The myth of feminist perfection

The capitalism of International Women’s Day

Some lauded 2023 as the year of the feminist fable, thanks in part to the hit movie Barbie, however it was also a year of ideological backlash. Many claim such movies or celebrities are not feminist enough. For this International Women’s Day, Dr Jessica Ford urges us to recognise the limits of these pop-culture narratives and think more expansively, and critically, about feminist forms.


Feminism and popular culture a have a complicated situationship. Feminism is both a lens through which popular culture is examined and an ideology that is spread through films, TV series, music, podcasts and other media. As such, critics have long been preoccupied by the intersection between feminism and popular culture, insofar as particular characters, authors and genres have been identified and theorised as “feminist.”

There is a critical desire to label film, television, music, and celebrities catering to women as “feminist.” Refinery29 argues that reality TV is “one of the most feminist formats in TV today.” Sofia Coppola’s latest feature film Priscilla (2023) has been described as “a bold feminist retelling of Elvis’ dark fairytale marriage.” Taylor Swift’s ongoing Eras tour and subsequent monocultural moment has led to a range of dissections of her alleged feminism in The New York Times, Vice and Ms. Magazine.

Feminism has become both the yardstick that popular culture is measured against and a tool to criticise texts for not achieving some invisible, non-specific determinant of “feminist enough.” Recently, The Women’s Agenda declared Poor Things (2023, Lanthimos) a “more feminist film than Barbie,” while Vulture described it as “a banal rendition of faux-feminist sexual freedom.”

Determining precisely what makes a movie, TV show or celebrity “feminist” is increasingly difficult, because there is much content being read and marketed as “feminist.” At the same time, what exactly makes this content “feminist” is becoming blurrier and more inexact.

Many forms of feminism (neoliberal, popular, activist, lipstick, celebrity, white etc.) operate in today’s popular media landscape. Writing in 2017, British sociologist Rosalind Gill noted that, “a few years ago it sometimes felt difficult to make any feminist arguments ‘stick’ in the media, today it seems as if everything is a feminist issue.” We seem to be reaching the zenith of this phenomenon with almost anything “women-centric” likely to be promoted and understood as “feminist.”

We saw this play out with Barbie (2023, Gerwig), which upon its release generated many articles which celebrated, debated or vilified the film’s feminist credentials. NPR asked: “Is Barbie a feminist icon?”, while The Guardian wrote: “If Barbie constitutes a triumph, it’s a triumph not of feminism but of the patriarchy’s so far most unassailable scion – capitalism.” The Nation proclaims: “Barbie might be the closest thing to a feminist icon that we have in mass culture right now,” while Stephanie Garcia wrote that the film’s “feminism remains tepid.”


Why does Barbie “feel feminist” and why can it never be feminist enough?


Though tempting, I want to resist evaluating Barbie’s feminist credentials, because deeming certain movies to be more or less feminist, or particular feminisms as more or less legitimate, is fraught with racist, classist and heterosexist assumptions. It also reifies feminist hierarchies of “good” and “bad” feminisms, and risks flattening the kinds of feminisms worthy of popular culture rendering and privileging white, heteronormative neoliberal feminisms.

Instead, I focus on how feminist approaches, ideologies and sentiment have infiltrated Anglophone popular culture. Essentially, why does Barbie “feel feminist” and why can it never be feminist enough?

Barbie’s feminist sensibility operates beyond the movie itself. Margot Robbie is essential to why Barbie is read as feminist. Robbie was not just titular Barbie, but also a producer and driving force behind securing Greta Gerwig to co-write and direct the film. The media tour that accompanied the film emphasised how she secured the rights, negotiated with Mattel, and defended Gerwig’s “vision.” In highlighting Robbie’s behind the scenes involvement, the passive, malleable character of Barbie is imbued with agency.

Barbie is a movie that directly speaks to women and girls, and despite the recent proliferation of “feminist” popular culture, historically very little cinema has been aimed at women. Barbie directly addresses women by centring their experiences, feelings and unruliness. Gerwig’s film takes “girl culture” seriously, including the feelings, thoughts, and ambitions of women in this film. Broadly speaking, culture aimed at and enjoyed by girls – popular music, dolls, fashion, make up – is demeaned and devalued by culture at large. Hence it is striking how Barbie prizes what girls value in an earnest and sincere manner which does not mock.

We see the events of the film through Barbie’s eyes, as she navigates the real world and the consequences of Ken’s desire to “bring patriarchy” to BarbieLand. In the real world, Barbie encounters an older woman. As the camera lingers lovingly on her face and the music swells, Barbie says: “You’re beautiful,” and the camera agrees. This scene is, of course, punctured with the humour of the older lady saying: “I know it.” This joke relies on the surprise of an older woman knowing her value and beauty. Yet, the women of Barbie and BarbieLand know their worth, so while the joke lands for the audience, the joke is lost on Barbie.


The feminism of Barbie is narrowly confined to the neoliberalism of its form.


In the much memed, discussed, and shared speech, America Ferrera’s Gloria gives voice to the contradictions of living in a media culture where feminism is  simultaneously taken for granted and repudiated. The “you” that Gloria addresses reflects an individualised experience of patriarchy. The speech is so effective because it is about what it feels like to live under a capitalist, colonial heteropatriarchy. The language is emotional, affective, and personal. Gloria’s speech is “feminist-lite” meaning that it gestures towards recognising inequality, but does not endorse or consider the realities of radical structured reorganisation. There is no discussion of access to reproductive healthcare (except for the final joke) or the gender pay gap, rather the “feminism” offered by the movie is intimate and feeling-centric.

This is not a defence of Barbie or any movie’s supposed feminist credentials, but rather an explanation of why it has engendered such feminist favour. That said, the feminism of Barbie is narrowly confined to the neoliberalism of its form. Ultimately, Barbie exists to sell tickets and dolls. As such, we need to leave the cinema with affection for these dolls. Therefore, the film walks a fine line of depicting empowerment without revolution.


Today women-centric media is seemingly expected, even required, to speak to all feminisms and all women.


Much of contemporary media culture for and about women “feels feminist” and thus it has also been read as “feminist” or at the very least “feminist-leaning”. But mass commercial media’s goal is to sell objects not re-shape ideology and hegemony; therefore, the kinds of feminisms offered by these pieces are always limited. At the same time, there is also an increasing market demand for media that reflects a feminist impulse. We can see this play out in International Women’s Day content each year, which gestures to women’s empowerment and feminist ideals without necessarily offering radical rethinking of the culture and systems that disempower women, in particular Black, Brown and Trans women, at alarming rates.

Today women-centric media is seemingly expected, even required, to speak to all feminisms and all women. As we “celebrate” International Women’s Day a wide range of corporations, outlets and organisations will signal their commitment to equality. Much like with Barbie, it is important that we question the limits of this form and their commitment to empowerment with revolution.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation