Could ‘Barbie’ change the way young girls tackle male violence?
Since its release on Friday, ‘Barbie’ has ignited fierce debate around its feminist credentials. Some feel the movie is awash with watered-down ‘plastic’ feminism that stays firmly within the constructs of hyper-capitalism. But if a movie invokes this much backlash from men and prominent figures from the right-wing media, it’s safe to say that its message is one that they feel threatened by, and one they don’t want young women to hear.
This is largely because the Barbie Movie playfully pokes a manicured finger into the ribs of men that take themselves way too seriously, whilst also pointing to some uncomfortable home truths.
As well as lampooning some of the sacred institutions that lots of men hold dear (like the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League), the movie lands Barbie in many of the everyday situations that women experience in The Real World.
“What’s going on? Why are these men looking at me?”. When Barbie and Ken arrive in The Real World, the first thing they both notice is that everyone is looking at them. The difference is that Ken feels ‘admired’, whereas Barbie identifies a violent undertone.
“I feel ill at ease”, she says. Out of the mouths of (hot) babes, eh?
This feeling is one that the majority of the movie’s audience will identify with, or soon come to know. It’s the feeling all girls feel the first time they realise that the way boys and men are looking at them has changed because their body has changed.
Plan UK found that two-thirds of girls – some as young as eight years old - have experienced street harassment from men. As a mum raising my own young daughter, I am constantly walking the tightrope between wanting to warn her about this threat, wanting to protect her from the comments and stares and gestures whilst not dampening her optimism that this world can be a good place or erode her sense of body autonomy and her right to do, be, exist in all public places.
I first noticed it myself when I was 12. Walking into a room, the reaction of the men there changed. It wasn’t necessarily a hostile change, but I was suddenly aware that they were aware of my body.
When my presence seemed to invoke such a change in the way grown men interacted with me, as a child, their reaction felt like my fault. The fault of my body, a body that didn’t feel like it was mine anymore, it was theirs. It wasn’t long before feelings of embarrassment, shame and humiliation followed. And stayed. It took decades for me to realise I wasn’t responsible for this reaction and to finally feel comfortable in my own body, because since I was a child, the very presence of my body seemed to make grown men uncomfortable or animalistic in public.
At the centre of this ‘ill at ease’, when a man stares at a woman in public, we don’t know if that interaction is going to end with a stare, or with us dying. We know the odds are that we probably won’t die, but we don’t know that for certain. Because there’s always a chance. We’re always running the numbers, assessing the risk.
Barbie may have only been in the Real World for a matter of minutes, but she still managed to make the connection between ‘low level’ street harassment and a wider culture of normalised male violence and threat. If only we could make those in charge understand that threat as clearly.
This is not tokenistic, gesture-feminism. It is Greta Gerwig and the film’s creators calling-out the entitlement men in the Real World feel they have to women and girls’ bodies today. The Barbie Movie is putting that message on a 40ft cinema screen in front of a largely tween-girl and young woman audience all over the world.
It’s alerting them to a threat, but it is also showing them what The Patriarchy really is – a system that benefits men that is held together by massive insecurity, fragile ego, toxic masculinity and the threat of violence – a system that is foaming at the mouth because of a movie about a kids’ doll.
By poking fun at male supremacy; its fragile nature, its weakness, its frantic but tenuous grasp on control, we begin to dismantle The Patriarchy. This is vital intel for young women and girls who are finding their way in a male-dominated world. No wonder the toxic masculinity influencers online have their Rick & Morty boxers in a twist.
For a box-office summer blockbuster to take on The Patriarchy, whilst showing representation of a trans inclusive women-led society with a black woman as President and an all-woman Supreme Court, it is as bold as it is daring. The opening weekend ticket sales show us that this message is one that movie-goers are open to hearing too.
Far from shying away from these themes with pre-teens and young girls, we should be embracing the opportunity to introduce important pro-women, pro-body autonomy messages with them. Young girls are likely already aware of the male gaze and how this makes them feel ‘ill at ease’, whilst their young male counterparts are already being bombarded with misogynistic narratives parroted by toxic online influencers.
It would be too far-fetched to think that Barbie is going to change the world, but judging from the frantic opposition from swathes of male influencers online, the girls who go to watch this movie just might.
Charlotte Archibald is a mother, writer, feminist activist, campaigner and Government policy advisor in the violence against women sector.