When I first learned there would be a Barbie movie, I was skeptical and not terribly interested. When I found out that Ryan Gosling was in the film and Greta Gerwig was directing, I was slightly more intrigued but didn’t buy into the hype. After seeing the film, however, I am struck by my reaction. I am filled with unexpected nostalgia, in awe of the visual art, and slightly uncomfortable with the revelations.
At the very least, Barbie is entertaining and fun. At most, Barbie says out loud what women have been thinking for decades.
Take this diatribe from the human character Gloria:
We have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money, because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.
You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.
You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.
Contrast these truth bombs with the narration at the beginning that Barbie
- Barbie changed everything. Then she changed it all again. -Narrator
- She has her own money, her own house, and her own career. -Narrator
- Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism have been solved. -Narrator
Until I sat down with my glass of wine, wearing my only pink clothing in a crowded Dallas theater, I forgot I had a Barbie dream house with the cars, accessories, and that strange Barbie head that you could style her hair. Somewhere in my teens, I blocked out that I ever loved pink sparkly things and embraced my Depeche Mode-wearing-all-black phase. I was captain of the debate team – not a cheerleader. I was a deep thinker and considered myself destined for career greatness. I’m embarrassed now by just how serious I took myself, but I literally forgot about the little girl who loved dressing up. My favorite pretend game with my next-door neighbor Christi was playing office. I made her my secretary, and my name was Terry Richards. Don’t ask me where that came from. But I used an old office phone to rule the world from a simple wooden playhouse my dad built.
Watching Barbie got me thinking about the origins of my expectations about how my life should be. Unreasonably high standards since I was about nine years old, according to my mom. Oddly, I wanted to be a model or attorney – nice range. (See the art from 2nd grade). This is even more peculiar because I didn’t grow up with any lawyers in my life. In fact, I am the first person on either side of my family to attend college – let alone law school. (And no, there weren’t runway models in my family either, but Brook Shields was the bomb.)
Watching the various iterations of the vocation-based Barbies come to life on screen brought back memories and made me realize for the first time the deeply pro-woman message that Mattel had been sending to me back in the 70s. You can be anything – and you better look perfect while you do it. Anything less is a failure to live up to the American ideal.
I have a dear French friend who recently commented that American women grow up thinking they should have it all. French women, she said, expect to suffer. She was right, I did expect it all, and at first, I felt bad for her that she didn’t grow up in a culture with unbridled optimism. The next day, I heard the late-great Tom Petty song, American Girl. “She was an American Girl, raised on promises.” – Tom Petty
That line is spot on. I was raised on promises. Not from my family, friends, or teachers. But a culture that promised a certain bargain. If we excel in school, work hard, and play by the rules, we, as women, can be the stars, the CEOs, the world changers. And yet – here we are in 2023 with no President Barbie in sight. Those promises we were raised on have set us free and shackled us at the same time. That freedom to be all things to all people is also a heavy responsibility. Maybe, French women have this figured out after all.
For many of us, the words feminism and patriarchy are uncomfortable. I would never add feminist to my list of personal adjectives, and I could care less about patriarchy. (By the way, Ken deciding he doesn’t care about patriarchy when he discovers there are no horses involved is one of the funniest moments in the movie). Yet – there are some distinct truths in Barbie that we, independent-thinking women, cannot ignore. Yes, we laugh at the depiction of Kens as self-absorbed and clueless, but how many times have we been mansplained to and forced to adapt to entirely male-designed systems and environments that reek of Mojo Dojo Casa Kendoms? In the midst of the humor in Barbie, there are some cringy moments of truth. We have adapted, diminished ourselves, and apologized for our uniqueness to keep the men in power comfortable. If you claim you’ve never done that, may I suggest some excellent books on self-awareness?
Yes, the Barbie movie highlights all that divides men and women, and for some, the overselling of the intrinsically rigged system – I would argue that it also shows how important it is to work together and embrace the uniquely male and female gifts that make life more fun and fulfilling. As the leader of an organization that seeks to have more women sitting at the tables where decisions are made, I cannot help but think long and hard about how we reconcile our goals with current realities. Women still make up around 30% of elected roles and only 10% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Also, how can we let ourselves off the hook for unmet (unrealistic) expectations and still fulfill our God-given potential to serve and lead?
I don’t think there are easy answers or quick resolutions – although the all-female Supreme Court at the end of Barbie looks awesome. What we can do is support one another with authentic encouragement and support. We can get up each day and live up to our potential, and answer the calls to serve our families, communities, and businesses. And maybe we can embrace some of Barbie’s unbridled enthusiasm for the hard work ahead.
“It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.” -Barbie
CEO, The Policy Circle