This summer was, undeniably, one for the girls; the streets were swathed with all shades of pink after the release of filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s impossibly highly–anticipated Barbie, pop icon Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour brought colorful summer–camp–style beaded bracelets and frothy fantasy adult dress–up to the cultural main stage, and a TikTok–fueled tidal wave of trends hopped off–screen as we packaged our walks, dinners, and aesthetics under the umbrella of all different kinds of “girl”–iness. Female joy and community felt tangible this summer more than ever, and in many ways it feels like a relief a long time coming: Finally, the economic, cultural, and social space for women to express and enjoy themselves doesn’t require any kind of fight or justification. This time, the magnitude of the forces embedded in these creative and cultural celebrations of a collective girlhood experience speak for themselves.
Swift’s tour alone brought an unprecedented economic boom to every city it visited; HITS Daily Double estimates that while $100 spent for an average concert tickets generates an additional $300 of spending on accommodations, meals, and more, each $100 spent the Eras Tour generated somewhere between $1,300 and $1,500 in so–called ancillary spending. The tour is shaping up to be the biggest in history, projected to surpass Sir Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour (currently history’s largest grossing tour, at $939 million) in revenue, and reaching $1 billion in ticket sales is practically an inevitability for the worldwide tour with still a year left to run.
The unprecedented global economic impact of Eras (“If Taylor Swift were an economy, she’d be bigger than 50 countries,” says Dan Fleetwood, president of research firm QuestionPro Research and Insights) gives critics and the cultural milieu no choice but to take Swift as an artist, and the subculture surrounding her work, seriously. Themed outfits, bead bracelets, and heart–shaped sunglasses may have seemed longer scoff–worthy to a staid worldwide economic institution which hardly has room in its culture for women, let alone girls. But once these cultural touchstones become part of one of the most stratospherically successful commercial entities to sweep the planet in all of entertainment histories, it’s impossible to ignore the significance of women and girls as consumers, and the potential that tapping into the rich culture that women have collectively created amongst ourselves may hold for corporations and other profit–seeking vehicles.
On a similar token, we saw Greta Gerwig’s Barbie absolutely demolish the box office, surpassing the elusive billion dollar mark, which only 53 films in history have done. Gerwig, a fast–rising Hollywood wunderkind whose success reached new commercial and cultural heights with Barbie, has made a career of interrogating and examining girlhood in all its rifling complexity. Little Women and Lady Bird, her two forays into solo filmmaking, earned multiple Academy Award nominations, and led to Gerwig becoming one of seven women in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for Best Director (as she was in 2018 for Lady Bird). Gerwig’s Barbie stands out in her repertoire for its commercial–box–office bent: While her earlier work was highly critically acclaimed and film festival gold, her projects had been notable for their rich texture and gorgeous storytelling style more than their grandiosity or commercial success. Barbie launched Gerwig into a new land, a land of hot–pink hot commodities. A glitzy, couture–heavy press tour saw star Margot Robbie in outfit upon outfit heard ‘round the world, and every company under the sun seemed to be seeing pink (hairbrushes, froyo, brightening serums, oh my!). Barbie was artistically adept enough and hardly a frothy, insubstantial flick; however, the film itself seemed to be besides the point. Rather than the press surrounding the film as a central node, it seemed that Barbie was one pin on a huge, Mattel–branded bulletin board, strung together with hot pink. Whatever anyone’s thoughts may be on the film and Barbie Land itself, the cash–happy undertones of the entire affair were impossible to miss in the real world.
As much as I enjoyed basking in the summer of girlhood, with these two events fulfilling childhood dreams I may have had about seeing pink everything and hearing Taylor Swift songs on every radio station, it’s impossible not to question what feels like an abrupt yet seismic shift in cultural attitudes, driven by commercial and corporate interests, or at least amplified in that manner. Of course I enjoy elements of the visibility Barbie brought to the paradox of womanhood, and it felt rewarding to feel as if my experiences were reflected in such large cultural arenas as they were this summer. Swift’s success as a female artist is beyond incredible to see, and a hit Barbie film being directed, written, and produced in part by women means great progress is being made in Hollywood, to be sure.
The thing that interests me is this: How much of this visibility and appreciation is superficial, and resultant of largely male corporate interests co–opting the female experience to tap into an incredibly valuable consumer market? Yes, women have had more of a hand in the telling of our stories than ever before, but in an eerily self–aware subplot of Barbie we see that the identity and impact of Robbie’s titular character, Barbie, serves to benefit an all–male C–suite at Mattel. How close is that to reality?
We’ve seen causes and identities co–opted before; in 2020 as the Black Lives Matter movement was catching momentum like wildfire, countless corporations made themselves a part of the conversation in public while their internal practices and business impact failed to serve the communities they supposedly supported. Pride month “merch” peddled by corporations has become the butt of its own joke, and environmental and sustainability measures brandished on labels like medals by companies often lack the institutional backing to create real change. Yet there is an economic benefit to being socially responsible, and joining in on conversations such as these; the twenty–first century consumer is drawn to put their money where their mouth is—so to speak—and spend in alignment with their values. Thus, activism is in.
Now, let me stop for a second and acknowledge this: The visibility gained by corporations shedding light and acknowledging difficult issues such as race, gender, and climate movements is nothing to shrug off. It is incredibly impactful to have the economic engine of America on the same page as its lifeblood—the activists—on any level, and there is also no small amount of corporate faux–pas during these critical cultural moments that is sincerely well–intentioned, even as the water may be muddied by larger dynamics at play.
But companies are companies, and we are their customers; for all the intermingling of business and identity that the American worker and citizen faces, it can be easy to feel lulled into a sense of security when it feels as if you and the things you are buying are in alignment on some higher level. Yet the fact still remains that the experience that is driving the "Year of the Girl", the passion people have for Taylor Swift songs and Barbie dolls and the fond memories we have associated with dance parties at sleepovers and dress–up as kids is ours. Hollywood studios, Ticketmaster, Mattel, or even FUNBOY Pool Floats (who have a special pink float out now): though times are changing, the upper echelons in power within these corporate settings often have intense imbalances of influence along gendered lines. Thus, as much as we love to see womanhood celebrated in a widespread sense, it is and will continue to be interesting to see how the demonstrated consumer power of women and girls may be reflected in brand messaging, and how corporations may tap into the goldmine that is the female experience going forward.
This essay was not produced to be cynical, or to discourage any enthusiasm regarding these hard–won cultural milestones that women have been smashing this summer; however, it is revealing to note how the one–dimensional “Girl Power” that we may or may not be buying into is actually rather prismatic. In other words, there is more to that pink toothbrush than meets the eye.