The New Barbie Movie Could Be a Feminist Masterpiece

For six decades, Mattel’s Barbie doll has been the topic of criticism from feminist theory. Here’s how the new Margot Robbie movie can change views.

By Latecia Joiner

The upcoming American romantic comedy film, Barbie, has become increasingly anticipated among film analysts and long-time fans alike. While the motion picture isn’t set to release until 2023, people have been speculating since 2019 (when the project was first announced) what the end product will look like, and how Barbie’s character will represent or fit into a new era of women’s empowerment.

Set as the first live-action film to be centered around the acclaimed doll, the story is directed and written by Greta Gerwig (one of the few women who have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar), and co-written with Noah Baumbach (her partner, and another fellow Academy Award nominee). Gerwig, who gained attention after acting in numerous mumblecore films (independent films entailing natural and improvised acting), often explores the untold stories of women who have overcome a tremendous amount of obstacles throughout her work, told solely from their first-hand perspectives.

While Gerwig has been vocal about her passion tied to the film, the media and fans have wondered about the debatably controversial movie and whether its selection of characters will go on to reignite traditional stereotypes associated with how women and young girls should look, or if the project will surprisingly exceed expectations.

Let’s take a look at Greta Gerwig’s work, highlighting the astonishing stories of female leaders that she tells, the history behind Barbie, how critics often sexualize the doll, and how the new movie just could be a feminist masterpiece.

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Director Greta Gerwig’s Depiction of Women in Film

Director Greta Gerwig has a history, as a prominent female filmmaker, who has cultivated some of the most insightful films about young women in recent years.

Her film Lady Bird is a 2017 woman’s coming-of-age movie where a 17-year-old girl, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), attempts to navigate the rigorous college application process, her first ever romantic romance, her fraaught relationship with her mother, and her impulsive quest for adventure. The project depicts the highs and lows associated with shifting from high school life into adulthood, from the perspective of a female lead.

The 2019 film Little Women tells the story of the March sisters, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan again), Amy March (Florence Pugh), Meg March (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who reunite after Beth suddenly discovers she has a terrible illness. Adapted from the successful two volume novel (the first written in 1868 and the second in 1869) Little Women, written by acclaimed American novelist Louisa May Alcott, Gerwig places emphasis on the four young women as they all are motivated to live their own lives, however they see fit.

While Little Women received six nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and winning for Best Costume Design), and achieved mainstream success, though many film critics argued that Gerwig’s take on Alcott’s original story lacks the heightened level of radicalization the book had regarding gender. While the film is based around this concept, Alcott’s book exposes the difficulties women typically experience from a much more unfiltered, feminist lens. Critics are wondering if Gerwig will be able to get radical enough to make Barbie stand out as a film.

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Barbie and the Idea of a Girl’s Doll Being Sexualized

During Barbie’s 60-plus year career, researchers and critics alike have argued that her existence has perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards. Mattel’s longest and most successful product has commonly received massive amounts of criticism for its depiction of having a perfect figure, platinum blond hair, and flashy accessories as a lifeless mannequin, prompting the Get Real Barbie Campaign to fight the toy’s misconceptions and release an eye-opening fact sheet.

In some regards, it has been culturally engraved in society to take these perceptions in and set the standard of what women should look like and how they should act from a Barbie doll. The idea that women should look perfect at all times (and the perception that the blond hair, blue-eyed appearance is the beauty standard, while appearing super thin) and not have an oppositional view on anything that could possibly threaten manhood, has become a real issue for decades.

Once Greta Gerwig announced, back in 2019, that she would be giving a “feminist edge” to the new adaptation, an influx of backlash came from the announcement that actress Margot Robbie was slated to play Barbie, generating questions whether the film could challenge long-standing stereotypes with an actress who resembles the quote unquote “perfect” appearance of a Barbie doll.

The 21st century take on Mattel’s Barbie doll could approach the aspect of feminism from a wide array of angles. First, Barbie could have a friend group around her who are diverse in their skin color, shapes, and sizes, to demonstrate that there shouldn’t be one standard of beauty; it’s untrue and unrealistic. Second, a general message of female empowerment and being fearless must be highlighted; the message that young girls can be anything they want, combined with hard work and perseverance, is critical in opposition to simply being beautiful and relying on a man, one’s own Ken doll, to validate one’s existence. Then again, if the Ken doll is Ryan Gosling, things get complicated.

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Nonetheless, the idea of a strong visionary female director taking on a problematic children’s doll is enough to at least be fascinating, whether it’s subversively feminist or unfortunately reductionist.

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