From plastic to pedagogy: faculty and students analyze the Barbie movie phenomenon at The Womxn’s Union

Corporate propaganda or revolutionary feminism? Dozens of 5C students, faculty, and staff tackle the cultural impact of Barbie. (Ellie Urfig • The Student Life)

On Thursday, Sept. 21, dozens of 5C students, faculty and staff gathered in Pomona College’s Womxn’s Union (WU) for a discussion on the cultural phenomenon “Barbie,” directed by Greta Gerwig. The film has been heralded as a catalyst for conversation about feminism, corporatism, patriarchy and other pertinent issues.

Three Pomona faculty members — Assistant Professor of Media Studies Ryan Engley, Professor of Politics Amanda Hollis-Brusky and Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Esther Hernandez-Medina — led the panel. Before delving into all things Barbieland, attendees enjoyed the WU’s catered lunch and welcoming, conversational environment.

Engley opened the panel by analyzing the film in the context of the evolving  entertainment industry.

“It is rare to get something progressive in Hollywood without there also being something retrograde about it,” Engley said. “I think ‘Barbie’ enters into that kind of history in Hollywood.”

Engley said the film “name-checks patriarchy as a problem.”

“I would invite anyone to think of a major film where patriarchy is named as the thing that is villainous,” he said. I think you’d have a hard time coming up with one and especially one that’s reached as many people.”

Hollis-Brusky grew up playing with Barbies. But with age came the realization that the toy upholds capitalist, patriarchal structures.

“When I had two daughters, I wouldn’t even dress them in pink, because I didn’t want to gender them,” she said. “And they were not allowed to play with Barbies. So it’s been a journey for me to come back to Barbie.”

Hollis-Brusky argued that the movie reclaims Barbie as an empowering feminist figure, without ignoring the doll’s controversies. She highlighted a scene in which Sasha lists problematic elements of the doll, including her perpetuation of unrealistic body standards and sexist rhetoric.

“I love Sasha just going after Margot Robbie’s character, because that is exactly how I felt and I’m so glad they went there,” she said.

Hernandez-Medina authors a column in “Acento,” a prominent newspaper based in the Dominican Republic, her home country. She summarized an article she wrote about Barbie for the publication.

The film reminded her of two concepts she discusses in her classes, she said. The first, hegemony, is “when one of the most powerful groups is able to convince the rest of society that their interests are everybody’s interests.” Hernandez-Medina argued that the movie brilliantly displays patriarchy as hegemony.

The second concept is the “capacity to aspire.” The film, having grossed $1.3 billion in box office sales, has reached vast populations and, as a result, can spur oppressed populations to reimagine societal norms.

“For marginalized groups especially, it’s very important to develop the capacity to aspire because if you can’t imagine change, then you can’t actually build it,” Hernandez-Medina said.

Following the panelists’ opening remarks, student attendees drew upon their lived experiences as context for their criticisms of the “Barbie” movie.

To Diana Truong PO ’24, the film’s feminism was not intersectional. They noted that Barbies of marginalized groups were tokenized and subsequently neglected. This reminded Truong of their experiences as a low-income student at a prestigious institution. They said that they and other students of marginalized groups, were similarly lumped into one cohort and funneled into the same corporate pipelines.

“You can have an Asian Barbie, a disabled Barbie, a Black Barbie and you’re gonna work for Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Lockheed Martin,” Truong said. “It’s just including more people into oppression and allowing more people to hold the position where you oppress others.”

Truong stressed that gender was the primary concern of the film, while, they said, race and class considerations were weakly communicated through the overgeneralized message, “we’re all Barbies and we’re all different.”

One attendee noted that the tangible emotional labor of BIPOC women, the true force behind Barbieland, is erased by the fact of Barbie’s existence.

Another attendee, Federica Domecq Lacroze PO ’26, had similar criticisms.

“I was very disappointed by the lack of depth in the movie,” she said after the panel. “If you’re a woman or minority, you know these things. The repercussions [and reactions to the film] were different from country to country. But … it’s made people talk … so it can’t be something bad.”

The discussion then veered towards the tension between the film’s status as a movie of mass appeal versus its feminist messaging. Many thought that the film’s status as a corporate product undercut its feminist messaging and that the two could not be reconciled.

“The movie has to be perceived as what it is, which is basically an advertisement,” said Frida Navarro-Grau PO ’26. “It’s a movie aiming to sell a doll. But it still is such an artful movie. I think Greta Gerwig is an amazing artist, but there’s only so much she can do.”

Engley emphasized that, when criticizing mass-produced films like “Barbie,” one must take into account its inherent limitations.

“As an object, if there is a lack in it, which there is, I think that’s a reflection of the auspices under which it was made,” Engley said. “I see where the film is lacking … but under this system, I don’t know that [Gerwig] could have done more.”

Navarro-Grau reflected on the compelling, lively and vulnerable discussion at large.

“The Womxn’s Union is a great space to have these discussions, and I hope this is the start of a series of conversations,” she said. “The space is an equalizer where students, staff, and faculty can talk without a hierarchy.”

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