Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, which hit the screens in July, has raced to the top as the most successful film of 2023, amassing a $356 million in its global opening weekend and setting a new record as the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.
Beyond the hot pink marketing mania and the amusing homage to the iconic fashion doll, the film isn’t afraid to delve into all the shades of Barbie’s impact on our culture throughout the years – both the positive and the negative. With its unapologetic take on everything from Barbie’s portrayal of independent womanhood to her unattainable, idealised body proportions, Gerwig created a movie that’s as intricate and multifaceted as Barbie’s own reputation.
Love it or hate it, Barbie does a great job delving deep into workplace gender stereotypes and the influence of a male-dominated society, with 53% of viewers reporting a positive shift in their perception of women in the workplace.
All in all, this film serves as a strong reminder that we need to create more opportunities for women to step into their power if we want to see meaningful change.
Barbie and breaking stereotypes
When Barbie made her debut, the toy scene for young girls was pretty much all about baby dolls and strollers. It was all about nurturing, playing house, and reinforcing the idea that a girl’s future was limited to homemaking and motherhood. But then came Barbie, born from a desire to offer girls something new. Something completely different.
And remember, this was at a time when women in the real world couldn’t even open a credit account in their own name. It took until 1974 for the United States to pass the Equal Opportunity Act, which basically meant that until then, women needed their husband or father to get them a credit card. Meanwhile, in Barbieland, women were already living it up in their dream houses by 1962, making young girls wonder, “Why can’t I dream big and have my own dream house too?”
For those of us who grew up with Barbie, she became a symbol of breaking gender barriers, stepping into professions that were typically reserved for men, like becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a business exec, a firefighter, an astronaut, and even a presidential candidate. Barbie was a breath of fresh air for so many young girls who might’ve otherwise only been handed toy kitchens, pretend cleaning supplies, and baby dolls.
These traditional toys seemed to imply that caregiving was the only path for girls – which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful and fulfilling path, but it’s not the only one. Every young girl should be free to dream and chase any career she desires.
Sure, we can’t deny that Barbie is still very much concerned about her looks, but she’s equally committed to her career and deeply involved in the world around her. Barbie is a reminder to us as a society that when children break away from gender-based play stereotypes, they’re also ultimately less likely to develop occupation-related stereotypes and they tend to exhibit greater creativity.
Let’s not forget that Barbie was always about women’s empowerment, so of course that’s going to be reflected in the movie. Barbie has always told girls that they can be whatever and whoever they want to be when they grow up.
What Barbie misses about women’s workforce struggles
Despite the fact that Barbie can pursue any career she wants, American politician Mallory McMorrow, who once worked as a Hot Wheels designer at Mattel (the company behind Barbie), has pointed out that the beloved fashion doll falls short in portraying the genuine challenges women often encounter in the professional world.
“It was always this fine line of, ‘Barbie is everything.’ She’s an astronaut and she’s president. She works at McDonald’s, and she can fly a plane,” McMorrow said. “But there is also the reality of: Barbie never really had to deal in reality. That was always some of the appeal; Barbie’s got Barbie’s Dreamhouse and Barbie’s RV and Corvette and rubs up against the reality of the real world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has had a disproportionate impact on women in the workforce, and women have faced more job layoffs than men. According to a McKinsey report, women’s employment was 1.8 times as vulnerable to the crisis compared to men. Even though women represent 39% of the global workforce, they’ve taken on 54% of all the job losses.
What’s more, the pandemic added to the load of unpaid care work, which women predominantly bear, and this has made it harder for them to find a balance between work and family commitments.
Ultimately, the most effective way to improve working conditions for women is to have more women in leadership roles. When women have a seat and a voice at the table, they can advocate for policies and practices that benefit all employees, help women advance in their careers, and create a more inclusive and supportive work environment.
Why do women disappear in senior ranks?
No matter what you think about the Barbie movie, it does bring up a really important issue that we as a society, and organisations in particular, still need to address: why aren’t there more women in top leadership positions?
In a pivotal scene (spoiler alert) in the movie, Barbie, having found herself in “the real world,” makes a request to the board of Mattel just before she returns to her symbolic and physical box, asking, “Can I just meet the woman in charge? Your CEO?” And surprise surprise, there are only men on the board – even though women are described as “the freakin’ foundation of this very long, phallic building.”
Women are now the majority on college campuses worldwide. According to a report by The Hechinger Report, the number of women pursuing higher education has significantly surpassed the number of men. We’re seeing this shift in nearly all of the 36 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and in 39 out of the 47 countries within the UN Economic Commission for Europe, including regions in central and western Asia.
Take Iceland, for example – there you’ll find two women attending college for every man, marking the most significant gender imbalance within the OECD. On top of that, women tend to outperform men academically, earning higher grades and showing lower dropout rates compared to their male counterparts.
But despite all these educational achievements for women, the corporate boardroom is an entirely different story. We’re in 2023 and women still hold just a mere 10.4% of leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies. While this is an all-time high, it still means that almost 90% of men are occupying leadership positions at these companies.
Just to give you a sense of the bigger picture, women currently occupy 23% of executive roles, 29% of senior management positions, 37% of managerial positions, 42% of professional positions, and 47% of support staff roles on a global scale.
As women, we’re still trying to navigate a system that wasn’t built with our input or that of many other marginalised groups. Until these systems and structures that we work within embrace our representation and perspectives, they will never fully address our unique needs, challenges, and aspirations.
While still empowering girls and women around the world, the Barbie movie actually didn’t go too far into the themes of modern-day feminism as many claim it did. You might have your own thoughts on this, and that’s totally fine! But I think most viewers seemed to pick up on the core message the film was driving at, which is that no society should be 100% dominated by men or 100% dominated by women.
Meaningful change and inclusivity can only occur when diverse voices are part of the decision-making process. Without such representation, the systems in our workplaces and society at large will continue to fall short in understanding and meeting the needs of the people they affect.
At the end of the day, there needs to be room for everyone to thrive. And to get there, we need to provide more women with opportunities to step into their power.