Barbie: International Law, War, and Feminist ‘Utopias’

by | Nov 30, 2023 | Political Perspectives on Film, Short form | 0 comments

Zeenat Sabur

Between the seriousness and the reality presented by Oppenheimer and the imaginative elegance of Barbie, there is also a space to think about our own reality: who shapes it, and why do we accept it the way it is portrayed to us? As the Barbie movie shows, questioning our own reality is fundamental to comprehend some of the laws and institutions that we usually normalize and consider as being ‘natural’.


Earlier this summer Barbie became one half of blockbuster showdown ‘Barbenheimer’, released in cinemas on the same day as Oppenheimer. The popularity of the two movies with UK cinema-goers meant that cinema admissions in July 2023 in the UK hit more than 17.6 million, marking the busiest month for UK cinemas since December 2019. Greta Gerwig’s Mattel fantasy was lauded as a feminist fable, that managed ‘simultaneously to celebrate, satirise and deconstruct its happy-plastic subject’. While Oppenheimer is perhaps more obviously taken seriously, read as a movie that tells us something about the serious subjects of politics, war, and law, so too can Barbie.

Barbie is set in fantasy land, Barbieland. The movie begins with Margot Robbie’s ‘stereotypical Barbie’ – blonde, perky, utterly flawless – and her start to the day. Barbie awakes in her heart-shaped bed, waves to the other Barbies, has a water-less shower, changes into her pretty pink outfit, swoops down her slide, and has a beach day. Everything is perfect. Until Barbie begins to think about death, realises there is a tear in the boundary between Barbieland and the real world, and heads into said real world to repair it. Through understanding Barbie’s venture into the ‘real world’ – or our world – in a particular way, we can think about law and war.

The Barbies believe that their world represents a discrimination-less world, an ideal world in which women are scientists, journalists, Supreme Court Justices, doctors, and Nobel Peace Prize winners. They imagine that not only is this a perfect world, but that the creation of their world has impacted the ‘real world’, and that this world is one in which women hold significant power, where misogyny no longer exists, and women are free to be whoever they want. That is until Stereotypical Barbie travels to our world and meets teen Sasha. Introducing herself to Sasha as ‘your favourite woman of all time’, Barbie believes that thanks to her and her friends, women have progressed. Sasha responds that Barbie has ‘been making women feel bad about themselves since [she was] invented’ and that she represents ‘everything wrong with our culture, sexualized capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals’. What’s more, Barbie has ‘set the feminist movement back 50 years’, destroying girls’ ‘innate sense of worth’ and is killing the planet with [her] glorification of rampant consumerism’. This articulates that not only has Barbie not made the world a better place for women but has actively contributed to the suffering of women and the planet. Hence creating a dystopia while believing to negate one.


Regulating (legalising) war

This can be useful in understanding the international laws of war. Allow me to elaborate: The decision over when a state can use force is permeated by law. International law legislates when a state can kill, who a state can kill, and how. The law pertaining to the use of force is subdivided into two categories: law governing the resort to force and law governing the conduct of force, each reflecting Just War Theory’s jus ad bellum and jus in bello branches. The former is enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter, which requires that the use of force is only legal in self-defence after an ‘armed attack’ has occurred (the only other exception to the ban on the use of force in Article 2 (4) is when force is authorised by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter) and in the customary international law of self-defence, predating the UN Charter. The jus in bello – justice in war – is legally provided for in international humanitarian law (IHL). This requires that only combatants can be targeted, that civilians must not be intentionally or disproportionately killed; nor should attacks inflict unnecessary suffering. These laws can be reasonably understood to exist to reduce the instances of force, hence reducing the impact of war on civilians.

Just as Barbie imagines that the existence of Barbieland where women hold all the positions of power is representative of a ‘perfect’ world and will create this perfect world in the real world, we might look at these laws and imagine that they represent a palatable world (when compared to the World Wars that preceded the creation of the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions) and will bring about this world. However, as Barbie is confronted with the Real World, its injustices, and not only the inability of Barbieland to make this perfect world real but Barbieland’s contribution to upholding an unjust world, we too are forced to reckon with the injustices that persist alongside these laws, and the ways in which these laws are interpreted to enact morally unjust acts.

Important to understand before we go further is that war governed by the laws of war can be understood as a middle ground between total war, in which civilians are indiscriminately attacked, and no war, as Mavrodes argues. But this type of war, as regulated by rules as it may be, is still harmful to civilians. Further, law can be understood as a tool to legitimise civilian casualties: by stating the civilians cannot be killed unnecessarily, disproportionally, and intentionally, it creates space for civilians to be killed necessarily, proportionally, and unintentionally. For example, article 51(4) of the Geneva Conventions prohibits indiscriminate attacks which are not directed at a ‘specific military objective’, therefore combatants cannot legally launch an attack for any purpose other than a military one. This does not protect civilians from being killed as collateral damage in an attack aimed at a military objective, only from being the intended targets of an attack. We can make the moral argument that civilian killing is ethically wrong, but the law only prohibits intentional, unnecessary, and disproportional killing of civilians – not all killing. In this way, the law provides states with legal cover for the killing of civilians. The law does prevent some civilian killing by reducing the instances in which it is legal for a state to use force. However, it simultaneously permits the use of force in some situations in which civilians are killed. Thus, while making some killing illegal, it makes other killing legal. Barbie helps us to think about this.

