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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

Barbie was Camp (and it made me cry)

(spoilers ahead, you've been warned)

I finally saw Barbie, the film adaptation of the plastic, blonde children's doll that defined my childhood. As expected, it was camp, artfully written, visually aesthetic, funny, and serious. Margot Robbie's portrayal of a lifelike Barbie felt like a realized childhood dream, and I couldn't help but stare in awe at her perfect 'Barbie' hair (put down the bleach, Alex, you're safe). I knew that Greta Gerwig's storytelling was somehow going to subvert what I had always believed about 'Barbie' as a concept. In short, I had prepared myself to leave the theater with some life-changing perspective on womanhood (I know, definitely not a lot to ask of a singular film).

Is it possible to ever feel secure with imperfection? The sort of imperfection that at first doesn't seem to penetrate a figure like Barbie. Except, we soon find out that Barbie too struggles with believing she will not be enough if she ever defects from perfection. She leaves Barbieland because she begins having thoughts of death, her feet fall flat, and her legs start to show (gasp!) cellulite. Weird Barbie (the one with marker on her face and chopped off hair who used to be the prettiest Barbie until she was played with too hard) tells Stereotypical Barbie she must restore order with the person playing with her in the real world in order to bring back balance (aka no more cellulite) to Barbie-Land.

When Barbie arrives in the real world, she finds that it is pretty, well, awful. Men don't respect her, they objectify her. Much to her surprise (and Ken's excitement), all the women-forward roles from her world are relegated to men. In fact, the entire world, even Mattel, is dominated by men. She learns for the first time what a patriarchy is, and worse, learns that young adolescents see her as the villainous product of capitalistic greed and the perpetuator of impossible beauty standards. Ouch.

A woman being beautiful shouldn’t be the problem. The problem is a world that tells us that she is the only form of beauty. The film quickly teaches us this when Barbie sees an elderly person for the first time. Barbie looks at her in awe and says to her, “You’re beautiful”. It is such a sincere compliment, especially in a time where aging is seen as a detriment to a women's value, that I personally began to cry (there's no surprise there). The older woman responds, “I know”. There is no competition, judgement, or dislike between the women. Barbie reacts to the woman's lack of the humility with a genuine smile. An exchange of empowerment that is often unexpected of women (although certainly exists), and therefore, even more powerful to seen depicted on the screen. For a woman to acknowledge her beauty unabashedly, she challenges the very threads of a society that ask women to fulfill the contradictory expectations that are handed to them. Be confident but humble! Never take up any more space than is wanted from you!

I left the film with a sort of melancholy pit in the bottom of my stomach. I think it was recognizing that there is no solution for the way that the world makes women feel other than to acknowledge that it exists and to support and empower the women around you. We might never be able to be enough in the eyes of those around us if we don't seek perfection in the way that is expected, but that is not a problem that is ours to own. I also experienced the painful aching of nostalgia, of looking back on a childhood that shaped me into believing I was only as valuable as I was flawless at fulfilling my role. At aiming to be the girl-next-door and a bombshell and intellectual and loving, selfless and infallible. The shared burden of womanhood.

It was never Barbie's fault. It was the first person who told us that we should watch what we eat, the teachers who asked us to be good influences on the boys, 'friends' who didn't want to play with you anymore when they found a new best friend, the gym teachers who asked the "strongest boys" in the class to carry the equipment (all 8 year olds are weak anyway, who cares about gender!), relatives who told us that we were "marriage material" because we helped set the dinner table, the first person to make us feel ugly and the first to make us feel inadequate, even if it was ourselves. Barbie was just the escape, and even if she was a representation of the problem, she was never the cause.

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