or his comment that “horses are just men extenders.” Of course, the highlight is America Ferrera’s powerful monologue about what it is to be a woman that “wakes up” all the brainwashed Barbies. No prince’s kiss or “white savior Barbie” for Greta Gerwig.

Like many neoliberal phenomena, then, Barbie is strong on, and often hilarious about, gender and race. It asks us all, women and queer folks, to aim for the sky, to break the glass ceiling. Not too long ago, some of us had asked this question of neoliberal feminism: When the glass ceiling is broken, who cleans up the shards from the floor? Amid the perfectly proportioned Black President Barbies, and superbly manicured surgeon Barbies, one wonders who cleans the Dream House, who wipes down the counters, who struggles with minimum-wage jobs. And does the Black President Barbie order drone strikes on the Middle East? Before you roll your eyes at this humorless, socialist feminist point, let me clarify. The problem is not that class questions are not portrayed in the film. The problem is how they are answered.

America Ferrera tells us:

You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people.

This is a Hilary Clinton campaign speech. Not the everyday advice working-class mothers are forced to give their daughters worldwide to make sure they at least get through high school, or that they come home safe at night from their call center job. A bourgeois childhood ideal where we seek success within capitalism, is portrayed as universal, made more acceptable being voiced by a woman of color. Mattel, unsurprisingly, asks women to be bosses, not to fight them. We get to laugh at the patriarchy but not fear corporations.

Such rehabilitative narrative makes the joint release of Barbie and Oppenheimer particularly apt. Barbie, in more than one sense, is a quintessential World War II product. Although she arrived first in 1959, the company Mattel was cofounded by Ruth Handler and her husband in 1945. Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 14, 1945, with a loss of estimated 2.6 to 3.1 million lives and $56 billion. Unlike the mythical 70,000 figure that Robert Oppenheimer provided for the numbers killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the death toll in the atomic attacks was probably close to 200,000, not counting the long-term effects of radiation on people for generations to come.

It is to this country, down on its knees, that the Handlers moved Barbie production. Oppenheimer’s bomb, among other things, lowered the cost of labor for Barbie. By late 1964, Barbie was “supporting” over 5,000 workers in Japan. When the Japanese economy began to recover, she traveled again to Hong Kong, Taiwan and finally to China, unerringly placing her arched foot on countries with low labor costs. In 2018, The Wall Street Journal estimated an annual pay of $6,300 for the average Mattel worker. And unlike the reconciliation America Ferrera’s Mattel worker gets in the film, Mattel is no stranger to strike breaking and layoffs.

Barbie, Feminism and Solutions

While the effects of capitalist patriarchy are most often felt individually, its solutions can only be collective. Liberal feminism teaches us that the solutions too are individual, and they come when a minority of women become part of the elite. In an era of conservative backlash worldwide, it is important that we see on screen women doctors, women astronauts and women presidents. That we see them having a good time. That we hear words and phrases like “patriarchy” and “sexualized capitalism” from a tween (Ariana Greenblatt as Sasha). But with capitalism lies the rub. If a handful of women can be CEOs, it is only because the vast majority of women are cleaning up the glass from the shattered ceiling.

Barbie as a film went as far as Mattel, its funder, would allow it to go. The same ideological restrictions may not apply to all those women, girls and men who are flocking to the cinema to watch Barbie.

What if Ariana Greenblatt’s words and America Ferrara’s speech “wake” them up?

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