Barbie Is a Meditation on Motherhood

As I played around with the idea for this post, the doubts crept in. Did I really need to add to the already saturated Barbie discourse? There is puh-lenty out there for folks to chew on. Vulture has dedicated an entire section to this pop culture phenomenon, called Pink Is the New Black. But just as I was talking myself into shutting up, I heard a cheesy/cringe/hopeful voice that sounded like Kelly Clarkson and she said, “No, girl. Do this. Write it! It’s fine! Your perspective matters.”

Make a wish, take a chance, and “take” away . . . 

Spoilers below

Picture it. Last Thursday. A hot July afternoon in Newport, Rhode Island. I pick my daughter up from Shakespeare Camp and surprise her with two tickets to the late matinee. Cinema! The Barbie movie! My daughter is fourteen and excited, which she conveys with a singular thumbs up. At minimum, there will be refreshing AC in a time of record breaking heat. At maximum, we will be a part of the zeitgeist. You know what pairs well with wet bulb humidity? Hot pink.

I loved Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. The pink plastic world she created embraced me and didn’t let go for 1 hour and 54 minutes. I laughed. I sat slack-jawed as the movie shifted from fish-out-of-water comedy to an old-school Hollywood musical filmed on a giant sound stage. KEN IS SINGING! And then I cried.

During the emotional final quarter of the film, I realized that this movie is for me. Me. For Amy. This is a movie for mothers, especially those of us who grew up with Barbie(s) and now have daughters of our own.

My mom was my Barbie dealer, via her Cold War alias Sant Claus. The first time she bought me one, I was still calling her Mamma.

Mamma gave me my first Barbie in 1977. Superstar Barbie. She wore a jumpsuit and a blue faux fur coat, with sapphire accessories. My favorite Barbie was Dream Date PJ (1982), with her honey, hombre hair and blue sequin dress. My Weird Barbie wasn’t actually a Barbie. It was a Princess Leia doll, and she went weird the second I unrolled her cinnamon buns and then tried unsuccessfully to pin them back up. She eventually got an asymmetric bob and some custom eyeshadow. The color? BIC Ballpoint Blue.

Dream Date PJ, 1982

I always played with my Barbies alone in my bedroom. My mom said that was how I wanted it because I was “very independent,” but in my memory, she never sat down on the green shag carpet to play with me. In my memory, she never felt like an emotionally safe, inviting place, and she never knew anything — and never asked —about my imagination. Was I the perfect child for my Boomer mom because she wasn’t interested in kids? Or did I accept that her lap wasn’t open to me?

But my mom kept on buying me Barbies. And she never teased me when, during middle school, I thought I was too old for dolls but still wanted to play without anyone knowing. I cleared off the top shelf in my closet to build Barbie, Stacy, and Ken a loft apartment with high ceilings. I had to stand on my desk chair to reach them, and I played with them until high school.

In the movie, Barbie leaves her Dream House and all her Barbie friends, heading off into the human world because someone is in crisis and it’s causing chaos in Barbieland. Flat feet can give you plantar fasciitis, and that shit is painful.

Barbie believes that person is the grumpy high schooler Sasha, who has outgrown her time with dolls and smiling. But it’s actually her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), on the struggle bus. Gloria sits at her Mattel headquarters desk, envisioning a new kind of Barbie. She wants a real Barbie, drawing her with cellulite, clinical depression, baggage, and an addiction to Below Deck. Barbie is perfect, and Gloria isn’t.

Now a mother, Gloria was once a little girl who played with Barbie dolls. But that’s the past. Now she is exhausted from navigating this shit-world that demands so much of us with a rule book that is truly a Catch-22. In fact, when I googled “Barbie cellulite” a top return was “Barbie has cellulite in the new movie. You don’t have to.” You can’t make this up.

Being a successful woman is a moving target. We are inadequate, and even then, we are too much. In her stirring monologue, Gloria speaks about the internal pressures we face, but there are so many external pressures, too, because motherhood itself is under attack in America.

Republicans have taken away our ability to choose when we even want to become a mother. We have no maternity leave. We underfund public education. Childcare costs are onerous, and higher ed prices are bonkers. Pickleball exists. Women are paid less than men. We ignore women after a certain age. Our children can be shot and killed at any moment. Trans mothers are scared for their very lives. It’s bleak. It’s the opposite of hot pink.

When Barbie realizes Gloria is the human in need of help and healing, she says, “It was always you.” It was always her: the mother. The one worried about her daughter. It was me. In that moment, this movie became a meditation.

It was a reminder that — as a mother — the greatest gift I can give my daughter is to tell her the truth. To tell her that I want her to be happy and that her imagination and dreams are safe with me. To let her play alone when she wants to, or to actively engage in her latest obsession whenever she asks. Part of being a mother is giving your child what you wished you had.

On the way home, my daughter said, “I can’t believe you cried.” And then she asked me, “What’s a gynecologist?” I was honest with her. I told her my gynecologist is a nice lady named Julie that does my pap smears and that she is extra special because she is also my Botox dealer. Before you jump on me about aging gracefully or loving my laugh lines, please remember I am not Stereotypical Barbie. I am Weird Amy.

One last thing. I have an eating disorder, and I’ve seen a lot of “Barbie can’t be feminist because she sets up unachievable body standards.” I work in data and research, so I conducted a short survey on myself to see if this were true. These are my results:

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