What Were We Made For?

Jamiah Green | August 18th, 2023

What Were We Made For?

Movies  |  Opinion  |  Arts & Culture  |  Youth Arts Journalism Initiative  |  Film & Video

JamiahPortrait“Humans only have one ending,” the words echoed over the screen. “Ideas live forever.”

It was the penultimate scene to Barbie, the pink-studded blockbuster directed by Greta Gerwig and now out in movie theaters across the country—and I was genuinely surprised to be watching it through tears. When I walked into the North Haven Cinemark with my childhood friend, Jeana, I didn’t have high hopes for the movie. By its end two hours later, I saw it as an act of powerful truth-telling about the world we live in, and the people we value least.   

Maybe my conclusions have been years in the making. Growing up as a child, Barbie dolls were something I always enjoyed playing with, whether it was by myself, my little sister, or even my cousin. I remember my cousin, Janae, had a big Barbie doll dream house, and we used to play “mean girls,” giggling as we told each other: “You have to be cool enough to fit in.”

We would find different dresses and outfits (purchased, always, by our parents), trying to find the “coolest” outfit of them all. It was always a competition between us, looking through the pile for things like a black and white polka-dotted dress, tiny tulle and chiffon pink gowns, or even the whitest pair of high heels we could find. We were playing out different scenarios and making it work to our liking. If I was sad or trying to avoid an adult conflict, playing with these dolls always gave me some sort of comfort. They were my friends.

For years, I looked at Barbie dolls as complex toys: maybe a girl’s best friend, maybe a motivation to accomplish dreams that felt out of reach. One Barbie that resembled me— African-American with a ponytail, white coat, pink dress and shoes, and a stethoscope— made me fall in love with the idea of becoming a doctor. I thought, for a time, that anything was possible, which happens to be a twist in the film as well (warning: spoilers ahead).

But when I became a teenager, I started to see the dolls differently. Suddenly, I understood Barbie as over-sexualized, degraded, and given a label that was negative for the little girls who played with the toys. I thought that they represented a false and unattainable kind of standard for women.

So when the movie was released, there wasn’t a question in my mind. I was going to see it. What I didn’t expect was its ability to balance all the things I was feeling in a single place. 

Its beginning was straightforward enough. I watched as Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) woke up to enjoy her typically perfect day in Barbie Land, a world run by fellow Barbies. In this magical place, you can be Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), President Barbie (Issa Rae), Construction Barbie and so forth—anything that may still be male- and white-dominated in the real world.

It was all gravy, until Stereotypical Barbie started having very human, un-Barbie-like thoughts, like awareness of her own mortality. When a misshapen, physically altered Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) sent her off to the real world to find the human (America Ferrera) that had been playing with her, I watched it turn her understanding of Barbie Land completely upside down.

There were plenty of messages there that I expected along the way. Ken (Ryan Gosling) tags unexpectedly along and realizes that he’s been missing out on toxic masculinity. Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the little girl who once loved Stereotypical Barbie, wants nothing to do with her because she’s growing up and getting hip to patriarchy. White men run Mattel, where Barbie always imagined that a woman would be at the helm. The punches in the real world keep coming. 

But I was also surprised—and impressed—by how well Gerwig showed the real world. When Barbie travels from Barbie Land to Venice Beach, it doesn’t take her long to feel the tension between the world she understands and the world that actually exists. In this universe, men (often white and heterosexual) run things because they can, not because they’re any more qualified to do so. The pay equity gap is real. Young women, and old women, and women in between are self-conscious, depressed, and self-depreciating.

In other words, the patriarchy is real. And it’s coming for everyone, if it hasn’t already.

Being a viewer who used to play with Barbie dolls as a kid, it felt great to see somewhat of a realistic representation of both the real world, and also how I perceived and handled my dolls at one point. From the pretty prep dolls to career choices and the very idea of what constitutes “damaged goods,” I felt the movie did a great job representing those differences in the characters.

In my personal opinion, I feel that Gerwig’s vision for the film does an excellent job of giving a realistic take on capitalism and patriarchy—while also giving Mattel the credit it wants for making a blockbuster hit meant to sell more things. While Mattel’s vision is about Barbie—the dream, the doll, and the sales numbers—Gerwig takes chances that feel big and bold, particularly in their criticism of the world as it is.

For years, women—especially women who are not white, and not straight, and not economically privileged—have been fighting to feel heard, respected, and valued as equal to what men have been getting as a priority. But no matter how hard we fight and how far we’ve come, it feels like there will always be a debate and stigma on how we are still not equal with men. As we continue to prove our right to be treated at the same level of respect as men, we are continuously shut down.

Gloria, played by America Ferrera, captures it in a monologue that has become a talking point of the film. As she starts—“You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women”—you know you’re in for a ride that is also a master class in speaking truth to power.

As Jeana and I left the theater, it showed me that in some way, we are all connected and should be valued at the same level. Maybe Gerwig goes easy on Mattel. But it worked for this viewer, who came away with the reminder that we are meant to be heard and treated with the same level of respect.

Jamiah Green is a graduate of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative, which she joined in spring 2019. She is now a junior at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Read her work here.