If you’ve been to see the Barbie movie, you likely left the cinema in one of two states – the first, which seems to be the case for a surprisingly large number of people, is a state of awe and a feeling of being seen. Barbie’s battle for gender equality after she witnesses the state of play in the “real world” served as a mirror to many women, showing the ingrained sexism in the settings that are fundamental to society (work, leadership, public spaces etc).
Or the second state, which is what I experienced, of feeling a little bored by the repetition of the obvious (the idea that women have endured gendered stereotypes and expectations for generations is not new or interesting), and a little miffed by the disinterest in extending this analysis to the way men are treated in society. Indeed, despite Ken being a standout character of the film, no real interrogation occurs about how gender norms and patriarchal attitudes have a negative impact on men as well as women.
And yet, that’s what I’m seeing around me in real life and what needs to be addressed if we’re ever going to get past the feminism-lite that has been driving the conversation for the past decade and into a more pragmatic phase of creating lasting change.
Just recently, a pregnant friend was discussing her plans to manage some work-related travel that she’ll need to do when her baby will be around six-months-old. Another friend asked if she would leave the baby with her male partner, or if she would have her mother help out.
“Actually, probably better if it’s your mum, hey,” she said, “It would be more stressful if you had to deal with your husband trying to take care of the baby without you.”
Excuse me? I was floored by this. Why were we automatically assuming this man wouldn’t be able to adequately care for his own child?
From what I had observed, my friend’s husband was more than prepared for having a kid, maybe even more so than his wife. He was already picking up as much of the domestic labour as possible while she battled pregnancy fatigue, had been researching early parenthood, and was as engaged in the pregnancy process as he could be without actually carrying the child. The assumption that he would be a bit hopeless on his own with his own child was nothing but old school sexism, and it irked me.
Equally, I find my partner is often teased because he doesn’t possess the expected “masculine” skills of basic house and car repairs – though no one bats an eyelid about me not being able to use a drill or change a tyre.
These are minor things, but given the off the charts reaction to Barbie online, a lot of which has been a resurgence of anti-male sentiment that ignores the diversity and complexity within the category of ‘men’, while simultaneously crying out for a more open and nuanced approach to understanding what it means to be a woman, it strikes me as yet another missed opportunity.
We should be past the point where we have to prove gender inequality exists, and that its most tangible negative impacts have been felt by women. We should now be taking a wider approach, acknowledging the experiences of men – especially men from lower socio-economic backgrounds – and women and gender diverse people, and trying to work towards shared solutions.
There will always be bad actors of all genders who reinforce the worst aspects of patriarchal attitudes, but they should be the outliers, not the norm.