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Barbie: A progress marker for feminist film making

Ruby McCallion, St Dominic’s Sixth Form College

 As someone who grew up as both a staunch feminist and a fledgeling cinephile in the early 2010’s, it feels somewhat counterintuitive to see Greta Gerwig’s new Barbie movie branded a ‘feminist masterpiece’ after trailers and promotional posters were recently released. However, after sitting and scrolling through endless ‘She’s everything. He’s just Ken’ memes, leaving no celebrity couple untouched, I can’t help but delight in the fact that changing attitudes towards women in film have redefined what it means to be a ‘strong female character’.

 The ‘strong female characters’ that I most often saw in film growing up were the tomboyish heroines that rose to popularity in the late 1990s, when female creatives began to directly rebel against the standards set by their male predecessors. They challenged the notion that women had to be submissive, sweet and ‘girly’ in order to be deemed ‘desirable’, instead opting to portray independent and tomboyish girls in a more positive light (think Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You). 

 However, in an attempt to defy gender stereotypes, filmmakers inadvertently reinforced the idea that women would always fit into the binary of either a ‘girly-girl’ or a ‘tomboy’, with the only difference being that women who displayed traditionally feminine traits were now the ones being demonised. Every Kat Stratford had her Bianca: a girl who was punished for her stereotypically feminine qualities whilst the lead was rewarded for embodying more masculine traits. As a young girl watching these films, it was hard not to think that in order to be a ‘real feminist’ you had to reject femininity like the women in these films. 

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the promotion for the new Barbie film receiving such high praise online when it features a diverse cast of strong women – including a barbie with a ‘Nobel prize in physics’ – yet is still unapologetically plastered with pink and drenched in glitter. If Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was released just 10 years earlier, I’m fairly certain that it would not be hailed as the ‘feminist epic’ that it is being viewed as today.  

 So, what changed? 

 Well, over the last 10 years, the type of feminism that has dominated mainstream media has seen a significant shift from the total rejection of ‘girly’ traits to something closer to ‘choice feminism’, which embraces feminine women, masculine women, and those in the grey area between the two. 

 This trend can be noticed in filmmaking of recent years, with Greta Gerwig being a noticeable pioneer in the creation of complex female characters that don’t fall into the same restrictive binary as their predecessors. Her 2019 Little Women adaptation is perhaps the best example of both feminine and masculine women being presented as equally powerful. Unlike previous adaptations, in which the most ‘ladylike’ March sister, Amy, is presented as bratty whilst her more masculine sister Jo is strong and smart, the innate power of both women is immediately apparent upon watching the film.  

 The positive reception to Barbie demonstrates how this trend of leaning into ‘choice feminism’ in film making is, ironically, allowing female characters to step outside of the boxes that they have been forced into and exist as strong characters in the grey (or hot pink, if they so choose) area between total femininity and masculinity. 

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