Have you had enough of Barbie – the ultimate sex-ed film? We haven’t: we’ve gone back for repeat viewings and keep marvelling at the lyrics and the lines, relishing that a mainstream movie has brought sex-education themes to the big screen and made such a big impact.
Barbie is full of teachable moments and talking points for starting conversation with kids.
Our premise with Outspoken Sex Ed is that parents talking openly about sex & relationships issues helps with safeguarding, improves mental health and strengthens the parent-child connection.
In talking openly at home, it’s important to take stock of how your own formative sex ed experiences shaped you and how you would like your child to be influenced differently. Barbie, too, plays on looking back – at our feelings about our toys and our kids growing up.
Talking openly with your child is reverse mentoring – so ask your girl or your boy what they thought about the film, how their friends have reacted to it, and why.
BARBIE & SAFEGUARDING
Talk about consent. Is Ken (Ryan Gosling) sometimes a bit coercive with Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) – for instance in hitching a ride with her to the real world? Are they respectful of each other’s boundaries? Do they have a healthy relationship? How does consent come into play when they are catcalled while rollerblading on Venice Beach and Barbie is literally hit on:
“I feel what can only be described as admired but not ogled and there’s no undertone of violence” – Ken
“Mine very much has an undertone of violence” – Barbie
A key component of safeguarding is using correct terms for body parts with your child. Remarkably in Barbie we hear words such as mastectomy and gynaecologist that are rarely matter-of-factly said out loud in our culture…
“I do not have a vagina and he does not have a penis. We have no genitals” – Barbie
“I have all the genitals!” – Ken
BARBIE & MENTAL HEALTH
Talk about representation. Even if the diversity and inclusion in Barbie feels tokenistic, it’s important for kids to see themselves represented onscreen (that “If you can see it, you can be it” principle) and for all kids to see difference – various ethnicities, skin tones, body shapes and ages; a Barbie in a wheelchair; a few coded LGBT+ characters. Being exposed to a variety of people encourages us all to be less judgmental, more respectful, more accepting.
Talk about body image. Point out Barbie’s unrealistic proportions and the compare-and-despair beauty standards she sets for those who play with her. Even if Barbie inspires career aspirations through imaginative play, isn’t she at base still valued for her looks? Discuss!
“Men look at me like I’m an object. Girls hate me” – Barbie
“You can be brainwashed or you can be ugly. There’s nothing in between” – Barbie
“You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented” – teenager Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt)
Considering the downfalls of wearing high heels – such as the pain, physical damage and sexualisation pressures – it feels like a win for young women when Barbie, speaking of her newfound flat feet, broadcasts the message:
“I would never wear heels if my feet were shaped this way”
A talking point: why is Barbie so terrified of having cellulite? And doesn’t that hold a mirror up to our fear and loathing of things that happen naturally to female bodies (think periods too)? Ageing also comes with a warning – Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) says:
“You’re gonna start getting sad and mushy and complicated”
Interestingly the word complicated comes up around 3 times in connection with women.
BARBIE & THE PARENT-CHILD CONNECTION
Talk about relatable mother-daughter moments. Before Sasha comes to admire her mother Gloria (America Ferrera) for her wild driving and show-stopping “It is literally impossible to be a woman” speech, the teenager is combative – she doesn’t want her mother to call her by a childhood nickname; she physically pulls away when her mother reaches over to her. In these 7 words Gerwig neatly encapsulates a familiar mother-daughter conflict:
“You look beautiful” – Gloria
“Don’t look at me!” – Sasha
At first Sasha is outspoken, dressed like a tomboy, fierce – she says: “Hell yeah, White Saviour Barbie!” and calls out Barbie for being a fascist…
“How can I be a fascist? I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce!” – Barbie
Role-model critical thinking for your child, and questioning our culture – in which this movie revels. Sasha delivers scathing criticism:
“You set the feminist movement back 50 years, you destroy girls’ innate sense of self-worth and you’re killing the planet with your rampant consumerism”
“You represent everything that’s wrong with our culture – sexualised capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals…”
Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney) delivers this great line:
“This makes me emotional and I’m expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and emotion at the same time, and it does not diminish my powers. It expands them”
Talk about gender role reversals. It’s friend-zoned Ken who embodies an airhead, a plaything. Barbie sets the record straight:
“Ken is totally superfluous! I didn’t say that”
“Basically everything that men do in your world women do in ours”
Unlike in Barbie Land, where Kens take a back seat to Barbies, in the real world women are second-class citizens:
“I’m a man with no power – does that make me a woman?” – Mattel employee (Connor Swindells)
After a chilling montage of triumphal masculinity when, set against a rousing version of the Apocalypse Now score images of president after president flash by, Ken has an epiphany about power, later exclaiming: “Men rule the world!” But first he asks a man in a suit whether men really are mastering patriarchy…
“We’re actually doing patriarchy very well – we just hide it better now” – corporate man
“Men hate women and women hate women. It’s the one thing we can all agree on” – Sasha
We found this to be one of the more hard-hitting lines, drawing as it does on how women have historically wielded supposed power from the seductiveness of make-up and clothes:
“When you think of sparkles, what do you think of after that? Female agency!” – Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell)
And equally telling is this strategy Gloria advises in deprogramming President Barbie (Issa Rae) from subservience to Kens:
“Any power you have should be masked under a giggle”
The lyrics to the soundtrack are a masterclass too in both female empowerment – Lizzo sings that pink “goes with everything” and: “Power looks so good on you” – and male vulnerability: Ken sings about his “life of blond fragility”…
“What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan?”
