caucasian barbie doll with be yourself tshirt

Barbie Movie Calls Out Gender Bias While Walking Its Own Tightrope

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

This summer, the smash hit movie / cultural phenomenon, “Barbie” has broken box office records, sparked conversation and provoked controversy. Described by writer/director Greta Gerwig as “anarchic and wild and funny and cathartic,” the film has become a sort of Rorschach test for viewers, an inkblot onto which we project our own meaning.

At its best, “Barbie” invites us to do more than dress up in pink and go to the movies. It demands that we consider the paradox of the iconic Barbie doll:

  • Is she an anti-feminist role model, an unrealistic and unrepresentative archetype of feminine beauty that contributes to crippling inadequacy felt by countless girls and women who can never be Barbie?
  • Or is she a figure of empowerment, able to do anything, be anything—a doctor, the president, an astronaut, differently abled, an Olympian?

It turns out that she’s both—just as the movie, itself, defies definition and is in some sense, two movies. Through one lens it’s a frothy meringue of feel-good summer movie escapism. Wear pink! Laugh, cry, happy ending! But blink, and it’s a sharp social commentary confronting the viewer with the utterly impossible expectations put on women. Barbie’s Gloria (America Ferrera) says it all:

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful.”

She concludes: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.” This articulation of the double bind that women find themselves in (also known as the “tightrope bias”) is all too familiar and has provoked its own dual responses. Some have a “ho-hum” reaction that it is just basic “Feminism 101” that we’ve heard before, while others are moved to applause or tears, or both. (I shed a tear.) It may be a hopeful sign that the teenage girls I’ve spoken to about this movie seem to be more in the former camp, perhaps because they grew up in a world that was already Barbie skeptical.

Mid-career and senior women may be reacting with strong emotion because the sentiment rings so true and yet is seldom explicitly validated on the big screen. Women are expected to walk a tightrope every day and are continually subject to judgment about whether they are getting it right. In the workplace, women are 22% more likely to get feedback on their personality, while men get more feedback on their skills. Women’s feedback also tends to be less actionable, and it’s even worse for women of color. Men are coached on how to effectively engage in and leverage office politics, while women are told to “toughen up.” Men are more often told to be more visionary and assertive while women are encouraged to get along. (Cue Will Ferrell’s Mattel CEO telling Barbie: “Get in the box, you Jezebel.”) Recent research also suggests that women receive less candid feedback because their feedback givers are trying to be “nice,” but this lack of direct guidance actually holds women back.

So, maybe the Feminism 101 speech is not a news flash. Yes, we’ve heard it before. But it bears repeating until we don’t need to anymore. And the Barbie movie has managed to deliver both a resonant feminist message and a $1.3 billion box office. This film is walking its own tightrope: goofy yet incisive, poignant and ridiculous, its dark undertones wrapped up in a pink bow.