Faith Gong: Why you should watch ‘Barbie’

“This movie is going to change my life,” my 15-year-old daughter stated confidently.

I looked over to where she sat in the passenger seat, swathed in an oversized pink sweatshirt. I was taking her to meet a friend, with whom she would watch the new “Barbie” film. The film that would, apparently, change her life.

I’m getting used to hyperbolic statements from my teenagers, but I still tend to pause and assess the underlying intent before I respond. Is she being serious? Sarcastic? Humorous? Dramatic? If you see me looking confused for the next decade or so, this is why. 

“Well, that sounds really…exciting,” I responded slowly. “Although in my experience, life change is a slightly…longer process.”

“Well, this movie’s going to change my life,” she asserted. “When you pick me up, I’ll be a different person.”

When I picked her, she still looked the same. 

“So?” I asked, “How was it? Did it change your life?”

“It DID!” she gushed. “And — oh my gosh — Mom! She says your speech! America Ferrara, who plays the mom in the film! You’ve said those exact same things!”

“Uh oh. What speech is that?” I wasn’t optimistic about a maternal speech in a film that, as far as I knew, was geared towards teenagers. (I’m also not anxious to be defined by many of the speeches I make to my children.) 

“You know, the one about how it’s okay to just want to be a mom, and all that,” my daughter said breezily. “You HAVE to see it, Mom!”

I ended up watching “Barbie” the very next night, with my two youngest daughters. And then, although I rarely see any movie in the theater once, I went back a week later and watched “Barbie” a second time, because my husband needed to see it. 

For those of you who live in seclusion, “Barbie” is a movie directed by Greta Gerwig. It features the eponymous doll, launched by Mattel in 1959. In the film, a stereotypical Barbie (and her boyfriend, Ken) travel from Barbieland to the Real World and back again, and the film has much to say about what it is to be female, male, and human.

“What did you think? Did you love it?” my daughter asked me after my first viewing. We were standing in the kitchen, and I was still shaky after crying through approximately the second half of the film.

“I did. I loved it.”

“You’re going to write about it, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I have anything else to add. It’s pretty perfect just the way it is. What would I write other than, ‘Go see it?’”

“Yeah, that’s true,” she mused. “How does it feel to have your entire life’s work summed up in a single film?”

So, dear reader, here I am saying, “Go see the ‘Barbie’ movie. Please.” In my opinion, it is a remarkable contribution to our ongoing cultural dialogue, and it handles potentially divisive topics with humor, intelligence, and heart. 

I’m aware that some people disagree with this assessment. The controversy over “Barbie” has been confusing to me. As far as I can tell, it centers around the movie’s claim that we live in a patriarchal society, and that manufacturing plastic women in a variety of skin tones and professional outfits hasn’t been enough to win greater equality for actual women. 

I’m confused because I should think it’s fairly obvious that we do, indeed, live in a society in which being male tends to confer political, professional, and economic power. One-hundred percent of U.S. Presidents — and the vast majority of leaders in other fields — have been male. U.S. women earn 82 cents for every dollar men make — a statistic that hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years. And the song “Push,” sung un-ironically by Matchbox 20 and again by the Kens in “Barbie,” did indeed top the charts in 1997. (Chorus: “I want to push you around/Well I will, well I will/I want to push you down/Well I will, Well I will/I want to take you for granted.”) I recall being vaguely disturbed by those lyrics back when the song seemed to be playing everywhere, but in my youth I reasoned, “Well, it’s popular, so it must be okay.”

Those are just facts. You may disagree on why gender gaps persist, or what they mean, or point out valid complexities within the data; these are interesting conversations to be had. But simply stating that maleness has historically been rewarded in our society doesn’t seem like it should shock anybody into burning Barbies in protest. That it has reveals a great deal about our country’s current tendency to politicize everything, and to define ourselves as right in contrast to “the other side” — who are, of course, always wrong.

What surprised me about “Barbie” was how balanced and gentle it was in its assessment of gender dynamics — when, frankly, it didn’t need to be as nuanced. Yes, it mocks an over-the-top stereotype of toxic masculinity, but it’s also unsparing in its critique of the impossible standards imposed on women — in the name of feminism. America Ferrara’s by-now famous speech (which I have never actually delivered, but I’m honored that my daughter thinks I have) is a perfect summary of the female experience, but another moment that gave me chills was when Ken’s macho mask cracks as he lashes out at Barbie: “You failed me!” The audience feels the complex and ugly honesty of his statement as we see Barbie’s face fall in recognition of that truth. 

The film leads us gently into a larger truth: We have all failed each other. No group of people should ever be treated as second-class citizens. Furthermore, when we require any group, male or female, to be all things simultaneously — tough and tender, thin and healthy, a perfect parent and a high-achieving professional — everybody loses. The wonderful thing about being human is discovering who we are as individuals, and a healthy society should celebrate how our differences enable us to work together in community with other unique individuals. If everyone must be all things, we end up as competitive pretzels.

The one issue I have with “Barbie” is that the final solution arrived at by the citizens of Barbieland feels more like revenge than reconciliation: Helen Mirren’s voiceover declares that the Kens will now have as much power in Barbieland as women have in the Real World. A movie that’s been so thorough in acknowledging the humanity in everyone can — and should — do better than this. Haven’t we learned from history that the solution to injustice isn’t just flipping the script so that the oppressed become the oppressors? True change takes radical grace, which is present everywhere else in “Barbie” except this moment. 

But more than gender roles, ”Barbie” is about what it means to be human. I don’t know whether this was Greta Gerwig’s intent, but the film is basically a retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams’s classic 1922 children’s book about a stuffed rabbit who longs to be real. But instead of being loved into reality by a young boy, Barbie is loved into reality by a middle-aged mother. (Therefore, instead of scarlet fever being the precipitating crisis, it’s menopause and cellulite.) 

“Barbie” is not, at its core, a film for teenagers; it’s a film for middle-aged women. It’s for those who are grappling with whether our lives have meaning, with why our teenaged daughters won’t cuddle with us anymore, and — yes — with those pervasive thoughts of death. (From the moment when Barbie interrupts a dance party with, “Do you ever think about dying?” I knew this film understood my soul.) 

The great good news is that “Barbie” makes a clear-eyed tally of the human condition, and — cellulite, patriarchy, and death notwithstanding — lands squarely on the side of humanity. It’s one of the most joyfully life-affirming films I’ve seen. 

Go see it. Please. It just might change your life. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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