If there’s one thing for sure, the summer of 2023 was dominated by the rollout of The Barbie Movie. The film entered the zeitgeist by resonating with a broad array of viewers, as it explored many themes and realities of our society through a campy and digestible lens, aside from the reimagination of the bubbly aesthetic of the iconic toy brand. This film brought a fresh perspective on the progress of feminism and how gender roles have evolved since the inception of the classic Barbie doll.
The well-known doll named Barbie, after the daughter of the creator Ruth Handler, radically redefined how young girls viewed themselves and the world since it hit the shelves in 1959. No longer were young girls told that their role was solely to be a mother to a baby doll, but instead, Barbie, and by proxy all the owners of Barbie, could be anything. Something that doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore as both men and women can train for and excel at all career opportunities. However, despite the progress, there are still many areas where demand for equality is still underway along gender lines. In these areas of deficiency, The Barbie Movie begins to highlight where progression is needed. Culturally in America, as women have entered the workforce in more significant numbers than in the past, overall compensation needs to be improved behind men, as well as additional societal and cultural stressors placed on women outside of the daily expectations of careers. A lot of these expectations revolve around home and parenting responsibilities.
According to the US Census Bureau, women comprise 44% of the workforce but only 41% of managerial roles. Women tend to make 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes, and this cost drastically goes down among women of color. Even though women make up 44% of the workforce, when it comes to responsibilities in the home, they are taking on a majority percentage across the board when it comes to cleaning, cooking, decorating, grocery shopping, childcare, doing the dishes, and laundry. The only household sectors in which men take on a larger responsibility are investing, caring for the cars, and yardwork. You can perceive the gender stereotypes already, and the creators of The Barbie Movie have fun challenging our collective perception of them.
Understanding how gender roles impact us and defining what they are is essential. Gender roles are generalized views or attributes prescribed to an individual based upon their gender identity, mainly along the binary of male and female. Many factors reinforce gender roles, including but not limited to society, media, culture, parenting, peers, and environment. It is important to note that very few of these gender roles have a basis in biological fact and are more contextual to our settings. Gender roles can become harmful when stereotypes begin to form, which may limit men or women from developing their own personal abilities and identities free of constraints. Gender roles and their stereotypes begin to reinforce a gender binary and can cause great strains on mental health when one doesn’t feel that they fit into such black-and-white societal norms and may exist more in a state of gray. This concept of gender intensification, or the grappling of differences between perceived expectations of gender and actual expression of gender, tends to manifest in adolescent years. This concept can significantly impact mental health, most commonly with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. It can become further complicated with adolescents and young adults with sexualities and gender identities outside the binary.
One prominent example that perpetuates toxic gender stereotypes is that women are nurturing or that men are aggressive. As these gender stereotypes begin to be internalized and externalized, they may influence how people view themselves. One may think that a man isn’t fit to be a good father and care for a home or that a woman should tend to the house and solely take care of children. This thought process causes women to take on the burden of social responsibilities of child and homecare in addition to their careers. It leads men to be unable to express their emotions and lean on unhealthy coping skills.
Other harmful gender role stereotypes to be aware of are:
- Women are the ones who cook
- Women are the ones who clean
- Men go out and work
- Men pay the bills
- Men are strong and macho
- Women are dainty and lady-like
There are many ways to offset and challenge these roles and stereotypes, and many start at the parenting level of children at a young age. However, something that can be quite successful for all ages is checking one’s participation in gender biases, especially in areas where we may be complacent. It is something that The Barbie Movie does so well. In the beginning scenes of the movie, they are in a completely pink fantasy world where women are calling all the shots, gravity is defied, and everyone has their perfect dream house fit for never-ending dance and slumber parties. Only in this world can something exist, like women having complete control. They are playfully yet jarringly redirected into reality, quite literally, when Barbie and Ken go to the real world and face a room of Mattel TM executives who are all male. Something so shocking to Ken is that his world is flipped upside down, thinking about how different life could be. It highlights despite progress, there is still work needed to combat gender roles and the adverse effects that it has on our society at large.
Other ways to challenge gender stereotypes:
- A toy is a toy! Let children play with the toys that they naturally gravitate towards
- Assign chores equally within the household
- Try out an activity that may be stereotyped as for the opposing gender
- Speak out when witnessing gender bias
The Impact of the Patriarchy:
Another aspect of the gender divide is that The Barbie Movie plays out through the lens of the male character, Ken. Ken is not much more than a glorified accessory in Barbie Land, and as Barbie continues to command center stage, there is very little room for anyone else, including Ken. It leaves Ken expressing a lack of purpose. When Ken is exposed to a more male-centered society, he quickly embraces the patriarchy. He brings it back to Barbie Land, where the commentary on gender norms enters a dramatized yet pointed display. With the Kens in charge, the Barbies enter a submissive, more “stereotypical” female role, while the Kens take on a stereotypical macho leadership role. However, there is something else that comes out of the patriarchy, aside from the obvious fact that the Barbies have lost all control and autonomy, and this also mimics a scenario that we witness in our real world. The Kens revert to violence and toxic masculinity as the only means of communicating their feelings and needs.
It highlights a unique aspect of gender roles and the patriarchy that is not as glaringly obvious as how the patriarchy impacts women. Although the patriarchy is constructed to benefit men, it often does so to their detriment. By categorizing certain emotional expressions, communication, and knowing when to seek help, men see high levels of mental health concerns and perpetuation of violence to themselves and others. Men are more likely to misuse substances and engage in violent behavior and three times more likely to die by suicide than women. It often is fueled by a lack of ability to reach out for help when in need. It includes reaching out to a friend, loved one, or professional.
Challenging the Gender Roles:
The Barbie Movie concludes with the realization that there needs to be more equality between Barbies and Kens, highlighting the need to continue to challenge gender roles and how they play out within society at large. In either scenario, Barbies in charge or Kens in charge would disrupt the gentle balance of Barbie Land. Further solidifying the impact of this film, as it delivered a criticism of our culture in a fresh and digestible way, can push these conversations even further, especially as it continues to influence the world of mental health. Gender roles, stereotypes, and the patriarchy are continuous challenges as people continue to explore and identify with gender identities outside of the binary.
Bogenberger, R. (2023, September 6). How patriarchy and toxic masculinity hurt men. therapist.com. https://therapist.com/society-and-culture/how-patriarchy-toxic-masculinity-hurt-men/
Brenan, M. (2023, May 31). Women still handle main household tasks in U.S. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/283979/women-handle-main-household-tasks.aspx
Gender stereotyping. OHCHR. (n.d.). https://www.ohchr.org/en/women/gender-stereotyping
Priess, H. A., Lindberg, S. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). Adolescent Gender-Role Identity and Mental Health: Gender Intensification Revisited. Child Development, 80(5), 1531–1544. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25592088
Sachdev, P. (n.d.). Gender roles: What are they? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/what-are-gender-roles-and-stereotypes