Barbie: "Basically, everything that men do in your world, women do in ours."
Updated: Aug 13
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie shows us what might happen if the Westphalian state system fully co-opted feminist foreign policy: The recipe includes generous doses of White as dominant, add-woman-and-stir, the-diametric-opposite-of-patriarchy, and absolutely no room for intersectionality. Arguably not positioned as feminist, it’s hard to look at a film that talks about the place of women in society as entirely dissociated from feminist ideas – even if it only scratches at the surface and offers, at best, a feminism lite version.
In a linear narration of the plot, Barbie is about how the dolls in Barbieland have a look at how things are in the Real World, and confront the reality that they did not solve feminism, even as Ken learns about patriarchy from a bunch of books in a high school library, takes it back to Barbieland and makes it Kendom. The rest of the arc is about how the Barbies get Barbieland back. In effect, it makes dismantling patriarchy a "zero-sum" game: Replace men with women, and do nothing more.
This portrayal offers a world of universalisms – where Whiteness dominates, the only struggle of all women is the patriarchy, and gender is a binary. In this world, Stereotypical Barbie is the dominant lens. There is only one power structure: Patriarchy. Even as a Black Barbie is President, she is still brainwashed by the patriarchy, but White Stereotypical Barbie is not. A Latina mother and her daughter do the emotional labour of helping Stereotypical Barbie find value within and beyond her “prettiness,” and get talked down for calling her a White Savior. In Barbieland, we see White Barbies, a few Black Barbies, maybe one or the other Brown Barbie at most. BIPOC Barbies cannot and do not exist in this collective imagination with their full identities, where race and ethnicity are only added in, at best, as a garnish. The punch in the gut arrives in a callous comment likening the internalizing of patriarchy by women to the spread of small pox among indigenous communities.
Aside from only two that can fall outside the mould of the perfectly accepted body image - one Barbie with a Disability and one fat Barbie - this is still a petri dish for ableism and body shaming. Barbies across the SOGIESC spectrum are conspicuous by their absence.
"Weird" Barbie has faced much violence, from being defaced to kicked, and left with her legs stretched into a split. She exists on the periphery, an allegory for victim blaming. She is somehow weird for what was done to her, and spends her time fixing every glitch in the Barbies and their land. She exists so Stereotypical Barbie lives. She is also an allegory for what it means to resist the patriarchy. Weird Barbie is the only other one not to be brainwashed alongside Stereotypical Barbie, who promptly considers herself ugly and weird to just be in this "group" with Weird Barbie. As Stereotypical Barbie says, "You're either brainwashed or weird and ugly. There's no in-between," you're left wondering why resisting the patriarchy condemns you to being ugly and weird.
Clearly, someone had a memo to make the Black Barbie President, so the whole cherry-picked inclusion angle is presented cherry side up. The one good piece in this was that Police Barbie was conspicuous by her absence – either Barbieland has no carceral politics, or, the whole women don’t do crime essentialist trope is a running undercurrent. Given that they had a Supreme Court (one that Barbie thinks the Miss Universe poster represents in the real world, no less), no prizes for guessing which possibility might be the likely reason.
Barbieland presents a world that is classless. A whole “land” is seen running, but the labour to keep it running is neither demonstrated nor mentioned, except when “Weird” Barbie asks to be put in charge of sanitation when President Barbie invites her to join the cabinet. We see Barbie as a doctor, lawyer, astronaut, President, Supreme Court judges, construction workers in passing, and of course, as Stereotypical. But who bears the care burden, the labour burden, and the entire load of keeping the wheels turning smoothly? Why aren’t they visible? Why is sanitation consigned to being the domain of weird Barbie? As Rohitha Naraharisetty poignantly asks, “If Barbie’s job is to be perfect, who does her dishes and her laundry and her housekeeping? Can freedom exist without anyone to do the work, and can workers who aren’t presidents and doctors ever be free?”
Even as Barbie focused on the portrayal of militarized masculinities, it also reiterated the long-held but limiting view that women are inherently peaceful, and that a nation in their hands will never do war. We’ve seen enough examples in history that attest to the opposite. The focus on motherhood is a recurring theme: Whether it is in Barbie’s step into the Real World to heal a bond between a mother and daughter, or in Ruth Handler’s affirmations of her role as a mother, or even in the CEO of Mattel asking the Barbies and Kens to call him “Mother.” Motherhood has constantly been a basis for the patriarchy’s engagement with women: Be that in consigning away women’s autonomy and rights over their bodies to men, or in defining the ideal type of woman to be a mother. There is an undeniable subtext that the life of a child has greater value than that of a mother - we see it play out in Ruth Handler saying that mothers stand still so daughters can see how far they’vecome, and we see it in the montage of mothers and daughters in the run up to Barbie making her foray into the Real World as a mother. To see that play out in Barbie at this point in time – what with Roe v. Wade in the United States producing ripple effects beyond – is to also see another avenue for American imperialism through cocacolonization. One imagines what a US Feminist Foreign Policy might look like – definitely a bitter pill to swallow with these dynamics, homonationalism, femonationalism, and necropolitics having already established what may come to bear.
Finally, Mattel’s looming presence as the corporate, capitalist puppet-master in charge affirms that a limiting feminist foreign policy approach might do nothing to dismantle a world driven by corporate greed, if such a policy refuses to interrogate capitalism and the harms it produces. By the end, as Gloria (played by America Ferrerra – the mother from the Real World) suggests an “ordinary Barbie,” Mattel’s CEO is dead set against the idea. It takes him only a few nanoseconds to flip the switch as his associate tells him that the Ordinary Barbie will make money: A sullen reminder that capitalism won’t hesitate to co-opt anything if it means it can further itself and its agendas.
Barbie effectively tells of the possible reality that may ensue from a non-introspective, White-led Feminist Foreign Policy that does not interrogate the systemic violence that has continued to define global politics. Yes, Barbie did not claim to be a film about Feminist Foreign Policy – but in a day and age where we are trying to carve new paths for international relations, where the state is still being seen as a referent object, Barbie offers a glimpse at what might ensue of the capitalist, heteronormative Westphalian state coopted Feminist Foreign Policy. It affirms, what María Paulina Rivera Chávez said of current Feminist Foreign Policies: They “maintain global hierarchies, due to their colonial underpinnings and universalisms.”