Who is Barbie?

I was just about to turn 7 years old when Mattel launched Barbie in 1959.  Like every other little girl living in mid-century America, I wanted nothing else for my birthday but a Barbie doll in her smartly striped swimsuit, high heels and sunglasses.

Of course, I fell prey to the marketing, the TV commercials announcing her release, the exotic look of this impossible female figure, the imagined glamour that would accompany anyone who looked like that.  Barbie was a dream. I wanted in on the dream.  I wanted to pretend I could be someone like that – impossibly perfect. 

The movie got it right. Impossible Barbie was what every little girl hoped for because, after all we’d watched our mothers, our sisters, other women in our communities live such difficult, challenging, real lives.  Who wouldn’t want to believe that in some imaginary world, Impossible Barbie might have the life we only wished for ourselves.

Now, I’m about to turn 72 and having just watched the Barbie movie (wasn’t America Ferrera amazing?) I’m left with the question, “Who is Barbie”?

No, not the actress (Margot Robbie) or even the creator (Ruth Marianna Handler) played by Rhea Perlman in this movie, but WHO is the idea we think of as Barbie?  And what does this idea mean to us, whether we’re 7 or 72?

I think, as Gloria (America Ferrera’s character) puts it, it is literally impossible to be a woman in today’s society.  Here is her (amazing) monologue* in its entirety:

"It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. 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.

I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

And, on several counts, I know from experience, that trying to play the game she outlines in this speech, we go crazy

I especially appreciate now, the part where she says, never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. I think someone in my family-of-origin penned those lines decades ago and made them the rules for the women of our household. I am confident I’ve broken every one of them.

So, who is Barbie? To me, Impossible Barbie represented that idea that someone might exist (purely in my imagination) who could play by her own rules. She could be herself (whomever she chose to be) and find a way to make that work for her. 

She could reveal her flaws, her foibles, her humanness and not encounter insurmountable consequences if she did.  She could just be. And Impossible Barbie allowed me that imaginary friend who knew how to navigate the world without apologizing for being herself.

Especially when I’m coaching caregivers, these familiar themes (from the movie) come up:

  • Learning to think of yourself as enough (doing enough, being enough, having enough).

  • Contemplating the challenges of getting old – especially when taking care of another person who needs your time and attention.

  • Fear of failing because the stakes feel so high!

These are very common conversations and the belief systems they reflect leave little room for Ordinary Barbie – the one who looks like me, has had plenty of cellulite (since her 40s) and is anything but perfect. That Barbie (me, and all the rest of us) is the one carrying the world on her shoulders and making this a safe place for everyone else.

That’s the Barbie I aspire to be (if Dame Helen Mirren can have a Barbie, maybe I can too!?!) Ordinary Barbie, the one who goes about her life trying to get through the day, lift someone’s spirits, engage in some self-care, order the groceries, make some supper and never apologize for simply being human, imperfect, flawed.

If you find that doll, let me know.

 

*LA Times. Contributed by staff writer, Mark Olsen. Available at:

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2023-07-23/barbie-america-ferrera-monologue

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About Paula

I help other caregivers – both professionals and family caregivers – acknowledge their pain and learn to practice the many small skills of self-care that can sustain them through the challenges of wholeheartedly caring for others.

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How Can I Help You?

Through Co-Create 4 Life, you will learn a range of well-being strategies from skillfully implementing self-care to holistic approaches to well-being, rebuilding resilience, and battling burnout. Book a free consultation call today to discuss your options.

How Can I Help You?

Through Co-Create 4 Life, you will learn a range of well-being strategies from skillfully implementing self-care to holistic approaches to well-being, rebuilding resilience, and battling burnout. Book a free consultation call today to discuss your options.