Barbie shows us that political change happens through organizing, not personal relationships
When Ken experiences the perks of patriarchy, he wants to amass power, not give it away. Barbie needs political action in order to change her world—not merely a personal appeal for empathy.
Last weekend, outfitted with pink Crocs and a pink leopard-print jumper, I went to see the mega-blockbuster film Barbie. This movie undoes the conventional understanding of Barbie and showcases her as a feminist icon disrupting patriarchy in Barbieland and also in the real world. Like many in the audience, I was both entertained and moved by the film in all its saturated color. It challenges gender roles and offers hope for social change. Believe it or not, the film champions the idea that social change can happen, but mainly through organized action—not simply through increased compassion on an individual basis.
In Barbieland, women are in charge and men are sidelined. The Barbies who populate the place are doctors, lawyers, and accomplished in many ways. The men, or the ”Kens”, who lack talent or professional prowess, are relegated to the beach. When stereotypical Barbie suffers an existential crisis, triggered by the person playing with her in the real world, she rips a hole between Barbieland and the real world. She needs to travel there in order to restore Barbieland. Ken accompanies her and discovers that men are respected and given power in the real world, which is essentially the opposite of how it works in Barbieland. While Barbie meets with Mattel to try to fix the problem she has caused, Ken rushes back to Barbieland to establish patriarchy, seemingly unaware of the problematic dynamics of the real world. Ken successfully changes the political economy of Barbieland. Ken, on gaining awareness of the world’s injustice, isn’t moved to creating social justice for all, but rather to achieve and secure power.
In response, Barbie doesn’t appeal to Ken for empathy with her own oppression , she organizes the Barbies. The first step is to undo their brainwashing. They don’t realize how subservient they’ve become, and they need to wake up to that reality.
The Barbies trick the Kens, by turning them against each other, and then they vote to change the Constitution. The shrewd intelligence of the Barbies allows them to liberate themselves. There is no chance of empathy transforming their world, relationship by relationship; they need to organize.
Among the many ways that Barbie upends our understanding of the social order, this motif was the most striking to me. So often, we hear that appeals to personal relationships and compassion for the other are all that’s needed for lasting change. We hear that if only the oppressor were in the shoes of the oppressed, or vice-versa, justice would prevail. But personal experience alone isn’t enough. Barbie suggests that there are no individual solutions, only collective solutions.
After Barbieland is politically reorganized, Ken is awakened to the injustice, and can participate in the changing of society, where he can be seen as one among equals. Ken’s liberation doesn’t happen immediately, but rather in a gradual, tongue-in-cheek way that mimics the slow process of women’s liberation in the real world (Kens can be assigned to lower courts, for example, but not to the Barbieland Supreme Court).
The point is not that personal change is meaningless, but that without societal and political change, it may not even occur. Ken’s first instincts involve preserving his power, not becoming more compassionate and egalitarian. His humility and self-awareness develop only after the political change happen. And even then, it is a little shallow, with Ken claiming he never really liked patriarchy once he learned it wasn’t about horses!
It takes changes to the Barbieland Constitution to ensure a re-ordering of society. The film offers a simplified representation of political transformation, of course. As much as Barbie shows us that political organizing is needed for lasting change, the fix is relatively easy in the less-than-two-hour film. I think that is understandable in a movie about a toy. What’s important is that the film goes as far as it does in its commentary on sexual politics. Lasting change takes more than a single action, as Barbie will find out when she decides to move into the real world. But even though political change is more complicated there than in Barbieland, this film, by feminist director Greta Gerwig, demonstrates to a vast and global audience, the utter necessity of collective action against oppressive social forces.