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The real takeaway from the Barbie movie should be how much we allow corporations to influence media

Updated: Jan 6

I never thought that I, a now thirty year old woman, would find myself talking about, thinking of and paying money to watch a movie about Barbie. A movie, it is worth noting, that is not really targeted toward the child demographic listed on Barbie’s own box. It may not surprise you to know that I, along with every other person on the planet, have an opinion on the Barbie movie. Let me get it out there: in between the amazing sets, hair, makeup and absolutely stunning wardrobe, there were some zingers, some politically-peppered and some which only those of us who grew up with Barbie in her heyday of the 80s to 2000s would catch. But I’m not going to lie, it went on way too long, there were way too many diverging plot points, some scenes were entirely unnecessary. The true nuance of the argument for a more equal society was lost in the gloss and hairspray.

The Barbie movie is now the highest grossing film ever made by a woman, the highest grossing film of 2023 and overall a smash hit. Aside from its stellar budget and big names, one could argue that its real propellant is the divisiveness caused by right-wing pundits a la Fox News and extremists like Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro imploding over the perceived slight against men and masculinity, and using that perception to arm their camps of both men and women for the ongoing gender-identity war.

But nevermind that. Nevermind the flat and undynamic portrayal of masculinity, further feeding into the hate machine that is the men’s rights movement. I can see how they got there to be honest. I can see how those teetering on the edge of inceldom might see the one-sided, undervalued portrayal of men as something that would push them over the edge.

Nevermind that the movie didn’t address issues of true equality in society, so much as pointing out that women don’t have it in the real world and then continuing to use the leverage they did have in Barbieland not to achieve true equality, but instead to relinquish men to lower status on the social chain, something women in the real world have been fighting against for centuries. Nevermind that the movie dumbs down its own arguments for femininity and all its glories into a few punchlines delivered by America Ferrera, whose lacklustre words magically snap the Barbies out of their spell. Nevermind all that.

The real villain of this movie, like all villains in this capitalist dystopia we’re living in, sits behind a desk. When Barbie gets to Mattel HQ, she bursts into a boardroom of head honchos - all men, of course. Though tongue-in-cheek, Barbie-movie-Mattel joins a slew of real-world companies, purportedly for women, whose entire executive board of decision makers are made up of men. But again, nevermind that. At the head of that boardroom table, sits “The CEO” - a nameless white man.

The CEO, played exhaustingly by Will Ferrell tries to calm Barbie down, everything will be okay, he says to a panicked Barbie, “just get in the box”. Corralling her back into her box, both metaphorically and physically, the CEO and board, ostensibly portraying Mattel itself come across as approachable, if not, affable. She escapes and they goofily chase her through the building, the city, through a space-time continuum on their way to Barbieland. They’re relatable, funny, just like you and me. Corporations have feelings too. That’s what corporations want you to think. And this isn’t new.

In 1974, tobacco was arguably its primetime of the 20th century. A big player, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco company expanded the well-known icon of its brand of Camel cigarettes into newer markets, and through the work of two artists, came up with a more up-to-date image for its mascot “Joe” Camel. An anthropomorphic camel, the caricature blended the mannerisms and image of iconic male actors, Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen, both avid smokers and rode the popularity of blue jeans and leather jackets being made famous by Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli on Happy Days. The new, more approachable Joe Camel protected the company from losing market shares at a time when RJR raised prices and cheaper cigarette brands were entering the market. Whereas the older and much more recognizable tobacco icon, the Marlboro Man appealed to the everyday working man or woman. Joe Camel became increasingly more appealing to children, who already saw smoking and drinking commonly in cartoons. In 1991, a study of American children aged six found that 91% of children recognized the Joe Camel logo and its product, alongside the Disney Channel logo. The Barbie logo too, has unparalleled recognition, with its own trademarked font, the distinct Barbie cursive is recognizable all around the world, just like Barbie herself.

Barbie is undoubtably a polarizing figure. In the movie, a character calls Barbie a “fascist”, responsible for the downfall of women everywhere. Barbie doesn’t understand, she is pro-women she says. She loves women! She represents women everywhere and all they can do! Like that character, I too, was a little brown girl playing with Barbies, stroking her long blonde hair and her svelte figure, her blue eyes and her perfect proportions and Barbie made me and millions of other non-white, non-white, brown skinned, brown-eyed girls all over the world feel unrepresented, unseen.

As corporations influence on our media grows we see more and more co opting of struggles, from strikes to pride, to gender inclusion, corporations are trying to become more relatable and as a result, dangerously powerful. In 2010, the Supreme Court of the US voted in favor of Citizens United - a purportedly non-profit organization that aims to “reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security”. The ruling effectively allows lobbyists and corporations, hiding behind a very obvious guise of everyday citizens to exert control over the country’s politics and by extension its education, pop culture, businesses and socio-economic programs. The ruling granted corporations the same voting rights as people, allowing them to have ultimate control of the political, social and cultural landscape of America through unlimited funding.

Materialism in today’s culture is so strong and so epitomized by Barbie herself - the flashy life, car, house, clothes, that we as a people have slipped so far into what I’d call a Corporate Oligarchy. Corporations control healthcare, education, your information, shopping habits, groceries and your means of transportation. By trying to humanize itself, companies like Mattel lulls you into thinking they are simply a bunch of innocents who pose no real threat to you or the way you think, what you buy, or how Barbie herself creates social structures and gender dynamics that society has used to keep women in their own box. In an age of tiktok, where millennials whose foremothers fought for gender equality and respect beyond the vapidity of consumerism and gender aesthetics, corporations like Mattel are worming themselves into our psyche so fluidly, we’re not even aware of what is happening.

So yes, there is a lot to unpack in the Barbie movie - the materialism, gender roles, feminism’s true aim of gender equality and not gender hierarchy being masked by pink boas and fancy clothes. The movie has armed dangerous right wingers and incels all over the world who perceive a seemingly innocent movie as a battlecry against their gender, but instead of fighting each other, we need to fight the real villains of this story: corporations.

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