Greta Gerwig’s box office hit Barbie has already grossed more than $460 million domestically and over one billion dollars worldwide in just its first 15 days of release.
With an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the majority of viewers seem to have enjoyed the comedy. However, it's fair to say the movie has sparked controversy among audiences, prompting some to make 43-minute-long YouTube videos on how this "woke" blockbuster is "one of the worst movies" they've ever seen, while others were moved to tears.
Whether you liked, loved, or hated it, it's got us all talking about one thing - patriarchy.
We won't summarise the whole plot (if you haven't watched it yet, buy a cinema ticket right this second, or catch up on the story here), but generally speaking, the movie grapples big topics like misogyny, the concept of femininity and beauty, sexism and of course, patriarchy, all through the eyes of Barbie and Ken dolls.
The dolls' sacred Barbieland becomes warped and remoulded when one Ken (Stereotypical Barbie's Ken played by Ryan Gosling) brings home his discovery of the patriarchy after visiting the 'real world'.
Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is undoubtedly the main character; she goes on her own journey of self-discovery, eventually choosing to just "feel" and become human. But Gosling's Ken demonstrates such a well-rounded character arc throughout the film which highlights some key problems in regards to gender, power and misogyny which modern society currently struggles with, and the solutions.
Whilst the p word is lighting fires under film critics, let's discuss three things which the Barbie movie actually teaches us about patriarchy.
1. It serves no one
The word patriarchy is defined as "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it". Men at the top of the ladder, women at the bottom. If we expand this beyond gender binaries, masculinity is favoured and praised, being related to leadership, power, dominance and strength, while femininity is seen as weaker and less desirable.
But contrary to popular understanding, and if we are to think outside of the boundaries of finance and power and consider well-being, self-worth and mental health, the patriarchy does not benefit men.
Men are actively harmed by the capitalist patriarchal systems that allow a small group of men to dominate society while individual men are taught that to dominate in their homes, workplaces and relationships, which can often isolate themselves from their family and inner selves in the process.
In order to fulfil patriarchy's role for them, the masses of men suffer in isolation and competition.
According to a 2021 American Perspectives Survey, 15% of men don’t have a single close friend; 28% of men under the age of 30 report having no close social connections, meaning that they haven’t had a single important personal conversation within the last six months. And this doesn’t just affect cisgender men. Some trans men report new feelings of isolation and increased difficulty with connecting with other men after transitioning.
After a short while in his newly built "Ken-dom", Ken's world quickly turns darker as his fellow Ken's turn against each other, and they battle it out on the beach (Alexa, play "I'm just Ken").
Only when the final conflict is resolved does Ken fully let out his tears and feelings, realising that outside of the faux fur Rocky coat he's adopted, the "Mojo Dojo Casa House", the "Bro-ski beers" and Stereotypical Barbie's attention, he is Ken-ough.
2. It's not about horses
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments in recent cinema history is when Ken admits "To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn't about horses, I lost interest anyways."
As hilarious as this line is, it speaks to a very real issue with men and young boys who are convinced of the patriarchy's benefit to them.
A clear example is the following of Andrew Tate. While overtly sexist and misogynistic to some, the former kickboxer's ethos is vastly seen as inspiring and motivating to his male audiences. He promotes men's self-worth by encouraging activities which demonstrate peak masculinity such as walking around the house holding a sword or fighting a professional boxer with no training to 'prove' one's manliness.
Fans value his quotes as he uses phrases like "A man without a vision for his future always returns to his past" and "You are exactly where you deserve to be. Change who you are and you will change how you live", but defend him when he's quoted saying "rape victims must “bear responsibility” for their attacks" and that women belong in the home, can’t drive, and are a man’s property.
When you think something or someone is on your side, it's difficult to see past any destruction it may cause.
3. It's a system, not 'a fact of life'. Systems can be reimagined
Perhaps the surge of Barbie's 1-star reviews was sparked by a discomfort in seeing 'normality' completely flipped on its head.
The film begins in an upside down patriarchal world. The Barbies rule, living their lives as they please, while the Kens are ignored, mere secondary characters in each Barbie's life. This then becomes the Kens' patriarchy in Act 2 (more similar to the 'real world' as we know it), before a new equilibrium is found in which both Barbies and Kens exist harmoniously, sharing power, accountability and finding self-worth disattached from the other.
The irony shines clear in each review which slates the film's feminist angles and deems it 'man-hating' ("The feminist agenda will kill us all"). Feminism as a whole is seeking to liberate everyone, not flip the scales. As well as promoting equality across all genders, it seeks to free men from the patriarchy's damage.
A society built on, and which continuously re-enforces, patriarchal values will create a facade for those living in it that this is 'just how things are', that it's natural - that it's normal.
But as Barbie expertly and hilariously points out, systems are fragile. They can be warped, deconstructed, and reimagined. They may not work to serve the many. They may solve the short-term but not the long-term.
Just because a system is in place, it doesn't mean it's right, just or effective. Perhaps the cinematic phenomenon Barbie has achieved already could inspire new structure for those who've struggled to think outside the (doll) box before.
At Voicebox, our work not only champions the work of the Barbie movie, but we create a safe space to have uncomfortable but honest conversations with all genders on how masculinity, patriarchy and gender can affect the way we act within school and wider society.
Through our drama and PSHE based work, we bring more sense to this messy world, more clarity, and in turn, more compassion to the young people we work with.