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Why do we have to talk about this?

I didn’t go to the Barbie movie dressed like a goth, Hawaiian Ken doll on opening night expecting a serious feminist manifesto. I went, with a pink-clad lady on my arm, exercising my moronic American right to just have some undiluted fun.

I expected an aesthetically-driven musical comedy about a doll having an existential crisis. And that’s what the first half an hour gave me. Greta Gerwig’s highly stylized set didn’t miss an inch. My inner child squealed with delight as they rolled out one iconic Barbie accessory after another. I kept turning to my date, whispering, “I had that”: The 1979 and 1990 Barbie Dreamhouse, convertible Corvette, Motor House, Winter Wear with furry boots, Heart Dress, Alan, and even Midge. I literally owned hundreds of Barbies. The games I played with them were complicated, never-ending soap operas, with each doll having its own, distinctive, and unchanging personality. I associate some of my Barbie play with my development as a fiction author. Barbies weren’t baby dolls, as Gerwig notes. They were posable human women, capable of progressing multiple complicated plotlines—for me, anyway. Every girl played with Barbies in her own unique way, with some universal crossovers creating a feeling of camaraderie in the theater. When the narrator said that we didn’t walk our Barbies up and down stairs, and Barbie floated from the balcony, her skirt billowing in some magical breeze, we laughed knowingly. The rules of Barbie Land made sense to anyone who’d spent time there. The hilarious misandry inherent to Barbie Land tracked. My Ken dolls mostly lived on the periphery, beaching or wearing magic earrings peacefully on the edges of society.

It wasn’t until Barbie left Barbie Land that the proverbial needle skipped for me. The movie split into about a dozen different plotlines, and amorphed into the incoherent fever dream of an overwritten hundred million–dollar Mattel commercial. The film also began attempting to deliver a serious, feminist message to the real-world audience.

I didn’t watch the Barbie movie expecting a feminist film. I never imagined the need to critique it as such. But the Barbie movie has proclaimed itself a feminist film, and so must be critiqued in this light.

I left the Barbie movie assuming it would be quickly dismissed as a bananas disaster, until I opened my social media accounts and saw countless people hailing it as a masterpiece of feminist art.

Ironically, when I criticized the Barbie movie for not actually being feminist, backlash came with the opposite assertion; I should’ve never expected it to be feminist in the first place. It was just a silly movie to be watched for fun. 

Well, which is it? Is it a monument of feminist filmmaking, or a silly comedy, whose purpose is only to inspire a bit of fun? It can’t be both.

I say it isn’t either.

The Barbie movie is the pinnacle of capitalist emptiness. And like all capitalist emptiness, in its heart broils a lethal sexist venom.

It’s daunting enough to be the one to stand up and proclaim that the empress isn’t wearing any clothes. It’s even worse when all of your friends are busy publicly complimenting her pink, bedazzled sashes. But here I go anyway. Let’s inspect the so-called feminism the Barbie movie gives us.

Once we get into the real world, the mother and daughter protagonists explain to Barbie, “Men hate women, and women hate women. It’s the one thing we can all agree on.”

That women hate other women as much as, and perhaps even more than men hate women is a sexist myth.

When you write a book about sexism, men begin explaining things to you about sexism. On a visit to my Trumpy home town in 2019, just after my book, 100 Times (A Memoir of Sexism) was published, a conservative man explained to me, “You wanna be a feminist? Okay. Fine. But you need to start with women first. You think men hate women? You should see the way women in my office talk about each other. No one hates women more than other women.”

“Oh really?” I came back. “Are women raping and murdering each other at the same rates as men? I think you and I might qualify hate a little differently.”

As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her epitomal essay, “The Longest War“: “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” A woman is beaten by a man “every nine seconds in this country,” and violence from male partners is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Women are not beating, raping, and killing other women at epidemic rates.

I assume that the hate the Barbie movie refers to, directed by women toward one another, manifests in the form of talk. Demonizing women’s talk is a classic sexist trope with profound consequences that has been examined by countless feminist theorists for decades. The specter of women’s gossip has been used to justify female lobotomization, witch trials and executions, repression of the vote, keeping women out of the workplace, and ultimately, to dismantle solidarity among us.

