IWD 2024: Remember to wear purple or pink in the real world

To mark International Women’s Day, Dr Sarah Jane Fox from Leicester Law School reflects on the drive to achieve gender equality.

It is now over a century since the first International Women's Day (IWD) was held in March 1911. The event marks more than the perception of a feminist movement coming together on this one specific day of the year. As Gloria Steinem a journalist and activist explained, "The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights…" And neither, therefore, is it an isolated 24-hour pursuit, but a 24/7, or 365 (or 366) days a year goal. The continuing drive is, not just to imagine a gender equal world, where the world is free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, whilst recognising diversity, equitability, and inclusivity but, to, one-day, actually achieve it. And, today, it is an ambition that is also increasingly being driven by men.

In the United Kingdom, United States and in Australia the whole month of March is given to raising this cause and giving awareness of gender inequalities whilst also, importantly, celebrating achievements by women. And, of course, there have been millions, if not billions of such feats, from the famous, to the everyday unsung heroes of society – who are also female. Nevertheless, 8 March remains one of the most important days of the year to raise awareness about inequality and to lobby for acceleration of gender parity.

This year’s United Nations theme is focussed on rallying behind the call to ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress,’ with it being identified that there remains international failing to push the ambition for equality, in what equates to half the world’s population, due to under investment. 

There is now only six years to achieve the UN goal set within the Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by UN Member States in 2015, which set a 2030 deadline for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Yet under financing is contributing to the likelihood that this goal will not be met, with it being stated that there is a staggering USD 360 billion annual deficit in spending on gender-equality measures.  

The colour for International Women’s Day is symbolically recognised to be purple, which signifies justice and dignity – so on the 8 March wear purple as a sign of unity…. or, if your wardrobe does not allow for this, consider pink, as ironically did you know that the day after, 9 March, is recognised in the U.S., as National Barbie Day. Yes, the Mattel doll, that recently was the centre of the film by the same name; for, it was on 9 March, 1959, that Barbie (the doll) made her debut, or was born, at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

The Barbie film has taken the box office by storm and in 2023 was the highest grossing film worldwide, reportedly achieving a staggering $1.38 billion by the summer. By January 2024 the box office revenue had increased to $1.45 billion and is no doubt still climbing.  Not wanting to spoil it for those that have yet to see it, but various synopsis of the film refer to Barbie living in a perfect Barbie-Land world, while questioning the position of the various ‘Ken’s,’ whose life is not so great, or… equal. The film has received high acclaim for the actors and screen play writers, with film watchers also enjoying the movie, and, many, interpreting underlying messages contained within it. And it may yet be that Barbie has an impact in raising the cause of women’s inequality in the world, or rather Ken does, in a roundabout way.

Although there are various models of Barbie represented, Barbie is, nevertheless, presented as a stereo-typical imagery of a ‘pretty’ female, who is not only accepted but lives in a blissful matriarchal society, one that she dominates. In Barbie Land – Barbies run literally everything. Ken, on the other hand, whilst still being a very perfect male doll, seemingly goes unnoticed in this world. The Ken’s remain the Barbies keen to please companions.  They are the second-class citizens, the under-dog, in a world where women hold all of the key roles. Although Ken, nevertheless, is shown as being one-step above Allan, (in Mattel land, the doll introduced in 1964) Ken’s best friend who lived in his shadow (until he was discontinued, that is by Mattel). And such is the story of dolls in Barbie Land, where hierarchy still exists, albeit seemingly reversed to the real world. 

In the movie, the Barbie’s engage in patronising tokenism, whereby they tell the Ken’s that maybe someday there may even be more than one Ken in the Barbie Supreme Court! And, having visited the real world, once back in Barbie Land, they tell the Ken’s that they could even achieve as much power and influence in Barbie Land as women have in the real world. In reality, this is telling sarcasm conveying how women across the globe constantly feel….. in terms of being pacified that one day their ambitions will be realised and of receiving patronising commentaries dismissive of clear abilities because they happen not to be men.

In 1959, Barbie was born to convey a message of empowerment for girls – showing girls that they could be whatever and whoever they wanted to be in a play land, while encouraging them to strive to realise their vision when they grew up, or in the real world. But the reality is that the real world continues to be unequal and while many women may have achieved their goals, there still remains a whole world of difference in terms of opportunities and acceptance.

The Barbie movie has been significant in raising the profile of not only the Barbie doll, but the female screen-play writer Greta Gerwig, who also directed the movie. The Barbie film has also increased the popularity of the Barbie brand for Mattel, with the company calculating the revenue boost from the Barbie movie to be $125 million. And, the success of the movie has reportedly seen Gerwig becoming the only woman in the billion-dollar club with sole credit for directing a film. And whilst a significant achievement, this by itself speaks of damn right inequality in the film world, which continues to be reflective of society.  In fact, this is made even worse when considering this ‘boys-network’ directs movies mostly centred around male protagonists. Of the 53 films that are reported to have made more than a billion dollars Barbie is among only nine that centre around a female lead, with a high percentage of these featuring animation or cartoon characters. And this is telling of wider society in terms of being fully encompassing of women and seeing women as equal.

The Barbie film’s original budget was reported to be approximately $100 million. However, as time passed, it steadily increased to $145 million, while the marketing budget even exceeded that amount. Such is the power of Hollywood to have the means to invest in the first place, but also to reap such returns on investment, both directly and indirectly. This of course should leave you to raise several questions and identify significances in the real world and to society, such as – what if Hollywood used the power it has to be more inclusive in terms of the top roles and positions? And what if the story lines and characters centred more around 50% of the population, in terms of women playing a central role…. and seeing them as real people? This could include inspirational idealism for girls and women, in much the same way the Barbie doll was intended. It could actually lead to this 24/7 pursuit gaining momentum in terms of striving towards the goals that International Women’s Day represents. And, lastly, and most importantly, what if the whole of society really did get behind investing in women as a means to accelerate progress to the overarching cause of achieving gender equality? Then, one day I might not have to imagine a gender equal world, where the world is free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination as it would be ‘our real-world.’