Never has such a middling film generated so much press for a supposed snub. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its list of this year’s Oscar nominees last week, fans of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie were devastated to learn that the movie was rejected. 

OK, so it earned eight nominations, including Best Picture. But neither its leading lady, Margot Robbie, nor its female director, Greta Gerwig, received recognition. That’s surely a loss for feminism. 

Social media accounts and op-ed pages across the Western hemisphere exploded, with onlookers saying that, considering Ryan Gosling received a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing Ken, life was imitating art, displaying just the sort of patriarchal nonsense lampooned in the movie. 

Gosling even took it upon himself to release an apologetic statement. “[T]here is no Ken without Barbie, and there is no Barbie movie without Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, the two people most responsible for this history-making, globally-celebrated film,” he said. 

“Globally-celebrated,” here, is the key point. Barbie received no shortage of press when it came out this summer, and it earned $1.45 billion worldwide, making Gerwig the first solo female director to pass $1 billion at the box office. 

Of course, all that didn’t stop the peanut gallery from supplying their thoughts. Former Secretary of State (and failed presidential hopeful) Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Greta & Margot, While it can sting to win the box office but not take home the gold, your millions of fans love you. You’re both so much more than Kenough. #HillaryBarbie.”

All this controversy (a word that seems to dignify the discourse too much) is indicative of a very particular, very white brand of feminism. The defense of Gerwig and Robbie overshadowed the Best Supporting Actress nomination of Barbie star America Ferrera, one of the few Latinas ever to be recognised in the category. And it’s difficult to argue that Robbie missed out because of sexism when the other nominees in her category were all women, including Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone, the first Native American woman to be up for Best Actress. 

Yet the success of Barbie, for some, has become a stand-in for the achievements of feminism. Feminist satire site Reductress summed this irony up with the headline “Why Feminism Is Useless Unless the Feature-Length Toy Commercial Wins Every Single Oscar.”

Even by feminism’s own supposed standards, such a reflexive defense of Barbie just doesn’t make sense. Then why the outcry over two rich white women, who can soak up their tears with the millions they made from their summer blockbuster?

For the answer, look no further than the reboot of Mean Girls, which came out this month. Most millennial women can tell you the plot of the 2004 film that spawned a Broadway play and now a musical retelling on screen. 

Former homeschooler Cady Heron enters public high school and is introduced to its weird and wild social dynamics, typified by queen bee Regina George and her sidekicks. Regina’s former friend Janis convinces Cady to befriend the mean girl as a prank, but instead of revealing Regina’s pettiness, Cady embraces it. 

The brilliance of the 2004 film (which itself draws inspiration from the 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes) is that it is a movie by a woman (screenplay by Tiny Fey) and for women. It so aptly depicts the way women can be uniquely mean to each other – as well as the ways they can mend their friendships in the end. There is no nefarious system (say, the patriarchy) driving the girls to talk behind each other’s backs or lie to each other’s faces. It’s just a thing they do. 

Fast forward to 2024, and the Mean Girls musical has a little more to say about the true meaning of girls’ cattiness. Produced by Fey, this adaptation is aware that today’s teenagers are looking to pin their social commentary to some sort of institution or -ism (e.g. patriarchy or capitalism). 

“Boys get to fight, we have to share,” sings Janis near the end of the film. “Here’s the way that that turns out / We always understand / How to slap someone down / With our underhand.”

Perhaps because Regina is meant to be more of a victim now, Fey in the new adaptation notably does not deliver the iconic line, “How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by Regina George?” (to which dozens of 11th grade girls’ hands rise). 

In a conversation before the film’s closing moments, Regina and and Cady reconcile, agreeing that if Regina were a man, she would not have been seen as a b*tch, but rather as strong. Wait, does that mean that the patriarchy made her do it, or that the patriarchy just makes her look bad? Or both? 

In 2024’s Girl World, even mean, vindictive women are allowed to be victims – because, in a certain flavor of liberal feminism, anything a woman chooses to do can be good, or it can be blamed on a hypothetical man. Barbie doesn’t have to deserve all of the awards since it’s so female-centric. Regina doesn’t have to be a mean girl when she can be reframed as a blond Napoleon. 

All of this contains multitudes of contradictions that lead to some women, actresses or otherwise, receiving little recognition at all. Ultimately, mainstream feminist discourse is subject to the attention economy. It’s not the women who are the most talented, or even the most underrepresented, who get noticed. It’s the ones who make the most noise.