Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Barbie and the Triumph of the Feminine

Greta Gerwig set out to film a feminist screed; instead she gave women permission to be themselves.

(Adryan Samuel Hutagalung/Shutterstock)

It’s only August, but I’m going to make the call. Critics will eventually declare Barbie to be the film of 2023 and 2023 will be remembered as the year of Barbie. Not because the movie is a great artistic achievement, or that the message will change the course of history—in fact, the message merely regurgitates the received feminist wisdom—but because it delivered something for which women, especially American women, secretly yearn.  

While it’s entirely possible to read anything into the film from the fall of man to Indo-European invasion of Europe, Barbie is an ideologically driven muddle. Its continuing extraordinary success at the box office not around the globe cannot be explained by the film’s quality. Nor can it be attributed solely to the fact that most women played with Barbies in childhood. (The reason there is more media dedicated to boy’s childhood obsessions is that women are much less prone to nostalgia.) It’s simple really—the Barbie film, for which the audiences dress up in pink, has become an instant cult phenomenon.  


A movie doesn’t need to be excellent to be a cult sensation; in fact it’s better if it’s not. Rocky Horror Picture Show is at best second-rate cinema, but teens have been reenacting it weekend after weekend for decades. It actually helps that no amateur performer was ever distracted by great filmmaking. Likewise, Barbie is mainly interesting for anthropological and historical reasons.  

The same women who shopped for glitzy outfits to see the film at the theaters today will then throw candy-colored Barbie parties once the movie drops to streaming platforms. I predict competing photos of Pink Cadillac Margaritas placed on top of napkins with the likenesses of Ryan Gosling posted to Instagram. 

This has little to do with the girlboss message meticulously crafted by the director Greta Gerwig. No doubt some women respond to the misandry because they were wronged. Having heard some agitprop about oppressive patriarchy all their lives, many girls feel a rush of confidence when they see their ideology reinforced in a major motion picture. None of that explains the evidently irresistible urge to don fuchsia garments.

Our moment in history does. Covid lockdowns imposed in early 2020 changed the look and feel of American cities and suburbs. Many of them, especially in deep blue areas such as New York and San Francisco, have not recovered. 

Once shelter-in-place mandates confined ordinary Americans to homes, homeless encampments became the sole remnant of street life. Next, Black Lives Matter took over the streets and ensured the reduction of police forces across the country. The already eroding rule of law was swept further back by the subsequent crime wave. With menacing mentally ill people flocking to downtowns and the rise in violent crime, urban centers became virtual no-go areas for many residents, especially women, children and the elderly. 


For instance, San Francisco’s Market Street, once an exciting shopping and sightseeing destination, was overrun with drugs and crime. The streets on which tourists snapped pictures are now seeing a cascade of store closures. Cafes and restaurants across the city closed because frightened customers were terrified of the bug. The trendy venues, the kind that were patronized by women who enjoyed the atmosphere, couldn’t stay afloat selling food to go.  

Continuing with the pre-closures trends, social life migrated to the media channels. This kind of evisceration of normal everyday interaction weighs heavily on women because we are more socially attuned. 

Of course, much of it is self-inflicted—we were the notorious Karens chiding strangers for standing too close to other human beinsg. Here, in the San Francisco Bay area, quite a few people, most of them women by my observation, still wear masks in public. We can assign blame any way we want, but that doesn’t change the fact that people have unfulfilled emotional needs and that these needs will be somehow expressed in our culture. 

The key feature of the Covid-scare socio-political regime was the recruitment of white women to informally police their communities for compliance with the social justice agenda. Social media influencer Saira Rao started a booming business traveling around the country, charging thousands of dollars a plate for dinner parties during which she berated wealthy mothers for their “white privilege.”  

On top of political projects, wokeness ushered in erosion of beauty standards. Of that, mainstreaming of obesity and inclusion of men in marketing of female brands were the most noticeable features. Acting on the premise that repeated exposure to various body types and facial features can make every woman equally attractive, jealous minds tried to redistribute beauty. That, too, was in part self-inflicted, a result of female activism and the accession of feminist power in media companies’ boardrooms.

I was always skeptical of the potential success of the feminist beauty project. Adoption of any ideal of beauty requires exclusion of women who don’t live up to it. It’s hurtful and unfair, but not every woman will get to be a “ten,” regardless of how that “ten” is defined. Moreover, our aesthetic preferences are not a result of a conspiracy of mass media conglomerates inexplicably committed to fat-shaming. They reflect trends that have emerged in our society. A thin woman is desirable because she projects self-control, a trait preferable in capitalist modernity.

Changes in marketing practices that swept the country in 2020 failed to affect our psyche, but succeeded in sucking joy out of our lives. Sleepers and shapeless gowns took over retail spaces. Mandatory surgical masks changed shopping from a social activity into a chore. Fashion spreads replaced aspirational beauty with, at best, the ordinary, but frequently the grotesque. It was a dreary time in the history of American women. 

While women may lobby for one thing, we vote with our wallets for something else, in the case of the Gerwig’s film, an excuse to get dolled up for a public event held in movie theaters across the nation. There is a feeling of comradely in participation—after years of isolation, misery and shame, when our social lives are still not fully back to normal and perhaps will never be, there is finally an option of doing something fun. It’s liberating. 

Nobody should feel embarrassed about it. Human beings are wired to be social. What women want are clean, safe cities and the end of the pandemic mentality. There are no face masks in Barbie, no homeless encampments or crime. Instead, there is a sea of pink, lively street life, and the heteronormative female lead.  

There is plenty of ideology in the movie, but the unambiguous feminist message gives viewers permission to indulge in pleasure. It is, after all, 2023; one needs a secular absolution for feeling human. In the end, Barbie is a long-awaited excuse to experience joy. It represents not a triumph of radical feminism to which it pays lip service, but subversive affirmation of femininity.