It was virtually impossible to avoid the hyper-feminine content that dominated the internet and media writ-large this summer. From the blockbuster debut of “Barbie” to Taylor Swift’s record-breaking Eras Tour, anti-patriarchal narratives seemed to be everywhere that you turned. Whether it be the famous “f**k the patriarchy” lyric shouted during Taylor Swift’s All Too Well (10 Minute Version) or Barbie’s Ken-free Dreamhouse, this media seems to be selling young women a dose of female empowerment that rivals Betty Friedan’s greatest works.
Nevertheless, while I was participating (gladly) in the summer we all turned pretty, I was simultaneously learning about the fate of American civil society and the most important indicator of that — the birth rate. I took a class with American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Tim Carney, who in his writings often cites the decline in birth rate as indicative of broader problems in America. He is right that with the birth rate well below replacement, at 1.64 births per woman in 2020, the United States won’t sustain its current demographics. It is also reflective of a growing sentiment among young women to opt not to have kids, which seems to track with a similar decline in marriage.
All that said, you are likely wondering, what exactly does Barbie have to do with the birth rate?
The modern feminist movement, at its core, rejects the idea of female identity being inextricably tied to relationships, marriage, and motherhood. This is clear in the stigma around being a stay-at-home mom, pressure against synonymizing reproductive ability and womanhood among transgender activists, and the “you don’t need a man” sentiment that proliferates in many areas of culture. Emily Ratajkowski’s glorification of her divorce as “chic” and congratulating women who “tried that married fantasy and [realize] that it’s maybe not all it’s cracked up to be” at a young age is simply the latest iteration of this.
It is without a doubt true that certain rigid conceptions of femininity were and sometimes still are stifling for many groups of women, notably in restricting their career potential. In its original conception, the reevaluation of gender roles could be described as liberating (Barbie was a second-wave feminist icon after all) but in its current form, it seems to deny many women the option to embrace traditional conceptions of femininity altogether.
For some women, this can mean being perceived as a traitor to your sex if you defend marriage or pro-life causes. Much more pressing, however, is the way women are less likely to acknowledge a desire to pursue family-oriented goals. At Penn, we see this in the prolific hookup culture on campus that often leaves women insecure and unfulfilled. While this may seem inconsequential in the moment, the long-term impact can be significant. A recent Harvard study of female nurses indicated that marriage resulted in a 35% decrease in female mortality and improved mental health, whereas divorce had the exact opposite effect.
A longing for love, partnership, and motherhood is such a powerful and fulfilling aspect of the feminine experience that even media that aims at being feminist seems to subliminally advocate for these traditional desires. America Ferrera’s monologue in "Barbie" is a great example of this. While scoffed at by the right as a whiny vilification of womanhood, and championed by the left as an honest patriarchy-shattering speech that spoke truth to a system that institutionalizes misogyny, both characterizations are profoundly wrong.
Though the monologue articulated the difficulties, high expectations, and extensive responsibilities of being a woman, in the arc of the film it arguably serves as a somewhat unconscious articulation of what makes womanhood special. Despite having heard of all of these trials, Barbie chooses to leave the seemingly feminist utopia of Barbieland to become a human woman, where she can experience love and motherhood if she so chooses, both of which are central themes of the lives of the human characters in the film. This is similarly depicted in the story of Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie who shows her a montage towards the end of the film with an array of emotional feminine experiences.
The subconsciously traditional feminine narrative also shows through the other female-led pop culture moments of the summer, Taylor Swift and Amazon Prime original series "The Summer I Turned Pretty." Taylor Swift, who has become the first woman to attain billionaire status solely off of her music, seems to be the poster child for girlboss feminism. This wouldn’t be an unfair characterization given the way accountability for her ex-boyfriends dominates her discography, her regular discounting of the value of marriage in her music (see “Lover,” “champagne problems,” “Lavender Haze,” etc.), and her song “The Man” speaks for itself.
Nevertheless, even the queen of owning her “long list of ex-lovers” unknowingly became a potential example of women desiring more out of relationships. This summer, after her breakup with longtime partner Joe Alwyn, she released the heartbreaking “You’re Losing Me.” With lyrics like “And I wouldn’t marry me either” and the widespread support she received from fans following its release, it seemed like the epitome of modern womanhood may have wanted the “1950s sh*t” after all.
Similarly, while trying to address intersectionality and youthful empowerment, "The Summer I Turned Pretty" tells a story of the feminine desire to love and be loved. The main character spends the show learning how to grapple with her newfound confidence and her long-time romantic feelings for two of her closest friends. She does this all while repairing her relationship with her mother and trying to care for everyone around her as they mourn the loss of their mother. Simultaneously, her mother is learning to live without her best friend, showing the depth of female love in the form of friendship, romance, and parenting.
The reclamation of femininity that occurred this summer has a powerful undercurrent. However, it is important as young women not to forget that our femininity is not simply “girlbossing” dressed up in a pink pantsuit. There is a power to the empathy, love, and kindness that can color many different aspects of our lives, whether they be our friendships, our romances, or our desire to be mothers. Let the female-written, directed, and performed cultural moments of 2023 teach us their unintentional lesson that you can be a strong woman without being anti-men.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College senior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.