Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, Contributor
Sept. 7, 2023
A summer full of debates about Barbie, including its record-breaking, female-directed billion-dollar bonanza and why it was so wildly popular… everywhere. Its power lies deeper than its pink branding - although that has packed quite the fashion and economic punch . It’s in the lessons it seeks to impart. And how it suddenly made a 60+-year old doll relevant, refuelling conversations about and between genders.
The way forward often involves getting off your heels
Like so many of us, Barbie lives a seemingly perfect life. But what we see as perfection may be fear-based stagnation, especially when it lies in ignoring the reality of the land(s) next door. This complacency is rooted in some pretty wilful and self-protective ignorance.
In most lives, sooner or later, there comes a call. It invites you to step up or step out. And the question then becomes will you heed the invitation? Once you step out into the wider world, you risk shaking things up. The world and its wounds await us all. Will we accept the hero or heroine’s journeys calling to us - in our times and places? We can sit on our heels - or get going.
Leave when your feet feel flattened
The feeling of having come down from your high heels usually hits at some point in life. Early ideas and idealism bump into a myriad of midlife challenges from burnout and boredom to glass ceilings, cliffs or unwanted kisses (queue the current fuss about a Spanish kiss ). The metaphor of the film is hilariously appropriate. Coming down from a personal high is hard. But it also pushes you off balance and wakes you up to the task that awaits.
Recognise when the culture around you looks at you wrong. It’s wrong. Not you.
When Barbie wanders into the Real World, she knows right away that something is wrong. But she recognises it immediately only because she comes from a place that was designed for her. Most women in male dominated cultures have never experienced balanced environments, so it takes a bit of time (and usually age) to understand and articulate what is going on. Sexism and ageism abound. We still need to learn to see it and name it - without taking it personally. Then the choice is to change it or escape it. It’s usually hard to effect lasting change alone. Every leader needs a network of supporters.
Know what and who made you - there’s power in understanding your past
Barbie is thrown into a noisy Boardroom where the men in power want to turn her into a doll and put her into a box, with her wrists and ankles bound. As Barbie escapes the box and the boardroom, she stumbles on an old woman she doesn’t recognise. This woman offers her tea - and directions to the way out.
To free herself, a wise older woman reminds her of who she is and helps her leave the building behind. What better metaphor for the urgent escape from the craziness of the all-male patriarchal power structure into the nourishing serenity of the self and one’s matriarchal ancestry?
Ruth Handler is (in real life and in the film) the woman who created Barbie, a reminder that we forget our mothers at our peril. She is the key to Barbie’s liberation (and love of wrinkles) as our pasts are often the roadmaps for our presents. We need to know and appreciate the shoulders we stand on and how they navigated the patriarchy in their time. They often point us to the exits we are seeking.
The Weird, The Wise and the Old are as transformative as pink Birkenstocks
The marginalised often have the wisdom the system needs to grow, as Weird Barbie (played by SNL star Kate McKinnon) shows so ebulliently. She is the only one who sees the system as it is. Initially reviled by the dominant Pink hegemony and exiled to her weird home, she ends up being the only one able to resist the brainwashing onslaught of the New Kens riding in with their guns and horses. She becomes deprogrammer-in-chief. The lesson? Independent vision is key to ‘seeing’ the system. Be in it but not of it, and know the time for change will come…
Ken Is Us. We all only feel KENough when we are agents, not accessories
Ken’s problem isn’t Barbie. It’s lack of self-knowledge and self-purpose. Like any human, as long as he thinks he’s just a ‘+’ sign and the sidekick of his famous mate (Ken + Barbie), he can’t find his place in the world. That’s why his title is simply the hilarious ‘beach’ - he doesn’t know who he is, nor what he’s for. To become the star of his own movie, he needs to get off the Beach.
Flipping the gender narratives is what gives the movie its ironic power. But the reality is that patriarchy is as hard on (most) men as it is on the rest of us. The pressure, the yardsticks, the competition and the shaming are unrelenting. Men don’t get credit for care, compassion or kids. That’s why Ken doesn’t have a home - there’s no role for him there, just as there are too few internal, nurturing spaces for men. They are literally stranded on a patriarchal beach, huge whales flapping fins that haven’t grown into arms long enough to hug and to love.
The Missing Lessons - Balance For All
For all the fun and depth of the film, I was proud of my daughter’s outrage at its ending. Domination by women is not what we’re after, she objected. We need balance - not the entire Supreme Court. As so often, the young may show us the way. And the final leadership lessons are how we wished the film had ended.
Claiming your voice doesn’t involve shutting someone else up
The world’s problem is always domination - by anyone. Replacing male domination by female domination isn’t attractive to any but the most extreme. Most of us would love to see gender balance across the Board, the Supreme Court … and the home. We were designed as complements, not competitors.
Women will only rise by helping Ken(s) off the beach (and vice versa)
Kens will rise when they get off their high horses and find their own higher heels (or purpose). Age and gender balance liberate everyone. The answer isn’t men on the beach and women in the boardroom. It’s balance… everywhere.
How lovely it would have been for the film to end, not with the Barbies putting the Kens in their place, but with the women strategically balancing power across genders. Now, that would have made the journey complete.
In the end, self-actualisation is how we are designed. Making that true for everyone is where we have been headed. The rest is just immaturity or humanness-in-progress. Barbie shows the gap between these two ‘lands.’ Shame it never offers us a vision of how to bridge them.
That will take some life-sized leadership from the rest of us.
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