Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in “Barbie,” a film directed by Greta Gerwig.
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in “Barbie,” a film directed by Greta Gerwig.

A pink hammer to the patriarchy

A mom and a teen son reflect on the multiple messages of Barbie on the big screen. It’s so much more than a story about a doll.

PUTNEY — No filters, no makeup, no pink, no costumes - just an impromptu trip to see the Barbie movie.

It almost felt like we were breaking some unspoken rule based on all the fanfare I've seen, but we both needed to know what the hubbub was and had a rare evening of no scheduled work or meetings. So my son James and I made a last-minute decision to ditch all the have-tos on our lists and trek to Brattleboro's historic Latchis Theatre.

After finding on-street parking and a lovely walk through town in the evening drizzle, we went through the small-but-grand entrance of the theater. Stunning in the way only really old buildings can be. An entryway of granite, wood, and glass.

A rainbow hand stuck to the middle glass door stands out. It is a sticker signing "I love you" with "Youth are Welcome Here" written above. A sign that means the theater has been endorsed by our youth council's Quality Youth Development Project Credentialing Committee as a youth-friendly business. A badge that signals a place where youth can be treated inclusively, one that fosters safety.

James is a part of the council that researched and brought this initiative to Brattleboro. I couldn't help but feel the momma's pride and point to it, which he quickly shrugged off, as most 14-year-olds would.

He then went on to pay for both of our tickets, drinks, and popcorn. This is not the first time James has insisted on paying for something we do, but it still always catches me off guard, and I couldn't help but say aloud to the gentleman selling tickets, "My 14-year-old son just paid for me to see Barbie."

I was beaming in only the way a parent can when they feel like maybe they are getting this parenting thing right.

* * *

As we settled in to our seats, I thought back to a pretty deep conversation I had with his older brother. Neither of us had seen the movie, and he was confused by the widely held excitement for a doll he had been taught in school was an overly sexualized, unattainable stereotype.

He's not wrong - and, as I shared, she was so much more to me.

I loved that I could imagine myself as anything through Barbie: a ballerina, a cowgirl, a business woman by day and a nightclub diva by night. (Did anyone else have Day-to-Night Barbie?)

I also loved the connection she created for me with my mom's childhood even when my mom was barely in my life. I hold memories of playing with her old Barbies at my grandma's.

* * *

The movie screen is now flashing advertisements for local businesses and organizations. A big old ad for the Brattleboro Area Youth Council pops up with James's face on the screen among the group of teens. As he watches, he's making the exact happy face he did for this selfie.

"You're famous!" I exclaim.

"I'm really not. No one pays attention to those," he responds, trying to shrug me off.

"Well, I do, and you are on the big screen for every movie shown here!"

It plays a second time.

"I bet you're getting more screen time than some of the people in the movie," I say.

He rolls his eyes and, with a little smile, accepts my over-the-top antics without encouraging me.

I need a selfie with the famous person. He begrudgingly allows it, but approves of the picture.

* * *

The movie begins, and we go quiet, except to laugh. I'm not going to lie; I also teared up a couple of times.

The story was so much more than its surface level. Yes, it was about the patriarchy, but also about growing up and the disappearing world of imagination.

When it's over, we talk. All the way home.

There are so many layers to the story and how it was told that we both struggle to start, but once we do, it just rolls out.

"I feel like I didn't understand some things because I haven't lived through what women do," James says.

We agree it can be enjoyed on multiple levels - not just for the story but also for its cinematography, music, choreography, and acting. It's really quite brilliant.

Allan, played perfectly by Michael Cera, is a genius character. James likes him most as the guy character who was funny, who seemingly didn't embody the patriarchy, and who was an ally to women.

Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon, could not have been cast better and is who adult Laura identifies most with. She is outspoken, she knows how to bring the awkward, she is kind of punk rock, and she just wants to help others - no matter how they treat her.

Both were independent thinkers and unashamedly themselves, even in a Barbie world where everything is supposed to be perfect. I loved that.

I also love how all the Barbies had rock solid confidence until outside forces were introduced. I recognized my internalized patriarchy when I felt discomfort with Stereotypical Barbie's boundaries with Ken. I had to unpack my sense that her behavior, which was actually very healthy, felt a bit mean to me.

* * *

James and I also agreed that though the movie clearly took on patriarchy, it failed at addressing patriarchy's BFF, capitalism. It also could have done better at diversity and inclusion.

But before going too far down the critical road, we recognized that this was a movie made by a woman, Greta Gerwig. And as America Ferrera's character demonstrated in her wake-up speech, women cannot feel - nor should they feel - that they must be everything society mandates.

We should not ask that of this movie or of its director. Do we ask this of movies made by men?

And, while at its most shallow the movie may have inspired a run on pink paint and pink convertibles, it also inspired deep conversation - not just between us, but between friends and colleagues, between parents and children, and between people who have and who have not seen the movie.

* * *

The Barbie movie, like my mom's Barbies and my own, is so much more than a story about a doll. It's an opportunity to look at our world as it is and imagine it differently.

And as one character in the movie says: "Being a human can be pretty uncomfortable. Humans make up things like patriarchy and Barbie, just to deal with how uncomfortable it is."

What is made up can be unmade.

So here's to smashing the patriarchy.

Here's to the kids creating safer community by endorsing youth-friendly places with rainbow I-love-yous.

Here's to my sons, to me, and to all of you for engaging in self-reflective conversations that might change the way we think and act.

Here's to a world with ordinary Barbie. Maybe she shows up to her own movie like me - no filters, no makeup, no pink, no costume, with leggings and a comfy hoodie. Or maybe she wears pink. I really do love me some pink.

And here's to Greta Gerwig for so brilliantly bringing her to our imaginations.

Laura Chapman is a civic volunteer, activist, and an employee for human-services nonprofits that help neighbors in need.

This Voices Essay was submitted to The Commons.

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