When I first saw ads for the Barbie movie in that dreadful, saccharine pink, I wanted to vomit. It seemed as if every ounce of rejected feminine behavior from the 1950s had been brought together in one movie to make me sick. Who would want to see that movie, I thought, in this year of 2023? Well, I did — after I found out what the movie really portrays.
Barbie is a masterful portrait of our modern, urgent need to create a gender-equal society. In two hours, Barbie dolls tell a complex, layered story of the rise and fall of patriarchy. It’s a warp drive through 5,000 years of civilization and I sat stunned, unable to move, when it was over.
There is so much in this movie that it’s easy to miss the turning point — the place where men stop fighting and begin to focus on their lives as individual human beings. We haven’t reached that place yet. It still beckons us, a light in the dark night of war, but we know its there, we know we must…War in the nuclear age is unthinkable.
Why do the Kens stop fighting? Why does Ryan Gosling’s character suddenly put his fingers in a heart shape over his chest and help his enemies up from the floor in the famous dream dance sequence, while he sings:
“My name’s Ken (and so am I)
Put that manly hand in mine
So, hey! World, check me out, yeah, I’m just Ken
Baby, I’m just Ken (nobody else, nobody else, nobody)”?
After the past half century of focus on women’s emancipation from gender roles, it is past time for men to reach the same goal. But much harder in a patriarchy where they are subjected to constant lies about their superior status. In a patriarchy, most men do NOT profit from their supposed dominance. Most men lose income and power in male hierarchies if they don’t actually lose their lives in war. But so many do not seem to grasp the real cause of their losses.
Patriarchy is a system created and perpetuated by warfare. Anthropological study of indigenous people over several centuries reveals that male dominated cultures arise prominently in places where there is regular warfare, invasion and migration. More recently, Stanford University scientists found that “stratified societies were fundamentally unstable, with high death rates among the lower strata, conditions that drove migration into new territory. Strangely enough, rather than being adaptive, stratified groups were maladaptive.” My memoir, Dance of the Deities: Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society, brings together this information on the impact of patriarchy on men, as well as research on egalitarian/matriarchal societies.
But instead of migrating or continuing to fight, men in the Barbie movie suddenly seek peace and personal growth. In two minutes, the film resolves perhaps the toughest problem we face in America, the dilemmas that men encounter in the rise and fall of a patriarchal system.
We wish it were that easy!
Finding personal growth without the guidance of baked-in gender roles is tough. Barbie tells Ken, after the fighting stops, that he needs to figure out who he is without her. That’s all true, but it takes years and transformative experiences. The most basic belief systems involving binary sexuality, marriage and religion come into question. One’s personal behavior in relationship comes under scrutiny.
And the movie doesn’t stop there, but expands into broad existential questions about human life and death. Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, asks the doll if she wants to become human, knowing what it means to be in life with constant change and knowledge of future death. Barbie says “yes” — with enthusiasm.
It’s a leap we all have to make, to find personal growth and acceptance in a world that is always changing.
For me, the path involved finding new spiritual life in Buddhism, one connected with the reality of the natural world which is “so beautiful, so mysterious and so damn tricky.” (pp 150 in Dance of the Deities)
“You can’t count on anything staying around. It comes and goes and all you can do is move with the waves, knowing that another one will come to lift you up temporarily or throw you helplessly into a whirl of white water.
“This isn’t a spiritual belief to soothe the soul. It’s a means of touching the way things really are in a constantly changing world. You can’t hang onto anything. Yet, we live, we breathe. We wake up every morning and do our business. Something is solid….Knowing that nothing is permanent, the everyday becomes precious…I live on the edge. And I seek tranquility. I meditate.
“The ‘me’ is here now and it is connected. So, I taste the universe once in a while. I lie in the web of connections that make up the world of things. In those moments, I pass beyond the intellect into immediate experience. And it feels good.”