Opinion: How Barbie’s billion-dollar summer could help smash the patriarchy

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Throughout the decades, Barbie has been a doctor, an astronaut, a UNICEF ambassador, a rapper, a matador, a Sea World trainer, and president of the United States, among many, many other jobs. And now she’s also a record-breaking movie star: The Barbie film is Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing movie ever, surpassing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2” and earning a stunning $1.342 billion globally.

Jill Filipovic - Courtesy of Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic - Courtesy of Jill Filipovic

In the coming days, the movie is expected to make its way onto the list of the 15 top-grossing films of all time. (CNN and the distributor of Barbie share a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.)

Between Barbie, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, this has been a wonderfully girly summer. Gaggles of girls, and of adult women, have surged into theaters and concert venues for remarkably female-centric experiences. Their spending power, and its impact on the economy, has been enormous: Swift has had more number-one records than any other female artist; her Eras tour is set to be the highest-grossing of all time; Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour is the highest-grossing ever for a Black artist; and in July, she had the highest single-month tour earnings ever. And these women fans are showing up for are offering something that feels new, at least insofar as it’s now dominating popular culture: Models of womanhood that are at once powerful and pleasurable, emotionally astute and unapologetically feminist.

Women and girls have been craving this. And there seems little doubt that the still mostly-male funders, green-lighters and decision-makers in film, music, popular culture and the arts are taking notice. The question now is whether they really get it: whether they understand that the complicated bits (and the feminist bits) are the draw, or if they’re going to conclude that the appeal boils down to girls like pink and nostalgia.

In other words, is this summer the start of a feminist pop culture boom? Or is it a not-long-for-this-world blip, greenlit only as part of a broader nostalgia craze and soon to be swallowed up by the creativity-killing forces of capital and the male power that largely controls it?

It takes much more than a pop culture fad to make sustaining change, and to really shift the structures of power, influence and opportunity. Women and girls can feel as empowered as we like, but if we don’t have actual power in our own hands — money, resources, influence, control over our own lives and futures — we don’t have much.

This moment, though, feels like a potent twinning of the pop and the political; there seems to be a growing sense that we want our fun and our freedom, and that women have a more sophisticated understanding of the ways in which they are constrained, made small and held back.

The three queen mothers of our very girly summer are not identical. Beyoncé, for example, draws in a racially diverse audience of adults, makes her sexuality a part of her presentation and frankly demonstrates an experimental and creative power that catapults her to a different planet. “Barbie” remakes a cultural icon long maligned by feminists as a feminist in her own right and gives voice to the conflicting expectations that women continue to face. Swift pulls in legions of girls, often with their parents, who seem both enthralled and truly seen by a singer-songwriter who is simultaneously vulnerable, formidable, and perhaps most importantly, taking her own feelings — and those of her fans — seriously.

These are three different models for what it means to be a woman in the world. And all three are pretty good ones.

I will admit that I have been slow to understand the Swifties, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about “Barbie” (loving Beyoncé has never been a problem). Even after early viewers noted its explicit feminism, and even knowing that director Greta Gerwig has made a career out of feminist subversion, I struggled to imagine that a film celebrating a doll so tied up in White patriarchal ideals — and made with Mattel’s approval — would be anything but, at best, pop feminist pablum.

The avalanche of social media posts featuring pink-clad women flocking to theaters was sweet, but only confirmed my suspicions that “Barbie” was more about a kind of feel-good feminism-lite than anything more complex.

Still, I grudgingly went to the theater to see it. And the happy truth is that I was wrong and everyone else was right: “Barbie” is, improbably, about as good a Feminism 101 course as you’re going to find anywhere. Is it the most comprehensive probing of decades of feminist theory and critique? No. It’s a movie about a matriarchy of plastic dolls. But I walked out thinking, “if this is what 14-year-old girls (and boys) are watching, we’re doing pretty great.”

Big culture shifts like the feminist-minded girl-centric one we’re seeing this summer are often both bottom-up and top-down: That is, a big pop culture product finds a massive fan base because people all over the country, or all over the world, had a need that wasn’t being met. Decades of feminist activism have profoundly shifted opportunities for women in the US and around the world, and girls and women have heeded the feminist call, outperforming boys in school, and out-enrolling them in higher education.

While popular culture has of course adjusted to this shift, it has long been the case once awards season comes that male-led films have been treated as the more serious, and when it comes time to pay artists, the men are deemed more bankable.

“Barbie,” Beyoncé and Swift are upending those assumptions and are themselves riding a wave of significant feminist progress.

This progress, though, has been frustratingly slow, and is often met with pushback. It also serves to reinforce how difficult it remains to translate feminist cultural power into political or economic change. Issa Rae may have been president in “Barbie,” but there still has never been a real-life woman in the Oval Office.

Women remain poorer than men, and have just seen our most fundamental rights to our own bodies stripped away — a move virtually guaranteed to leave scores of women poorer, physically injured, tied to abusive men and raising children who will have worse outcomes. Some will die.

But each time a wave of backlash crashes into us, women stand up and fight back. After a conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the era of legal abortion across the United States, women sued, women put abortion rights on the ballot (and won every time), women organized to get abortion pills into conservative states and women (and those who care about them) went to the polls and undercut what should have been a Republican sweep in the midterm elections.

And then we clamored for music, movies, television and other pop culture expressions of our rage, our sadness, our joy, our power, our vulnerability, our desire for fun and our explicit feminism. Importantly, we gravitated toward connection in a post-pandemic moment—heading to concerts and the movies with groups of girlfriends, perhaps understanding intuitively that there is something about collective joyful experience that buoys us in difficult times.

I hope it lasts, that this more-feminist girl-culture moment grows into something bigger and stronger. History suggests it will be hit with the same reactionary backlash that has kneecapped so much feminist progress. But still: Even the steps back often come after sprints forward. And this summer, at least in the cultural realm, has felt like a deliriously fun dash.

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