Housing screens “Barbie”, hosts feminist panel

Students focus intently on the screening of Greta Gerwig’s film ‘Barbie.’ The 2023 film took on a satirical view on the issues of patriarchy and the role of the Barbie doll in feminism. // Photo by Alexey Tatarinov Student Publications

On Thursday, March 7, students and faculty gathered in the Atlantic Theatre of the John Lewis Student Center for an afternoon of celebration and discussion around the “Barbie” movie. The event gave attendees a chance to consider women’s issues in history and discuss recent developments in feminism.

The gathering, organized by a partnership between the Housing and Residence Life department and the Women’s Resource Center, was also held in recognition of Women’s History Month, celebrated throughout March.

Chris Ruiz, Coordinator of Belonging and Inclusion for Housing and Residence Life, and Taylor Bischoff, Assistant Director of the Women’s Resource Center, led the planning of the Barbie event and served as the masters of ceremonies for the night’s proceedings.

Students were encouraged to don pink, stylish outfits to match Barbie’s style from the hit “Barbie” movie, which garnered national attention and captivated audiences worldwide last summer. Part of the movie’s appeal was its star-studded cast and over-the-top style, but the work also brought discussions of women’s issues and equality to the limelight.

Before attendees entered the theater, volunteers and organizers served light refreshments, including cookies, popcorn and drinks. A trio of panelists then took the stage to discuss issues related to the movie and the feminist movement. Participants then played a Barbie-themed trivia game for a prize provided by the organizers.

Organizers chose three women from the School of Literature, Media and Communications to sit on the panel and give their educated opinions on the “Barbie” movie and modern feminism. The panelists were Carol Colatrella, professor and co-director of the Women, Science and Technology Center, Rachel Dean-Ruzicka, senior lecturer for the School of Literature, Media and Communication and Zita Hüsing, Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow and assistant director of Writing & Communication.

Ruiz and Bischoff opened the questioning by asking the panel for their views on how “Barbie” impacted how our culture discussed feminism and shaped the feminist movement since its debut.

The panel expressed a range of sentiments on how the movie impacted feminism. Hüsing conveyed initial concern that the movie would only express a superficial version of feminism but said she was surprised that Greta Gerwig, director of the “Barbie” movie, was able to go beyond the surface level for a deeper analysis.

“When there was this big craze about going to the Barbie movie, I felt like, ‘Okay, what is this all about?’ I didn’t think it was going to be feminist. I guess I thought it was going to be very superficial. And then, when I did see it, I was surprised by this pop cultural movie that pushes boundaries and tries to engage in new conversations in this funny way,” Hüsing said.

Colatrella pointed to Gerwig’s ability to change the perception of feminism in American culture. Colatrella said that Gerwig contributed to making feminism a more approachable topic.

“Greta Gerwig is a great director, well known as a feminist director, and she created a feminist movie that is fun. I think that’s not a word you often hear people associate with feminism, fun. So, I think it has changed people’s ideas about what a woman could do, and she has been very successful,” Colatrella said.

The panel also discussed how prevalent the issues that the movie brought to the table were at the time and how the cultural timing of the movie may have been a factor in its success. 

The year before the movie’s release, the United States Supreme Court released a landmark decision that effectively relegated the issue of abortion to individual states. The decision has received much criticism from abortion rights groups since it stripped a previously held right to abortion in every state and brought the issue back into the spotlight.

The panel agreed that the movie capitalized on and continued the discussions that the Supreme Court decision brought back to the forefront of the American
cultural conversation.

“I think the movie is especially important right now during a time when we have all these debates over women’s reproductive rights. I know it’s a very fun take, but in a way, it is serious. The movie came out at the right time and moment,” Hüsing said.

The panel also discussed that the notion that politics played a role in the movie’s success. When the movie came out last summer, the American public was ramping up for the next presidential election season in 2024.

As the American electorate started thinking about who they wanted to lead them for the next four years, the “Barbie” movie raised issues of the male-dominated business and political class. Colatrella felt that the movie raised political questions through Barbieland’s change in leadership.

“I think a lot of the political stuff does have questions of gender equality and feminism, even if you’re not in a place in your life where you identify publicly as a feminist. We’re just, you know, aware of more conversations about gender discrimination, whether that’s in terms of pay disparities or whether it’s this sort of overwhelming question that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has brought to the foreground,” Dean-Ruzicka said.

The group did question how well the movie encompassed the feminist movement since it effectively served as an advertisement for, the company that makes Barbie dolls. Ultimately, however, the group gave the movie substantial praise for its advancements in feminism and for bringing women’s issues to the forefront.

“The movie also has this really good message about motherhood. There is this motherly figure in the movie, and she’s a working mother who struggles to balance that. I think the struggle is also something that is increasingly addressed for women in the real world. I liked how the movie brought that out,” Hüsing said.

The panel also discussed how the movie effectively reminded the public of the symbology and meaning behind the Barbie doll’s creation and use.

“The film reminds us that Barbie is a symbol of empowerment and equity, as well as collaboration and cooperation among women. This idea is what feminism is about — collaboration among women for all people. It’s about trying to be as inclusive as possible,” Colatrella said.

After the panel discussion, proceedings culminated with a “Barbie” movie screening as attendees enjoyed their snacks.

Before the event, the Technique met with Ruiz and Bischoff to learn more about their work and what they hoped to contribute to campus life. Bischoff explained that Barbie dolls are an important part of women’s history, and it is crucial to recognize them during Women’s History Month.

“It’s important for us to not only talk about how Barbie is a part of women’s history but also how Barbie has influenced women’s history and continues to influence our lives to this day and how we can move forward with that. We saw the influence that the movie had last July, and we want to continue to talk about those topics we are seeing for the first time in the media,” Bischoff said.

The pair also said they wanted to incorporate an educational side to the event to expand the student experience and recognize the expertise and experience professors at the Institute have.

“Tying in faculty was a big component of this event. We wanted students to take away something educational to understand Barbie and her impact. We tried to merge ways to build and create belonging and inclusion in both offices while also connecting it to the academic side of the student experience. It is also important to give the professor an opportunity to lend their voice to the conversation,” Ruiz said.

Bischoff added that the event’s educational component prepares students for the next steps in their careers. As students progress and eventually enter the workforce, they will face challenges of inclusion and understanding.

“It is really important because belonging, community and inclusion are things that our students will still have to interact with in their lives as they enter the workforce. They are going to meet people who are not the same as them. We want to give them those tools to interact successfully,” Bischoff said.

The “Barbie” movie created a opportunity for conversation in America’s cultural landscape, and almost eight months after its release, the public and scholars
continue to discuss its significance. As the feminist movement evolves, Ruiz believes remembering the individual stories that make up every person’s life is the best way to make a more inclusive, caring community.

“I think a lot of times, we forget that we all have stories, and there is opportunity in any space that we occupy, whether it’s the residence hall, the campus, the classroom, the workforce, where we can share those stories and communicate those stories with others to enhance the work environment,” Ruiz said.