Monday, July 31, 2023

Thoughts About Barbie

Last night I went out with my kids to see Barbie. It's very good, I highly recommend it.

I have a lot of thoughts about Barbie in general, and some about the movie that contain spoilers, so if you plan to see it, I don't want to ruin any of the fun. Maybe read the first few paragraphs that are about me and not the movie, and come back and read this once you've seen the film and share your thoughts. If you don't plan to see Barbie, that's fine. Just don't jump to conclusions about what you think it is if you haven't watched the movie, because it's probably not what you would expect. I'm frankly stunned that this movie exists.

Many women like myself have had a complicated relationship with Barbie. That sounds silly on its surface since we're talking about a doll, but it isn't. And I've only in recent years come to terms with what my aversion to her might mean, namely internalized misogyny.

I did not have Barbies growing up. I preferred stuffed animals. I was never a girly girl, but I was never a Tom-boy either. I was just me, and I seldom felt like I fit in anywhere. I tended to avoid pink.

When I had kids, I didn't get them Barbies. I felt she presented an unrealistic body image for girls, and all the cutesy pink irritated me. I wanted my girls to be interesting and strong, and Barbie struck me as neither. I resented the gendered aisles of toys, and avoided the sea of pink that was all things Barbie and what someone thought my girls were supposed to like and be. I remember feeling a small crisis when I learned a relative who loved Barbies was planning on gifting some to my girls. I don't remember exactly how that played out, if I let my disapproval be known through family channels to avoid the issue or if we actually got the dolls. All I know is at some point we acquired at least one Barbie, which my kids mostly liked because she had a dog with puppies, and a horse. I wasn't happy about it, but I left it alone. I'm not the kind of parent who forbids things, but I tried to steer us clear of the pink aisle.

I did, at least, until I had my third child, who was assigned male at birth. I knew very early that she was at odds with the role she was expected to play by the world around us. She asked to go by a more feminine name when she was about two or three. She was smart and gentle. She liked pink.

There weren't any resources readily available for trans youth a dozen years ago. I tried to seek them out just in case that was the direction my child was eventually going to inform us we were going. All I could find were programs for teens and adults, and a society telling me my kid was going through a phase.

Now, honestly, when she eventually came out as trans as a teen, I was relieved for several reasons, not the least of which was that I figured she'd have less trouble in the world as a woman than as a gender non-conforming man. She's commonly been assumed to be a girl in public for most of her life, but in those moments where society forced her into the end of the binary where she wasn't comfortable, it was really painful.

Because boys are not supposed to like pink, and the world lets you know that.

And this got me rethinking Barbie, since pink and Barbie are deeply intertwined.

When I had girls that wanted pink, I tried to suggest lots of options. I certainly wouldn't deny them pink, and no one batted an eye if they were in pink. But when we had a "boy" who wanted pink? Well, suddenly defending pink became important. Because I realized that girls crossing over into boy things was acceptable or even praiseworthy, but for boys crossing into pink, that was questionable. I realized pink was viewed as contaminated. It was something boys were taught to have an aversion to.

Like I did.

So I asked myself what that was about, and I came face to face with Barbie.

Why did I roll my eyes at Barbie? What was so wrong with her? I had always told myself it was because she reduced women down to what they looked like, and I resented it.

And that's when I realized that's what I had been doing to Barbie. 

I was the one dismissing all the other things she was, from an astronaut to a doctor to an ice skater, etc. Because she was exaggeratedly pretty. If we're not supposed to judge people by their looks, that goes both ways. If she was pretty she couldn't also be a veterinarian? Or a reporter? What sort of misogynistic garbage was that?

There is a funny scene in the movie where Barbie in the real world spots a billboard for a beauty pageant that is an image of pretty women in row, and she assumes it's a picture of the Supreme Court. It's very funny, but why is it funny? What if we lived in a world where we didn't assume such women can't be the Supreme Court? Wouldn't that be a better world?

I see that billboard and think about how I have never worn a bikini. I don't have a body I'd be comfortable showing in that way, and I probably never will. But I wouldn't deny someone who looked like me the fun of wearing a bikini if they liked. There are people out there who would applaud an older and/or heavier woman being so bold, but then also a lot of those same people might resent younger more conventionally beautiful women for doing the same.

In the movie, Barbie doesn't even have a word for "self-conscious." What a concept.

So, the Barbie movie itself is visually amazing. The costume and set designers deserve award nominations. There are tons of movie references, including the opening tribute to 2001 A Space Odyssey which we enjoyed. The acting is great, the music is spot on.