There’s no indication that men speak ill of one another more or less often than women,* but when women do it, it’s seen, because of sexist double standards, as something more noxious than one person voicing a potentially legitimate complaint about another. We don’t demonize men disliking other men this way. Men kill one another at much higher rates than women kill other women (or men). More than 90 percent of murders are committed by men. Why do we not view men literally killing each other as men hating men, but view women speaking badly of one another as proof that women hate each other? The answer, again, is a glaring, misogynist double standard.

To equate resentments women feel toward other people, if those people happen to be women, with male violence, misogynist hate, and institutionalized sexism, is a deeply sexist comparison. It is not something we can all agree on. “Men hate women, and women hate women” is, in and of itself, a virulently sexist statement.

The Barbie movie repeatedly delivers sexism, whipped with sugar and dyed pink, and calls it feminism, and liberal audiences are eating it up.

In another such moment, Barbie finds herself sitting at a bus stop staring at an elderly woman. Barbie’s having an epiphany. Although this woman’s face is wrinkled, and she’s slouched and her hair is grey and thinning, could it be that she still seems worthy of love? Why yes, miraculously, she does. Barbie realizes this and, with an air of reverence, tells the woman, “You are beautiful.”

Barbie has found a way to view the woman as beautiful even in her old age—and therefore as still valuable—because for women beauty equals value. Once again, Barbie gives us a sexist message posing as a feminist message, which is, I suppose, what Barbie has always done. I shouldn’t be surprised by the inane faux-feminism of Barbie. What I have been surprised by is the fact that so few people are seeing this faux-feminism for what it is. Sexism.

Imagine if it were reversed. Imagine Ken sitting next to a man in his eighties and telling him, “Don’t worry, you’re still handsome.” It would be a patronizing statement, because it doesn’t really matter if older men are seen as handsome, since being attractive does not define men’s worth. And in a film proclaiming itself feminist, I would have hoped that any character could have realized valuing women based on perceptions of beauty is plucked from the same set of misogynist values Barbie started out with. The heroine’s journey led us nowhere. Yet this line was delivered as though it were an anti-sexist revelation. And maybe it is a radical act, in a patriarchal society, to expand definitions of beauty so that more women can fit into the pretty, pink cake we’re all supposed to be priming to jump out of, but this terminal faux-feminism is nothing I want to be party to.

I’m going to fast forward through what felt like hours of nonsensical kowtowing to the film’s producer, Mattel. America Ferrera, as Gloria, delivers a heterosexism 101–type speech that could have just as easily been replaced by the song, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” We are then taken on a long, bumpy journey over a shoddily paved-over plothole. Throughout the film, Mattel serves as a hapless capitalist antagonist, only in the doll business for the money. This abruptly shifts. Even though Ken’s new Kendom products are flying off the shelves, the Mattel CEO, played by Will Farrell, suddenly and incomprehensibly cares about something other than money, which is explained by one hastily delivered line about him really loving little girls, “not in a creepy way.” This propels him to stop trying to box up, and finally to help Barbie get Barbie Land back from Ken.

Back in Barbie Land, we are gifted a pretty genius ribbing of Matchbox Twenty’s “Push (You Around),” which propels us into the “I’m Just Ken” song and dance choreographed by the immensely talented Jennifer White, all of which almost made the film totally worth it.

Then Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler (played by Rhea Perlman) appears, and delivers the most sexist line in the film yet.   

Here is the context: Barbie is walking into the light to become human, so that she may someday receive the gift of death. Ruth Handler is meanderingly attempting to justify the fact that Mattel never altered Barbie’s physique to more closely resemble that of an actual human woman. Ruth tells her, “We mothers stand still, so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.”

My date gasped when this line was delivered. I felt the gut punch with her. She became a mother as a teen.

This line has somehow been celebrated as a profound feminist statement. The Daily Beast claims:

These words exceed even the passionate feminist monologue Gloria gives to her daughter and the other Barbies, and affirms Barbie as a film that is as much about the unique gift of womanhood as it is about the inherent difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society.

