Much ink has already been spilled on the meaning and power of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, and I could write hundreds of words about my love for its sharp satire and dazzling visuals, or the film’s critique of toxic masculinity and its compassion for men. Like so many others, I wore pink to see the movie on opening weekend and got misty-eyed at the sisterhood I felt with the little girls and old ladies wearing pink too.
When considered, however, in the context of Gerwig’s previous two films—Lady Bird and Little Women—what stands out to me most about Barbie is Gerwig’s continual interrogation of the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we define and challenge each other’s understanding of what it means to be a woman.
At the heart of Barbie is a mother-daughter pair: Gloria, a middle-aged mom who works at Mattel, and Sasha, her cynical teenage daughter who declares upon meeting Barbie that she has been “making women feel bad about themselves since [she was] invented.” As I watched Gloria and Sasha struggle to understand each other throughout the film, I felt a pang of recognition: for myself in Gloria, and for my own mother in the Barbie-hating daughter.
My third-generation Adventist mother did not like Barbie, and she kept her out of our house as long as she could. Barbie promoted dating and makeup and jewelry and all those other things that might distract me from my two callings: learning and Jesus.
Unfortunately for my mom, she was fighting a losing battle. When I was three, one of my dad’s relatives gifted me a Barbie for Christmas. It was love at first sight. Over the next few years, every birthday or Christmas my Barbie was joined by her shiny-haired, long-legged sisters. My mom treated them with a combination of suspicion and distaste, the way she would a trashy reality TV show or a gaudy great-aunt.
In a sea of blondes, I had two Barbies with dark hair and olive skin like mine. Once, I dressed the curly-haired one in pants, a sweater, and glasses, and showed her to my mom. “Do you think someday I’ll look like this?” I asked her. Her answer was immediate and blunt: “No.”
I don’t tell you this story to demonize my mother, or even to say she was wrong in her distrust of Barbie. Though she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, my mom raised me to be a strong, smart, independent woman. Her favorite pop culture figures were Laura Ingalls and Jo March and Anne Shirley, and mine were too.
What I think drove my mother to distraction, however, as she tried to raise a good Adventist girl, was the fact that I also shared Anne Shirley’s obsession with puffed sleeves. I hoarded lip gloss and body glitter and sparkly barrettes, and spent hours daydreaming about evening gowns and wedding dresses.
There has been a great deal of rhetoric recently about how Barbie taught little girls they could be anything. Barbie became a doctor in the 1960s, she was an astronaut before men landed on the moon, and she has run for president several times.
All of this is very admirable, but I already knew that I could be a doctor or a scientist. I loved Barbie, simply and unabashedly, because she was beautiful. She had so many fabulous clothes. As I got older and outgrew my Barbies, my mom and I fought about nail polish and lipstick and the ever-ambiguous modesty of my teenage outfits. At the same time, my mom’s attitude towards Barbie metastasized in me as a self-defensive insistence that I was “not like other girls.” I spent so many years assuring myself that I cared about more important things than the beautiful, popular girls did, while also torturing myself over the fear that I could never look and dress like them.
I have so much compassion, now, for all of us: my mother, me, the other girls in my class. We were all grappling with the question of what it meant to be a good woman, with the added weight of messages from the church about what God wanted women to be as well. As historian Kate Bowler explains in her analysis of Christian celebrity women, Biblical womanhood demands a series of contradictions: women must be beautiful but not sexy, well-groomed and feminine but not materialistic or vain, under constant surveillance from men but not enticing them to look. Christian women, Bowler writes, are taught to live “as if their bodies possessed the keys to their character.”
Near the climax of Barbie, Gloria (played by America Ferrera) gives a speech that articulates the contradictions of femininity that my mother and I both struggled with. “It is literally impossible to be a woman,” she declares, and then outlines all the ridiculous expectations women face every day. “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us,” she concludes. “And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women? Then I don’t even know.”
My mother may never like Barbies, but I’m going to take her to see Barbie anyway. She may not have seen me in my curly-haired, bespectacled doll, but I hope she sees us both onscreen.
Melodie Roschman is a writer, public educator, and academic communicator. She has a PhD in English from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied identity, resistance, and community in the memoirs of progressive Christian women. She is a proud alum of the English department and J. N. Andrews Honors Program at Andrews University, where she served for two years as editor-in-chief of The Student Movement. She currently works as a communications officer for the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and she lives in Guelph, Ontario, with her husband, Taylor, and cat, Minnie.
Title image by Spectrum / credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
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