I like to watch a good film and spurred on by our reviewer’s words that “This is perhaps the single most powerful film I have seen that conveyed a true feminist understanding of equality whilst being fun and funny”, I could hardly resist Barbie.

Well, if a fellow writer for CM Culture had that high opinion of a film it was certainly worth checking out. 

However the final product left me feeling less than enthusiastic. As a piece of Hollywood ephemera it was fine for a Friday night. How could it not be with stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Directed by Greta Gerwig, whose credits included the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, and the Oscar-ignored Little Women, both of which starred Ronan Saorse, it struck me as a rather knowing look at sexism whilst at the same time being endorsed by Mattel, the makers of the Barbie doll of which it was supposed to represent some kind of critique.

In fact, it would be impossible to make a film based on Barbie which was not endorsed by Mattel as they own the copyright to the name. We should not forget that Mattel had been approached previously to turn Barbie into a film but had been wary not least because feminists had always been critical of a plastic role model for girls that was unhealthily thin and mostly a vehicle for pandering to a particular vision of femininity in which the role of women was to look pretty, even when wearing astronaut’s clothes.

The film does have a political agenda. But it is not equality as such. As Time Magazine’s Eliana Dokterman points out: “Rae, who plays President Barbie in the new movie, points out that calling someone Barbie “does have a negative connotation,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Oh that person might be a bimbo. That person might be dumb. That person is superficial.’ This movie presents an opportunity not to change that, but add more onto it and clear her name in a pretty cool way.”

So, Mattel executives, who are themselves parodied in the film, saw an opportunity to make Barbie cool. By reflection they too would be cool. And, the bottom line, nothing is going to sell toys like a successful blockbuster. And that has been precisely the effect. CNN reports that “Barbie toy sales in the US increased 25% for the July-August combined months compared to the same two-month period a year ago.” Mattel’s chief executive and chair, Ynon Kreiz, said in a press release: “Our results benefited from the success of the Barbie movie, which became a global cultural phenomenon, and marked a key milestone for Mattel.”

Barbie has, to date, grossed over $1.4 billion making it the most successful female-directed film ever, though still only 14th on the all-time list. Does that matter? Is the definition of equality that successful women should be even more successful? And, of course, that money will still go disproportionately to the same male executives it always has. For the record I have no objection to women earning good money but I’m not convinced that creating a few highly successful women actually represents equality. Perhaps that is my objection to Barbie. It says nothing about the experiences of ordinary women. If this film is challenging stereotypes how exactly is it doing so?

For me the film ‘Calling Jane’ starring Elizabeth Banks was a better feminist movie. It was released in 2022 with far less fanfare, and on a smaller budget but, in my opinion, made the case for women’s rights far more effectively and, in some ways, despite its historical setting was more relevant to what is happening today, particularly in America.

If you want a film that makes you think for my money this was streets ahead than Barbie which set out to be the summer blockbuster. Based in 1968 America prior to Roe vs Wade this told the story of a married woman Joy, played by Banks who epitomises everywoman America, who wants an abortion in a country where they could not be obtained legally.

She comes across a secret organisation, headed by Sigourney Weaver’s Virginia, which helps women obtain safe abortions. It is based on a true story and would be of only historical interest were it not for the recent Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe vs Wade. 

Currently 24 states have bans on abortion. This affects over 25 million women. Call Jane tells a story that has relevance now because, frankly, without the right to legal and safe abortions women, especially poor women, are forced to have and care for children that mean their chances of advancement in the economy are virtually non-existent.

What irritates me about films like Barbie is that they affect to be radical and challenging norms that they end up pandering to. It is all done in a slightly knowing way where I always feel the makers are having a laugh at the expense of an audience they seem to have little real respect for. 

This may sound overly cynical. And I do not doubt the sincerity of those involved. But, ultimately Barbie is saying very little and challenging even less. Call Jane without the hype and through traditional story telling is actually far more radical and challenging. But you may prefer light entertainment to something that genuinely wants to challenge the norm. Or not. That’s the beauty of culture. You can choose to be entertained or to be provoked. Occasionally both.

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