Really? Mothers must stand still so daughters can look back and see how far they have come? At what age was my date supposed to begin standing still so her daughter could see how far she’d come? Seventeen, when her daughter was born? Eighteen, when she was beginning to work her way through school? Or maybe in her thirties, when her daughter was a teenager?

According to the faux-feminism of the Barbie movie, mothers are a matronly monolith who are supposed to stand as placeholders for their daughter’s achievements. This is somehow a feminist statement? This same statement applied to men would read as so obviously asinine it boggles the mind. The notion that fathers should somehow be expected to “stand still” so that their sons can flourish is obviously offensive. No one expects a man’s journey to end simply because he’s fathered a child. Women do not stop having formative experiences when they become mothers. The notion that we should is one of the most classically sexist tropes there is. The view that children’s lives are more important than the lives of their mothers just resulted in the repeal of Roe Vs. Wade. This notion has kept women at home, in the kitchen and unable to vote or participate in society for most of modern history. How on earth is this being packaged as anything other than blatant misogyny?

Liberal friends have urged me against judging the Barbie movie too harshly, because it at least has some value for agitating the right-wing. But conservatives come unglued at the thought of a person with a penis pissing in a toilet marked for use by stick figures in skirts, so the fact this film has them frothing at the mouth doesn’t feel like a tremendous feat. They are an exceptionally fragile bunch. 

I’ve also been told that although the feminist messaging of the film wasn’t perfect, the movie was “fun” and that’s all it needed to be. But I don’t think that’s true either.

Sexism is bigotry, and I don’t find bigotry fun. Repackaging sexism and calling it feminism isn’t fun for me. Seeing people I respect lauding this as a feminist masterpiece is actually alienating, especially in a time when human rights are being lost to anti-choice, anti-trans, anti-lesbian movements worldwide. I care about what gets to call itself feminist, and what gets celebrated as such.

The Barbie movie is so insidious because much of it was incredibly enjoyable. It is a true masterpiece of capitalism. It is visually gorgeous. The most highly qualified people in the film industry worked on this movie. It enjoyed a nearly unlimited budget. The music and choreography are deftly executed. Greta Gerwig is a prodigious director. The acting was some of the best I’ve ever seen. It seems strange to say, but Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling completely lost themselves in the roles of Barbie and Ken. At times, I got lost with them. The film tugs on nostalgic heartstrings, maneuvering former Barbie lovers like me easily into giddy remembrances of some of our most formative imaginings. It was a brilliant spectacle.

Yet, ultimately, the Barbie movie is a trojan vehicle. A gorgeous cake decked with all the trimmings of capitalist achievement and pants-suit-nation–style female liberation, lined with candied pearls, topped with a bubblegum pink bow of social importance. But inside, the cake is hollow. And if you were expecting a newly empowered, albeit scantily dressed woman to jump out of it tossing her hands in the air in celebration of some uniquely articulated sisterhood, I think what you’ll actually find once you cut in is a pile of toxic, melted plastic, poisoning everything, a sexist goo unable to stand up to the heat of the most basic scrutiny.


MacDowell fellow Chavisa Woods is the author of four books, including 100 Times (A Memoir of Sexism), which received praise from the NY Times, LA Weekly, Publishers Weekly, The Stranger, Seattle Review of Books, Booklist and was featured on the Young Turks and NPR’S 1A. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, LitHub, Electric Lit, Full Stop, The Brooklyn Rail, The Evergreen Review, New York Quarterly, and other publications. Woods is the recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kathy Acker Award in Writing, and Cobalt ‘s Zora Neale Hurston Prize for Fiction. Actress Emma Roberts (American Horror Story, and Scream Queens) promoted Wood’s short fiction collection, Things To Do When You’re Goth in the Country through her book club, Belletrist. Chavisa Woods recently co-designed an exhibition, and curated multiple readings for the 2022 Whitney Biennial, Quiet As It’s Kept, in honor or her late mentor, Steve Cannon, and his organization, A Gathering of the Tribes. She is currently completing her next novel.

*In fact, there is good reason to believe that any time women talk, they are perceived as speaking more than men. Multiple studies have shown men and women use the same number of words in a day. The perception that women talk more is a result of unconscious bias. When it comes to who is given a permission to speak, well, men speak in public platforms twice as much as women do.

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