01 Nov Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Barbenheimer – Do Barbies Dream of Nuclear Sheep?
[Lia Harizanova is an attorney qualified in New York State, England & Wales, and Bulgaria. After earning her law degree from Sofia University, Bulgaria and LL.M. in International Business and Economic Law from Georgetown University Law Center, USA, she currently specializes in transactions and disputes in the Energy and Construction sectors.]
[Ameyavikrama Thanvi is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India. Her areas of practice include Constitution Law, Civil Commercial Disputes and Arbitration. She received her degree in LLB (Constitutional Law Honours) from National Law University, Jodhpur and LLM (International Law and Dispute Resolution) from Georgetown University Law Center, Washington DC.]
1. Barbenheimer – The Pop-Culture Phenomenon of 2023
Barbenheimer – the portmanteau of Barbie and Oppenheimer is the pop-culture phenomenon of 2023. Seemingly, the two movies are diametrically opposed in theme, genre, and historical era. However, their simultaneous release by big studios, and the public’s excitement to do a double feature of the antipodal existentialism behind the two movies is a thought-provoking reflection of the zeitgeist. The phenomenon may provide much-needed momentum to discuss underappreciated aspects of the biggest impending challenge – adapting to climate change without setting women’s rights back by a century.
The vibrant and fun Barbie’s first-wave feminist thesis – women fighting patriarchy for legal personhood and basic dignity – brought many women to tears. Despite the overt effort for diverse representation and challenging popular individualistic tropes by displaying female collectivism, Barbie’s “white woman feminism” failed to resonate with many who cannot afford to not be intersectional feminists, because they experience compound types of discrimination.
Some proclaimed Barbie “a prominently feminist outlook” and insisted that “it’s good when films engage with gender and womanhood in a lighthearted way”, countering criticism with claims it is “just about as subversive as a movie can be while still being produced by one of its targets”. Unsurprisingly, others opined that “unless our own imaginings of liberated futures can be more critical of the world we live in and expand beyond middle-class professionals and girl bosses, the future, feminist or otherwise, comes to us in varying shades of grim.”
The somber Oppenheimer, conversely, was hailed as “the ultimate monster movie”, the monster being “the appetite for annihilation [the atomic bomb] unleashes in mankind”. Its main character was recognized as “a man for our time”, steeped in “impending doom and moral scruples” as the world around him quickly moves on from the horrors of the war to embrace the bomb.
Atomic bombs seem almost anachronistic in the age of cyberwarfare against critical infrastructure. However, the nuclear “destructive power”, which “cannot be contained in either space or time” and can “destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet”, as the ICJ remarked in 1996, eerily mirror current headlines about the looming global climate crisis.
Ultimately, Barbenheimer reflects intersecting immediate issues arising from climate change – a human-made emergency, social and intergenerational injustice, relentless humanitarian crises worsening gender inequality, where those who have contributed least are most impacted. Climate change is a women’s rights issue, and the two are already at the forefront of public discourse.
2. The Future is Feminine and So Are its Crises – A Climate Crisis Perspective
Climate change, as the UN Framework for Climate Change notes, affects everyone although not equally; vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated by inequities and marginalization, which is where women come in.
Women’s rights have, in fact, been enshrined in many international instruments since the 1940s. The International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights proclaims fair wages and good work conditions for women (Art. 7), the UN Security Council has recognized the need to involve women in decision-making to prevent and resolve conflicts, and emphasized the urgent need to maintain a gender perspective on peacekeeping and security. The action plan produced at the Rio Earth Summit (1992) – Agenda 21 even explicitly highlighted the need to promote the advancement of women, and identified women’s groups as key in sustainable development due to their strong interest and proven ability to promote sustainable livelihoods.
However, women as drivers of climate policy and primary victims of climate disasters is erased from later instruments like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and the associated mechanisms, like the Clean Development Mechanism. The return of the issue in the Paris Agreement (2015) is limited to a general acknowledgement that addressing climate change should consider gender equality and empowerment of women. However, return of formal recognition does not equal practical applications, as data shows.
Due to compounding inequities in access to employment, education, healthcare, and policy making, the majority of the world’s poor are women and children. In many regions, women are responsible for securing food, water, and fuel, and in low- and lower-middle income countries, the most important employment sector for women is agriculture. 43% of the global agricultural work force is women – 66% of women in sub-Saharan Africa, and 71% of women in southern Asia, although fewer women than men are in the labor force worldwide because agriculture jobs decrease with automation, men move to higher-paying industries, and women increasingly take their previous “low-skilled” jobs. Notably, women farmers have proven capable leaders in land productivity as they manage on average smaller farms than men, but do so more intensively, achieving appropriately higher yields. Further, 55% of all improvement in food security in developing countries over the last decades came from programs promoting women’s empowerment. Major agricultural producers like Brazil note that the number of women employed in agriculture increased 40% between 2006 and 2017, consistent with the trend of feminization of agriculture in Latin America, but only 20% of all units are owned by women.
Many of the skilled women driving agriculture especially in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific are part of the over 2.5 billion women and girls worldwide limited in their ability to inherit land and other property by discriminatory land, succession, civil, customary, religious, and family laws, as 76 states lacking legal protection of women’s equal rights to property and inheritance. Without the ability to equally share in land ownership, women are effectively deprived of agency and restricted from shaping climate policy.
