Barbie Is A Mirror
I was 19 years old, researching the difference between quality of education in urban versus suburban schools that included interviewing third graders and asking them about their experience. That’s when I had my first Barbie moment.
This was 1993 when hippy throwback fashion was the rage. Dressed in a long crepe skirt with pink flowers, a velvet burgundy top and black platform heels, my straight blonde hair fell past my shoulders and I sported no make-up beyond pink lipstick.
I joined a group of mostly Puerto Rican students at the lunch table when a little girl’s face lit up. “You look like Barbie!” She proceeded to sit next to me and draped my flowing skirt over her own legs, smiling.
My reaction was…complicated.
As an insecure nerd, I felt kind of cool. As a feminist I internally cringed a little too. Oh sure, I had played with Barbie (and Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman) growing up but a few months prior to my research, Teen Barbie created a controversy when her voice box said, “Math class is tough!” As an idealistic college student, I wanted to empower girls to be anything they wanted and was conflicted about Barbie’s role in their lives.
That internal conflict is the starting point for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie the Movie.
Together with my husband and son, we did the #Barbenheimer weekend, watching Oppenheimer (about the Father of the Atomic Bomb) followed by Barbie. Oddly, the juxtaposition worked. I’m going to focus on Barbie right now.
Margot Robbie, perfectly cast as Stereotypical Barbie, starts happily in an all pink Barbie Land where women rule the world and Ken (played by a very ripped Ryan Gosling) is sidelined to the role of benignly neglected friend. She is under the heartfelt, yet naïve, assumption that all girls love her for empowering them.
When she starts having dark thoughts of death and unexplained anxiety, she visits Weird Barbie, played hilariously by Kate McKinnon, who informs her that the girl who plays with Barbie in The Real World must be going though some issues and the only way to resolve it is to enter The Real World and help her. (Ken tags along over her objections.)
A reckoning ensues.
Barbie finds out that everyone hates her, including the girl she was meant to save, who was actually an adult named Gloria who used to love Barbie but felt conflicted once she started to work at Mattel and saw Barbie’s impact on her own daughter.
Also, Ken discovers the patriarchy.
When they return to Barbie Land, it’s different. Ken takes over Barbie’s Dream House and renames it the Mojo Dojo Casa House. The other Kens unite and vow to take over congress and all the Barbies (President Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Nobel Prize Winning Barbie) become like the Stepford Wives.
It was at this point where I had my first ah-ha moment. Barbie Land is like The Real World, but reversed.
In Greek mythology, King Cyprus creates a sculpture named Pygmalion, who he then falls in love with. The story turned into a musical, My Fair Lady, substituting Professor Higgins for the sculptor-king and a cockney flower seller – turned sophisticated lady as his creation. In Barbie Land, the sculptor-kings are human women and girls. The doll Barbie is a reflection of our understanding of, and reaction to, being a woman today.
My second ah-ha moment was when Gloria and her daughter realize they have to save Barbie, who is now a crying mess who thinks she’s ugly and feels it would be better for everyone if she just disappeared. Gloria is appalled that someone as strong as Barbie is made to hate herself. She delivers a monologue that many women could relate to.
You have to be thin, but not say you want to be thin, just say you want to be ‘healthy’. But be thin. Be pretty, but don’t be too attractive otherwise women will hate you. And speak up at meetings, but don’t be aggressive, and always be kind and grateful, no matter what.
This is only anecdotal, but the women and tweens sitting around me all nodded in agreement. It’s tough being female with all the external stuff thrown upon us. Honestly, it’s tough to be Ken too. No one wants to be taken for granted. No one wants to be …. and Ken. Just like no one wants to be solely called X’s wife or X’s mom.
I went into the movie expecting a good laugh and I left challenging my own biases. Go Barbie!
Here’s my story (available HERE):
Copyright (c) Lisa Traugott 2023. All rights reserved.