As a queer feminist sexuality researcher, I didn’t quite know what to expect when going to see the Barbie movie. People often perceive me as femme, but I don’t identify that way. My research delves into gender, beyond identity or physical gender expressions. I strive to unpack the multifaceted aspects of gender, investigating the distinctions between gender identity, physical expression, interactional expression, roles, interests, and more. Growing up as someone who wore skirts and makeup, had crushes on boys (and girls), but also loved proving that my identity as a girl didn’t limit me, I wasn’t sure if I was “femme” enough or “straight” enough for the Barbie movie. Simultaneously, I resisted the narrative of “not being that kind of girl” that underlies femmephobia. So, I put on my skintight jeans, purple platform heels, a pink top, and a pink bow headband, and joined a group of my (straight) mom friends to watch the Barbie movie.
Immediately I was struck by the strong feminist narrative. I bared witness to a trans Barbie character within the first few seconds (and immediately texted my wife who had stayed home with our kids because the Barbie movie “wasn’t for them”, more on that later). I enjoyed the lightheartedness at the start of the story, the fun frivolity of it was pleasant and enjoyable. However, as the storyline progressed, Barbie’s world (possibly paralleling girlhood) lost its perfection and rosy tint. The stereotypical Barbie suddenly wasn’t so pink and perfect anymore. Stereotypical Barbie suddenly reckoned with adult issues like mortality and patriarchy. The film juxtaposed a storyline depicting authentic womanhood experiences with the utopia of girlhood, femininity, and the imaginative playfulness that Barbie sparked in young girls and femmes. The movie highlighted how Barbie was the first-time many young girls and femmes were given permission to pretend with dolls to be powerful, or simply adult women, rather than carers and mothers.
I couldn’t help but resonate with the contradictions portrayed in the film. I, too, had wanted acceptance and to fit in to girlhood, yet never quite fitting: wanting to be ‘one of the girls’ while actively rejecting the feeling or assumption that I would be limited by my women-ness. Throughout my teens and twenties, I actively demonstrated that I could do anything a man could do, pushing against societal expectations.
The film’s message about how far we’ve come, yet how far we still have to go, and the validating monologue about not allowing oneself to be confined by womanhood, while struggling to “do it all,” deeply resonated with me. While waiting in line for a group photo before the film, a mom friend told me to “get in the box; you look the most like Barbie.” I winced at the remark, feeling invalidated in my comparison to Barbie. I responded, “We all look like Barbie; that’s the point.” Why couldn’t I take that as a compliment? I wished the film had explored more deeply what it’s like to “look like” the stereotypical Barbie (blonde, reasonably slim, average height) and yet not feel fully embraced within the realm of femininity, as if not fitting or performing correctly, perhaps these are notes for a sequel?
On my way home, I pondered who the movie was truly intended for. Perhaps it wasn’t just for young girls but for millennial and Gen X women who had been sold a version of womanhood, girl power, and femininity that never fully materialized. Many of us are still haunted by the pressure to “do it all,” to conform to certain standards, and to grapple with the isolation exacerbated by social media instead of experiencing the empowering sense of girl power and community. Motherhood often feels isolating and challenging, particularly in the U.S., where social supports are scarce and hard to access, both in communities and through institutions.
I also thought about my wife, a non-binary queer AFAB parent, and whether this movie would resonate with them or if their perceived masculinity had liberated them from the pressures of “doing it all” associated with womanhood and femininity. I questioned whether the empowered reclamation of pink (which queer femmes had been playing with for years) would endure or be just a passing moment in time, with pink returning to symbolize weakness, frivolity, and a certain type of girl.
Ultimately, I concluded that beyond the storyline, Barbie represented a powerful dismantling of the negative connotations and perceptions associated with femininity. The film depicted pink, girly, and frivolous aspects as sources of strength, alongside the diversity of Barbie characters who embraced it. I wondered about the lasting impact of this movie and whether my straight mom friends had the same experience as I did.