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Does Barbie need all the Oscars for feminism?

What we’re really fighting about when we fight about Barbie.

Greta Gerwig is on the left in a sleeveless white dress, with Margot Robbie on the right in an off-the-shoulder red gown. They are both smiling and holding an award.
Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie celebrating a Critics Choice Award win for Barbie. Gerwig and Robbie were not nominated for individual awards at the 2024 Oscars.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Like the Barbies in the movie Barbie, the film Barbie seemed capable of anything. From critical praise, to pop culture reverence, to box office domination, to culture war lightning rod, to doll sales, Barbie has checked every box.

But it’s the few things Barbie won’t achieve that have caused a massive uproar: namely, Best Actress and Best Directing Academy Award nominations for Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, respectively.

Their snubs have snowballed into an avalanche of proclamations that these exclusions show that the world we live in is brimming with misogyny and sexism. No matter that Gerwig and Robbie were recognized for screenwriting and producing, with the film nominated for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. To some, it was even worse that Robbie’s co-star Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Barbie’s patriarchy-loving non-boyfriend, Ken.

Columns upon columns were written, each one more enflamed than its predecessor. Gosling released a statement expressing disappointment about the snubs. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in, offering consolation and condolences to Gerwig and Robbie. “While it can sting to win the box office but not take home the gold, your millions of fans love you,” she wrote, ending her message with a “#HillaryBarbie” hashtag.

A lot of people saw Barbie. A lot of people were moved by Barbie. A lot of people are now mad that Academy voters who saw Barbie were perhaps not moved in the same way they were.

Through the lens of Robbie’s snub, Gosling’s nod can feel a little salty. Coupled with Gerwig’s absence in the directing category, it makes the movie’s message — that the hard work of women goes unnoticed and unappreciated — seem like prophecy.

But the acute ferociousness, not to mention single-mindedness, of the Oscar nominations backlash seems to conflate the ideas of “Barbie” and “woman” in weird ways. Specifically, that rewarding or not rewarding Barbie with an Oscar is some kind of feminist barometer. Even more complicated is this entire conversation in the face of the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences’ history of bias and startling lack of diversity. If, as fans point out, the Academy is a sexist organization, then why does Barbie need its awards? Would it somehow stop being sexist if Robbie and Gerwig got their nominations?

That these omissions have sparked such a vocal and strong reaction speaks to what Barbie stands for, its cultural impact, and how it has changed how we understand women’s stories. The things we talk about when we talk about Barbie are bigger than the movie itself.

Barbie has become bigger than Barbie, the movie

The inescapable Barbie discourse is a testament to how the movie made its feminist message accessible. It begins as a riff on creationism: The Barbies live in Barbie Land, a place where female Barbies are capable of anything and everything — from President Barbie (Issa Rae) to Nobel Prize Barbie (Emma Mackey) to Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef) to Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie). The Kens, who are all named Ken, are just another Barbie accessory.

In a scene from the movie Barbie, Barbie drives a pink convertible through a desert, with Ken in the backseat sitting sideways. Both are dressed in pink and singing.
Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken in Barbie. Despite being just Ken, Gosling was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Warner Bros.

Barbie’s savvy marketing department leaned into this concept of Barbie-feminist identification even before the movie was released, encouraging people on social media to post what kind of Barbie they would be with a selfie generator. Last month I visited my 3-year-old niece, and she had at least three new dolls — Doctor Barbie, President Barbie, and Pink Power Jumpsuit/Dismantle the Patriarchy Barbie. She wants to be just like the Barbies.

In the film, when Barbie and Ken venture to the real world, Ken finds out that men like him are in positions of power (doctor, president, cowboy) and are boosted by the patriarchy, a system he barely understands — and, crucially, doesn’t need to understand. Ken brings back symbols (horses and beer) and ideologies (subservient women) of the patriarchy to Barbie Land and brainwashes the trusting Barbies and eager Kens. He’s finally stopped by regular human woman Gloria (Academy Award nominee America Ferrera) who explains via monologue the hardships women are held to in the real world. Gloria restores order in Barbie Land, allowing Barbies to reclaim their power. Still, Stereotypical Barbie makes the choice to move to the real world, even with all its imperfections.

Using allegory and a hard-hitting speech, Barbie gives the audience a framework and language to point out the double standards that women endure, often without complaint. Barbie is cat-called on the street, and the Mattel overlords want to shove her into a box. Gloria is ignored in her job at Mattel, even though she has amazing ideas, and navigates the rejections of her teenage daughter seemingly alone, while her anodyne husband plays Duolingo. It raises the question of why society allows women to hurt like this, big and small. Why can’t things be better?

Inadvertently making the movie’s point — and reflexively making the movie an even bigger phenomenon — right-wing pundits and personalities dragged the film. Some hated its message about how men are treated in the real world, labeled the movie woke, and predicted, because of its said wokeness, Barbie’s box office demise. They called Barbie man-hating feminist propaganda. A few even tried to burn their Barbie dolls and boycott the movie. With all this commotion, Barbie and its box office success became politicized. Mattel and Warner Bros. likely didn’t envision the movie becoming the bane of some conservative firebrands’ existence, but largely due to the backlash, Barbie became even more of a touchstone and shorthand for feminism and equality.

