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Negative Reactions to ‘Barbie’ Reveal the Pressure of Representation

Apparently, nothing's ever enough. It has its flaws, but does that warrant the amount of criticism 'Barbie' is subject to?

Barbie has been the subject of much speculation, hatred, and heartfelt appreciation during the weeks that followed its release. The Internet seems to be still talking about it just as much as it was a month ago. It tells the story of how Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) starts experiencing human feelings and bodily flaws. Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) surmises that this is possibly due to the human playing with her doll in the real world having complicated and sad thoughts. So Stereotypical Barbie goes to the real world in order to help the child who’s playing with her so that she might go back to being plastic and perfect. Ken (Ryan Gosling) accompanies her and this has dire consequences when he returns to Barbieland before Barbie.  While Ken discovers patriarchy and goes back home, Barbie is appalled by it and meets her kid, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), with hopes of finding some answers. 

Barbies of Barbieland imagine their feminist history actually solved the issue of gender politics in the Real World. Sasha tells her about Barbie’s complicated past with body images and Capitalism but rather harshly. Sad and lost, Barbie goes to Mattel in order to complain and there she meets Sasha’s mother Gloria (America Ferrera). Turns out, it’s Gloria’s thoughts that have been haunting Barbie, and not Sasha’s. To provide them comfort, Barbie takes them with her to Barbieland, only to discover that Ken has taken over the land and established a patriarchy. The journey of taking back Barbieland from the Kens has been lauded by many for its take on feminism and femininity and how it celebrates womanhood and sisterhood. But it has been subject to its fair share of criticism as well. Some of it is from disgruntled men like Ben Shapiro who aren’t happy a film with a powerful, albeit confused, feminist message is so popular, but some of it definitely has merit.


By far the most ridiculous criticism of the film claims that it openly despises men. This was primarily men taking to social media in the first few days of the release of Barbie. It was a reactionary stance to take, a response to the women flocking to social media to laud the film for making them feel seen and heard. Piers Morgan (see below) was, not unexpectedly, a spokesperson for this group of men, and there are multiple discrepancies in his criticism of the film. Then there was Ben Shapiro who bought and accessorized Barbie dolls before posing them in their car and doing a photoshoot, which he followed up by burning them. This kind of pettiness doesn’t deserve a space in serious film criticism, but it’s an interesting aspect to study. The film’s ending, although a little complicated and oversimplified at the same time, tries to make a point about toxic masculinity and how having to put up a performance of strength makes the patriarchy detrimental for men as well. So it’s effectively anti-patriarchy and not anti-men, but the aforementioned men and their fans are blissfully blind to this message. Is it because the messaging is too subtle or because a female-led film being so successful challenges their already fragile sense of masculinity and their ego?

“Basic Feminism”

Again an unfair criticism of Barbie because it also misses the point of the film, Barbie often gets criticized for presenting a “basic” take on feminism. The film is firstly about a kid’s toy which means many tweens and youngsters will be watching it, so it needs to be gradual in its presentation of nuance so as to be accessible to younger members of the audience. Secondly, the Barbies in the film are all introduced to the patriarchy and feminism in the film. So, doesn’t it make sense for the conversations about them to be elementary? The characters are going through an introduction, so the story is introductory, but also because the intended audience deserves that. In fact, a major portion of the adult female audience has loved this aspect too because it reminded them of the experience of finding out about the patriarchy as a teenager. The demand for more “serious” discussions is telling though, because such pressure isn’t usually put even on female-led action or comedy films like Ocean’s Eight or Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). While the stories for those films didn’t revolve around the patriarchy, it still feels unfair to expect Barbie to present feminism and womanhood with as much nuance as one may find in a film more rooted in reality and less allegorical, like Little Women

“Mixed Messages”

I can see the reason for saying Barbie isn’t very clear-cut in its messaging. While the allegory for the patriarchy and the journey to self-love is told well through the Barbies and Barbieland, the role of the story set in the real world is confusing at times. Stereotypical Barbie feels undertones of violence but also finds an appreciation for human existence. The fact that despite the social imbalance and the many shortcomings of people, life still has its own poeticism isn’t lost on her. The confusion arises from the time dedicated to the two parts. Her realization of the beauty of life is given next to no time if one is to compare it with the time given to her discovering sexual assault and understanding the true horrors of patriarchy. That would be a fine division of time if Barbie wasn’t shown to be particularly fascinated with the real world despite her negative experiences there. But that’s not all, the mixed messages criticism has also extended to ambiguity about the ending. Apparently, it’s not clear if the climax of the film promotes genuine feminism or blatant misandry. That again makes me wonder why we as a society can’t accept this fun bubblegummy film about a kid’s toy as it is, and instead need it to solve the issue of the patriarchy for us. When was the last time we asked The Avengers to give us a solution to toxic masculinity or asked Black Panther to solve racism? 

