Philosophy through Greta Gerwig’s Barbie

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Friday night, movie night. Barbie it is.

The cinema lobby celebrated its offering with pink balloons. For the occasion, my wife donned a bright pink jacket, the sartorial equivalent of a billboard proclaiming, “We’re going to watch Barbie!” I found it equally endearing and, admittedly, faintly embarrassing in a funny way.

Waiting in line to get the tickets, I noticed the twenty-something in front of us also wore a pink shirt. And then another one in pink trousers, and another, and a guy in a pink polo shirt. From a queue at the cinema, this was turning into a gathering of some sort. Of mere Barbie fans? Perhaps. But maybe also of Barbie fans who happened to share something more than Barbie fanhood, the pink garments a symbol of something other than a simple display of Barbie semi-cosplay.


Nachos? Check. Coke? Yes. Aaand… Go!

Barbie lives in Barbieworld. It’s a perfect world that, like Barbie, has continually grown and evolved since it came into existence in 1959. That first Barbie was the stereotypical, idealised Western blonde: long, lush, shiny hair on a busty hourglass figure balanced on long legs – way too long – perched on small, arched feet – way too small and way too arched. 300,000 were sold that first year alone. 

By 1960, out of Barbie’s left rib was made V-chested Ken.

In 1968, at the heel end of the civil rights movement, Barbie’s dark-skinned friend, Christie, makes her appearance. By the beginning of the ‘80s, Barbie proves that she can be anything she wants to be: an Olympic skier, a skater, a gymnast, a doctor, a surgical nurse – Hispanic, “Oriental”, black, Italian, French. By 2000, she’s running for President, championing equality, world peace, education, and the environment.

In Barbie’s perfect world, every woman is Barbie, and Barbie is every woman, regardless of skin colour, hair type, body shape, pregnancy, or disability.

If Barbie can be anything, so can you.
Imagination. Life is your creation.

But under this veneer of plastic there are cracks. And we first catch glimpses of it not in Barbie herself, but in Ken. He’s jealous. He seeks her attention, her approval. Despite his lack of genitalia, or perhaps because of it, he craves a form of intimacy with her that even he seems not quite able to figure out. “I thought I might stay over tonight.” “Why?” “‘Cause we’re girlfriend and boyfriend.” “To do what?” “I’m actually not sure.”

A few scenes later, even Barbie starts to “malfunction.” We see her start to unravel when she wakes up one day to find she has flat feet.

But the real party-pooper, vinyl scratching, drop-your-friends’-jaws moment comes in the middle of the dance floor when she blurts out: “Do you guys ever think about dying?”

Your plastic friends may not, but we do, Barbie, we do. We mortals recognise life is not infinite. It ends, all too soon. As Martin Heidegger pointed out, we’re “being-towards-death.” We live with the awareness of our mortality. We should use that awareness to appreciate and value how precious is our existence, in the vast chasm of non-existence stacked against it. It should give us purpose and drive us to live authentically, but really, most of the time, mortality is just terrifying.

And it terrifies Barbie, so she seeks help to reverse it. That help, that wisdom, comes in the form of yet another Barbie alter-ego: Weird Barbie, the outcast Barbie, a doll that’s been played with a little too aggressively. It seems that the source of Barbie’s “malfunction” is a very real sadness in the real girl that plays with her in the real world.

Weird Barbie makes it clear. If you want to be stereotypical-perfect-girl you gotta fix the real girl. She presents Barbie with a choice: sparkly high heels on the one hand versus the arguably ugly, worldy Birkenstock sandals on the other. Stay in Barbieland and forget about it, or go to the imperfect real world. The blue pill versus the red pill. Ignorant happiness, versus the willingness to learn potentially unsettling and life-changing truths.

Part 1: Women are Made, Not Born

Red pill Birkenstock it is. And along tags a stowaway Ken.

The real world is shocking. Almost as soon as they start exploring, wide-eyed, Barbie’s and Ken’s experiences of it start to diverge. Real people gaze at their perfect bodies and neon outfits.

“I feel admired but not ogled at. Definitely no undertones of violence”, blurts Ken.

“I definitely get undertones of violence”, retorts Barbie.

