/ 9 March 2024

Barbie highlights the difficulties of being a woman in a ‘Kendom’ of men

Barbie Movie 2023

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin … 

“You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean … You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time … You have to answer for men’s bad behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. 

“You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much … always stand out and always be grateful … You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.”

This powerful monologue is delivered by Gloria, a character in the blockbuster Barbie. While the movie painted the world pink, and became the highest-grossing film of 2023, it also provoked controversy and sparked important conversations about gender stereotypes.

By flipping the script and depicting the tanned and buff Ken as Barbie’s accessory, the movie uses exaggerated gender stereotypes to reinforce its pinpoint social commentary about the impossible expectations and double standards attached to being a woman. 

It brings into sharp focus the lived experiences of women and girls whose opportunities and choices have been limited in their workplace, at home and in society, for centuries, due to normalised, persistent inequality.

Gender disparities are commonly felt in the workplace, where there are unequal expectations and tasks. Women take minutes, get coffee and tidy up but men do not. 

Walking this tightrope is a familiar form of bias that women experience daily. Be too assertive and you are labelled a “bitch”, do your job and you are called “bossy”, express your anger and you are “too emotional”, have a baby and your career commitment is questioned. Would men ever be labelled as such?

This subconscious gender bias is so entrenched in our society that men — and many women — accept these gender roles as a normal way of life. Boys wear blue, girls wear pink. Boys are encouraged to be strong, not cry and take risks, while girls are expected to be polite, passive and submissive.

Girls are raised to be seen and not heard, and are groomed to prioritise marriage over other ambitions. We are subconsciously telling these girls that they are not good enough unless they are attached to a man, and so they aspire for marriage above all else. And when they don’t get married, they feel like they have failed.

As a woman you are expected to concentrate on your appearance and dress in feminine ways. You are considered the caregiver, burdened with domestic roles where you cook, clean and take care of your husband and home. You also face questions when juggling responsibilities, an interrogation reserved only for women, as men do not get asked the same thing.

These rigid concepts of gender place women and girls in subordinate positions, making them heavily dependent on their partners, families or communities, particularly when it comes to financial resources and decision-making. 

This dependency disempowers women, making it difficult for them to assert themselves, access resources and opportunities and gain control over their lives and futures, creating lifelong cycles of inequality. These oppressive gender roles are not inherent but are created by societal norms, religious beliefs, cultural practices and mass media.

Patriarchy and violent masculinity are so embedded in our institutions, cultures and traditions that men are seen and accepted as superior. As young boys, they are encouraged to be strong, not show any sign of vulnerability, and to take risks. They are nurtured to lead while women are subtly guided to follow.

Girls are also groomed to prioritise marriage as if it is the ultimate achievement, the grand finale that validates their existence. It is ingrained in us that our worth is intrinsically tied to our ability to secure a husband. And if, heaven forbid, we haven’t done so, then we are marked as failures.

The laws which blatantly prevented women from having access to equal rights have been removed but the acceptance of this inequality still exists with us in the “modern” South Africa and across the world.

Our bodies are often subject to intense scrutiny and control. Our natural monthly cycles are a topic of shame, yet if we do not produce children or choose not to, we are deemed inadequate. Questioned on what we wear, eat and say, our professional capability and what we deserve to earn are all still modern-day realities.

These societal norms lead to gender inequality and disempowerment and can result in violence against women as they are seen and accepted as less powerful, less worthy and less important.

Women are not born submissive, yet this is what gender stereotypes dictate. This uncomfortable and historical truth tends to escape thorough scrutiny but, reverse gender roles in a mainstream movie, and you very quickly trigger offence. 

Barbie exists in direct opposition to everything we know about patriarchy. Beneath the candy-floss fluff, the movie has weighty themes and it turns conventions on their head, demanding reflection and debate about gender roles and biases.

This two-hour movie won’t end patriarchy and gender stereotypes, but it does provide an outlet for conversations and it encourages social constructs to be challenged and changed. Women play a crucial and overburdened role in society. 

And while we are considered strong enough to endure abuse and hardship in the workplace and in our homes, we are not strong enough to stand beside men as equals; to lead, make decisions and be full in our humanity.

We need movies like Barbie to force us to question the status quo and look at the role we each can play in changing the gender norms we pass on to the next generation. 

Gloria says it best: “It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”

Barbie is a pink-tinged satire about deeply ingrained norms, gender roles and the objectification of women. It is bold and unapologetic and while it tickles audiences pink, it underscores the need for change by showing how impossible it is to be a woman in a “Kendom” of men.

Dr Ntombifikile Mtshali (MD, MBA) is the chief executive of Shout-It-Now, a nonprofit that delivers youth-friendly, community-based HIV prevention, sexual and reproductive health and related services in the Gauteng and North West.