When Barbie premiered in theaters last summer, I, like many other women, rushed to see it during opening week. I did the whole thing — I wore a fully pink outfit, smeared sparkly makeup across my eyes and walked into the theater with my friends expecting a movie that, while fun, had a moving message about what it is to exist as a woman. Mostly, I was excited to finally have a movie that was made specifically for women. However, that was not what I got. Barbie was certainly not the groundbreaking feminist film that everyone had said it was. In fact, I found it deeply misogynistic for several reasons, and it was discomfiting for me to see it being lauded as a masterpiece when it so clearly perpetuated many of the most harmful mindsets that modern day women are forced to overcome.
Firstly, the entire movie is based around beauty. This is surely not far from the truth of real women. So much of our lives are based around the conscious or unconscious pursuit of beauty that it was obviously something a movie about the female experience had to address. However, the way the writers went about it reeked of typical entry level feminism. Barbie insists on everyone being beautiful — in fact, in its most pivotal scene, which features Barbie crying because she doesn’t feel pretty enough, the movie’s response is to have another one of the female leads console her by telling her that she is so beautiful. While it’s important to understand that beauty does not exist only in the rigid definition that is often assigned, by having the most emotional scene in the movie end with the main character receiving validation in order to feel good again, it reinforces the idea that in order to be okay, women have to be beautiful. In a world where Barbie preached more than just performative feminism, the scene would have gone more like this:
“I’m not pretty.”
“You don’t have to be, it’s not your job.”
Think about how much more influential this dialogue would have been. If such a widely viewed movie had changed that one line to be something truly meaningful, its impact could have been so much more positive. To tell women that they are beautiful, even if they don’t feel like it, is reinforcing the same age old idea that a woman’s value is based on her appearance. What we need is a new take on feminism, one that is not deeply entrenched in misogynistic ideals. Women need to know that it is alright not to be beautiful, that it is not their duty to constantly, or ever, appeal to the male gaze.
If it was just that one scene where these problematic themes were prevalent, perhaps the movie could still be claimed as an overall success. Unfortunately, the examples of this exact same issue pile up. Another widely discussed scene in Barbie is when Margot Robbie, playing stereotypical Barbie, is talking to an older woman and tells her that she is beautiful. The old woman responds, “I know it.” While at first a heartwarming sentiment (it is always refreshing to see women act confidently and not knock themselves down in the face of a compliment), this moment is not nearly as revolutionary as many people seem to think. Once again, beauty is framed as the ultimate compliment, the ultimate goal of every woman. There has been a very active movement recently against anti-aging advertisements and products, aiming instead to accept how people of all ages look, and to embrace the aging process as natural and something to be experienced fully rather than avoided. While this push is a good one — forcing women to try to look young is certainly born of misogynistic ideals — saying that old women are beautiful too is not the way to go about solving the issue. This only means that even older women are now held to male-instigated beauty standards. To me, this sounds like a prison sentence rather than a pardon.
The most explicit continuation of surface level feminism is the entire plot of “weird” Barbie. Weird Barbie has choppy short hair, marker drawn all over her face and a patchwork outfit. She is ostracized by the other Barbies for her differences, and referred to interchangeably as “weird” and “ugly” Barbie. This is an outright showing of how Barbie bases worth on appearance. “Weirdness,” which is usually used to define one’s behavior, is shown as completely flesh with “ugly,” a word that is used mainly as a negative descriptor for appearance, (although in actuality, ‘ugly’ is just an adjective with no morality attached to it). This Barbie is disliked purely because she is ugly, and at the end of the movie, when the other Barbies finally learn to accept her, they apologize for calling her ugly, not for treating her differently based on that observation. They acknowledge the hurt caused by the word, but they in no way dismantle it.
So yes, Barbie was fun, and the aesthetic was certainly entertaining, but there was little value beneath that. What had the potential to be a truly powerful movie was thrown away on base level feminism with deeply harmful undertones. And while it is good that so many people who had never seen their struggle reflected on screen were provided that opportunity, and those who were entirely unaware of women’s struggles could grow in their understanding, there is so much more that Barbie could have achieved while still keeping all of its positive themes intact. When movie after movie fails to deliver a message truly free of misogyny, especially a movie that explicitly sets out to do so, there reaches a point where the remaining sexism just feels lazy. The writers didn’t care enough to get rid of it. It is truly not that difficult to write a non-misogynistic script, it’s just that people don’t care enough to do it, so long as the narrative that they do provide makes them money. And isn’t that the age old story of women so much more than Barbie is?
Hater Tuesday is an authorless column that runs alternate weeks and centers around critiquing media or culture.