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Barbie: Dismantling the Gender Binary through Hip Hop Feminism

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

In one of the hottest summers on record, millions of people around the world have sought refuge in air-conditioned cinemas to watch director Greta Gerwig’s new movie, Barbie. Since its release on July 21st, 2023, Barbie has grossed over $1.3 billion internationally. In the United States, the summer blockbuster has made over $543 million in just over one month. Invented in 1959, the original Barbie doll has received both praise and criticism for its unrealistic expectations of “the perfect woman.” The founder of Barbie, Ruth Handler, sought to empower young girls by creating a doll that would inspire them to pursue their chosen career path. However, Barbie critics have claimed that despite its efforts for encouragement, the doll advocates for antifeminist ideas by promoting unrealistic female body standards, idealization of white, cisgender women, and perpetuation of the patriarchy with the development of the male Ken doll. Barbie has become relevant because the film and its soundtrack have generated new conversations about different and important issues like feminism and sexism. The Barbie movie attempts to unravel the notions of how the Barbie doll negatively impacts feminism by offering a testimonial to Handler’s efforts and providing a modern take on the ways Barbie dolls endorse women’s empowerment. Further, the songs that make up the movie’s soundtrack draw similarities to those produced by female rappers of the 1990s in the promotion of what is now known as “hip-hop feminism.”

Coined by author Joan Morgan in her book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, the term “hip-hop feminism” can be explained as a rejection of sexist, male hip-hop culture and advocacy of feminist ideas through the musical examination of intersectionality, gender roles, sex positivity, and the reclamation of hip hop culture for black women in particular. The music of rappers like Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, and Lauryn Hill included messages about body positivity, sexual liberation, and combating domestic violence and sexual assault. In Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s song “Ladies First”, the message that hip-hop culture must make space for women is made clear in Queen Latifah’s lyrics.
Sloppy slouching is something I won't do
Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)
I'm a mess around and flip the scene into reverse
(With what?) With a little touch of “Ladies First.”

Modern rappers like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion have also continued the tradition of hip-hop feminism. In her song, “Barbie World” which was featured in the Barbie movie, Nicki Minaj raps the lines:

Yellin' out, we ain't sellin' out
We got money, but we ain't lendin' out
We got bars, but we ain't bailin' out

The connection to Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First", especially the line, “stereotypes, they got to go,” is made clear as Nicki Minaj similarly attempts to dismantle the negative stereotypes of women in power by insinuating that women can be successful in business regardless of their gender expression. Part of the Barbie movie’s main messages about empowering women to be themselves were explained through the variety of Barbie doll characters who all looked and dressed differently. This variety of female characters provided viewers with the visual component of Nicki Minaj’s lyrics, allowing them to both consciously and unconsciously draw the conclusion that individuality in clothing style, body size, race, socio-economic class, and sexuality should be celebrated, not condemned. The Barbie movie features other songs by more contemporary female artists like Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Ava Max, Dua Lipa, Fifty Fifty, and Pink Pantheress, and these artists, like Nicki Minaj, included in their music explicitly feminist messages that align with the film’s goal of celebrating Barbie’s achievements in furthering women’s empowerment.

The success of Barbie has served as an example of the ways in which women have begun to reclaim power in a world occupied by men. While simultaneously incorporating nostalgic iconography of the 1950s dreamhouse and actress Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the blonde Barbie archetype, the Barbie movie at first glance is seemingly made for children and their sentimental mothers. What the viewer does not expect are the immediate allusions to major women’s issues of the 21st century in the film’s script, cinematography, and soundtrack. These allusions and the discussions surrounding them are the most powerful players in fighting the battle against sexism and antifeminism. To aid these discussions, women today continue to rely on artists like Nicki Minaj and Queen Latifah to further the sentiments expressed by hip-hop feminism. Movies like Barbie are crucial components in shifting the social narrative to be inclusive to people of all genders, especially women.

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