In Barbieland women are presidents, Supreme Court Justices, doctors, journalists, lawyers, pilots, physicist, construction workers, and diplomats. This is a good thing: little girls who might play with Barbies imagine all the things that they could be. Similarly, the laws of war are a good thing: they protect some people from being killed who might otherwise be killed in total war. However, Barbie’s ability to represent women in different professional roles does not solve injustices. As Sasha points out, the existence of Barbie contributes to the creation of new injustices. For instance, there have been numerous reports of Mattel using sweatshops. Sweatshops are harmful to the people whose labour is ‘made’ cheap (as Enloe argues in The Curious Feminist) and who are exploited for the benefit of corporations like Mattel. So, while some children get to play with Barbies and imagine the myriad of opportunities available to them, other children live in poverty, their parents exploited by the companies claiming to empower women. We can hold these two truths simultaneously. Similarly, the laws of war prevent states from legally killing without restrictions. Concurrently, they provide states with legal justification for killing some civilians some of the time.

For instance, on May 4th 2009, US military strikes killed 26 civilians in Afghanistan, however the Pentagon’s press secretary justified the killing, claiming that the killing of the civilians was proportional as ‘they were greatly outnumbered by the Taliban killed in this incident’. the number of Taliban killed in these strikes was 60-65. It is possible that had this number been 5 – or had the number of civilians who would be killed as a result of this strike been higher, say 100 – the US would have not taken those strikes, deeming the casualties disproportional. But, in reality we see a state use the language of the law to justify the killing of civilians. And this is the paradox of the laws of war – they may protect some from being killed, they may create a less violent world than one we might otherwise live in. Simultaneously, they provide legal justification for some killing. Just as Barbie might inspire some children, while its production harms other humans. In attempting to bring about a better world, both the laws of war and Barbie create worlds in which some lives can be sacrificed.


Creating utopias

What is interesting about Barbieland is that we are meant to believe that it is some sort of utopia. But we must question whether Barbieland is a utopia. Let’s take Barbieland’s Supreme Court – all the justices are women. Let’s take the US Supreme Court in the real world as a counter-example: out of 115 justices who have served on court, six have been women. A court that has this gender imbalance cannot possibly represent people fairly. If this is an injustice, then how can an alternate supreme court in which all the judges are women possibly be a fair representation of the people it serves?

There is meant to be irony here: the gender balance in Barbieland – in a matriarchal society – is flipped from the real world. But my approach in this analysis is to engage with this movie seriously. My approach is also to apply my thinking around this movie to the laws of war. If I think seriously about representation in the laws of war – the in bello rules which govern the protection of civilians – then this prompts me to point out the rather obvious fact that these rules have not been drafted or approved by the civilians that states will apply these laws to. No Afghan civilian whose killing was justified through the language of these laws, drafted, or accepted these laws. Of course, states are the entities who can legally go to war. Therefore, states are the ones who must interpret and apply and abide by these laws. It may be nonsensical to think that civilians should or could have a hand in writing the laws of war. But, if we think that it is unfair that a Supreme Court made up of a majority of men can vote to uphold an effective abortion ban in Texas in 2021, is it fair that laws which make the killing of some civilians legal some of the time, become law without the consent of civilians?

Of course, it is unrealistic that states in a state-centric world would tie themselves to comply by more restrictive law at the wishes of civilians. But an awareness of the world we live in should not prevent us from imagining how we might remake a different, perhaps fairer, world. And it should not prevent us from pointing out the ways in which it is absurd. This is something Gerwig’s Barbie does beautifully: it shows us that different worlds are possible. That the world we live in is fragile: we see this when the Kens usurp power with seeming ease. And we see it when the Barbies take it back, with seeming ease. Despite the critique I have of the movie, as evidenced in this post, this is an important point to take away. When the Barbies believe that the status quo of the Kens in absolute power is the only possibility, they concede power. The Kens do the same. They live in a matriarchy until Ken discovers there are alternate ways of living. Once the Kens and then the Barbies realise their roles in creating their worlds, they are empowered to remake what they imagine to be better worlds. They are complicit in creating their worlds. Similarly, there is nothing ‘natural’ about this world and it is fragile and ‘open to radical change’, as Enloe argues in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases. This is hopeful. And so, we should ask seemingly absurd questions about the laws of war, about who they protect and about all the ways they could better protect.


Short Bio

Zeenat picZeenat Sabur is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. Her research is at the intersection of politics and international law and looks at the narratives of NGOs and states who are proponents of the TPNW and the narratives of P5 states which continue to possess nuclear weapons. Zeenat has previously worked on an Open Society Foundations funded research project looking at  the legality of drone use post-9/11.