January Monthly Meeting: The Barbie Movie Screening

By Kelsey Nager

On Wednesday, January 24th, the Women’s Leadership Initiative hosted its annual movie screening, this time partnered with SJU’s Women’s Center and Center for Inclusion and Diversity.  Every year we choose a movie highlighting influential women in history, stories of triumph and defeat, and glimpses into the lives of everyday women. This year we watched no other than the iconic Barbie movie which had all of us in laughter and tears this past summer. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie was the obvious choice for this year’s movie, as it depicts first-world struggles for gender equality, details the joys (and frustrations) of mother-daughter relationships, and most ironically, highlights the controversies surrounding Mattel’s Barbie doll for setting unrealistic expectations for women. Although all of these ideas and other elements of the movie deserve to be contemplated and discussed, as a member of the Women’s Leadership Initiative, it felt fitting to discuss the roles of leadership occupied by women in this movie.

           The Barbie movie takes place in two societies: Barbie Land (which briefly becomes Kendom) and the “real world” of California, United States in the 2020s. Arguably the largest difference between the societies is that Barbie Land operates on a matriarchy, and the US reality is ruled by patriarchy (clearly.) The contrasts between these two worlds is highly effective in highlighting the differences and similarities of gender representation in major leadership positions between matriarchies and patriarchies.

           Following the definition of matriarchy, all major institutions of Barbie Land are led by female professionals. The society has laws and institutions set in place by and for women. There is a female president, a presidential cabinet, and a female supreme court. Women dominate other factions of society, including being top scientists, doctors, authors, and pilots. The Barbies are also seen dominating the essential blue-collar professions, like construction workers and trash collectors. This of course is the opposite of reality. When the movie setting transitions into the real world, it is evident that the patriarchy is the dominant social structure. The lead protagonist, “Stereotypical Barbie”,  immediately feels threatened as she enters the world. Her counter-partner Ken, states that he feels valued and seen. Other details that reflect our reality include the cat-calling by a group of male construction workers, a billboard of pageant contestants which Barbie mistakes for the Supreme Court, and the all-male executive board of Mattel, which claims to value diversity. These examples only scrape the surface of the female experience in the modern-day United States, let alone the experiences of minority women such as Black, Hispanic, and Asian women, immigrants, LGBTQ+, and women with disabilities. (To read further about intersectionality-or lack thereof- in the Barbie movie click here: https://zora.medium.com/why-barbie-isnt-the-feminist-film-i-hoped-for-ba07e90325be). Given the exception of authors and the Supreme Court (although there have only been six female Supreme Court justices compared to 110 male), most of the dominating roles of leadership held by Barbies in Barbie Land are held by Kens in the real world. We attribute this to the boundaries patriarchal societies have in place which make women achieving high leadership roles more difficult than men. 

However, as we analyze the differences in representation in leadership positions and occupations, we must recognize that Barbie Land and the real world are not complete inverses of each other. It is important to note that Kens, although seen as a side characters, is not treated the way women are treated in the patriarchal society. Some of the details in the Barbie movie reflect this: Ken never felt threatened in Barbie Land, he was not objectified or catcalled, and the worst possible consequence for Ken in his relationship with Barbie was rejection, as opposed to domestic violence. In the movie, the difference between matriarchy and patriarchy is not only which gender rules over institutions, but also how the underprivileged gender is treated in either case. While we cannot know for sure the consequences of matriarchy in today’s US society, the Barbie movie makes us believe that the average male experience would be far less painful than the average female experience today.

As we continue to enjoy and discuss the Barbie movie, it is important to consider what the movie got right as well as not right about gender in leadership. While our goal may not be to replace every position of power with a woman, we should strive to create a society that allows deserving candidates to occupy those positions- regardless of gender. We feminists must continue to support and uplift women until all children can picture scientists, pilots, or presidents as someone who looks like them. 

I would like to thank all of the Barbies and Kens that made the movie night happen, especially all of those at the Women’s Center, CID, and my fellow WLI leaders. We owe our gratitude to our professor and mentor Barbies who coordinated this event, especially Ms. Natalie Walker Brown, Dr. Becki Scola, and Dr. Laura Crispin.