“White Feminism”

This is definitely the criticism I find most harmful because unlike the “anti-male” claims, this seems to get serious appreciation from open-minded intellectual discussions. Greta Gerwig is a white woman. She has experienced white womanhood because of that. Being white has naturally affected and informed her opinions and experiences just like a black woman’s race would impact her experience with feminism. So, it’s expected that a story told by her will present a white feminist perspective. There are characters of colour, even queer-coded characters, but at the end of the day, she’s a cishet white woman and that is the perspective one will find in Barbie. Instead of being a flaw, I’d say it’s a positive aspect of the film because for once we don’t have a white person stepping in as a speaker for a coloured person. Greta has only written her truth. It’s admirable when someone does their due diligence with research and delivers an intersectional piece, but even that piece has its own biases or was actually written by someone from the community it talks about. In fact, even if it’s from the same community, one person’s story won’t reflect another’s. So, why are we mad that Barbie features so-called “white-girl feminism”? It’s intersectional in the way that some aspects of womanhood are universal to all women, and otherwise, it reflects the experiences of white women, which one could come to expect since the protagonist is a white woman herself! The only meritable argument I’ve heard in this context is that Robbie’s character sort of plays the white saviour role, but how much was Avatar: The Way of Water criticized for the same?

[L-to-R] America Ferrera and Margot Robbie at a promotional event for ‘Barbie’

“Protects Capitalism”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it protects Capitalism, but Barbie definitely benefits from it and doesn’t question it enough. There are a couple of jokes about Mattel’s business model, and the film questions the toy company’s Capitalist motivations behind its feminism, but Barbie is rightfully accused of being complicit. Feminism and Capitalism may seem exclusive on the face of things because they ideologically target two different classes of societal imbalance. But fighting social injustice is an intersectional issue. Speaking truth to power through Barbie shouldn’t just involve exposing the lies told by the patriarchy, but also the ones told by Capitalism when it exploits the labour of underpaid female workers. Quite like the doll itself, the film is limited by the way Capitalism functions. Barbie’s famous “Women can do anything” message seems obnoxious when one considers the fact that the women making the dolls work under poor conditions and cannot afford to “do anything”. And despite millions of dolls, there never was or will be a Guangdong Factory Barbie. As much as Barbie confronts the patriarchy, it doesn’t acknowledge the toy company’s complicated past enough and even the one working-class character in the film seems to either have a well-paying job or simply doesn’t bring up worker’s rights. Even though it feels like a very heavy expectation to have of the movie, I’ll defend the criticism because the film does in fact do a pretty good job of exploring the original feminist notions behind the toy. So, it’s not like the past is left out, just the problematic bit that would make it difficult to earn money.

Some of the criticisms of Barbie are absolutely deserved, but some of them are illogical, while others are simply unfair. It’s the third kind of criticism that is the most revelatory. The same questions can be asked about big-budget blockbusters based on toys and children’s characters. Just because it’s directed by Greta Gerwig, a woman known for challenging the status quo, so many negative takes are appearing all over the Internet. It might look like a good thing because at least people are taking Barbie seriously enough to scrutinize it so carefully, but I’m weary of these double standards. And of the pressure to create diversity by featuring characters from as many walks of life as possible, if not all of them. No work can be universally representative because people are so different. It’s unfair to put that weight on any director. In fact, it’s not even put on every director. Unless you’re a member of a minority community telling a story, the pressure to represent is considerably less. If we’re interrupting a woman telling her story in order to tell her she isn’t telling every woman’s story, aren’t we participating in the same culture that doesn’t let her speak? The irony isn’t lost on me, and I hope it isn’t on you either.