Barbie and me

My thoughts have been circling around issues of gender for a while. Our family text thread had blown up (in a good way) recently when I shared the Washington Post essay by Christine Emba, Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness. Amongst the variety of opinions expressed in multi-paragraph texts, we agreed that masculinity is in trouble. We also agreed that the essay did not, despite its title, provide a map out of that wilderness.

This weekend I’ve also been watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer tournament, in awe of the strength and beauty of these women on the pitch. I am particularly moved to see Haiti send their first ever team to this competition. My Study-Service Term experience in Haiti during the summer of 1983 profoundly shaped the direction of my life and work. Haiti is currently going through a terrible period of gang violence and anarchy, adding to its already tragic history of enslavement and revolution. The Haitian women’s team has faced adversity on so many levels, including alleged sexual abuse from a coach. I want them to exert their power, enjoy this experience and feel the support of fans like me around the world.

And on Saturday morning, I watched the video highlights of Lionel Messi’s epic debut and game-winning goal for Inter Miami CF and felt oddly delighted that Messi’s team were playing in pink. (And the goal was crazy.) I love the color pink, but as my female lawyer friend once noted, professional women have to think carefully about how to wear pink. Now that men are adopting pink – even outside of breast cancer awareness campaigns – I feel encouraged.

And then Kevin and I watched “Barbie.” Wow! A world of pink as it existed in my childhood of the 1960s and 70s. Barbie was created in 1959, and I was born in 1962. I think my sisters and I got our first Barbie around 1970. Ours was the stereotypical Barbie who stars in the movie, not the career-oriented multi-racial Barbies or the soccer Barbie that came later. We also had Ken, who mainly functioned as a prop to Barbie. Around the same time, McDonald’s Big Mac sandwiches came out and were served in a cardboard box rather than wrapped in paper. I have a happy memory of converting a hamburger box into a suitcase for Barbie’s accessories.

Back to the movie, Kevin and I laughed out loud throughout. I think I shrieked with laughter at least once, self-conscious that I was surrounded by adolescent girls oblivious to all the inside jokes aimed at people my age, girls who were wearing pink and taking selfies in front of the movie poster after we left the theater. It felt complicated, which is what culture is these days.

How do you make a movie out of Barbie? Well, Barbie is transformed from her perfectly beautiful and always happy doll-self into a real woman with wide-ranging feelings who wears Birkenstocks. Ken has his own journey in which he breaks free from his Barbie-adoring shadow-self into the dark delights of patriarchy before finally finding his own version of Barbie-free liberation.

Barbie is helped along her transformation journey by a variety of female sages – young, midlife, old and, perhaps, queer. (The movie skirts queerness, but sends some signals.) No such sage is offered for Ken, other than Barbie herself when she forces Ken to detach from her and be himself. In fact there is no mature male figure in the entire movie.

I lamented about this to my wise husband Kevin, wondering again, where are the maps for men? Kevin agreed with the lament, but also went on to say that there have always been ways out of the wilderness for men, maps of transformation that help men break out of the shell of patriarchy. Most importantly, Jesus. Organizationally, there are Illuman, Mankind Project and Mennonite Men, for example. Kevin further conjectured that these maps have not become major movements because a majority of men have not recognized the harm and limitations that patriarchy puts on them. I’m still chewing on that. What do you think?

Haitian women competing in the World Cup, Barbie becoming human, Lionel Messi in pink. It’s been a good weekend. And I’m hoping that Ken finds a sage, and that more men find a map out of the wilderness.

Rebecca Stoltzfus