Perhaps you are unconcerned by the plight of our mutual friend, Barbie. But I tell you, she is becoming a tragic figure. Still tormented by the unattainable standard she used to set for young girls via her anatomically impossible physique, and her ill-thought-out encouragement of girls to drop math and buy clothes, today she strives desperately to rectify her wrongs and appease her conscience. But, poor thing, she can’t seem to get it right.
Little girls world-wide are likely harassing their parents to buy them the newest Barbie movie staring the latest Barbie doll. For those of you not totally up-to-date with all things Barbie, this movie sees the blonde role-model broadly playing the role of d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Set in seventeenth century France, Barbie wants to be a musketeer and travels from her home in the country-side to Paris in order to pursue her dream. Unlike d’Artagnan, however, on arriving in Paris Barbie finds no one willing to train her as a musketeer for the simple reason that she is a girl. The remainder of the story recounts how Barbie and her friends overcome this unabashed sexism, and ultimately triumph and become musketeers (I hope I didn’t ruin it for you).
This seems entirely constructive right? Barbie wants to work in a profession traditionally dominated by men; however, this goal is thwarted by clear prejudice. But rather than being disheartened and giving up, she works to overcome the discrimination visited upon her and ultimately challenges the assumption on which the discrimination is based – namely, that girls are simply incapable of being musketeers. This seems a fantastic lesson to teach the young girls of today, who tomorrow will be continuing the quest of working in all the same roles that men do. However, it is exactly this laudable overt message that makes the hidden assumptions of the story particularly pernicious.
As a glance at the Barbie doll accompanying this movie will tell you, Barbie does not become a musketeer like d’Artagnan. Even after her transformation, she wears a glitzy pink mini-skirt, knee high boots, a lacy cape and an incredibly ornate mask; evidently, she becomes a very different, distinctly feminine, musketeer.
So what? You might think that women will inevitably do things differently from men simply because men and women are different. Therefore, to demand that women conform to a precedent set by men is itself sexist, meaning that Barbie is right to become a different sort of Musketeer to Dumas’s originals. But at the very least, this is an issue that should be debated, and Barbie’s normalisation of one side of the argument subverts any discussion by presenting that side as seemingly self-evident: men and women just are fundamentally different.
This is bad enough, but more concerning is that this “different but equal” approach that Barbie is perpetuating is open to abuse, and it has arguably been abused here. Barbie need not be exactly the same as d’Artagnan, but why must her difference – her femininity – be reduced to an impractical and superficial ‘prettiness’? Surely the notion of femininity consists of more than this? Not if Barbie has anything to do with it.
Barbie may ostensibly be challenging discrimination against women, but that is why it is so troubling that she encourages the unquestioned naturalisation of two dubious assumptions. First, she is implanting the view that men and women are fundamentally different. Some may not see this as a problem, but one might legitimately wonder whether “different but equal” is vulnerable to similar abuses as “separate but equal.” Indeed, the second assumption being naturalised – a very specific and simplistic notion of femininity – may lend itself to this conclusion. If a girl comes to identify herself with this ideal of femininity, it could prove incredibly limiting in her quest to do any job she wants. My dear Barbie, your pursuit of greater equality for women may well be being undermined by the assumptions that it perpetuates.
What a conservative exercise in futility.