Further, over 25% of the global use of energy is expended throughout the agricultural value chain. Investment in clean energy exceeded USD 1.7 trillion in 2023, investment in energy transition technologies hit a record high of USD 1.3 trillion in 2022 and needs to at least quadruple annually to remain on track with the current sustainable goals. With women missing from the decision-making table, the just and effective distribution of such future financing is dubious.
Many women’s independence, and therefore, their access to resources, education, healthcare, protection, and policy-making hinges on preempting agricultural devastation, making them key stakeholders in adapting to climate change. Accordingly, women should have a central place in the decision-making, planning, and implementation of climate action.
3. Addressing the Root Cause at the Roots: Local and Regional Laws ensuring Women’s Participation in Fighting Climate Change
The legal framework governing women’s participation in climate action, internationally, can mostly be categorized as classic examples of lip service. Nevertheless, as with other spheres of life, women have found a way around, asserted their rights, and taken action. Despite the nearly unanimous opinion that women are the worst affected by climate change, the legal attempts to ameliorate even the symptoms can essentially be grouped into two prominent trends, viz. – progressive plans and policies with little teeth on the one hand, and half-hearted attempts towards gender equity on the other. The first can be exemplified through numerous laws purporting to ensure a right to clean and healthy environment; the second category – through the lack of provisions ensuring women’s participation in decision-making processes on climate change.
Of the above-mentioned categories, examples of the former includes constitutional and statutory provisions in Kenya (Art. 42), India (Arts. 14, 21), Nepal (Arts. 18, 30, 38), Mongolia (Arts. 14, 16), which guarantee a right to clean environment and recognize women’s right to equality. Good examples of the second category are countries, such as Kenya (Art. 27(8)), Nepal (Arts. 84(8), 176, 222, and 223), and India (Art. 243D), which mandate compulsory representation of women in parliaments and other decision-making bodies. However, implementation continues to be a far cry in most cases. Even where statistical success has been achieved, as with village level governance in India, it is really the men who continue to run the show from behind the curtains.
Despite the toothless laws, women have claimed their rightful role in fighting climate change. In India, for instance, one of the first women-led movements to take climate change head-on came to be known as the Chipko Movement of 1973. Mobilized by an elderly woman of their village, the women of Gopeshwar hugged trees to prevent their cutting for timber for commercial use. The women were successful as the judiciary directed a ban on felling of trees in the region for next fifteen years. This movement resonated with women in other parts of the country as well with similar movements by the name of Appiko, Narmada Bachao Aandolan, Silent Valley Movement, and others came up.
India is, of course, not alone in this aspect as the women within the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) and the Peasant Worker’s Movement in Brazil have helped achieve impressive land reforms. In Kenya, Wnagari Mathai founded the Green Belt Movement for planting trees and today helps monitor such trees for longer survival. Women have shown they have the indomitable will to assume their position as drivers of climate strategy and sustainable change but mitigating the climate crisis requires ensuring they have a seat at the decision-making table.
4. Proposed Way Forward: Conclusion and Solutions
Meaningful solutions ensuring full participation and leadership of women in decision-making are a core element of any rights-based approach to eliminating discrimination and marginalization. Foundational actions, formal and informal, for bringing women to the forefront have already been taken but future international efforts need specific commitments to include women in policymaking, and resource and financing allocation.
The 2022 Agreed Conclusions, signed by the Member States of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a good example in explicitly recognizing women’s critical role in adapting to climate change and the actions required for a just transition. However, it lacks any accountability mechanism, rendering it just another tool for advocates to encourage implementation and accountability of commitments made by Member States.
An effective solution should not only set out substantive obligations for states but also implement an accountability system. It is not novel for an international instrument to grant individual rights to be enforced in national courts. There is already a tendency at the national level to recognize constitutional rights to require better environmental action. Thus, local advocates and judiciaries are accumulating the necessary competence to deal with such disputes.
That said, there can be no “one solution” to such problems. The core human rights enshrined in treaties and the intersectional feminism we all strive for create the imperative of allowing the women in question to make choices for themselves, as they are best informed and placed to do so. A new covenant on human rights cannot be an effective tool to be yielded in daily life. Thus, the solution could be to look at regional treaties and strengthen local laws, which can adapt to the specific economic, cultural, and political considerations.
Rome was not built in a day and inducing governments to undertake specific enforceable commitments to involve women effectively cannot be done in a day or a year. Judging by the fact that over 50 countries, the EU, and 20% of the largest public companies have set their sights on 2050 as a realistic deadline to achieve net-zero, the time frame for making tangible advancements in women’s rights is generous. Barbie did not achieve its goal of unifying viewers worldwide in the experience of womanhood although it unintentionally united many women around the conviction that intersectional feminism is for all, and cannot be made without the full participation of the diverse women representing it. On the other hand, Oppenheimer united the public in considering the ironies and perils created by the interaction of science, ambition, and political power mix – core themes in conceptualizing climate change and our future adaptation to it. The post-Barbenheimer media landscape and public discourse evidence fertile social ground promote the future of women’s rights and to revisit the topic of man-made catastrophes and responsibility for them with a fresh perspective and hard-earned wisdom.