Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD
In Barbie, storied director Greta Gerwig creates a thematically complex yet endlessly amusing cinematic critique. Each new watch reveals a host of carefully considered and well-placed insights into the human condition, nested within an aesthetic feast unlike any other. The dazzling film has seized the public sphere with both hands, grossing a historic 1.28 billion in the global box office.
Barbie has prompted an array of diverse rhetoric surrounding its messaging, with the reactions garnered as revealing as the film itself.
Barbies’ positive reviews have been drowned in a torrent of defensive backlash, earning a widespread label as an angry feminist manifesto that endorses alienation, misandry, and matriarchy. Not only is this perspective a complete misreading of the film, it highlights the pervasive phenomenon of privilege panic.
When actions for equality are made – through Gerwig’s satirical exploration of the patriarchy, for instance – those accustomed to privilege feel it as an attack, as a loss. The film works to reveal that reverse sexism is not necessarily a real phenomenon, as matriarchy is not a true inverse of patriarchy, lacking its hierarchical and abusive structures.
The film begins in the insular pink-hued realm of Barbieland, where the Barbies take centre stage and are free to exist and achieve without the oppressive and hierarchical structures of the patriarchy. In this matriarchal society, the Kens were ignored but not hated, undervalued but not objectified or harassed. Women didn’t exercise power over the men, but merely sought to do their own thing undisturbed. In this space, the women’s lives no longer revolve around men – a shift beginning to occur in our own world – which the Kens, and indeed many male audiences, perceive as an injustice. When Barbie and Ken enter the real world for the first time, Barbie is immediately harassed, regarded by men with an undercurrent of violence. This stands in sharp contrast to the mere apathy that the Kens face in Barbieland.
When Ken returns to Barbieland with his newfound knowledge of patriarchy, he establishes a Kendom in which the Kens steal from the Barbies, brainwash them, and force them into servitude. The Barbies wait hand and foot on the Kens, dressed in objectifying maid costumes. Ken’s grievances with Barbieland being girls-only sleepovers and a lack of reciprocal affection is completely antithetical to the subordination the Barbies experience in Kendom.
Not only does Gerwig construct Barbieland as imperfect – actually denouncing the imbalanced society with the story’s arc working to establish a more balanced equilibrium between the Barbies and Kens at the film’s conclusion – an analysis of the film also reveals the baselessness of claims that it is sexist and man-hating, pushing an agenda of male subservience.
Where feminists (often wrongly conflated with misandry) dream of a world in which they are free of patriarchal structures, misogynists dream of coercing subjugation and dehumanisation. To aliken the two, to suggest they are inverses of one another and equally dangerous, to promote the notion of a gender war, is entirely invalid. Some men, accustomed to a history of privilege, perceive it as an attack and an injustice when strives are made for equality, as this expository film aims to do.
However, women’s empowerment does not and should not come at men’s expense. This notion that it may is an outmoded construct, inextricably linked to a hierarchical mindset for which our need as a society is obsolete.
Barbie is not a form of radical misandrist propaganda, as many paint it to be, but rather a fun, satirical and introspective portrait of womanhood in all its contradictions. Through Barbie, Greta Gerwig has created a work of art that will inspire much-needed thought and discussion for generations to come.