This column was originally going to be a pointed takedown of the patriarchy’s role in tone policing women — particularly Black women — and the misguided suggestion we temper our anger about things that, as the goddess Pat Benatar sang, we have the right to be angry about.
It was going to center on a now-deleted tweet that implied Vice President Kamala Harris should have been nicer about passionately insisting that slavery wasn’t a beneficial trade program, and the many emails labeling me too angry over racist online comments about Mayor Brandon Scott’s impending fatherhood.
It’s still about that, really. But with a lot of added “Barbie.”
Spoilers ahead: In Greta Gerwig’s sharply sweet feminist fable, Margot Robbie’s so-called “Stereotypical Barbie” — the blonde leggy one who first appeared in 1959 clad in a black-and-white bathing suit and high ponytail — is confident that the strength of her girl-powered Barbieland has translated to the real-world girls who play with the dolls.
But when she ventures to that real world to discover why she’s been beset with feelings of existential dread, she confronts the uncomfortable truth that Barbie-like perfection doesn’t protect you from the patriarchy or the feeling that you’re going to let people down by showing your displeasure or anger — even when it’s well-deserved.
She’s not happy, but she still has to be talked into being mad at Ken (Ryan Gosling) when he conspires with the other Kens to take over Barbieland and remake the previously badass Barbies from surgeons and Supreme Court justices to basically bikinied extras in a ’90s beer commercial. “He took your home, he brainwashed your friends, he wants to control the government,” President Barbie (Issa Rae) reminds Stereotypical Barbie.
Anger is the appropriate response to that sort of thing, right? Still, our blonde heroine is conflicted. Aren’t we all? As Gloria (America Ferrera), a real-world mother to a disenchanted teen tells Robbie’s character, “It’s literally impossible to be a woman. … It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.”
In other words, we are expected to stir a spoonful of sugar into our responses to having poison spit in our faces. Smiling. In heels.
I can see why the “Barbie” movie makes certain people nervous: Its pink, pointed thesis is that women thrive when their womanhood is part of their success, and not in spite of it. The real-world society, including the all-male suits at Barbie’s parent company Mattel, want to literally put their star in a box and dictate how she uses her power.
The movie’s not perfect — its feminism is sometimes simplistic and Native activists are disturbed by a casual-seeming joke about smallpox blankets that could have been about literally anything else.
But what I loved about “Barbie,” ultimately, is it cheerfully but poignantly talks about how utopian intentions can be ruined by human frailties and the quest for control. It shows how the Barbies really do sometimes disregard the Kens, and that the Kens want power not because they have any good ideas or know what to do with it, but just because it’s possible and because it might include horses. The film proposes a balance in life based on what you want and need, not just what’s expected of you.
Which brings me back to my original plan for this column. I am so sick of a culture that is more upset that you are mad than at the thing you are mad at. That demands a “compliment sandwich” that requires women to twist themselves into so many contradictory knots of niceties that our deserved criticisms are obscured in useless netting. That’s so threatened by any sort of negativity, earned or not, coming from a mouth that’s female or nonwhite, that it takes things personally when we’re not even talking about you. (I had a lot of people accusing me of calling them bad allies in the Scott column when I specified I meant the nasty, racist, judgmental commenters and HAVE NEVER MET YOU, LADY.)
What “Barbie” reminded me is that womanhood, whether plastic or human, comes with a set of expectations when we speak, have opinions or (God forbid) want our own way. I don’t think a movie — particularly one that some have dismissed as anti-male because it calls out the patriarchy loud and clear — is going to change everything.
But I know at least one male gets it: my 9-year-old son. I asked him what he thought the message of “Barbie” was. His response?
“Be nice to your Barbies! Men don’t have to be in charge of everything. And sometimes we can share.”
That attitude doesn’t come close to solving the world’s problems, but it makes me hopeful. And a little less angry.