I’m exhausted. Watching Ben Shapiro recently set fire to Barbie, Ken, and a pink convertible invoked a new level of tired. The 43-minute protest of the Barbie movie causes many concerns, not just over his meltdown, humanly speaking, but about a culture in which violent, ugly stunts receive such traction.
Many are calling out Shapiro’s behavior for crossing a line. My 7-year-old self wouldn’t have understood a grown man throwing her beautiful friend into a trash can, much less lighting Barbie on fire. Why hate on a toy that inspires simple enjoyment of beauty and play? Was Barbie wrong to spark my imagination for constructing her a “home” from a cardboard box? Should a girl not feel excited, even proud, of what she creates? Must a girl include a grown man named Ken in her fantasy world or face allegations of male exclusion? Why shouldn’t Barbie’s smile innocently encourage girls’ accomplishments?
My adult self does not comprehend how a Barbie doll—inspiring beauty and creativity—has become twisted into an object of disdain. Dissecting Shapiro’s response requires mind-bending effort. While I don’t know him, I doubt he would question my career in real estate including construction of furnished investment properties (a dream since childhood).
It’s About Choices
I doubt he, or the political party he promotes, would discourage higher education, professional development, establishing new businesses, or the livelihoods so many women build in collaboration with men. When understood purely, Ruth Handler’s invention has revolutionized the lives of countless girls and women. She has been quoted as saying in her 1994 memoir Dream Doll that her whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. That Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.
In the new movie, random thoughts of death, falling from her dream mansion balcony, and the sudden flattening of her feet (not fitting heels) hurl Barbie into an existential crisis. Life becomes complicated when she ventures to the real world for answers. Upon entry, Barbie encounters unpleasant gawking and cat calls. A guy grabs her inappropriately; she punches him, and lands in jail. Barbie narrowly escapes a corporate boardroom of men attempting to force her to live in a box. She discovers the sobering truth—real-world values and systems define her as a thing to be sold according to their jurisdiction.
Barbie’s real-life owner, Gloria, played by America Fererra, explains the double binds imposed on the high-heeled feet of real-world girls and women:
- You have to be thin, but not too thin.
- 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.
Gloria summarizes: “It is literally impossible to be a woman.” And she reminds Barbie and other women of their innate worth: “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 . . . 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” (“Barbie”: Screenplay by Greta Goring and Noah Baumbach, 2023).
A Compassionate Portrait of Ken
Not to be forgotten, Ken faces similar complications outside Barbie World. He becomes the butt of jokes and disrespect. Societal norms and expectations press him with a sense of inferiority due to a lack of credentials. Ken faces his own existential crisis. The real-world patriarchal system, promising to sooth his wounded ego, incites Ken to take over Barbie World. Co-writer and Director Greta Gerwig compassionately offers a portrait of Ken’s deepest struggles to find meaning and purpose within the Barbie World community.
Barbie reels with deep questions: Who is she really? Does she want to remain a toy doll or become a real woman? Standing face-to-face with Barbie, Ruth, her creator, gently reminds her that she gets to decide who she is and what she wants to do. Ruth explains that she cannot control Barbie any more than she can control her own real-life daughter, Barbara.
A tear spills down Barbie’s cheek the moment she embraces life as a real human woman. “I always hoped for you like I hoped for her,” Ruth explains to Barbie. “We mothers stand still so that our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come” (“Barbie”).
In the wake of fighting and chaos, Ken abandons empty patriarchal promises, dividing him, and the other Kens, from meaningful community with the Barbies. Barbie compassionately explains that Ken doesn’t have to prove his worth to her or anyone else because he is already enough.
Contrary to Shapiro’s assessment, the Barbie movie calls for women and men to live from the depths of their real humanity. Neither Barbie World—ruled by women—nor the patriarchal real-world—ruled by men—amounts to a better world. The best world unfolds as unique women and men embody their fullest potential, co-creating a beautiful and better world.
Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote a 1976 book titled Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History. Do those who disdain Barbie resent her for pointing girls and women to possibilities determined not by men in suits, or systems prone to stereotyping, minimizing and sexualizing? What causes them to devalue her innate goodness, beauty, and unique purposes? Breaking from norms and expectations that have existed for eons; forging new pathways that haven’t previously been allowed; transcending real-world obstacles and opposition—is it any wonder that historical traditions demonize Barbie for being less than “well behaved”? Thankfully, burning Barbie in a trash bin can’t end her life or her legacy. Barbie’s spirit will continue inspiring beauty, imagination, and creative purposes for future generations of girls, boys, women, and men.