Women have gone Barbie mad. At frequent intervals, over the past week, I’ve seen crowds of pink-clad women and Barbie-branded taxis. Scrolling through social media, I come across, time and time again, the Airbnb listing for a real-life Barbie mansion in Malibu, California. The obvious take on all this is that Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film starring Margot Robbie as Barbie, released a week ago, provides nostalgic escapism in a time of bleakness.
And then there’s the cynical take: I am told, largely by men, that Barbie mania is a product of “late-stage capitalism” (is there any other kind?). They’re not entirely wrong: I went to the Barbie-themed Selfridges pop-up and found it chaotic and clothes-strewn. A harried shop assistant guarded the entrance as people (adults, not children) tried to slip in past her. Of course, there are stacks of Barbie dolls and a handbook on dressing Barbie through the ages. But there are also rails of rose-coloured tutus and tweed miniskirts, pink ice creams in a pink freezer, and some fancy-looking magenta packs with tiny snail-shaped dry pasta inside labelled “Barbie lumachine”. As long as it’s pink, it can be marketed under Barbie.
It is odd to think that the whole purpose of Barbie, the first mass-produced doll with adult features, was to allow us to play at being a grown-up: to have a boyfriend, high heels and a fuchsia Corvette. But now we’re adults, we want to be the doll: in Selfridges I see women posing with giant plastic hairbrushes, gazing into the mirror in front of them, like Alice in Wonderland after she drinks the shrinking potion.
I attend a screening at Leicester Square’s Vue cinema where there is a dizzying mash-up with Mean Girls called, um, “On Wednesdays We Wear Pink Presents: It’s Barbie Time”. I talk to the women – some in pink miniskirts, some with pink hijabs – about why Barbie is so important to them. I’m surprised at how desperate they are to express something that has been repressed for years: a pink, glittery sort of femininity. The women’s boyfriends and sons had Spider-Man, Marvel and Star Trek. But women who like romcoms and shopping aren’t always taken seriously: they fit an outdated stereotype we were trying to distance ourselves from. To call a girl a Barbie is to designate her a bimbo.
[See also: Barbie can’t handle the truth]
This is what men don’t seem to get about Barbie fever. On Twitter, women roll their eyes at the suggestion that men are distressed by the film’s feminist messaging. But I don’t think this vocal group represents many of my friends. Most men I know consider themselves progressive, “allies of women” and so on, and have completely the opposite reading: they think Barbie is almost anti-feminist – that women have been tricked by a clever marketing campaign, preyed upon at a time when the world is in turmoil. Dolls are such a babyish conception of women’s interests, and besides, isn’t Barbie partly to blame for the distorted body ideals women face pressure to conform to?
They have a point – the original Barbie doll had a size-2 waist which, combined with her outsized chest, would make her topple over were she human. Barbie may be part of the reason I believed blonde hair and blue eyes was the feminine ideal for most of my life (the original blonde dolls far outsell all other types, even in Latin America). Even now, when I see the Barbie logo, unfurling in its distinctive loopy font, I skip a breath. The brand reminds me of a time when I unashamedly expressed girlishness: proudly brandishing my Barbie pencil case in Year 2, the cool tomboys in my class laughing at me, and the feeling of preciousness when my older teenage cousin asked to borrow my Barbie nightie to “wear it as a joke”. So it is quite something to feel defensive again about Barbie, 20 years on, because of men.
Why would men understand the pleasure women get from the fantasy of Barbie? It’s full of contradictions, but it’s visceral – for the same reasons my female friends and I indulge in the absurdity of body con-clothed women tottering about mega-mansions in the reality TV show Selling Sunset, even though we’d hate to live in image-conscious LA. In the same way we secretly enjoy the spectacle of Victoria’s Secret shows, though we can list all the ways they’re problematic, by rote. And it’s why we rewatch films like Legally Blonde and Clueless (despite Gerwig’s decent attempt to retell Barbie as a feminist parable, I still think Robbie’s portrayal most recalls the sorority girl Elle Woods and spoiled high-schooler Cher Horowitz in those respective movies).
Progressive men often think that feminism is defined by the idea that women can be just as interested in politics, sports and other stereotypically male endeavours as men. But feminism should also ensure stereotypically “female” interests are taken as seriously as male ones. That would involve emotional significance and aesthetics being afforded weight too – not treated, as Barbie mania has been, as childish or superficial. Men who wrestle or play Fantasy Football aren’t considered Neanderthal, so why should women who like pink or who find comfort in contouring their face each morning be seen as airheads?
The irony of men’s disdain for Barbie is that it’s partly responsible for the extremity of Barbie fandom – the film has given women permission to finally express our girlish side by passing it off as half-ironic (see also: the current mania around Taylor Swift). I don’t want to go back to a world where it’s assumed women only want to talk about make-up and boys. But I also don’t want women to have to give up their fantasies for fear of being viewed as, quite literally, “doll”: all beauty and no brains. It’s not that Barbie is feminist – more that to be anti-Barbie doesn’t make you feminist either.
[See also: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie: The art of selling out]