The “Barbie” movie (which this column includes spoilers for) is an incredible phenomenon. It grossed $1.2 billion dollars in sales, making it one of only 29 movies to achieve this milestone, according to the New York Times. It broke the prior record with how fast it achieved this, beating a “Harry Potter” movie by two days. This alone would be remarkable, but it is the first time a movie directed by a woman — Greta Gerwig — has achieved this breakthrough.
It reached this level of triumph by being a blockbuster movie about the harms of patriarchy. It bears repeating: A movie about the awfulness of patriarchy and the oppression of women is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
Despite all that is great about this movie and its milestones, there is something dangerous about the way the movie conveys how patriarchal society occurs. In the movie, one of the Kens goes to the real world with Barbie and becomes intoxicated with male privilege. He goes back to Barbieland and shares it with the other Kens. Somehow, they are able to brainwash all the Barbies into not caring about their careers or anything other than serving the Kens.
This idea is dangerous because patriarchy doesn’t occur through some kind of gentle brainwashing, and it isn’t overcome by a singular powerful speech.
It occurs, and all too often ends, through horrific violence. In modern times, we can see this in Iran through the violent backlash to the Women Freedom Life movement. It is the force behind the anti-abortion movement and the criminalization of pregnancy terminations. South Carolina is the first state with Republican legislators who proposed a bill to impose the death penalty for abortion.
Historically, it has occurred through criminalizing all forms of birth control, denying women the right to vote and even conducting witch trials.
“Barbie” hints at the violence involved in maintaining women’s submissiveness when Barbie gets arrested for reflexively punching someone who assaulted her. It alludes to how unsafe and sexualized she feels in the real world. And yet, even in Barbieland, she has to put up with a man who feels entitled to her affection and interest. Even in Barbieland, when he doesn’t get her attention, his impulse is to try and destroy her world.
The ending is also a failure. Barbie decides to join the real world and is super excited to go to the gynecologist. No one is excited about going to the gynecologist; it has a racist, violent past. A far better ending would have been watching Barbie continuing to fight patriarchy. It’s a campy movie: Why couldn’t Barbie come to the real world and solve patriarchy with the same kind of pep talk campaign?
Read more of the Aug. 23-29, 2023 issue.