After we watched the Barbie movie together, my seven-year-old daughter looked at me and said, “I’d bring Ken with me to the real world.” I understood why she’d say that. We’d gone to the movie with my husband and nine-year-old son; because of her, they are Barbie aficionados, too. There isn’t a Barbie cartoon they haven’t watched, and they often help her lug her Barbie camper and myriad accessories to the playground. Her nine-year-old brother watches the cartoon Barbie movies without his sister, and he spends much time playing with her as Ken. Or the dog, Taffy. Or any other configuration of Barbie there is.
And yes, even once as Allan.
At this point, you probably think I’m going to launch into Barbie’s problems and claim that Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of men was ill-conceived or wrong. I’m not. The men in Barbie‘s movie aren’t like those my daughter encounters daily, and I am grateful for that.
In the movie, Barbie goes from Barbieland, a matriarchal society, to the Real World, a patriarchal one. My daughter refreshingly found both fictional, giving me hope for the future. That my “Real World” experience hasn’t been as hopeful as I thought it would be at her age is where I begin this article, though.
Note: The following contains potential spoilers for Barbie.
My career as a college professor has been marred by the patriarchy. Somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself crying during Gloria’s (America Ferrara) speech when she explains why Barbie shouldn’t feel bad about herself after experiencing a failure—namely when Ken succeeds in taking over Barbieland. Gloria tells Barbie, who is lying on the floor face-down, that she’s beautiful, and as a doll who represents everything to everybody, she will, at some point, lose: “We always have to be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” She continues, “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 be a loving mother, but don’t think about your kids all the damn time. . . . And it turns out that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.”
Throughout my career, I’ve experienced various forms of people trying to help me (and hold me back) with those exact conflicting tidbits of advice. I’ve shared with those closest to me that I will never be the woman others envision—and that I’m quietly punished repeatedly for this. In this respect, all women are Barbie: We all have an idea of perfection that can never be obtained. As Gloria elucidates, I’ve been chastised because I talk about my kids too much or too little. My own efforts at leadership have been described as exemplary… and then I’m asked if I could tone it down some and perhaps take on fewer projects so others can shine. Conversely, it’s also suggested that I ought to add this or that project because people believe I’m lazy.
At various times and in various contexts, I’ve been ostracized and told my thinking is ill-conceived, that I’m selfish for wanting to research or write or spend time with my kids or go on vacation or focus on teaching or express an idea or enact a new service project. Wait: Did I consider self-care?
I’ll share this concrete example. At one point in my career, I was told that all the problems in my division were my “fault.” When I questioned that, a male colleague invited me into his office so he could explain why they were my fault. He was being kind to a woman perceived to be difficult and couldn’t I see that? When I balked at this notion, I knew the office talk would be that he had extended an olive branch to me, and I was, again, the problem. In other words, everything would still be my fault.
The conflicting messages that Gloria speaks of aren’t just found in the media or on TV, though. They’re everywhere. They’re in mentoring sessions women give to women. In conference rooms. In meetings. In our workplaces. In our churches. In our homes.
In Barbie, Gloria ends her speech with another phrase that I often hear: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single woman tie herself into knots so that people like us.” As I watched this on-screen moment, I reflected that this exact phrasing is what people tell me all the time. Bosses, mentors, and friends have told me nicely—helpfully, even—why others will never like me; according to them, I have to accept this if I’m going to be successful.
When I went up for tenure at my university, I was told that I met, exceeded even, all the requirements for this privilege—but people didn’t like me. While I was granted tenure, it was only after responding to a committee about why many of my coworkers didn’t like me.
Yet, here’s the truth I’ve come to: Maybe everyone is right. I shouldn’t care that no one likes me, but I also shouldn’t accept that that’s OK. As Barbie points out, the patriarchy controls the narrative about women and their job prospects. Who gets selected for what committee? Who gets the nod for the next big project? Accepting that it’s OK for different women not to be liked reinforces what we already know to be a rigged system. When all is said and done, being liked matters.
In Barbie’s main trailer, the words that stream across the screen during a peppy montage declare, “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you.” Then, “If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” I suggest, however, that if you hate Barbie, perhaps you might work to find something in her to like, especially if you are someone who calls herself a feminist. Or a Christian for that matter.
In Romans 14:13, Paul tells his Christian audience that they spend too much time judging each other and not enough time showing grace. “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,” he states. “Rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” In the Barbie universe, these stumbling blocks would be labeled “patriarchy,” and they’d be put in front of women by men riding horses.
My dream growing up in a post-Gloria Steinem world, as a feminist who believes all women should have choices, is that “Ordinary Barbie”—the one that Ferrara’s Gloria envisions at the end—can and should be liked. When we say we like someone, we say we accept and welcome them despite whatever flaws they possess. They’re worth giving time to, even if they aren’t perfect. Even if they can’t do it all. Even if they do something a different way than we think they should.
This transition in thinking is what Gloria’s teenage daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) comes to realize. Her mother may be different from her, but there’s enough common ground that they can still be close. And whereas she is dismissive of Barbie at the beginning of the movie, Sasha comes to like her at the end, despite their differences. She is the one who returns to Barbieland to help when she and her mother are fleeing from a despondent Barbie, and we see her accompanying Barbie in her new life at the movie’s conclusion, too.
This discovery of getting to know someone and liking her, rather than dismissing her out of hand (as Sasha is known to do at the beginning of the movie) is the real, overarching lesson of the film. Gloria may have stated in her speech that it doesn’t matter if Barbie is liked, but Barbie tells us otherwise. To achieve feminist liberation, women must work together across their differences. Greta Gerwig best states the film’s aim, articulating that Barbie is “feminist in a way that includes everyone; it’s a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ version of it.”
While raised Catholic, Gerwig no longer identifies as such. As a Catholic feminist, though, it’s important to point out that I hold a particular stance when watching Barbie that differs in some ways from Gerwig’s. For example, I didn’t appreciate the beginning montage, where little girls were bashing in baby dolls because they supposedly had “bigger dreams” than being mothers.
Plus, in my ideal world, human dignity—the idea that all people hold value, regardless of gender—is a driving goal. Yet at the movie’s end, the men, or the Kens in this case, are forced to fend for themselves in Barbieland. Barbie doesn’t change the Constitution there to create equality for all but keeps the men second-class citizens. Perhaps one day they’ll be able to achieve the same things that Barbieland’s women do, but not anytime soon. When Barbie returns to the Real World, she’s depicted as a Christ-like figure sacrificing her power in order to bring some matriarchal ideals to a patriarchal world. Yet the Eden she leaves behind isn’t one I’d want to live in.
Despite the movie not meeting all of my values full-stop, though, I still liked it. Maybe Greta Gerwig’s version of feminism looks different than mine, even as it still hits on some critical notes. Perhaps she and I are simply different people. But I reiterate: I like her and her artistry.
That’s what the film’s spirit captures: It doesn’t matter if other people like us, but it does matter if we try to like others. As a feminist, I believe this vision is worth aspiring to, even if the real world doesn’t value it. Expecting that all women can and should be liked and that we should try to like them shifts the patriarchal gaze. We shouldn’t “tie ourselves in knots” because people don’t like us. Rather, we ought to try and make the world a better place by liking other women who think and act differently from us.
In the end, when my seven-year-old looked at me and told me she wanted to bring the Kens to the Real World, I was happy that she had men in her life different from those portrayed in the movie, and different from some of those that I’ve encountered. Different specifically from those men who deem it a badge of honor not to like certain women and then blame those same women for being rattled because, no matter how hard they try at work or home, they remain un-liked.
Notably, I didn’t tell my daughter her reaction to the film was wrong or right. I let her talk and share her experiences. In the future, if her experiences with men at her work, home, or elsewhere change, I’ll listen to her then, too. I’ll let her be ordinary. I’ll like her, even if she differs from me, and I’ll encourage her to try to like others who are different. Others who may not meet her expectations. This is the hard part of life, the struggle.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis echoes Paul’s ideas in Romans. He states that it is our responsibility to control and improve our relationships with others, including those who differ from us: “It does not matter if they . . . annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has a deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.”
My daughter dreams big. She’s planning on a career as a pop star, a pirate, or a baker, doing so with Barbie’s encouragement that “she can be anything.” I agree. It’s possible that she can be anything despite being born to an ordinary mom like me. Indeed, I take this a step further and argue that many can, and ought to like her, too.