It’s been a month since the Barbie movie premiered, raking in a record-breaking $1 billion at the box office. Across the globe, giddy, pink-clad crowds flocked to their local cinemas, ready to be spirited away. Enter Barbie Land; an effervescent, Girly Pop utopia where women rule the roost. Barbies control the government and Supreme Court. Each woman comes with her own high-flying role, from lawyers and doctors to Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners. As narrator Helen Mirren wryly puts it, ‘all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.‘ Every day unspools in social harmony, and every night ends in slumber parties.
Whilst life in plastic seems fantastic, what would it look like if women ruled the real world?
The pitfalls of patriarchy
Patriarchy is a recent chapter in human history. Scholars debate its origins — some cite ancient Mesopotamia, others the agricultural revolution just 8000 years ago. Today, most cultures are patriarchal, and the term’s renaissance in common parlance only emphasises the ‘continued existence of pervasive, seemingly ineradicable inequality.‘
Patriarchy disproportionately oppresses women, excluding them collectively from political, economic and social power. Their opportunities are restricted, bodily autonomy dictated and are commonly victims of domestic and sexual violence. For women of colour, these inequalities are magnified. This systemic oppression is so entrenched in our societal structures, it’s impossible not to participate in it.
The increasing visibility and expression of gender fluidity challenges norms. In 2022, Pew Research found that 1 in 20 young Americans identify as trans or non-binary. It’s also America where right-wing nationalism is on the rise, threatening this vulnerable community with marginalisation and violence.
Men suffer under the patriarchy too, often forced into narrow, rigid prescriptions of masculinity and taught as children to stifle their emotional expression. It’s clear that our current capitalist patriarchal systems harm everyone. Could the solutions be found in a matriarchal society instead?
Lessons from real-world matriarchies
I’ll hold my hands up. The title of this article is misleading, so let’s get one thing straight. Barbie Land is not and can never be a matriarchy. The film’s women-led world is a satirical inversion of our own; a system of hierarchies and gendered domination. In reality, matriarchies are mother-centred societies that aim to meet the needs of all.
‘In matriarchies, the aim is not to have power over others and over nature, but to follow maternal values, i.e. to nurture the natural, social and cultural life based on mutual respect.‘ — Heide Goettner-Abendroth, world-expert on matriarchy and founder of The International Academy HAGIA for Modern Matriarchal Studies, for Dame Magazine.
Matrilineal societies still exist worldwide today. Indonesia’s Minangkabau, with a population of over 4 million, boasts the globe’s largest surviving matrilineal society. Women are revered, the heads of the household, land and family, but decision-making is made by consensus and neither sex rule. The Mosuo people are China’s last surviving matriarchy; a ‘Kingdom of Women‘ where sexual agency thrives. ‘Walking marriages’ allow women to take new lovers nightly in purpose-built dorms called babahuagos. Men participate in community matters, and children are raised collectively by the mother and her family.
India’s indigenous Khasi have practised matriarchy for thousands of years. The youngest daughter inherits, children carry their mother’s surname and many women enjoy freedoms not afforded to the rest of the country. ‘Khasi women enjoy social mobility,’ explains The Shillong Times’ Patricia Mukhim to the BBC. ‘There are no bars for them to achieve mobility.’
In more extreme examples, men are outright banned from the community. Kenya’s Umoja provides refuge for survivors of strict patriarchal Samburu tribes, where FGM, forced marriages, sexual assault and domestic violence prevail. The village is surrounded by a thorn fence, and the women who live there learn trades, sell crafts, teach children and educate the women of neighbouring villages on their rights.
Across the globe, the Alapine Village in Alabama sits on a lush 108 acres; a ‘womyn’s land’ where residents make decisions and lead as a community. Daily life is organised around collaboration, with tasks such as farming, childcare and resource management equally distributed amongst its members, emphasising a sense of cooperation over competition.
The essential element of egalitarianism
These real-world examples prove that women can, and in some places do, ‘run the world’. They reveal the transformative power of female solidarity, and the potential for communities prioritised on mutual cooperation and collective wellbeing.
Egalitarian principles lynchpin matriarchal frameworks. The pursuit of power is inherently patriarchal and inexplicably tied to capitalism. From hustling entrepreneur to nuclear familiar breadwinner, these individualistic perceptions of identity often perpetuate gender-based hierarchies. Matriarchies on the other hand emphasise nurturing relationships and interconnectedness. This approach of community over individualism aligns with our pressing need for holistic solutions to contemporary global issues. Could a matriarchal overthrow offer solutions to environmental degradation, economic inequality and social fragmentation?
Of course, transitioning from a patriarchal to a matriarchal society presents myriad, multifaceted challenges. This kind of shift demands careful consideration of cultural and socio-economic contexts. The real-world examples we’ve looked at are predominantly tied to local culture, and are not without their limitations. Meghalaya, where the Khasi live, is home to its own men’s rights movement; their President, Keith Pariat, told the BBC that ‘matriliny breeds a culture of men who feel useless’. It’s a sentiment shared by Ryan Gosling’s Ken, and perhaps the men under patriarchy who resist gender equality, perceiving it as a loss of their own privileges.
Gender equality is not a zero-sum game
Everyone wins. Under matriarchy, equality would be ingrained in our societal structures, addressing the causes of violence, discrimination and disparity at the root. In a structure that values diverse contributions, LGBTQIA+ communities could find greater acceptance and opportunities to thrive authentically. The nurturing values intrinsic to matriarchy could lead to more compassionate leadership, prioritising social welfare, education and healthcare. A 2020 report from King’s College London found this to be the case already, revealing that when women take part in politics, the whole of society benefits.
When discussing what solution the Barbies and Kens reached at the end of the Barbie movie with The Atlantic, director Greta Gerwig said it best: ‘We’re all still figuring things out — that’s part of it.‘ The ultimate goal remains an egalitarian society devoid of gender-based governance, but perhaps matriarchy could serve as an intermediate step; an alternative structure predicated on cooperation, equality and community.
Featured image: Myco Libot / Pexels