This summer, director Greta Gerwig took viewers to Barbieland: a dreamy matriarchy where the Barbies live fulfilling lives while the Kens are simply there. The film opens with a montage of Barbies with different careers, portraying everything that Barbie (who is symbolic of women) can be. Barbieland is the perfect pink inverse of the real world—this inversion brings to light the absurdity of gender politics in the real world. The Hyper-femininity of Barbieland—often seen as an outdated and extreme stereotype—actually demonstrates how seemingly traditional gender roles contribute to modern feminism and gender expression.
Hyper-femininity as a tool for the redefinition of gender roles also came to the fore in the ’90s with the popularization of Britney Spears. Audiences were astounded by this 17-year-old’s unabashed sexuality combined with an innocent and girly aesthetic. She rapidly started garnering both praise and criticism, becoming a representation for the controversial coexistence of sexuality and femininity in pop culture. This synthesis of sexuality and girlishness created a Hyper-femininity that is still present in media today.
In a 2001 review of Spears’ third studio album “Britney,” The Rolling Stone wrote, “While she’s envisioning herself as a renegade fairy-tale princess, other gals her age are contemplating college majors, contraception and motherhood. America itself has aged abruptly over the past two months, perhaps too quickly for ‘Britney,’ Britney or even Britney.” The Rolling Stone, among other critics, treated Spears’ Hyper-femininity as a taboo and regressive compared to female accomplishments in male worlds.
In spite of her controversy, Spears’ legacy in pop culture stands strong, as she’s still a household name,* despite the controversy surrounding her image and public persona. She dominated the charts in the ’90s and 2000s and became a symbol of girlhood and female sexual liberation. Her embrace of Hyper-femininity (which critics bashed) became a tool for a wider embrace of possible female subjectivity. Many other artists of the time–including Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani––also stood for this expansion of what it means to be “feminine,” creating a space for female, transgender and non-binary identifying individuals to express themselves in ways previously labeled as hyper-feminine.
The Barbie franchise––notably the doll––has garnered similar reviews. The dolls serve as the double edged sword of what women can be and what women should be. Though a variety of different Barbie dolls––such as President Barbie and Astronaut Barbie––can be seen as feminist symbols, the company’s adherence to unrealistic beauty standards in the dolls’ design has also made Barbie the pinnacle of female objectification.
Nonetheless, the Barbie movie has garnered immense praise, becoming Warner Bros.’ highest grossing film to date. Gerwig balanced the absurd with the philosophical and used a doll franchise shrouded in stereotypes to provide commentary on womanhood and the detrimental effects of the patriarchy on women. Thus, Barbie retools hyper-feminine traits to contribute to an expansion of possible modes of expression for women.
“Barbie” made it especially clear that the hyper-feminine stereotypes which the dolls embodied were a choice. At one point in the film, the Barbies were brainwashed into wearing overly sexualized clothing; while this was seemingly “on-brand” for the characters, it was clear that the notion of choice being taken away made the Barbies feel powerless in their own expression. Their conscious choices in how they expressed themselves were powerful parts of their identities and showed that they were conscious members of society, not just subjects of dress-up games.
Similarly, Spears’ risqué persona was more than just a character. It was her declaration that people have a choice in how they express themselves, both within and beyond what society would expect, and expressing that hyper-femininity can be a conscious decision of gender expression and not just a societal expectation.
Both Spears and “Barbie” raise the important point that a hyper-feminine disposition is simply a form of expression; it can subvert the expectation of women to act in a certain way by adding an element of choice in how they express themselves.
*I would like to briefly acknowledge the #FreeBritney campaign; as an advocate for mental health care, I, like many other fans, found her conservatorship to be extremely unethical, and will not be mentioning it further in this article.