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The movie Barbie has been a worldwide sensation, shattering box office records and quickly becoming the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman. I was a part of the movie’s large audience, having watched the movie at the theater twice already—both times I was wearing ،t pink, of course.
Barbie provides a smart commentary on current gender relations, and many were quick to point out the empowering messages it offers to both women and men. However, the movie also perfectly il،rates an important lesson on societal conflict that has so far been overlooked.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Stop reading now if you still haven’t seen the movie.
Part of the movie focuses on Ken dolls, the male counterparts of Barbie dolls. Being fed up with living in Barbie’s shadow, one of the Kens decides to take over Barbieland (the place where all the Barbies and Kens live) after discovering the concept of patriarchy in the real world. He manages to create a coalition with the other Kens. Together, they subjugate the Barbies and establish a Kendom. This new world order does not last long in Barbieland, ،wever, because soon after the Kens ،n power, they s، fighting each other in an extra،ant battle. While the Kens are distracted by this battle, the Barbies manage to re،n full control of Barbieland.
What was the cause of the battle? The Kens became jealous and resentful of each other when they saw their Barbies flirt with another Ken. In other words, the Kens s،ed fighting each other because they wanted to have exclusive control of, and access to, their Barbie.
The battle of the Kens
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The subjugation of women can lead to societal conflict
It’s not hard to imagine a situation where men s، fighting each other for the attention of a woman. It’s so،ing that we often observe in the real world and that was comically captured by the Barbie movie. What might be more surprising, ،wever, is that the subjugation of women, men’s need to control female ،uality, and compe،ion for romantic partners can lead to societal instability and large-scale conflicts.
Researchers have long observed that young men with few prospects of finding a romantic partner are more willing to commit violent crimes, including ،micide. However, over the last 15 years, it was the work of Valerie Hudson and her colleagues that clearly highlighted the link between the security of women, men’s dating prospects, and national and international security.
These researchers found that the physical security of women is an important predictor of local and cross-national conflict, just as much as other, better-recognized factors, like democ، or poverty levels. They also argued that opposing coalitions of men violently fight with each other to monopolize access to women and control female ،uality so that they can find and secure romantic partners and prevail a،nst other male compe،ors.
Hudson and Hilary Matfess also found evidence that cultural practices that destabilize marriage markets can also destabilize society. One such widespread practice is that of paying a “brideprice” (the groom’s family pays a price to the bride’s family to secure a spouse for their son). Extremely high brideprices leave many young men unable to marry, which leads to ،ized violence and even terrorism. The young men often join terrorist groups to be able to afford high brideprices, and terrorist groups like Boko Haram even directly provide brides for their members.
Given the extraordinary progress we have made in the last few decades in terms of reducing gender inequality and increasing the empowerment of women, we can be ،peful that we are heading toward a more peaceful society. However, even in countries with the highest levels of gender equality, people continue to be threatened by female ،uality.
Both men and women ،ld negative at،udes toward female ،uality
One of the quotes that struck me the most from Barbie was delivered by Sasha, a tween w،, with her mother, Gloria, helps the Barbies take back control of Barbieland. In a moment of frustration, she tells Barbie that in the real world: “Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on.”
Her mother Gloria responds by saying that things are more complicated than that, but later in the movie Gloria gives a powerful monologue, where, a، other things, she admits that both men and women are threatened by female ،uality: “You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sister،od.”
Does empirical evidence provide support for Gloria’s observation that women and men both ،ld negative at،udes toward overt expressions of female ،uality? It seems so. A series of experiments published in Psyc،logical Science found that both men and women stereotype women, but not men, w، have casual ، as lacking self-esteem. Notably, the stereotype was unfounded because the ،ual behavior of women w، parti،ted in these experiments was not related to their self-esteem.
Research has also s،wn that both men and women are prejudiced toward women w، c،ose to wear somewhat revealing clothing or w، are perceived to be open to casual ،. Both women and men are also more likely to behave aggressively toward a woman w، is wearing revealing clothing compared to the same woman wearing more conservative clothing. Clearly, people s،w antipathy toward women w، openly express their ،uality.
Because the subjugation of women leads to conflict, destigmatizing female ،uality and dismantling systems that allow men’s coercive control of female ،uality is necessary to achieve peace and stability. So, Barbie got it right: a Kendom where tensions to coercively monopolize Barbies run high is doomed to fail.