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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Barbie, bell hooks, Plato, & the Patriarchy

Updated: May 15

** If you haven’t seen the Barbie movie yet, please note that there will be spoilers in this piece.**

I played with Barbie dolls, but I’ll be honest, I struggled a lot with imagination play. That has a lot to do with my childhood issues, but that’s a set of stories for another day. Regardless, Barbie was a staple in popular culture, and to this day I still use Barbie in an activity I do with my sociology courses as it relates to the sociological imagination.

So, this summer (2023) I took the time to watch the film. The irony was not lost on me that I was sitting in a movie theater positioned in the rural Midwest where large trucks, horses, and beer epitomize masculinity. I was also teaching a gender and labor class, where I made sure to articulate the difference between masculinity and patriarchal masculinity, something that bell hooks highlights in her work.

The conversations on Barbie - that it is man-hating, dismisses men’s abilities to form identities within Barbie Land, and more - highlight deep critical engagement that is necessary to consider, especially as to why Barbie is so poignant right now within our still heavily patriarchal world. If you’ve watched the film, you know that Barbie wakes up one day feeling a deep sense of doom and gloom, questioning her “life,” the world she exists in, and now possesses a deep awareness of her land. Before I dive deeper into the layers of patriarchal analysis within the film, I want to shed light a little on the importance of this transition for (stereotypical) Barbie. At this moment, we see a shift of awareness, questioning what is real for her that she has taken for granted for so long. This reminds me a lot of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave. For so long, Barbie, who can be a metaphor for us within our own current world, has just accepted “reality” for what it is, but instead, as she begins critically reflecting and engaged, thanks to Gloria, America Ferrerra’s character in the film as she draws and designs a heightened aware Barbie, she is now experiencing more than her initial thoughts. And, like that The Allegory of the Cave, the process of awareness and truth-seeking is painful. Some, in our society, especially those most outraged with the film, would rather sit comfortably within their ignorance, seeing the shadows on the wall as their truth, rather than challenge the very systemic issues at hand that have continued for their own oppression, men included. Let me be very clear: I do not disagree that this film was not the epitome of liberation, or do I think it was flawless. It was very flawed in many ways. However, it does provide opportunity to begin to engage in conversations that critically analyze the dynamics that we currently face and how it relates to masculinity in itself.

bell hooks has several quotes that I think speak strongly against patriarchal masculinity that can help us delve further into this conversation, but not for the reasons that many often hear within the context of anti-patriarchal discussions. She wrote:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” - bell hooks

Before somebody reacts strongly to this, I am not dismissing the very real fact that patriarchy inflicts harm against women. Instead, I am saying that hooks highlighted a very real fact within our society that is supported by the Barbie film. In our world, men are expected to be detached from their emotions and feelings and to dehumanize themselves first. If you engage in an act of dehumanization of yourself and each other, it then paves the way for dehumanization and violence against others. For hooks, the intention of this is to note how patriarchy is harmful to men, too, because they are expected to abandon elements of masculinity that allow them to engage with themselves in humanizing approaches. She was not against masculinity itself, no, instead, she focused on how patriarchal masculinity was harmful, and is, to our men, and in turn, then, our women, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and other individuals who are not cis men. In fact, the categorization of men, and gender in general, within patriarchal masculinity produces harmful dynamics and the allowance of further dehumanization.

With that, Barbie ends up going on an adventure to the real world to figure out what exactly is causing her deep existential dread that has now occurred, because, after all, Barbie Land has solved all of the world’s sexism. From there, Ken jumps in the car, hiding, and accompanies Barbie to the world. While they do explore things together, they do things independently too, which results in Ken learning about patriarchy, viewing it as the epitome of life, represented through horses, big trucks, women serving men, and big fluffy coats. Oh, and Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House.

When Ken goes back to Barbie Land and takes over, it seems absolutely ridiculous, and, it is. At the beginning of the film, we see that Ken has been dismissed by Barbie; in fact, we have no idea where he even lives. His entire life is defined by his existence with Barbie, and he makes statements about it at some point in the film where he is nothing without Barbie, nor on his own. This is not inherently man-hating, but instead, a commentary on the fact that patriarchy has minimized men and their identities, something we see still today.

Furthermore, an “equitable world”, solving sexism as Barbie Land proclaims to have done, is difficult to impossible under the rule of patriarchy. This can also be seen within the film, and Barbie Land itself. At Mattel, we see a room filled with men, only, with the CEO claiming to love women and wanting equity, and to solve these problems, yet, this is patriarchy in action. It is not merely the representation of men, but the system at hand. Therefore, when a world is being designed for equity, to challenge patriarchy, if done so still under the rules of patriarchy this perceived matriarchy is not that, but just another form of patriarchy that has taken shape, causing women, or Barbies, to find their value and worth in what they do and not in who they are, and their existence alone, but to also dehumanize men and minimize their identities, too. In that case, a world designed for equity is not sustainable under a patriarchal rule, as evidenced by Barbie Land alone.

Now, this does not dismiss men and the accountability needed, nor does it mean that we should allow men to continue because they are simply “victims” of the system, too. In fact, bell hooks writes:

“Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist. Male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. Feminist activists should acknowledge that hurt, and work to change it—it exists. It does not erase or lessen male responsibility for supporting and perpetuating their power under patriarchy to exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.” ― bell hooks, in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

This is not to say that oppression does not take place, nor does it mean that women are not harmed at far higher rates. Instead, what hooks is trying to say is that these systems exist, and harm humans as a whole, and in many ways, it allows for the continual perpetuation of this violence against each other, oneself, and the world at large. The expectations of these roles, defined by those in power, and supported by systems in place, are what continue these acts of exploitation. And this is clearly defined throughout the Barbie film.

When the Kens go on to explain they are “just” a Ken in their song I’m Just a Ken, it is clear that the categorization, hierarchy, and world that has been designed still within a world that values patriarchal masculinity, has induced extreme harm and “psychological stress” on all in Barbie Land.

Of course, Barbie as a pop culture icon and the film itself, are not perfect. There is a lot to be said about her role in fetishizing and commodifying equity, and what’s called commodifying fetishism. Commodifying fetishism is the role of economics and material objects to define our connections, essentially, though much deeper and more complex. You can learn more about that here: Commodity Fetishism. However, I would say that this can touch upon it, in the way that Barbie was created to foster these dreams yet still in an economic structure propelled by patriarchal masculinity. Still, addressing many of the problematic features of Barbie such as their manufacturing, questioning who performs the physical labor and whether that represents equality or not (hint: it does not,) are all pieces that are not addressed in a film that has a 1 hour and 54 minute run time.

Regardless, I think it’s important to discuss the layers of feminism within the film and why is important. Barbie was not merely a criticism of men, but rather, of an entire system and structure that created Barbie Land to have the Kens self-mutilate, as hooks explains, and encourages the perpetuation of that, which in turn allows for the violence against women to continue. Barbie Land itself was never the solution, as it was explaindesigned under patriarchy, and coincidentally, it took the literal humanization of Mattel’s beloved material object to make that message at the end when she goes to the gynecologist for her first gynecological exam.

Nonetheless, many folks should recognize its message as hope for liberation for all, though perhaps that’s why it makes people so uncomfortable - we’d rather continue watching the shadows on the wall than see reality for what it is.

Let me note: Barbie is not the epitome of feminism or liberation as I mentioned earlier. It lacks many dimensions despite its progress, including real intersectionality and anti-racism, among other liberatory notions and needs. My analysis is merely one focused on the elements that are not explored as widely in the current narrative, and as a start point for dialogue.

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