“Am I not hot when I’m in my feelings?”
“I’m a liberal man – I know crying is not weak”
Surprisingly for a film entitled Barbie, it’s Ken’s story that comes across as more compelling. “Kenergy” made it into headlines and “Kenough” onto hoodies. Just as Ken navigates an identity crisis, the song I’m Just Ken has its own story arc: it starts out as longing and plaintive then revs into gear and ends emphatic and anthemic. Barbie coaches Ken:
“You’re not your girlfriend. You’re not your house. You’re not your mink. You’re not even beach. Maybe all the things you thought made you you aren’t really you”
Striving for Barbie’s attention, Ken is endearing, childlike in the way he pulls faces, shows jealousy, struts his stuff, throws a tantrum, flexes his muscles. Even the way he translates patriarchy to Barbie Land is caricatured: he converts Barbie’s Dreamhouse into a Mojo Dojo Casa House; Kens play guitar “at” Barbies; images of horses are on TV screens, on Mount Rushmore, on Ken’s necklace (later he admits: “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses I lost interest”).
For us as viewers it’s a breath of fresh air to see men play at being sexy and trying to capture the female gaze, and maybe also the male gaze, the way we have all been acculturated into watching women (as John Berger famously said: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”).
Equality is better for everyone. With feminism, in empowering girls and women we have to think about the flip side: how can we get boys and men to break out of the man box of stoicism and dominance, express their caring side, open up?
Talk about female focus: two of Barbie’s driving forces – director, co-writer and executive producer Greta Gerwig, and its star and producer Margot Robbie – are women who put women’s issues and perspectives centre stage. Talk about impact: Barbie made $1 billion in 17 days. Much as a bit of sugar helps medicine go down – “It‘s candy with a little poison,” reckoned Hari Nef (who plays Doctor Barbie) – Barbie gets basic feminist concepts across to young people and to a worldwide demographic. This film is so potent it’s been banned in Vietnam, Oman, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for, variously, “promoting homosexuality and other Western deviances”, “[contradicting] values of faith and morality”, reducing the importance of the family unit and promulgating ideas “alien to … public order”. This ban has even been said to possibly “impact the perception of freedom of expression and creativity in the region”.
“Come with us, Miss Barbie” – Mattel employee
“It’s just Barbie” – Barbie
Talk about the paradoxes of Barbie dolls and the tightropes of expectations women often walk in our culture. After deprogramming Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Stereotypical Barbie says:
“By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you robbed it of its power!”
“I’ve never known Barbie without knowing the arguments against Barbie” – director Greta Gerwig
We can hold conflicting thoughts about these controversial iconic dolls; about how much we take on cultural conditioning to look or act feminine or masculine; about the double standards and contradictory, high-bar expectations that are set for girls and women.
“I want to be a part of the people who make meaning…
I want to do the imagining” – Barbie
“You have to try. Even if you can’t make it perfect, you can make it better” – Sasha to Barbie
“With Barbie I’m doing the thing but subverting the thing” – Gerwig
With Barbie, Gerwig has created a sensation – something playful and significant – and set the world on shocking-pink fire.
RECOMMENDED THINK (PINK) PIECES Left-wing propaganda or anti-feminist? What Barbie is really trying to say (Sydney Morning Herald, 1/8/23) • I’m Obsessed With Barbie’s Ending, And The Way Greta Gerwig Came Up With The Final Scene Makes It Even Better (Cinema Blend, 22/7/23) • What Boys and Men Can Learn from Ken (Ms magazine, 1/8/23) • How to talk about the Barbie movie with your kids (Girls Leadership, 8/7/23) • Greta Gerwig and Girl Culture, Part 1 – blog post by Susan Bordo (BordoLines, 23/7/23) • The duality of Barbie – blog post by a grandmother, Juliette Hughes (Eureka Street, 23/8/23) • Is Barbie a feminist film? – a short blog post (The Feminist Shop,16/8/23) • Five things you’ll need to explain to your kids once you’ve seen the Barbie movie (Embrace Kids, 26/7/23)
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