As of August 23, the film Barbie became the highest-grossing movie of 2023 with $1.3 billion internationally. Its opening montage features two Barbies playing chess by the pool. The film’s themes of female empowerment and patriarchy resonate in the world of chess.
The record-breaking Barbie movie begins in Barbie Land. In visuals and in lyrics to the song Pink, Barbies are playing chess by the pool. In Barbie Land, women rule. The President of Barbie Land is a woman. The Supreme Court justices are women. The only chess game shown is contested by two women.
The lead character, “stereotypical Barbie” played by Margot Robbie, believes that women being in power in Barbie Land results in empowering girls and women in the real world. Barbie’s suitor Ken feels ineffective in Barbie Land.
When I established a chess club at Strickland Middle School (Denton, Texas), the top chess player was my daughter, Clarissa. A boy new to chess club asked me, “Are there any good men chess players?” Like Ken in Barbie Land, surrounded by women more powerful than he was, Clarissa and I were the best chess players this boy knew. The boy had not yet experienced chess outside of Strickland Middle School.
When Ken leaves Barbie Land for the real world, he finds that men occupy most positions of power. He studies books on patriarchy and his self-confidence grows.
When Ken returns to Barbie Land, the men implement a patriarchy. Barbie Land becomes Kendom with a man as President and men as Supreme Court justices. The women feel less self-efficacy in Kendom than they did in Barbie Land.
Few women play competitive chess. According to Ma (2020), “on the FIDE rating list, out of the players who had played in 2019, only 10.1 percent were female.” There are more men than women in high-status positions within chess. Ma (2020) wrote, “external factors, such as an unfair distribution of resources or a hostile environment, have held top female players back.” Like Barbies in Kendom, women may face difficulties in Chess Land.
Likewise, Kens may face difficulties in Barbie Land. Kens may prefer Kendom. According to Gillooly et al. (2021), male Ph.D. students may feel less self-efficacy when a syllabus contains 30% female authors as opposed to when a syllabus contains 10% female authors. Gillooly wrote, “male students expressed lower self-efficacy when evaluating the more gender-diverse syllabus.” Gillooly noted that women reaching a critical mass of around 30% in male-dominated organizations can prompt resistance, opposition, and backlash among men.
Gillooly, S. N., Hardt, H., & Smith, A. E. (2021). Having female role models correlates with PhD students’ attitudes toward their own academic success. PloS one, 16(8), e0255095. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255095
Ma, W. J. (2020, December 11). The real reasons all the top chess players are men. Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2020/12/why-are-the-best-chess-players-men.html