Teaching Patriarchy Post-‘Barbie’

I am tasked to teach students about feminism—even those that initially describe themselves as anti-feminist. Learning how the patriarchy impacts our daily lives is the key.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Like many, I’m grateful that this summer’s Barbie film has moviegoers around the world talking about the patriarchy. I am delighted that the highest-grossing movie of 2023 has brought the word “patriarchy” into our daily parlance. Now that we have the language to describe our predicament, it’s critically important to keep talking about the patriarchy, and to keep going down the path that Barbie takes us on to investigate the way our daily lives are impacted by patriarchal constructs. I’ve been using similar tactics to the Barbie movie to introduce these ideas to my first-year students at UC Santa Cruz, with revealing results.

Most students sign up for my composition course to fulfill a general writing requirement, without knowing what the subject of the class will be. When they discover the topic on the first day of class, some students express that they have no desire to “Come Closer to Feminism,” as I have titled the course (borrowing this phrase from bell hooks’ marvelous handbook Feminism is for Everybody).

Faced with this reality, I have had to create a way for students to learn about feminism even if they initially describe themselves as anti-feminist. My goal is to make the course accessible and applicable for everyone who is placed into it. This includes helping students of all backgrounds unpack how the intersections of their individual gender, racial and sexual identities make them particularly privileged—or oppressed—within our patriarchal society.

My strategy has been to develop a method of teaching the course that allows students to harness the power of the feminist lens to discover how the patriarchy is operating as a defining force in their lives.

In the first few class sessions, I ask all my students—even the reluctant ones who were displeased that they were enrolled in a course about feminism—to identify how toxic masculinity and rape culture have impacted their identity development. My project is to help students understand the patriarchal structures that define our existence by showing them how they have been personally negatively affected by expectations of manliness and by being sexualized as objects.

In the Barbie movie, Ken and Barbie uncover similar realizations about patriarchy when they leave Barbieland for the Real World, where Barbie is objectified and belittled, and where toxic masculinity eventually takes a toll on Ken’s psyche.

Even though they may never have named these daily assaults on their bodies and minds as patriarchal before, the students in my class quickly recognize the consequences of living within the patriarchy—a previously invisible social force that they are now able to see and describe.

This method of teaching and learning has worked surprisingly well in my classes. In 10 short weeks, my students actually do “come closer to feminism,” and they share remarkable realizations in our classroom discussions and in their own self-reflective writing that prove it.

At the end of spring quarter, one student wrote:

“I really feel like my life has changed because of this class. It revealed truths to me that I was aware of, but chose to accept. Now, as I face the patriarchy, toxic gender norms, and rape culture, I don’t accept them. Instead, I now have the outlook that these systematic forces can be changed if I actively disempower them. I can do this through the way I express my own gender, how I interact with others, and the material I use to educate myself. … My eyes were really opened to just how many struggles in our society can be traced back to the patriarchy.”

Another student in the class wrote:

“This has been the most impactful class of my college education so far. Going into it, I had no clue how much my thinking would change in positive ways. When we started off learning about the stereotypes of feminism and toxic masculinity, I already felt myself connecting so many dots from my life. Everything started to make more sense because I began understanding the underlying systems that were dictating our lives. Patriarchy is something that I always knew about, but never acknowledged how much of a role it played in my life. Every day I experience something related to the patriarchy, and now that I have the knowledge from this class, I am able to identify it and think of ways to combat it.”

As these student voices describe, it is transformative to analyze our own experiences through a feminist lens. As we saw in the Barbie movie, learning about how patriarchal oppression is impacting our daily lives is the key to helping us understand how essential feminism really is—not only for Barbie and Ken, but for all of us here in the real world.

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Lindsay Knisely has taught writing and social justice at the University of California, Santa Cruz since 2004. She is a two-time winner of the UC Santa Cruz's Excellence in Teaching Award. Find out more at Lindsayknisely.com.