If you (somehow??) haven’t heard, there’s a live action Barbie film coming out in July this year, and it looks incredible.
The film has Greta Gerwig at the helm, who brought us previous meditations on femininity including Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and Little Women (seriously someone come do a PhD with me on her oeuvre). Plus it’s co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach who brought us exceedingly depressing reflections on the precarity of the nuclear family with The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. With this indie pair in charge you know Barbie is going to be magic.
But the reason I’m most excited isn’t just because it involves two of my favourite filmmakers, and an all-star cast. It’s because I genuinely hope that this film ushers in a new era of critical feminist analysis that takes femininity seriously as a point of theorisation, not so easily written off as “postfeminism”. Maybe we’ll call it “bimbo feminism”. I’ll explain.
Barbie is one of those fraught icons of hyperfemininity. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose caregivers were reluctant about Barbies. I get it. I’ve written recently about how kids clothes are gendered in absurd ways and “for girls” often becomes code for “impractical”. As an icon of girl culture Barbie can get caught up in this. My grandmother gave me a Barbie card for my seventh birthday, and inside there was a message along the lines of “I didn’t get you one because Barbies are sexist” (I’m not joking).
Eventually someone got me a Barbie (“Lights and Lace” Barbie), and I also procured some from an op-shop. I cut Lights and Lace Barbie’s hair short and she lived with her girlfriend in a suitcase apartment with their Barbie cat, and a Ken doll (who was also gay). Do straight Barbies even exist?
On the one hand, Barbie has been abundantly critiqued as an emblem of unrealistic and patriarchal beauty standards. On the other, people have pointed out that she’s done every occupation, and is the ultimate girlboss (eww). On the third, and much more interesting hand, the way people have actually played with Barbies, remixing their hair, outfits, personas and sexualities, reveals Barbie as the GOAT bimbo icon: a blank slate, a fantasy of femininity. She is spectacular plastic with nothing, and thereby everything, to say.
Since the 1990s, feminist critique in the academy has become dominated by dubbing things “postfeminist”. It’s a debated term, but essentially refers to media depictions (or what Ros Gill calls a “sensibility”) that depict feminism as done-and-dusted, within a broader cultural context of backlash against feminism. A LOT of early discussions of postfeminism focused on sex-interested or hyper-feminine female characters as evidencing post-feminism (e.g. via films like Bridget Jones’ Diary or Legally Blonde). Because of the rise of popular feminism in the 2010s, postfeminism is now used a little more expansively to describe an ideology that circulates in popular culture that undermines feminist gains, or is regressive in some way. Problem is, what is dubbed postfeminist/regressive can’t shake the hang up on sexiness and femininity.
Since the 2010s there has also been a parallel development in academia called Critical Femininities (CF). The idea of this field is to give serious attention to studying femininities (in much the same way that masculinity studies has become a proper field), critically but not dismissing femininity as merely, easily, or only patriarchal. CF has been championed largely by queer femme scholars, by people who know what it feels like to be perceived as straight-conforming or not “queer enough” simply because of their feminine gender expression. I have been so excited to see recent CF analyses revisiting “postfeminist” texts like Legally Blonde and the Spice Girls, and arguing for the radical elements of the spectacular femininity therein. For example (and I could quote the whole paper here), Maya Padan’s (2023) close reading of the Spice Girls as pseudo drag queens argues:
The band underscores the performativity of femme embodiments, while using the spices to enable a self-aware inquiry of femininity as a choice, rather than patriarchal coercion. In doing so, the Spice Girls stress how meaningful playfulness is to the construction of gender and how gender can be an arena of exploration (2023, p.13).
Similarly, as Sarah Kornfield and Chloe Long (2023) suggest in their analysis of The Bold Type TV show, “patriarchal and capitalist pressures work to devalue and regulate femininity and to commodify and objectify fem(me)inine people”. In response, they offer “femme analysis [that] resists patriarchy and its interlocking oppressions without positioning women, femmes, or spectacular femininity as patriarchy’s dupes” (2023, p.13).
I love these analyses because they don’t dismiss the rubric of postfeminism as useful, but also offer other ways to engage with spectacular femininity, namely from queer perspectives. One limitation of these account is that they sometimes fly a little too close to “choice feminism” for me, through emphasising “femininity as choice”. The problem with choice feminism is that in responding to the “dupes” argument, it can bend the stick too far in the other direction (I am often guilty of this).
This is where I think bimbo feminism could come in.
Since 2020, interest in bimbo-ism has gained traction via TikTok. There are endless explainers you can look up, but essentially the bimbo movement has been about: embracing styles otherwise derided as hyperfeminine, hypersexual, and/or girly, and emphasising vapidity, that is, feeling over thinking. In other words, celebrating oneself as “hot and dumb”, and encouraging pleasure and leisure over uneven heterosexual relationships and the girlboss grind. Despite their professed anti-thinking attitude, the bimbos of TikTok offer explicit critiques of capitalism, right-wing politics, heteronormativity, white feminism and trans-exclusionary feminism. This is bimbo feminism.
Of course until recently “bimbo” has almost always been used as a pejorative, that’s really the whole point of the reclamation. Some aren’t convinced by the politics of the new bimbo-ism. This morning Jessica DeFino – ex-beauty influencer turned anti-beauty blogger – wrote in her newsletter “From what I’ve seen, the reclamation of ‘bimbo’ by cisgender women essentially means using your words to promote the values of the political left while using your aesthetics to promote the excess of capitalism”. I can (and will) write a whole book about the limits of DeFino’s straight-gaze anti-beauty critique, but her take down of bimbos really misses the (radical) forest for the (pink) trees. For DeFino, hyperfeminine aesthetics “taint” the possibility of real politics. Since when is “using your words to promote the values of the political left” a bad thing just because you’ve got a full face of makeup? And why is spectacular femininity the ultimate signifier of “the excess of capitalism”?
CFS scholar Rhea Ashley Hoskin has written extensively about how intensely femininity is policed, so that it is not “too much”. Femininity is systematically devalued, it is seen as synonymous with “subordination”. Femininity is always seen as being done “for men”. This is, Hoksin argues, “femmephobia”.
As she suggests: “femininity is not taken seriously, it is trivialized, it is considered not very credible, false, untrustworthy, with ulterior motives, anti-feminist and not very intelligent”.
The negative use of the term “bimbo” is after all wielded in such a way to take down people who are perceived as too feminine, too sexual, too vapid, too excessive in their gender presentation.
I’m sure that scholars in the 2000s would look at bimbo feminism and call it “postfeminism” but for me the term has reached saturation. I’m post-postfeminism, I want what’s next.
I feel like the Barbie movie is going to deliver the goods. It’s going to take femininity seriously. Based on the trailers I’m fully expecting a queer critique of capitalism and heteronormativity while dressed in pink glitter.
That’s bimbo feminism.