Warning: There may be some movie spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to wait to read this.
All this buzz about Barbie has me reminiscing about the role this iconic doll has played in my life. I didn’t expect to see the movie, but now that I have, I think it’s important we talk about this interesting film and what it brings up.
I played with Barbies when I was a kid. I wasn’t obsessed with them, but I loved dressing them up, pretending they were models strutting their stuff on the catwalk. I was more interested in clothes than dolls, so my Barbie collection was limited, and my interest was short-lived.
Most role-playing games my girlfriends and I played were acting out different scenarios with funny twists. We played games like “restaurant” with one of us cast as a surly, gum-chewing waitress or pretended we were in school playing the parts of the sassy student or crazy teacher. If we needed a male character, one of us would act the role. We thought we were hilarious and didn’t need dolls to stand in for us in the make-believe world.
When I got a little older, I discovered that this plastic doll that many of us had grown up thinking was the body type to aspire to had been hoodwinked. If she were real, Barbie would be 5’9”, have a 39-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips, wear size three shoes, and weigh 110 pounds. If she were alive, she would topple over, unable able to walk erect, and would be way below what is considered a healthy weight for her height. It is not humanly possible to have the same body as Barbie, though some have tried through plastic surgery.
Learning more about feminism, gender roles, patriarchal control of women’s bodies, and the multi-billion-dollar diet industry that shames us into submission while I was a teen made me question the message Barbie was sending young women. No matter how many successes she had or the industry glass ceilings she broke through, she was still all smiles and looking impeccable even in space.
When Barbie finally found her voice, the talking version said things like, “Math is hard” and “Let’s go shopping.” No longer a role model I wanted to follow, Barbie lost her appeal, and I packed her and her groovy clothes away, along with her dated ideals about what it means to be a woman.
So, when I saw a movie about Barbie coming out, I had no intention of seeing it. I thought it looked silly and meaningless, a movie for little kids or adults that want to get lost in the romanticism of nostalgia. I thought the movie would reinforce the same tired gender roles the patriarchy uses to keep us under control and happy to conform to the status quo. In other words, I didn’t know what to expect.
I like to be wrong just as much as I want to be right, and when the first comments about the movie came out, I realized this movie was much different than I expected. I had to see it right away. There are things I loved about the film and things I didn’t. There are so many layers that it feels like I missed a lot the first time, and I’m excited to watch it again. I laughed. I cried quite unexpectantly. I love the movie, but even more, I love the conversations around the important topics it brings up, like the following.
Women are more than gender roles.
The very first scene of the movie starts with a visual show of blowing up gender roles. Any thoughts I had about this movie being fluffy and innocent were gone in the first five minutes. I can imagine that anyone moms who brought their daughters thinking they were in for a stroll down memory lane were as surprised as I was.
When Barbie first came out in 1959, the only dolls available were babies, giving girls only one role in life to follow. Barbie came along, giving girls more choices to pursue as an adult. It’s not that being a parent isn’t a fine role for women. It’s just not the only one. When I was a senior in high school, women were still a very narrow pool of careers to choose from. Barbie tried giving girls new role models to show us that women are more than incubators and can be anything they want.
Gender roles should be disrupted.
Throughout the movie, gender roles are challenged. When they were in Barbie World, the characters lived where women were in power, and men felt left out, nothing more than arm candy and beaching, whatever that meant. Once Ken was introduced to the patriarchy in the real world, he hurriedly returned to change Barbie World to a place where only Kens were in charge, with women clinging to their every mansplained word.
While the movie was far from subtle in making this point, I think it’s important to dig a bit deeper. Ken’s idea of what patriarchy meant was comical, and it sure has made some men that identify as Alpha Males comically angry, but that is not the point.
The point is that gender roles are ridiculous and don’t help anyone have a happier life. Trying to live in a society where only one attribute, such as how our gender is defined, determines how power is distributed doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme. Our abilities, interests, and drive to pursue our purpose are much better ways to qualify for a position than whether it is a job for a boy or a girl.
Everyone can evolve.
The movie didn’t leave out my concerns about how Barbie has affected the way women see themselves. Barbie is confronted by a teenage girl about the impact she has on made on body image and feminism. It turns out it’s hard to see these issues from the magical bubble of Barbie World, and while the Barbies thought they were delivering hope and vision, they couldn’t see the whole picture.
Since I was a teen, Barbies have evolved with the times. Her body has slowly changed measurements over the years, with her bust getting smaller and her waist getting thicker. In 2016, Mattel came out with Barbies in a broad variety of body types, including petite, curvy, and tall models, along with many choices of skin tones, hair colors and textures, and eye colors, giving girls dolls to play with that they can identify with. My opinion of Barbie has evolved thanks to this movie.
Barbies are inclusive.
I loved all how inclusive Barbie World is. There were characters of all shapes, colors, abilities, and gender identities. Everyone was included as part of the community and had their place, even Weird Barbie. I was delighted to see a trans character in this movie and that everyone appreciated the beauty of being themselves.
Barbies speak with power.
It was very subtle, but I loved the way Barbies accepted compliments. When Barbies were congratulated for their awards, they said, “I worked hard to get where I am and deserve this award.” When Barbie told the old, wrinkled woman at the bus stop in the real world that she was beautiful, she answered, “I know.”
While this may make some people uncomfortable because they expect her to thank someone for noticing, I love that the compliment was acknowledged confidently. It comes from a place of love and acceptance.
Freeing ourselves from the criticism and approval of others’ opinions is an empowering place to be. Knowing and appreciating the things we love and value in ourselves is powerful. Humbling ourselves as if we don’t deserve recognition keeps us smaller and fearful of going beyond the status quo.
The system is biased.
One of the most powerful things this movie showed, in an exaggerated yet funny way, is how biased the system is. The speech about womanhood by the surly teen’s mother in the real world is heart-wrenching. Read it here.
I spontaneously burst into tears during this speech. The system is so stacked against us, yet we go back at it every day, trying as hard as we can to be a good girl and yet never quite measuring up. This speech reminds us that why we feel this way has nothing to do with us. Imagine what would happen if we spent the same energy we spend trying to be good in working to change the systems.
We have to learn to work together.
At the movie’s end, Barbie realizes that having only women or men in charge doesn’t work. We must learn to work together to make the world better for everyone.
Taking a collaborative approach isn’t easy. But until we can learn to work together, no matter how divided, we will keep fighting to gain control until we’re overpowered by the other side over and over again.
We’ve stopped listening to each other, convinced that our side is right and everyone that doesn’t agree is wrong. Nothing moves forward while we are locked in this kind of battle, and too many important issues need our attention. Discussing the important issue of this movie is a fine place to start.
I’m interested to know what you think about this movie. Please send me an email or join in the conversation on our forum.
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