The live-action Barbie movie had the internet buzzing for a year, ever since the first promotional photo was released back in spring 2022. Directed by the Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig and featuring an ensemble cast led by actress and producer Margot Robbie, the movie was bound to be a success.
That turned out to be an understatement. In its opening week, the movie became a record-breaking success; in the following weeks, it became the highest-grossing film of the year and highest-grossing live-action comedy film of all time, having grossed a total of $1.407 billion worldwide as of September 17, 2023.
In the month leading up to the July 21 premiere, my social media feeds were unapologetically pink and awash with barbies. Maybe it was nostalgia, or maybe the marketing, but the movie became an event well before its release. Like millions of others online, my friends and I couldn’t wait to see it.
Since its introduction in 1959, Barbie became Mattel’s best selling toy in the company’s history, and it’s estimated that the doll brings in over a billion dollars every year. However, in the past decades, there have been many detractors. Feminists have accused Barbie and her signature pink of promoting traditional gender roles.
With her many jobs and independent lifestyle, she’s also been seen as a trailblazer for young girls who could project themselves onto the doll and see themselves as something more. With Barbie, they didn’t have to be just mothers and caretakers as the movie opening also explains, they could have their own house, be president or an astronaut. Having a Ken (Barbie’s long term boyfriend) was optional.
This was my experience with the doll. Growing up, I couldn’t afford to have many Barbie dolls or her dreamhouse, but the ones I had, I cherished. My barbies were ninjas, princesses, space explorers — anything I found cool at the time.
Nevertheless, her critics understandably attack the unrealistic body proportions and unattainable beauty standards of the doll, which have been seen as potentially damaging to young girls’ self image. Similarly, the color pink took a hit from the feminist movement. Wearing pink as a girl came to be seen by some as synonymous with conformity and support for patriarchal gender norms.
Recently, perhaps partly due to the film, the view on both the color and Barbie is shifting. During the movie’s promotion with the “pink carpet” looks around the world, the cast fully embraced the color and theme, with Margot Robbie notably making tributes to iconic Barbie looks. And Barbie herself is going back to her roots and staking a claim as a multifaceted feminine heroine, ready to be part of the new feminist era.
This is a welcome change from a particular brand of popular feminism from around 10 years ago when I was 15. I remember the rise of the #girlboss era, when it was suggested women should just emulate men. Be strong, lean in, bare your teeth. Women were supposed to wear suits and “serious” colors. Feminine-coded clothes or colors, make-up or accessories were discouraged for a certain type of woman trying to make their way in the professional sphere. Taken to the extreme, there was a sense that a #girlboss feminist couldn’t be feminine.
That’s the message I somehow imbibed as a young girl. I rejected anything “girly” thinking it would be a betrayal of women. Even worse, I started to look down on women who liked make-up or dressing up. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in dressing up, I just wanted to be taken seriously.
Barbie Pink was too feminine to be feminist.
It’s interesting though that the social meaning of the color pink developed recently, the result of advertising. Before World War Two, blue was the color associated with girls. The shift happened alongside the post-war effort to get women to leave their war-time positions in the workforce and return to their traditional roles as housewives. The color pink became associated with that movement. Soon, anything pink was girly.
Barbie was never bound by these rules. Barbie rocked every color, and was never limited to one role or profession. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that her creator, Ruth Handler, was a woman who rejected traditional roles in her time and was a feminist herself.
Handler once said that she created the doll so that girls could project themselves onto her. If Barbie could be anything (while still wearing pink), so could they. At the end of the day, pink is just another color.
In the past couple of years, there’s been a rise in awareness among new generations and young women, especially about what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society.
Women are more and more aware that a statement like “women can do anything men can do” is false, but not because of women, but rather because of the social conditions they find themselves in. Femininity isn’t holding women back. Pink isn’t the problem, patriarchy is. The younger generation knows this, and is creating a new idea of what feminists look like which allows for femininity to be something women (or men) can fully embrace, if they want.
Now, coming back all pretty in pink, Greta and Margo take her looks, and fashion, and deliver a heartfelt comedy with a feminist take that is not afraid to be pink.
When I went to the film I was sitting outside the movie theater waiting for my friends when I noticed a couple of people dressed in pink. And then I noticed more and more.
When my friends got there, in different shades of pink, we looked like the various Barbie dolls you could take off the rack. Two of my guy friends came dressed in suits, making references to the movie slogan “She’s everything, he is just Ken.” While waiting in line, and after we got in, there were young girls, couples and people of different ages and genders, wearing pink.
I wasn’t the little girl playing with Barbies in her room anymore, but I still got butterflies right before watching the movie. Here I was, with my best friends, about to watch our favorite actors bring to life our childhood dolls.
The theater that night was filled with all kinds of emotions. My friends and I laughed so hard we cried. Around me, I heard men from the audience complaining. Children teared up at the end.
When the lights turned back on, many were still laughing as they walked out, and strangers greeted each other with a “Hi Barbie” or “Hi Ken.”
I believe we all left the theater that night with a full heart, feeling a little happier, a little sad and a lot more unapologetically pink.
Feature image: K2.0 via MidJourney.