For much of 2023, everyone was fixated on Barbie. Meanwhile, I’ve been fixated on everyone.
From sold-out screenings to scathing manosphere reviews and side character simping, I’m fascinated with everything that isn’t Barbie. In fact, I’d argue observing the reception of the film, in cinema, online and in conversation, is as thrilling as the movie itself. Was Gerwig’s portrayal too muddled, or was it a riotous, candy-coloured feminist fable? Did Barbie sceptics misunderstand the film or did they accurately point out the whiteness of it all? Did Ryan Gosling’s “Kenergy” steal the show or was Michael Cera's Allan the unsung hero?
Nowadays, public perception and that which it critiques, speak from the same megaphone. What I’m hearing loud and clear is that Barbie’s legacy will, by and large, be determined by the public discourse surrounding it. Gerwig herself anticipated this fate. Attune to the power of media in cultivating narratives, she constructed brilliant vignettes of feminist discourse throughout Barbie, to parody the joust between critics and content.
Take the girlboss discourse, for example. The girlboss is someone “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream”. Rampant in the 2010s, girlbosses were running the world, getting off their ass to work, saving lives with a pinprick, and turning vintage viral. Critics of the time condemned the girlboss for her proximity to whiteness, patriarchy and capitalism. Gerwig’s Barbie meets us here, reflecting the above-mentioned media discourse back at us.
In a comically poignant schoolyard scene, Margot Robbie’s character, “stereotypical Barbie”, is eviscerated by Fererra’s daughter, Sasha, for being a “fascist”. Parodying the moment Bratz went to war with Barbie, the scene pulls reality into its vortex. That is, you're either with the girlboss, or you’re against her.
Enter Sasha, the oxymoronic lovechild of the girlboss feminist and her critics. Embodying traits of the dissociative feminist, Sasha guts Barbie’s girlbossery with nihilistic flair and deadpan intellectualism. This exchange imitates feminism’s corporeal media arc, which worked to tear girlbosses down about as quickly as they were pedestalled. Left in its wake were dissociative feminists, like Sasha. Suffering from an internet addiction, proclivity for the dirtbag left, and with antidepressants in hand, the dissociative feminist is siloed in their vocal fry. That of an early 2000s pop icon, their vocal register subverts the Elizabeth Holmes monotone of their girlboss predecessors. According to Glamour, they might be the new sound of power.
The question of who is the right type of feminist, and more broadly, the right type of woman, is a pervasive one in feminism’s media arc. It is elitist to be #girlboss, but it is also elitist to be anti-girlboss. In the same paragraph, we praise “hustle-led ambition,” yet criticise the “valley girl drawl” of other women succeeding in business. Masculine business traits are praised, but only insofar as they don’t divorce from men and/or whiteness. Criticism is not so much the problem, but rather, the fact that polarising, or totalising, opinions of women are centred to maintain whatever arc the media is pushing.
Ferrera’s monologue in Barbie emphasises this expectation (for absolutism) exactly: “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.” Absolute ascriptions are more often than not, gendered. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay points out in an article for The Cut: “For women, navigating the workplace has always been about figuring out which tropes to avoid — we quickly learn not to be the doormat or the shrew, the secretary or the nag — and it seemed as though the death of the girlboss had set another trap. To present as too ambitious could mean running the risk of appearing too tacky, too earnest, or too obvious, or of making yourself vulnerable to public shaming or criticism.”
Ironically, the nuanced character arc I'm looking for can be found in none other than Ken. In fact, a quick internet search revealed a notable absence of scrutiny for Ryan Gosling and his character (because after all, “he’s just Ken”). In the space where criticism usually resides was, instead, a spectrum of experience. Upon meeting Ken, we find out about his lacklustre existence (for Barbie) and his job (“Beach”). Not to worry though, as his character arc swiftly takes off; Ken discovers patriarchy, Ken establishes his own “Kendom”, Ken discovers his hobbies (horses and fur coats), Ken performs multiple music numbers and tries his hand at interior decorating. Crucially, Ken’s crisis of masculinity is honoured.
In a classic case of art imitating life, men fly under the radar in our media too. Their stories hide in plain sight, obfuscated by the totalising characterisation of women. Compare, for example, the media’s portrayal of Megan Markle, Jada Pinkett Smith or Jennifer Aniston, who receive considerably more scrutiny than their male counterparts. Men and masculinity suffer too; Ken’s crisis is painted with broad strokes, and with no barometer, he struggles to feel “Kenough”. Somewhere in the muddied expectations of masculinity is reality, which Barbie, in the final minutes of the film, encourages him to explore. Ken’s fallibility is earnestly, and at times empathetically, observed by his audience. Unlike the women around him, whose existence is in reference to perfect absolutes, Ken exists to simply exist. We can’t exactly say the same for women.
There is a need for duality and nuance in conversations about, and embodiments of, women in the media. Akin to the monologue delivered by Ferrara on the paradoxical expectations ascribed to women, we should equally afford paradoxical exceptions for women. That is, let women be nihilistic and hopeful, have a vocal fry (or not) whilst commanding the spaces they occupy, and let them be as fallible as Ken. Gerwig’s film, and its public reception, is a fantastic starting point when considering the role of fallibility in feminism; it’s hardly straightforward to speak in absolutes when that very idea is being addressed by the content you’re critiquing.
So I hope, through discourse like this, we start affording women the nuanced characterisation they deserve.