It took almost two years in the making, but it’s finally happened – hot pink and sequins are back, fashion would get us noticed. Red carpets and runways are awash in bright, monochromatic colors that many wanted to tout as unambiguously feminist. It’s fun, seductive, sexy, daring and confident – and most of all, it’s girly. But we’re reclaiming femininity now, which makes “Barbiecore” liberating in a way it wouldn’t have been two decades ago.
Barbiecore is presented as one that subverts the association of femininity with submissiveness. Pink is the new frontier of assertiveness for a new type of hyper–a femininity that is open, strong and proud. Where it used to signify submission and a sort of oppressive kindness, the same color now signifies independence, sexuality, confidence., and charisma – it’s to make a statement about changing norms around femininity. It even subverts the idea of ’bimbo’ as ‘Barbiecore’ becomes interchangeable with ‘bimbocore’ – a callback to the cultural opinion of Paris Hilton in the early 1900s. Now, bimbocore is something to reclaim, because we’ve completely demystified the word itself. So far so good – indeed, Lil Nas X and Harry Styles have also taken on the aesthetic and given it a more subversive sheen.
But when an entire aesthetic is practically thrust upon us as feminist, empowering and necessary – moreover, obligating to fill one’s shopping cart with things to embody it – is that really liberating? Still, a majority of people who “reclaim” Barbiecore remain celebrities and traditionally attractive fashion houses. Kim Kardashian, for her part, is credited with bringing the aesthetic to mainstream relevance – and yet she’s simultaneously known for her near-constant body modifications that give her the impossible proportions of Barbie herself, in addition to also promoting diet pills and snake oil teas. .
The trend really came into its own with Margot Robbie playing the eponymous character in feminist filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s film. Barbie. The film may be a satirical or even subversive take on the Barbie phenomenon, but the internet nonetheless loved the footage of Robbie dressed in a hot pink cowgirl outfit. This, notwithstanding the fact that Robbie is still a slim, cis, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman who is already considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. Arguably, this set of characteristics still represents oppressive standards of beauty as beauty constantly changes and diversifies – forming the foundation of what society’s expectations of beauty aspire to in one form or another.
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In attempting to reclaim and even subvert what Barbie stands for, the Barbiecore aesthetic ends up falling into the same trap as the original and controversial doll itself: it cannot exist without mass production, hyper-optimization, and commodification. Barbie herself is a complex cultural phenomenon – she has received more incremental upgrades than most other toys and is a testament to the longevity of culturally sensitive branding. But it also represents the worst excesses of capitalism, in which progressive ideas are co-opted into sanitized, salable objects. Take the fact that despite representing more professions than women themselves (Barbie has served as President of the United States) and more skin tones than before, she still retains her essence of sweetness, mostly Eurocentric beauty. – with just enough of an upgrade to be enjoyable but never uncomfortable.
The Barbiecore aesthetic is similar: it’s similarity disguised as difference. It’s mass-produced – this time on the algorithmic assembly line – and, crucially, it not only sells pink, but also a value system that makes pink more delicious. It doesn’t matter who adopts the aesthetic (the more diverse the better for brands) – as long as the aesthetic is adopted. Worse, it borrows (without credit) from drag culture, where the aesthetic was genuinely subversive and gendered. By comparison, Barbiecore remains boring in its insistence that it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, the insistence on redefining beauty has set us back from the progress we’ve made by challenging it together. During the pandemic, we began to abandon certain ideals in favor of new ones that prioritized physical comfort and greater acceptance. “But moving away from existing ideals and accepting new ones as ‘as beautiful’ risks falling prey to the same cycle, in which one standard of beauty simply replaces another while beauty itself remains the goal” , noted Devrupa Rakshit in The Swaddling earlier.
Additionally, mainstream and pop-ified aesthetics like Barbiecore are never as comprehensive as they present themselves: “Even as we try to sink deeper into the definition of beauty, we’re still going to leave something behind,” as Rajvi Desai wrote. for The Swaddle earlier.
In the end, no matter how much it says otherwise, the Barbiecore aesthetic is just that – an aesthetic. In his insistence that pink is now empowering, he still applies color to the kinds of uncomfortable hyper-feminine fashions we’re only just beginning to question. High heels, lingerie, long nails, sunglasses, small handbags, and bandage dresses have all, at various times, been seen as oppressive for the way they have become essential to the expression of femininity – as if that’s all there is to being feminine. But now, we’re back to reclaiming those same things that ultimately line the pockets of the retail, wellness, and beauty megaliths that have the most to gain.