Since her creation in 1959, Barbie has always been depicted as a feminine, pink, sparkly figure enjoyed by millions of children around the world. A variety of merchandise has been created since the doll’s initial release, including video games, books and, most recently, the highly-anticipated live-action film Barbie.

For many, Barbie has been an advocate for young girls, encouraging them to pursue their dreams. With the new film, ideas of Barbie as a symbol of female empowerment are brought to life, showing her to be both a strikingly feminine, yet feminist, icon.

Pink Empowerment

Barbie is the first live-action film based around the franchise, grossing over $1B in the first two weeks of release. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the film follows the story of one of the many Barbie dolls who live in the idyllic and magical ‘Barbie Land.’ However, when Barbie begins to notice her life becoming less ‘perfect,’ she decides to venture into the real world where she encounters all the challenges and hardships women face on a daily basis. From here, the film addresses serious themes of feminism, motherhood, and beauty standards. Yet despite the presence of these complex issues, the hyper-feminine attitudes and aesthetics remain.

Hyper-femininity refers to the exaggeration of traditionally feminine traits, including gracefulness and naivety. In more recent years, the hyper-feminine aesthetic, which involves bold make-up, bright pink outfits and glittery heels, has been adopted by many to emphasise female empowerment and show that ‘girlish’ behaviour does not render a woman any less intelligent than her male counterpart. Unfortunately, this view is not shared by everyone. Research suggests that women are far less likely to be taken seriously in society if they exhibit traditionally feminine traits. Despite this, hyper-femininity is synonymous with Barbie and this is something that is, rightfully, echoed throughout the film.

Although Barbie is one of the more prominent films to raise this issue, it is not the first. Similar themes are also seen in coming-of-age films such as Legally Blonde, which tells the story of a ‘dumb blonde,’ who struggles to be taken seriously as a law student due to her feminine personality and style. Ultimately, the protagonist, Elle Woods, proves that she can be a competent and smart lawyer while maintaining her true, girly personality.

By presenting a hyper-feminine character with complex and challenging struggles, these films reinforce the idea that a woman can be both feminine and intelligent without having to sacrifice one attribute over the other.

A Fake Feminist?

While the film portrays Barbie as an independent, strong-minded woman, some consider the doll to be notoriously ‘anti-feminist.’ In 1972, activists protested against the doll, claiming it to be a sexist perpetuation of female stereotypes. The film addresses this when Barbie is accused of ‘setting women back’ due to her stereotypical feminine behaviour. Of course, this is a very real criticism of the franchise, with some dolls being accused of setting unrealistic beauty standards and enforcing sexist and superficial behaviour. This is seen in the doll, ‘Teen Talk Barbie’ who came equipped with dubious catchphrases such as: ‘Maths class is tough!’ Following complaints about the example this set for young girls, the doll was later discontinued.

In a recent interview with The View, Greta Gerwig explains that it was important to highlight the negative perceptions of Barbie and address the fact that not everyone considers the doll to be a feminist symbol. But despite these ongoing concerns, there is also a strong argument to support the view that Barbie represents quite the opposite. And this is the core message of the film. Since the first doll’s release in 1959, Barbie has always been an independent, career-driven woman, who encouraged ambition in young girls long before the rest of society okayed it.

At a time when Barbie dolls and their outfits were sold separately, the Miss Astronaut look was launched in 1965. This was thirteen years before NASA accepted their first female astronaut and nine years before women could even own a credit card. In the franchise, this is not the only instance of inspiring dolls being released, with ‘Doctor Barbie’ launched in 1973 and ‘Barbie for President’ in 1991. Live versions of both of these dolls are featured in the film.

What is particularly interesting about such dolls, is that they remain feminine despite inhabiting male-dominated environments. Many ‘Doctor Barbies’ have been released since the initial doll and all are ‘girly.’ A similar theme can be seen in the president dolls, which always contain pinkish elements. Dolls such as these encourage women to take on roles in typically masculine industries without losing their femininity. Again, this promotes the idea that women can be both career-driven and ultra-feminine.

In Barbie, the notion of a hyper-feminine character existing in a serious environment is successfully maintained. Gerwig creates a complex woman who is faced with many challenges and emerges as an inspiring, three-dimensional person. Throughout this journey, her initial femininity is neither a hindrance nor a flaw. Instead, Barbie’s characteristic female ‘softness’ and sensuality help to enhance her identity.

Gerwig’s film encapsulates what Barbie stands for as a toy for young girls wishing to express their femininity while also exploring their ambitions. Whether this has always been the case or not, the film shows that today’s Barbie, and any woman for that matter, can be a feminine, feminist icon.

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