The “male gaze”, as posited by film theorist Laura Mulvey, sees women as objects of male desire, meant to be looked at and drooled on by a male audience. This objectification, Mulvey argued, was a reflection of and a reinforcement of the power dynamics in society. It may not be explicitly violent, may not typically involve physical harm, but it can contribute to the symbolic violence of sexism and misogyny. Viewed this way, it is symbolic violence because, through it, women are symbolically reduced to passive recipients, mere objects of male desire, rather than seen as active, independent, autonomous beings.

In 1949’s The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoire introduced a tremendous eye-opener: women are made, not born. 

It refers to the idea that what society perceives as ‘feminine’ is a construct, a result of socialisation, rather than something that is inherent or biologically determined. De Beauvoir argued that gender roles and behaviours, particularly those associated with being a woman, are learned through societal norms, expectations, and conditioning, rather than being innately tied to one’s sex. In other words, women become ‘women’ because of how society expects them to behave and think, not because of their biological features alone.

In parallel, De Beauvoir’s companion, Jean Paul Sartre, claimed that existence precedes essence. First, we come into existence – or are thrown-in-the-world, as Heidegger put it – and then we make ourselves, through our lived choices. That is some tremendous power, immense freedom. We are able to determine ourselves because we are free to do it. Not only can we do it, but we are constantly doing it through the incessant stream of choices that make our lives. We form ourselves and become authentic by grasping the reins of that freedom. But we can only do this if we realise that this freedom is ours to take.

Authenticity is about recognising who we are, including our desires, thoughts, values, and emotions, and acting in accordance with them. When we’re authentic, we’re not pretending to be someone else, or trying to fit someone else’s idea of what we should be. We are honest with ourselves and others and live in a way that aligns with our unique identities and beliefs. Authenticity encourages us to be genuine.

Anything less, and we’re risking not being true to ourselves.

And women, for centuries, have been subjugated into inauthenticity by a social system that promotes men as holders of authority and ownership over women, children, and property. The “patriarchy” implied male privilege and depended on female subordination. Even today, after more than a century since the introduction of female suffrage and increasing gender emancipation, the “patriarchy” can be seen as a source of oppression and marginalisation of women and non-binary individuals.

Barbieworld flips the script of the real world, and every meaningful person is a woman. The Kens play second fiddle.

Now, of course, not all men are threatening, and not all women are non-threatening.

But as a movie, Barbie does its job of being a work of art, distilling themes and taking them to extremes. It attempts to address greater values by, partly, universalising and stereotyping the deficiencies of the real world. 

In the Barbie real world, Mattel’s boardroom is full of men who go by the maxim that “no one rests before this Barbie’s back in the box.”

In contrast to this male-driven territory, we start to see Barbieworld as something more than a fake, plastic toy world. It becomes a delicate bubble of dreams and ideas, an idealistic, fragile, escapist island where girls and women can feel safe and keep their dreams going.

It becomes an idea that doesn’t really exist, except as an idea. It’s a perfection that, like all other perfections, cannot be found in the real world. We can’t really reach it, and perhaps, if we could reach it, we would still find faults within it we must address. Idealistic notions have a tendency to inhabit a place that is easily missed and even easier to attack. But it gives us something to pursue. 

A more just society, like all idealistic ends, while it may seem like a lofty, perhaps unreachable goal, requires consistent efforts. “Even if you can’t make it perfect, you can make it better.”

Ultimately, Barbie, like Pinocchio, chooses to inhabit the real world. Not as a doll, but as a self-governing, liberated human being. 

“I want to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made. I want to do the imagining. I don’t want to be the idea.”

As humans, we have an existence that is fundamentally different from the way objects exist. Heidegger coined the German term “dasein” — being there, being in the world — to describe this type of existence that is human. We are thrown into the world, but we don’t just exist in the world as objects do; we also have an understanding of our existence and relate to our world in a meaningful way. We are conscious, aware, and engaged with our environment. We are capable of reflecting on our existence, making plans, and understanding the concept of our future and mortality.

Echoing Nietzsche, Barbie embraces the greatness and the flaws that make us human. For Nietzsche, recognising human qualities is the first step towards embracing a more affirmative, life-enhancing perspective. We can let go of unrealistic expectations and illusions, accept our human nature, and live more authentically.

Part 2: Ken’s Search for Meaning

Ken, in all his puerile machismo, drops one of the stronger lines of the movie. “I only exist when I’m in your gaze”, he opens up to Barbie.

“You have to find who you are”, she responds.

