I have not been shy about admitting to some of my guilty pleasures. I openly discuss my love for Broadway musicals, the Muppets (including Sesame Street), and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I enjoy video games and toys. I even have a toy basketball hoop in my office (a gift, by the way, from my wife on my 40th birthday!). One of my new guilty pleasures is the summer blockbuster movie Barbie. I understand there are varied opinions about Barbie, but I have to admit it was a well-made movie with a valuable storyline. As a man, I understand I was not among the target demographic for the Barbie movie. But as a man, I actually attended the Barbie movie. And yes, as a man, I even thoroughly enjoyed the Barbie movie.
I remember being a child and wanting to play with Barbie dolls. I also remember reprehensive adults telling me I couldn’t play with Barbie dolls because I was a boy. My sister had Barbies, my cousins had Barbies, my girl friends had Barbies. Every once in a while, when our parents weren’t looking, some of the girls in my life would sneak me a Barbie, or if they were more cautious, a Ken doll to play with. Although still very much part of the Barbie universe, Ken was at least a male. So maybe the shame of being caught playing with a Ken doll wouldn’t be quite as severe as the shame of being caught playing with a Barbie. Still, Barbie fascinated me. I admit that there were a number of times in my childhood when I checked to see if the coast was clear. If it was, I’d happily play with Barbie dolls for a short time, paying close attention for the sound of any approaching footsteps. One day I remember feeling immense, debilitating shame when my father caught me playing with my sister’s Barbie. He made fun of me. I am still scarred by the shame I felt that day and for days following. In fact, it was the last time for a very long time I even touched a Barbie doll. Not because I didn’t still want to play with Barbies, but because I was afraid and ashamed. If I’m a boy, and this toy is for girls, then something must be wrong with me if I want to play with it.
Fortunately these days, people are much more open minded about gender-directed toys. It’s actually valuable for boys to play with dolls. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with girls playing with trucks. Our imaginations can take us anywhere we want to go. My fear and shame of playing with the wrong toys led me to refrain from playing with any toys at all for the rest of my childhood. Maybe that’s why I like toys so much now. Maybe a piece of my childhood never really had a chance to develop because I was too afraid of finding out that something else might be wrong with me.
So why would a little boy want to play with Barbie in the first place? Well, Barbie was cool! Barbie had lots of outfits and cars and activities. Barbie could be a doctor or a lawyer or an athlete. Barbie could roller skate or play with pets. She had a dream house on the beach. She threw the best parties. She had varied skin colors and varied hair colors. Who wouldn’t want to be like Barbie? In a lot of ways, Barbie was the perfect role model! Why should it matter that Barbie is a woman and I was a boy? Why shouldn’t I have looked up to Barbie?
Granted, I know Barbie dolls have been criticized for setting unrealistic body image examples for girls. Believe me, body image issues are not something only suffered by girls. To this day I still struggle with my body image. But I think kids are smart enough to know that Barbie is a toy. Ken is a toy. G.I. Joe is a toy. He-Man is a toy. Toys are supposed to be exaggerated. Play and imagination help us to expand our minds and our experiences. My body issues are because other kids made fun of me for my weight. They’re not because I didn’t grow up to look like He-Man. I never expected to do that.
Barbie follows the titular character (by the way, all the Barbies share the same name and all the Kens have the same name). But the main Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, is the “Stereotypical Barbie” in Barbieland. The Barbies are government leaders, doctors, lawyers, Supreme Court Justices, and more. The Kens are secondary characters. When Barbie and Ken (the main Ken, played by Ryan Gosling) find themselves in the real world, they discover that things aren’t the same as they are in Barbieland. Men have most of the power and the highest paying jobs. Men are respected more than women and expected to be smarter and more accomplished. The idea portrayed in the film is that “patriarchy”, a system where men hold most of the wealth, power, and privilege, is still very much alive and well in 2023 in the United States. The movie actually brings a lot of awareness to patriarchy. If it’s viewed as it’s intended, then we can realize we still have a long way to go before men and women are truly seen as equals. The Barbie movie shows all of us some healthy ways to be feminists.
But what does it mean to be a feminist? It means that we stand in solidarity with people of all genders so that there is true equality in the world. Jesus believed women were equal to men. He proved it time and time again. His best friend was a woman. The first apostle, Mary Magdalene, was a woman. When he rose from the dead, he appeared to women. He spoke up for the woman caught in adultery. He empowered the woman he met at the well. His mother, the Virgin Mary, is exalted more than any other human person. Jesus was a feminist.
We all can be feminists. We all can become more in touch with our feelings and emotions. We all can become less fearful of our children playing with the “wrong” toys. We can become less fearful of little boys wanting to have their fingernails or toenails painted. We can become more comfortable with men wearing pink clothing. Feminism teaches us that none of those things have any bearing on who we are as people. Our gender does not determine our potential for income, our career, our preferences of toys and movies, our clothing, or anything else. When we are feminists, we respect the inherent goodness of both women and men (and in fact all gender expressions!). We can teach our boys that it’s ok to cry. We can teach men that they don’t always have to be the tough guy. We can teach young girls that they can grow up to be absolutely anything they want to be. Cheering for everyone to win does not mean that anyone has to lose. When we are feminists, we can cheer for absolutely everyone to win. Feminism is just as good and important for men as it is for women.
The Barbie movie is silly, jovial, and even funny. Keep in mind, its PG-13 rating means it is not intended for kids. My guess is that many of the gags would simply not be understood by kids. But Barbie does not degrade men. It does not emasculate men. It does not teach us that men are no good or that men are worthless. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. The movie teaches us that men who are kind and loving make the best romantic partners. Men who look out for the well-being of women are respected and loved. Men are, in a word coined by the movie makers, Kenough. Our baptismal covenant reminds us that we commit to respect the dignity of every human person. To me, this means that we are called to be feminists. When we strive for justice and peace for all people, we recognize the inherent goodness is God’s people. And we realize that each of us, in our own way, is Kenough.