Barbie is setting box office records, and it’s easy to see why. A pink-imbued fantasy land that runs on girl power and nostalgia is a welcome relief from the grind of daily life. And deeper than that, the movie’s messages of female autonomy and the deep contradictions that the patriarchal system imposes on women are connecting with many, many people.
In the movie, actress America Ferrera, playing a human woman who travels to Barbieland, delivers a now-viral monologue that makes key points about the impossible, conflicting pressures women face.
“You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean… You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people,” she says.
Her speech wakes some of the Barbies up to the unfair and nonsensical nature of the patriarchy, which the Kens are attempting to implement in Barbieland. They spread the message to the other Barbies, magically snapping them out of a trance that’s been imposed on them by the Kens.
In Barbie, repeating a few sentences from that same monologue is enough to break the Barbies free from their mental chains.
But, many women and young people already know painfully well how destructive and limiting our sexist society is for people of all genders. Knowing sexism exists is not enough; we need a real strategy to fight oppression and the system of capitalism that creates it.
It’s certainly entertaining to watch the Barbies throw out snappy lines that rhetorically deflate the Kens’ sexist egos. But the tactic of defeating the patriarchy with clever arguments against annoying men draws out the central problem with Barbie: it points to the wrong enemy.
Is the patriarchy when a man forces you to watch The Godfather? Or when he mansplains investing to you?
Or, more accurately, are the most pressing manifestations of sexism problems like endemic violence against women and girls?
Or women losing the right to their own bodies and being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term through abortion bans?
Or the fact that there are women who do want to get pregnant and have children but can’t afford to do so due to wage inequality and sky-high housing costs? Or who have to square a deep desire for children with the prospect of being the automatic “primary parent” and doing the majority of the child rearing themselves because of societal expectations around which parent does most of the household labor?
Barbie ignores the systemic nature of women’s oppression and flattens it down to individual men’s actions. The patriarchy is a system that is deeply entwined with capitalism itself. Yes, individual men perpetuate daily sexism and violence experienced by women and queer people. But who really benefits, and who has the most serious interest in keeping social divisions going? The capitalist ruling class, which uses sexism to keep approximately half the world’s population oppressed along gender lines — while also using other identities to the same means — as a way to divide the working class and keep us from using our collective power to fight for more.
Barbie wraps up with a cheerful ending, with the Barbies and Kens having learned an important lesson about gender equality. But in the real Real World, how can we seriously fight for an end to sexist oppression and true liberation for women?
Barbie definitely gets one thing right: fighting sexism in our society requires collective action.
In the 1970s, a radical wing of the mass movement for women’s liberation called for free abortion on demand, free 24-hour community-controlled childcare, and equal pay for equal work. That movement scared the establishment enough to force a centrist Supreme Court to hand down Roe v. Wade. Now, we need a similar movement to fight for true liberation. This movement must spread into the streets with mass protests and – crucially – into our workplaces, with mass labor actions like strikes to fight for change. As members of the working class, withholding our labor is the best weapon in our arsenal. We need mass, democratic organizations of workers and students to provide the structure for this movement.
A summer blockbuster can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our sexist, inequitable world. But, it’s certainly a positive step that such a popular movie is grappling with these topics. Barbie opens the door to renewed conversations about gender equality and how sexist norms unfairly restrict everyone, regardless of gender.
Yes, the patriarchy sucks. It’s silly on a good day, and dangerous on a bad one. And we know that it’s not enough just to say it. We have to band together and fight for a world without it.