The movie’s feminist message, combined with its huge marketing push, the corresponding Mattel merch, billion-dollar box office, and status as a culture war flashpoint made Barbie a pop culture phenomenon. Even before the Oscar nominations, Barbie was a national conversation.

Is Barbie winning Oscars really a feminist benchmark?

On Tuesday, January 23, Oscar nominations rolled in. Gosling and Ferrera snagged theirs early, as supporting actors and actresses are the first categories in the announcement. But soon it became clear that Robbie didn’t make the cut for Best Actress or Gerwig for Best Directing. Barbie did get a nomination for Best Picture, the biggest prize of the show, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and two Best Original Song nominations for Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken” and Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?”

Usually, Oscar awards snubs and surprises are a fairly insular concern, something only people who are extremely enthusiastic about movies care about. Without Googling, it might be difficult for the average person to name more than one big omission from last year’s group of contenders. But it was different for Robbie and Gerwig’s exclusions, as their Oscar slights went mainstream.

Margot Robbie, as Barbie, driving a pink convertible past a pink plastic house, wearing a white-and-blue dress.
There are probably more pressing feminist issues than Margot Robbie (who was nominated as a producer) not getting an Academy Award acting nomination for Barbie.
Warner Bros.

A common refrain: Ryan Gosling getting an Oscar nomination and Margot Robbie getting none proves the movie’s point. Similarly: If Gosling and Ferrera deserved accolades, so did Robbie and Gerwig. Also: Ryan Gosling got a nomination for Ken but Margot Robbie didn’t get one for playing Barbie in Barbie. And: The Academy is exactly what the movie was about. The Academy Awards ignoring Robbie and Gerwig was actually the sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy that’s explicitly addressed in the movie!

Outcry spiraled, growing and growing. Taylor Swift’s song about sexism, “The Man,” was invoked. A column appeared in the Los Angeles Times where Mary McNamara wrote: “If only Barbie had done a little time as a sex worker. Or barely survived becoming the next victim in a mass murder plot,” referring on the latter count to Lily Gladstone’s role as an Indigenous Osage woman witnessing the murders of her family and friends in Killers of the Flower Moon. Now, the backlash to the backlash has awoken some predictably cantankerous “Barbie is actually bad” takes. Truly no one has time for that.

To the movie’s most ardent and earnest fans, the misogyny and patriarchy Barbie depicted was, in real time, taking the form of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.

Criticisms about the movies the Academy has rewarded and the voting body’s biases aren’t necessarily wrong. Female directors and people of color across categories win so rarely that it becomes a milestone when they do (e.g., Halle Berry being the lone Black actress to win Best Actress, for 2001’s Monster’s Ball). In recent years, the organization itself has talked about its lack of diversity and tried to, via new members and new eligibility rules, address those issues. It’s a continual work in progress.

But the thing is, most of these arguments seem to imply that Robbie and Gerwig’s missed nominations — in acting and directing — are the only feminist wins that count. They were not the only women thought to be frontrunners who were ignored this year, and many found themselves asking where this energy was for Celine Song and Greta Lee, the director and star of Past Lives, or Ava Duvernay and Aunjanue Ellis, director and star of Origin. Unfortunately, centering particular white women and largely forgetting women of color or the intersectionality of feminism is a pattern that arises in these fights for recognition.

These arguments also serve to undermine the nominees who were recognized. Best Picture nominee Anatomy of a Fall, written and directed by Best Directing nominee Justine Triet, examined society’s ideas about gender and who we see as victims. Killers of the Flower Moon told the story of Mollie Burkhart and the atrocities committed against her people. Gladstone, who played Burkhart, is the first Native American to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.

It’s also worth noting that while Gosling’s acting nomination is being presented as a slight to Robbie, Robbie’s competition is the rest of the Best Actress field — not Gosling. Five other women, including Gladstone, were nominated instead of Robbie. That field also doesn’t include critically lauded performances from Lee, Ellis, and Natalie Portman, who Robbie would also had to have edged out to be recognized. It seems notable, too, that Ferrera’s nomination isn’t being lauded.

Framing praise for Gosling’s performance in the movie as some kind of negative is strange in that his character is an integral part of this feminist movie. It’s like saying Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight shouldn’t be recognized because that character represents the evil that Batman is fighting against. Gosling’s performance is a credit to the character and decisions that the director, screenwriters, and producers made.

Margot Robbie as Barbie, seen sitting at a pink vanity wearing a pink checked dress and smiling.
The insufferable Barbie discourse isn’t Margot Robbie’s fault. Margot Robbie’s innocent.
Warner Bros.

Robbie was nominated as a producer by way of Barbie’s Best Picture nomination. Luckychap, the production company Robbie co-founded in 2014, touts itself as helping create female-focused television and movies like I, Tonya, Promising Young Woman, and Barbie. Robbie winning for producing Barbie would be huge for a mission she seems to take pride in.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not quite sure if a nomination for Robbie in acting or Gerwig in directing would be considered a capital-W win for feminism. As critics of the backlash have already pointed out, there are bigger issues facing women. Individual nominations would not single-handedly solve the problem of the Academy’s biases and failure to recognize talent. Barbie could win all the Oscars and those problems would still exist.

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