Barbie everywhere

The new Barbie film has a feminist message, but Mattel must be cleaning up.


Like many people, it seems, I went to see Barbie over the weekend. I haven’t been to the cinema for a while, mainly because there has been nothing worth watching on. The last few times I’ve been with the family we have been practically the only ones there. I wasn’t really that into seeing Barbie, to be honest, but daughters two and three invited me – probably because I ended up paying – and it seemed like a good excuse for a mother daughter outing. Except it was almost impossible to find any seats going in any towns around us. Then I clocked on Twitter that this was a bit of a thing and that people were dressing up in pink and everything. Somehow it had passed me by.

Anyhow, I was anticipating – because I hadn’t really read much about it and based solely on the adverts, which seemed a bit lame – a mildly feminist version of Toy Story. We were only able to book the late showing so my main concern was staying awake. In fact it is a bit more than mildly feminist.  The bits that stood out were the mother’s tirade about all the confusing things women are supposed to be and how tiring it all is. There’s nothing new about that, but maybe it got through to some of the girls attending. I’m not sure how much girls think about their mums generally, although, of course, this will probably be them at some point. The film tried to show that mum daughter relationship – the core of the film was about a mother’s sadness at her daughter pulling away from her. The need to forge that intergenerational female link is certainly a theme in books I have read of late. Instead we are often pitted against each other.

Another thing that stood out was the call to create a Barbie that is more normal rather than an aspirational one who is a Nobel Prize winner, president or astronaut. It’s great that women are achieving in these fields, but it puts a lot of added pressure on girls and it is, again, exhausting. Barbieland in the film was full of all the different iterations of Barbie and most of them are your basic high achiever.

More than anything, though, what stood out was the underlying message that men and women need to come closer together, rather than living in silos. Near the end Barbie tells Ken that not every night needs to be girls’ night [which was ironic because the cinema seemed to be packed with people on a girls’ night]. At another point near the end Ken is told that men need to find out who they are. I’m [still] reading the Caitlin Moran book and that’s definitely a theme there too.

Nothing was really new, for instance, all the jokes about the patriarchy, such as the board of Mattel being all men – but it was more thoughtful than I had anticipated. The end where Barbie becomes human spoilt it a bit for me – the cliche of how the fact that we die makes being a human so meaningful. I’m definitely not in that frame of mind at the moment.

All in all, though, it was a better film than I had anticipated. The next day I went into Primark and was surrounded by Barbie-emblazoned clothes. Even Zara had a pink Barbie corner. Mattel is going to do very well out of this, even if it wasn’t the intention – although the inclusion of the woman behind Barbie at the end was an affectionate tribute, especially because she was played by Rhea Perlman, and the start paints Barbie as kind of revolutionary, replacing all the baby dolls and in so doing supplanting one female stereotype with another and reflecting the different ideals women have been held to over the ages. Only time will tell if girls – and hopefully boys – get the central messages of the film, but one thing is for sure: the message to keep buying Barbie stuff is definitely a winner.

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