The patriarchy not only affects women. It can also stifle men by pressuring them to conform, to be tough, unemotional, and always strong. Among other things, it dictates a template for sexual attitudes, attraction, and expectations, and when those expectations aren’t met, it can nosedive into insecurity, depression, and lack of self-worth. In our own way, we men also haven’t had it easy.

Finding who we are as individuals, not as part of the “men” group, is crucial for fulfilment and a sense of purpose. It’s a theme that’s been explored countless times on screen, in lighter and darker tones, from Billy Elliot, to Zoolander, to Brokeback Mountain, to Sex Education.

It allows us to reflect on our actions, learn from our mistakes, and make changes that lead to personal development. Ultimately, when we understand and accept ourselves, we’re more likely to lead lives that bring us purpose and fulfilment.

As a male man, I feel rather unqualified and under-equipped to speak about the patriarchy. There is so much of what it is to be a woman that I don’t understand, so many of those experiences that define women as they navigate society that we, as men, for better or worse, by and large do not experience. But also, let’s face it, there’s a level of emancipation that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, let alone back a century. The term “patriarchy” may resonate anachronistic, nowadays inhabiting the domain not of emancipators, but of the extreme fringes of radical, men-hating “feminazis”.

But also, facing the patriarchy as a male man raises uncomfortable questions about sexuality, about behaviour, about the “male gaze” that may seem inane enough if you’re on top of the hierarchy, but not so innocuous if you’re on the receiving end.

Can we question what we think we know about the nature of, say, flirting? Is it an innocent dance between two individuals, or could it be masking deeper societal issues? How do we distinguish flirting from sexual harassment? Is it merely about consent, or is there more to it? What role does power dynamics play in this? Could what one person perceives as harmless banter become a torment for someone else?

Take the wolf whistle as an example. How does it fit into our evolving societal norms? Once considered a ‘compliment’ or a ‘bit of fun,’ wolf-whistling is increasingly seen as objectification, an unwelcome intrusion into personal space, and street harassment. A wolf whistle, after all, is not a private compliment shared between two individuals who know each other, but a public act often directed at a stranger. This raises questions about respect, consent, and the power dynamics at play in public spaces.

Moreover, have we given due thought to the impact of sexual harassment? Have we thought about its psychological toll, its ability to shrink personal and professional spaces for women, to engender fear and insecurity? Are we doing enough to create safe, respectful environments where relationships are formed on the foundation of mutual respect and understanding? These are complex questions, demanding deep introspection from each one of us.

Such questions may lead us to reevaluate who we really are, who we’ve been, and where we’re headed. This in itself may stoke fires in our psyche we’d rather let be, from remorse, regrets, and shame, to loss of what we thought was our identity as men, its core trained and reinforced for generations. It may force us through a gruelling and overwhelming process of catharsis which we may not feel ready for.

But if we want society to better itself, it is essential that we recognise that we men stand in a position of cultivated inequality.

Instead of dismissing the term, we should all speak up about the patriarchy. This way, we can challenge and change the harmful norms it upholds. We can listen to women’s experiences and advocate for equality, calling out sexism when we see it. We, as a gender, also stand to gain by helping create a society that is more accepting of all forms of masculinity, where men can live authentically without feeling pressured to fit into a rigid stereotype. In essence, we can contribute to a more just, equal, and understanding society that benefits everyone, regardless of gender.

But is it really that bad for women?

Can we take the term ‘matriarchy’ and use it to represent the softer influence women wield within their families? This is especially common in certain regions, such as southern Europe, where women often manage the household, including the family finances, even when those finances are primarily contributed by the husband. Is that matriarchy?

Perhaps. But it is crucial to distinguish this type of familial influence from the societal and institutionalised power that the term ‘patriarchy’ refers to. Patriarchy permeates through laws, societal norms, and institutional structures that implicitly and explicitly favour men. This power is not limited to the family or household but extends to the broader social, political, and economic landscape.

If we apply the term ‘matriarchy’ in this familial sense, this form of soft power often resides in the ‘gaps’ left by the patriarchal system. These gaps might exist in areas traditionally relegated to women – child-rearing, home management, or managing familial relationships and social events. The analogy of a dog eating scraps from the table comes to mind. The ‘power within the gaps’ women have is dependent on what the patriarchal society deems less important, akin to the scraps that fall from the master’s table.

