You wouldn't think I'd be watching the Barbie Movie in my fifties, with my husband and in-laws, without a child in sight. I thought it was a kid's movie, but the word on the street suggested something completely different; I was intrigued to see what the film had to say, while still being all things pink. After about ten minutes my father-in-law (definitely not the one who chose the movie) said "Wow, this is really subversive." I was impressed by his willingness to see the underlying, very adult messages, hidden within the bubble gum exterior.
Having played with Barbies and observed my own daughters at play, I could laugh with the movie Barbie, unable to place her heels on the ground, pretending to eat plastic food, and never actually using the stairs. Before the Barbie Movie, I felt as many others did: that Barbie set unrealistic body expectations, that she represented things I did not agree with. Did I want my daughters, or myself, thinking fashion was the most important thing in life, that there were "girl things" vs "boy things" (including the colour pink)? Of course not! There was actually one Barbie–subsequently withdrawn–who, when a string was pulled, said "Math is hard!" I took pride in my calculus ability. I had regret and self-recrimination, allowing my children to play with Barbies, despite their enjoyment. That's a lot of responsibility to attribute to a doll.
The movie reminded me of that: Barbie was a doll. An alternative, in fact, to the baby dolls that were previously ubiquitous, that spread the message that little girls were destined to be mothers. Barbie was an adult, who could have adventures and do things. Her proportions were unrealistic on purpose. She was not intended to be a goal, or a lifestyle representative. She was a doll.
Thinking back, my own Barbies were highly athletic. One was training to be an Olympic gymnast, with uneven bars made from Tinker Toys (remember those?), and a balance beam made out of Lego. Another had a wonky leg, that had to be tied in place, but she was a diver who only used pike or layout position. She did amazing flips from great heights into the little blowup pool, somehow avoiding life-altering spinal injury. Sometimes, the dolls did sustain injuries, and I loved applying casts made of water-soaked kleenex, or splints made of popsicle sticks (all right, a bit weird, but I did become a doctor). I'm not sure why I forgot all of that, when pounding my head saying "stupid, stupid, stupid!" for introducing my girls to Barbies. They loved imaginary play as much as I did, and my older daughter told me all about the murder mysteries she and her friends played with the dolls. There was no hair styling or hanging out with Ken (did anyone even have a Ken doll? He never really seemed necessary).
Kids now don't seem to have as much of a chance to just play as we did back then. Imagination is such a beautiful, endless-possibility experience that can last a lifetime; there's magic in those years of actually believing the stories you create. Now, there's doctor Barbie and vet Barbie and so on, but they aren't really necessary. With imagination and some household supplies, you can create a parachute, an airplane, a rocket, a briefcase, a nuclear reactor, Barbie can be anywhere. She can do anything. I do think the Barbies with different skin tones and hair types are important, so all kids can feel represented, but Barbie is only as limited as your imagination.
Maybe the controversies surrounding Barbie are because the adults don't remember how to play anymore. How funny that it took a kid's movie to make me see that.
Hi, I'm Karen. This space is a chance for me to get some of those notebook sessions out there: Motherhood, medicine, writers and writing, the state of the world. Non-published, sometimes non-polished, just a chance to open a discussion. Let me know what you think!