Geopolitics of « Barbie »

New post on Substack, 9.25.2023

New post on Substack, about the geopolitics of Barbie, published on September 25, 2023.

Rather than indulge in the perilous exercise of patenting Barbie as « good » or « bad » feminism, it is worth taking a look at the international reception of this blockbuster. Its influence is immense, and that is the first lesson: everyone is talking about it. It is impossible to pretend it does not exist. Various readings and appropriations have emerged, confirming oppositions and rivalries, or bringing new ones to the fore. Let’s concentrate here on the representation of women, men and their interactions.

First of all, Barbie is unanimously criticized by anti-feminists. Whatever their differences, reactionaries converge to mock the film or demand (and sometimes obtain) its ban. In Western countries, masculinists reject the film for promoting « man-hatred », and refuse to see in it the second degree they demand from feminists about films in which women are interchangeable, heroes’ stooges, or absent. The movie’s enormous success also undoubtedly irritates the international sexist ecosystem. Secondly, values conveyed by American entertainment, which is seeing its dominance increasingly challenged (notably by K pop, and indeed the film does not seem to have been a hit in Korea), are described here and there as decadent. Sexual freedom, a variety of masculinities (interpreted as a « promotion » of male homosexuality) and the place of women in the public sphere are considered indecent.

Barbie also renews geopolitical balances of power through a cultural war. For example, the film, which was withdrawn from cinemas in Algeria and (so far) banned in Kuwait and Lebanon for offending moral standards, was successfully shown in much more conservative countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to the researcher Karim Émile Bitar, « in Lebanon, the members of the ruling political class are looking for ways to distract people’s attention from their incompetence, corruption and carelessness. And they want to remobilize their base. Barbie becomes just another scapegoat. Conversely, in Saudi Arabia, » adds K. É. Bitar, « Mohammed ben Salmane has embarked on a vast process of transformation » and soft power to « restore his image » internationally. Culture, like sport, is a key vector in this process.

Greta Gerwig’s movie can also be appropriated by young people in search of emancipation. This is particularly the case in China, where authorities generally understand feminism as a form of dissent and protest, but have not perceived Barbie as subversive. The craze that the film has aroused is yet another illustration of feminists’ inventiveness in using art and entertainment – which the Chinese state considers harmless – to disseminate messages against sexual violence, mansplaining and gender stereotypes.

On a global scale as well as within each country (including the USA), feminist influences are plural, circulating, confronting and thus enriching each other. As a product of global pop culture, Barbie opens up at the same time a field of creative possibilities. The movie is helping to mainstream feminist codes and references everywhere, generating debate and, ultimately, creating a new collective experience.