Part 3: A Genealogy of Rights

It’s worth noting that there are corners of the globe inching towards true gender emancipation, bolstered by laws and policies that advocate for equality. Indeed, in many countries, women now enjoy rights unheard of a century ago – the right to vote, to own property, to access education and healthcare, and to work in professions previously barred to them. Legal protections against discrimination and gender-based violence have also been established in many parts of the world. For instance, Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have policies promoting equal pay, generous parental leave, and high representation of women in politics. But even in these places, a cultural jet lag remains, an undercurrent of old norms and attitudes that must be addressed. While we’ve made significant strides in women’s rights, these advancements don’t always translate into lived equality. The law might decree equality, but it often takes longer for societal attitudes and behaviours to catch up.

Women are still underrepresented in positions of power, be it in politics, business, or academia. By and large, women are also more likely to bear the brunt of unpaid work like childcare and domestic chores, regardless of whether they also work full time. And alarmingly, violence against women remains a global issue. According to WHO, one in three women globally have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, in many places, the law doesn’t even pretend to support gender equality. In certain nations, women’s rights are still heavily curtailed, with restrictions on their mobility, education, and ability to work, such as in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. It’s clear that the struggle for emancipation is not a done deal but a work in progress, a mosaic of advances and setbacks, of laws and cultural practices that constantly shape and reshape the meaning of being a woman in our world today.

As we look at history, it’s easy to assume that progress is linear. We see the abolition of slavery, the suffragettes’ victory, the Civil Rights movement, and LGBTQ+ rights, and it feels like we’re on a one-way track towards a more equal society. Philosophers such as Hegel have proposed theories of history as a linear march towards an ultimate ideal end-state. But this narrative can be deceiving.

Thinkers like Michel Foucault warned against such a streamlined perspective, contending that power structures subtly shift and reshape themselves, without necessarily leading to a greater state of freedom or equality.

The stark reality is that rights aren’t irrevocable prizes that, once won, are ours forever. The arc of history isn’t inherently just, and it doesn’t inevitably bend towards progress. For evidence, we need look no further than recent moves by the “traditional family-first” government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Italy to erase the names of lesbian, non-biological mothers from children’s birth certificates. Or consider the United States, where the Supreme Court, in 2022, overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, ending a right to abortion that had been upheld for decades. Even within the European Union, home to some of the world’s most advanced healthcare systems, we see Malta maintaining a draconian stance on termination of pregnancy.

To talk about abortion rights is to talk about much more than a political tug of war. It’s to talk about the health, autonomy, and rights of women. It’s about balancing a multitude of realities – a woman’s physical and mental health, her financial and social circumstances, and the autonomy of a developing foetus. Yet, when we weigh these factors, we must consider what’s actual versus what’s potential. A woman’s life, her autonomy, her wellbeing – these are actualities. The life of a foetus, while undoubtedly important, remains a potentiality until it can exist independently. The irony of the so-called ‘pro-life’ stance is that it often neglects to consider the quality of life for the woman or the potential child. What kind of life awaits a child brought into a world where they may not be wanted, or where their parent can’t adequately provide for them?

The opposition to abortion can often cast a long shadow, one shaped by patriarchal power structures and religious moral codes. This shadow can even engulf women themselves, leading them to uphold ideologies that restrict their autonomy. It’s a complex and layered issue, but at its heart is the need to recognise and respect the rights of women to have control over their bodies. The struggle against patriarchy is not just about combating blatant discrimination, but also about ensuring that every woman has the right to make decisions about her body and her life. The colour of freedom might not be pink, but it’s probably not a coincidence that the colour of the fight for women’s rights often is.

The term patriarchy remains relevant as it reflects these ongoing issues that still need to be addressed.

Barbie, in all its pink glamour, celebrates emancipation, calling us to carry a bit of pink as a signifier of the joy of unapologetic authenticity, the strength in challenging entrenched norms, and the value of being human, all too human. Whether it adorns our attire or imbues our ethos, it becomes a banner of self-expression, a reminder of our shared journey towards self-discovery, equality, and understanding, and an acknowledgement of the freedoms, insights, and potentialities that lie within us all.

Thank you so much for joining me in this thoughtful and insightful discussion. For more enriching conversations on all things philosophy, I invite you to visit my website, There, you can find articles, discussions, and resources that aim to make philosophy accessible and engaging. 

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Together, let’s continue our quest for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Thank you for being part of this philosophical journey!

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