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Barbie Land Had a Female President: When Will the US?

The White House and magnolias

Staff Writer, Govhar Dadashova, reflects upon the prospect of recreating Barbie Land and having a woman as leader of the US.

There are a lot of stereotypes when it comes to International Relations (IR) students. We love having complex debates, making everything political, and finding new ways to relate things back to IR Theory. There is nothing more enjoyable to us than discussing domestic and international institutions or actors. Stereotypes can be restrictive and untrue. Unfortunately, when it came to watching the Barbie movie, I epitomised all of them. How could I not? The “Barbie” movie set high expectations. In my opinion, it did not fail to deliver. 

Greta Gerwig crafted a story which seemed to span the gamut of human emotion. Her characters felt both young and old; politically aware and yet somehow painfully naïve. Just like the actual doll itself, the “Barbie” movie did not solve feminist issues, nor address every pressing political concern. However, I never expected a single movie to fulfil such impossible criteria. Instead, I tried to understand the connections which could be made between Barbie Land and our political reality. Fortunately for my IR-wired brain, there were many to be found. As I admired the performances of Margot Robbie, America Ferrera, and Issa Rae, I could not help but turn my thoughts towards American politics. Whether it was the Jenga-like wall built by Ken and his male peers or the repeated threats to disenfranchise the Barbies, there was much to reflect upon.

Firstly, Barbie Land had its own female president and an entire Supreme Court made of women. It was built on a political system rooted in community, collaboration, and connectivity. To be clear, what struck me was not the need to recreate Barbie Land in the US, nor anywhere else for that matter, but the value of having a female president. Whether to improve representation or stimulate innovative policymaking, the movie reminded me that women need more seats at the table – a cliché, I know, but one for good reason. This milestone might not happen in the United States in the upcoming election or even in the one after.

In order for a female president to win, we must seriously evaluate the social and political obstacles standing in their way. The good news is that impactful steps have already been taken. Hillary Clinton came close to winning the presidency in 2016 and Kamala Harris became Vice President in 2020. These events have shifted political dynamics, proving that women are more than capable of being in power. However, there remain crucial inequalities in the way that male and female politicians are treated. The future will require us to redefine political failure, whether that means losing an election, not achieving every policy goal, or simply not fulfilling impossible standards.

The 2016 presidential election is a good example. Irrespective of how you feel about her policy ideas, Clinton undoubtedly faced a barrage of criticism and disappointment in the days after the election. There was a sense that she had somehow let down millions of girls and women. By viewing the election as a complete disaster, we are insinuating that female politicians have two options: succeed entirely or lose the right to try again. This is problematic, to say the least. Failure is a part of the political process and is a symptom of a functioning democracy. 

To clarify, I strongly believe that women need more seats at the table. They absolutely deserve to win presidential elections and to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. It is simply frustrating when the media and public hold women up to lofty standards, setting them up to crash and burn. When women inevitably fail to meet such criteria, they are torn apart and have their credibility challenged. Why does failure have to be so expensive for women? 

Joe Biden had the luxury of campaigning more than once for the presidency. He dedicated a large portion of his life to politics and his efforts were rewarded, not demeaned. If we truly wish to subscribe to democratic values, then we must allow for a dynamic political system. That is, one where different parties or actors can take power. A system where women are allowed to respectfully push boundaries and challenge the status quo.

This is the argument pushed forward by Professor Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton Professor who specialises in political theory. Whilst Müller is not directly addressing the possibility of a female president, his argument is a valuable one to consider – there will always be losers and winners in a political system. The trouble arises when women repeatedly feel stuck in the former category. Patriarchy is a massive concept and is often used as an umbrella term for a myriad of problems.

In such circumstances, we run the risk of easily labelling everything but coming up short on substantial, actionable steps. I believe a female president will require citizens to collaborate across party lines, genders, and backgrounds. Change will always feel superficial if there is no sense of connectivity. 

This all sounds relatively optimistic but how can we turn theory into action? Attitudes can only shift with education and exposure. Citizens should want to vote for women. This means increasing accessibility for female candidates to enter races and tackling misogynistic assumptions. Whilst Clinton, Harris and many other women have provided valuable examples, we cannot rest on their laurels.

Furthermore, female candidates must have enough funding to compete with their male competitors. There also needs to be a policy which inspires citizens and convinces them to not vote for the incumbent. Challenging the status quo does not mean forgetting the Founding Fathers or scrapping the Constitution. Rather, it invites a revitalisation of democracy and, as Professor Mullër argues, the opportunity for long-term change. We need new perspectives, otherwise politics will always provide the same solutions and voices.

Of course, it would be hypocritical to assume that a female politician would not chase fame, success, or corruption, as president. However, we can accept that reality whilst also recognising that is a weak argument for not electing a woman. Several positive outcomes are possible.

The symbolic value of a woman leading the most powerful country in the world would alone be ground-breaking. The opinions of women would have to be taken seriously on a domestic and international level. If the US has a female president, why can other countries not follow? To be clear, I do not expect sexism, violence against women, or other forms of oppression to be eradicated. Unfortunately, it is impossible to solve all of these with one election.

We might have to grow up and stop playing with our dolls but we do not have to stop imagining a more inclusive political reality. Barbie Land is fictional but the struggles of women in the US and across the world are very much real.

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