Essentially, the movie shows Barbieland as a real place where a representation of each type of doll exists, living sort of like beings in Plato's perfect plane. The Barbies do everything and the Kens are accessories (who do "beach"). There is also Ken's buddy Allan, who doesn't really seem to fit in anywhere. (I love Allan.) When stereotypical Barbie starts to have thoughts of death and develops cellulite, she goes on a journey to the real world to find the person playing with her doll that is causing the problems. The Ken who loves her stows away in her car to join her on the trip, and winds up learning about the patriarchy, and takes it back with him to Barbieland before Barbie returns herself with the mother/daughter pair that had been playing with her doll. The Barbies have to outsmart the Kens in order to revert Kendom back to Barbieland. Barbie acknowledges that it was unfair for her to take Ken for granted, and suggests he find his own identity outside of his interest in her. And in the final scenes, the stereotypical Barbie decides to become real and return to the real world.

I don't have any nostalgia for these dolls, so I was surprised by how quickly the movie was able to establish a connection with me. The society they portrayed in Barbieland was innocent and appealing. My oldest daughter commented on how open and safe it was there in the beginning. It would be nice as a woman to be able to walk any streets that way without fear.

The only vaguely dark moment in this movie was when Barbie returns home to discover it's been taken over by Kens and she's not allowed in. There is never any doubt that Ken loves Barbie and would never harm her, so there is no real danger, but when he faces off with her in the doorway, it's an uncomfortable reminder of the implied threat that exists in encounters with men that most of us have to navigate on some level in our daily lives. The unfairness of it as Barbie stands there, kicked out of her home, realizing there is nothing she can do in that moment, is painful and a little frightening. That's not something I was expecting to feel at this movie.

The most surprising element of the Barbie movie to me was the depiction of the Mattel company. It was the most surreal aspect of the whole story, and I'm still puzzling parts of it out. Particularly toward the end where Will Ferrell as the head of the company, which is represented in the boardroom entirely by men, is genuinely unhappy about the commercial success of the Mojo Dojo Casa House (created by Ken and now flying off the shelves in the real world), because it's not about Barbie first. I suppose it's a glimpse of men who are on the side of women but are somewhat clueless on how to go about doing it right.

There's an unexpected scene where Barbie in the real world is sitting by an older lady, and Barbie says to her sincerely, "You're beautiful." I know in that moment my head immediately went to all the reactions I would have had if that had been said to me. I would have been surprised, maybe a little suspicious, pleased but dismissive, flattered but doubtful. Self-conscious would be in there. But no, the lady on the bench (who I believe is a renowned costume designer) responds that she knows! And Barbie looks genuinely pleased, because that's all she wants in the real world is for other women to be proud of who they are, and to know they are beautiful.

Some of the ways the Barbies related to one another in Barbieland reminded me of how we treat each other in my Women In Lutherie group. We have rules in our Zoom meetings about not apologizing, and not being self-deprecating. Those were awkward adjustments at first, because women are in such a habit of making ourselves smaller on every level. We're not supposed to take up space or be openly proud of our accomplishments because we're encouraged to believe being liked is more important than anything else. It's been really empowering to take those habits from the Zoom meetings and use them in the world, where we are allowed to have authority without apology, and to have the courage to share what we do. I recognized the same sense of self-worth reflected in the Barbies. It felt good, and as welcome as it was unexpected.

I found the end of Barbie moving. The idea of becoming "real" reminded me of one of my favorite books from childhood: The Velveteen Rabbit. In both stories, the idea of being real involves surviving and accepting pain, and being convinced that the sacrifice is worthwhile to experience deeper meaning to existence. The last line of the Barbie movie where she's ready to be seen by a gynecologist is laugh out loud funny, but also highlights that by becoming real she's signing up for pain on a monthly cycle as part of her transformation.

Many people have already written about America Ferrera's speech about the impossible standards women are held to by themselves and others, and it's definitely a highlight of the film. I teared up. But the line that hit me the hardest was about how our experience and perception of women is problematic, even with just a representation of one. 

That clarified for me the issue with Barbie that I've been wrestling with over the past decade. Barbie can be whatever you want her to be. I apparently wanted her to be a problem. I'm over that.

Barbie is unabashedly feminine. In a world where feminine is conflated with weaker, lesser, frivolous, and secondary to masculine needs, tastes and desires, that makes Barbie easy to disdain. Unless you don't buy into any of that, then Barbie looks fearless.

I've made peace with Barbie, because I'm finally making peace with myself. That's a lot to get from a very pink movie about a doll. I'm glad I saw it.