July 24, 2023
The Canberra Times Opinion Editorial

Barbie lands an unresolved feminist rant, but the joke is on us!

There is a fabulous moment in the history of the Canberra Women’s Movement when over a hundred furious feminists barged into the Canberra Times office to stage an angry protest against sexist commentary in the paper’s Editorial. The year was 1975 and the mood explosive.

Legend has it that the Editor was hauled out before the chanting crowd and asked if he knew what ‘feminism’ was. His flaccid reply was that feminism was about “femininity”.

The paper had just published an editorial on the ‘Role of Women’ which, among other absurdities, referenced handbags as central to a woman’s identity.

Perhaps Australian actor Margot Robbie, the person not the doll, agrees.

Last week Your ABC published a gushing photo essay that documented the Barbie super star’s eye popping, glitzy, glam outfits worn throughout “a whole bunch of promotional events (that) have not disappointed Barbie fans”

And there it is. The handbag. Oodles of them. A fluffy one; a heart shaped, rhinestone studded one; ‘political glam’ one; a little clasp one.

Seems Robbie loves a Barbie bag. So what? Little girls, big girls and fashionistas love them too. As much as they love all things feminine, especially the colour pink.

Pink was highly politicised in the 1970’s. For girls coming of age in the 1980’s, post second wave feminism, the colour pink became a political choice and propaganda poison. Not surprisingly some teens grew up with a social allergy to the sickly tint.

But now, if you fall for the brilliant marketing mania around this blockbuster, pink is the new gold: a precious metal for Mattel.

Not only are bimbo fashionistas the new cool, they’ve somehow morphed into a new style of ‘feministas’ – inhabiting a political place where femininity and feminism are once again synonymous. And “every day is the best day ever”, because “Thanks to Barbie all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved”.

While all that might be fabulously funny, which it is – particularly scenes inside Mattel’s all male boardroom where we learn that sparkle leads to “female empowerment” – it’s the intersection of real life and Barbie life that is so baffling about Margot Robbie right now.

In a massive rights deal with Barbie’s owner Mattel, Robbie produced the $150 million film and chose Greta Gerwig to write and direct it. Both claim unequivocally that Barbie is a “feminist film”.

Yet the intersection, or rather collision of feminism and hyper femininity, to the point of embarrassing stupidity, is downright alarming.

If this film is feminist, then feminism has been sucked up the arse end of commercial gluttony.

Barbie is not a feminist film. It’s a mega marketing comedy. It’s funny. At times laugh out loud funny – although not for kids (who perhaps haven’t noticed Barbie’s lack of genitals).

Robbie’s ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ character is so damn funny that when she finally crosses over from Barbie Land to The Real World –  our world – the one ruled by patriarchy and Kens, the first thing she does is make an appointment with a gynaecologist. Presumably to get a vagina, replete with clitoris.

Yes, real Barbie can’t wait to have real sex.

It’s a drop dead hilarious last line, sealed with Robbie’s flashiest Macleans smile. But it’s so slick that no-one in the cinema I attended laughed.

Did they get the joke?

Barbie, the film, plays with hyper femininity and throws a tired litany of pop feminist complaint about The Real World, while revelling in the joy of frocks and a full-scale embrace of female commodification and conformity. Yet, it’s all ok, because in Barbie Land the chicks are in charge, albeit manic and mindless, living in a feminist utopia.

Barbie Land is the dreamtime opposite of The Real World, in which the male gaze shoots into Barbie making her feel “the undercurrent of violence”, while Ken is awakened to his manly powers. We’re meant to laugh at how utterly recognizable and gloriously deplorable the Kens are. And we do. It’s so pathetic it’s funny.

So here we are, laughing at what a rotten, stinking world of gender inequity and misogyny we inhabit.

Barbie the movie taunts and prods with age old whinges from women. But it resolves nothing and goes nowhere. Once pitched as an ‘aspirational’ doll for girls, Barbie has given up, opting instead to bank the rewards of bimbofication. 

Barbie Land is a saccharine place, high on sugar, in which only ‘Weird Barbie’ makes sense. The fact her sanity and wisdom results from torture by malevolent little girls with scissors, crayons and splits, says it all.

So, yes, Barbie the movie is funny. But are we missing the sting in the joke?

If this unresolved rant about how shocking the real world is for women is viewed as a ‘feminist film’, then sadly, the joke is on us.

Virginia Haussegger AM is a Canberra based journalist and Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra

Related Media

May 1, 2024
Future Woman podcast
Hear Virginia on Future Woman with Helen McCabe
March 31, 2024
Our Radicals and Revolutionaries: Women’s Liberation
The chaps from ASIO were hiding across the road from the Canning Street house in Ainslie. None of the eight...
March 9, 2024
Meta may not care about Australian news but it’s the soul of our communities
I once rang a convent of catholic nuns in Melbourne, to ask if the Sister in charge might have a...
February 17, 2024
Joining the ‘first lady’ club: oh Jodie, what have you done?
So Jodie Haydon said ‘yes’, right at a time when women around the globe are increasingly saying ‘no’ to marriage....
August 14, 2023
Radicals, Rebels and Reformers: a clarion call from the Sisterhood
Oh, they were mad! Furious. Those wild ‘women’s libbers’. Noisy as hell and heading for the Canberra Times, driven by...
July 17, 2023
Canberra’s Rose McGready defies Myanmar military in the battle to save new mothers and beat malaria
It must have surprised the Burmese family strolling up Mount Painter, on the outskirts of Cook, when the solo walker...