Photo illustration by John Lyman



From Dolls to Dominance: The Feminist Evolution in ‘Barbie’ and ‘Poor Things’

Over the past year, the cinematic landscape has been enriched by a slate of films that foreground the narratives of resilient, diverse women navigating the currents of a patriarchal society. Among these, Barbie and Poor Things stand out for their audacious challenge to societal stereotypes and the rigid expectations placed upon women. These films not only interrogate the constructs of identity and agency but also delve deeply into the essence of what it means to be a woman in a world governed by patriarchal norms.

Barbie and Poor Things serve as compelling narratives that illuminate women’s experiences within a patriarchal framework, each film exploring the themes of feminism, identity, and agency through a lens that is both critical and existential. Through their distinct narratives, these films provoke a profound reevaluation of the roles and spaces women occupy, pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling to embrace a broader, more nuanced exploration of female empowerment and self-determination. In doing so, they contribute significantly to the ongoing discourse on gender equality, offering insightful perspectives on the complexity of navigating personal identity in a society that often seeks to limit the scope of what women can be and do.

As a Xennial, I have a personal connection with Barbie, as I used to play with Barbie dolls when I was a child. I admired her versatility and independence, and I also had a strong female role model, my own Barbie, in my mother, who’s always balanced work, family, and personal life with grace and courage. My mother raised three children while working full-time as a high school teacher. She also found time to volunteer in her community, go to the gym, go dancing with my dad, read stories, and tuck us into bed. Because of my mom’s good example, I grew up knowing that everything was possible and that I could be and do anything I wanted.

Barbie and Poor Things each explore the motif of women as ‘dolls’ through distinct yet parallel narratives. Barbie, a literal doll imbued with life, and Bella, the protagonist of Poor Things, resurrected through scientific endeavor, embody divergent manifestations of femininity constructed from male-centric visions. Barbie emerges as the quintessential embodiment of male ideals, a fabricated paragon of womanhood, while Bella is reanimated to fulfill Dr. Godwin Baxter’s (portrayed by Willem Dafoe) vision of the ultimate experiment in female form. These characters navigate the treacherous landscapes sculpted by patriarchal dictates, their stories unfolding as they break free from their manufactured existences to confront the stark realities imposed by a patriarchal world. Their journeys, while fantastical, underscore a critical discourse on the imposition of gender norms and the struggle for autonomy within a society that seeks to define womanhood through the lens of male desire and control.

Given its PG-13 rating, Barbie ingeniously navigates the complexities of women’s challenges, embroidering them into its narrative fabric with nuance and care. The film chronicles the journey of Barbie, a doll whose existence in the idyllic and vibrant Barbieland is marked by universal happiness and kindness. Yet, beneath this flawless veneer, Barbie grapples with unsettling anomalies in her physical and mental state, propelling her to venture into the real world in search of answers.

Here, amidst forging new alliances and confronting a tapestry of trials, a poignant scene unfolds. As Barbie and Ken glide through the streets on rollerblades, the stark disparity in their experiences comes to light. Barbie is confronted with the unsettling realities of how she is perceived and treated by men, an encounter that leaves her feeling exposed and vulnerable. Conversely, Ken revels in a newfound sense of empowerment and respect. This juxtaposition not only enriches the narrative but also serves as a reflective lens on societal dynamics, highlighting the film’s subtle yet powerful commentary on gender perceptions and the quest for personal identity in a complex world.

Poor Things, distinguished by its R-rating, delves into the realms of feminism with a bold exploration of sexuality, incorporating provocative and contentious scenes. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name, which serves as a satirical nod to Frankenstein, the film introduces us to Bella Baxter—a young woman who meets a tragic end by suicide, only to be resurrected in a groundbreaking experiment by Dr. Baxter. The scientist infuses life back into her by transplanting the brain of her unborn child into her cranium, making Bella the centerpiece of his ambitious project. However, Bella’s indomitable spirit soon leads her to break free from his clutches, setting off on a journey filled with exploration and adventure.

In the unfettered expanse of the real world, Bella navigates her newfound existence with an uninhibited embrace of her sexual autonomy. Her journey is one of self-discovery and liberation, as she actively explores her desires and pleasures without the constraints of guilt or societal judgment. Bella’s odyssey takes her through the multifaceted experiences of self-gratification, consensual pleasures, and eventually, sex work—not as a figure of exploitation, but as a testament to her sovereignty over her body and choices. She orchestrates her interactions with clients on her terms, experiencing a spectrum of emotions and sensations, from pleasure to pain, yet always remaining the architect of her destiny. This narrative arc is not just a story of personal liberation; it is a powerful commentary on autonomy, consent, and the reclaiming of agency in a world that often seeks to define women by their sexuality.

Although both characters, Barbie and Bella, start as naïve ‘dolls,’ they differ in their representations: Barbie embodies men’s traditional idealization of a perfect woman, whereas Bella is more akin to a patchwork ragdoll. Furthermore, Barbie suffers real-world patriarchal cruelty, whereas Bella scarcely does. On one hand, Barbie deconstructs the world’s idealization of the perfect doll by learning to stand up for herself and others, choosing to become human as a result of her experiences. On the other hand, in Poor Things, Bella’s journey is the humanization of a ‘monster’ through her sexual liberation, good books, curiosity, and real-world experiences. Through self-actualization, Bella becomes independent, self-empowered, and a self-made activist changer.

Both movies complement one another in their exploration of what it means to be female in a world where expectations can seem impossible, and how our experiences define us. While Barbie and Bella’s journeys differ, both are worth watching for their insights into the manifestations of patriarchy and the confinement women face in society. Their stories prompt us to consider: how many more glass ceilings must we break to truly shed light on gender equality?