Barbie is the movie I needed my 15-year-old son to see this summer. The kid has his learner’s permit for driving, medalled in a couple of swim events at a regional meet, recently went on his first date, and soon will be embarking on his sophomore year in high school.
He’s on his way to becoming Ken on Venice Beach (as played by Ryan Gosling).
As his 51-year-old mother, I’m painfully aware that my son is merely six years away from having more rights in America than I do. He will soon obtain a driver’s license, and later get a voter’s registration. Due to the generosity of his grandparents and our ability to save money, he has a modest college fund.
Once he reaches the age when he can legally consume alcohol and has a college degree, he might arrive on a relatively level playing field with Gosling (minus the fame and the eight-pack abs). He will have bodily autonomy — a privilege I lost in June 2022 when six Supreme Court justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Undoubtedly, those who seek to uphold the current status quo in American society and applaud the SCOTUS decision will label my actions “indoctrination” and “woke.” I’ll happily admit it: They are. To borrow an African proverb, “If the wise elders of the village don’t teach the children, the village idiots will certainly do so.”
I’ve been inoculating my son against hate for years. On the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, my then eight-year-old son found me sobbing on our family room couch in a suburb outside Washington, D.C.
Right then and there, I gave him a gargantuan task that amounted to “don’t sit by and let people bully others.” I implored him to use his privilege to help. It was a huge ask and perhaps an inappropriate burden for a kid that age, but I’d already put some scaffold in place.
Up to that point, I’d tried to model this behaviour by doing whatever I could ― and using my own privileges ― to help those around me. I drove an immigrant mother to a local community college for classes and helped her with English.As a family, we participated in Help the Homeless walks through our local community service organisation. For years, we purchased backpacks for kids in transitional housing each August and packed Thanksgiving boxes with groceries and gift cards for those less fortunate each November.
We visited a mosque in Virginia for its open house at a time when backlash against Muslims was heating up again. During Donald Trump’s presidency, I advocated on Capitol Hill for increasing immigration quotas for refugees, especially for Afghans and others who had assisted U.S. troops in exchange for our protection.
Despite these efforts and a new administration, we live in a country where white nationalism is on the rise, as are antisemitic incidents and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We live in a country where women do not control our own bodies. In 2023, I am fighting to raise a son who doesn’t become the next Kyle Rittenhouse, Brock Turner or Elon Musk.
Movies, like books, invite dialogue. As a former high school English teacher, I wish all teachers would assign their students to watch Barbie in place of summer reading selections like The Grapes of Wrath. Since it’s too late to amend summer assignments, I’ll encourage all my friends and acquaintances to see the movie with their teenagers.
Analysing the Barbie film is as foreign to my son as reading Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream was last year in ninth grade. It requires a guide who can explain that Ken’s inferior position in Barbieland is a mere inversion of the patriarchal American society we live in today. I was thrilled to be given the chance to provide that guidance.
The experience of sitting in a theatre with my son and watching Ken ask Stereotypical Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) if she wants to have a sleepover offered me the opportunity to point out that consent is important and needs to be honoured.
We discussed how the frustration Ken feels at being left out of fun in Barbieland mirrors how women and other minorities feel in America today. Together, we laughed about Barbie and Ken’s trip to the “real world” and the Mattel corporate headquarters, where only men sit in the boardroom. I assured my son that it’s OK to feel slighted and want to be in charge. It’s understandable that after his return, Ken leads a revolt and tries to rewrite the Constitution to put Kens in power. I get it: I’m pretty mad there are only four female Supreme Court justices and a female vice president.
To be voiceless or outnumbered is to be vulnerable ― and worse, too often it means being unable to succeed in a world where you don’t have the same rights or access to opportunities as others.
I acknowledged my own substantial privilege as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, educated woman while I confessed to him that I feel guilty about how my status gives me advantages. Being human is complicated. But, as Barbie points out, we all get a choice in what we do with our lives ― we get to decide what we do with our privilege, and if and how we help make this place better for everyone.
I can rail against book bans in this country all I want, but nobody is burning copies of John Steinbeck novels anymore. Instead, Ben Shapiro is igniting Mattel’s 11.5-inch plastic dolls. In taking my son to the Barbie movie and talking with him, I seized the lesson plan that Hollywood handed me.
Although I don’t live in Florida or plan to visit the state anytime soon, I challenged the anti-woke agenda that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is trying to impose there ― and everywhere. I want my son to fully understand the message that Barbie has emblazoned in front of us, because the patriarchy is real and too many people are suffering under it. And he can help change that.
Here’s the thing that haters missed about the Barbie movie: It wasn’t about revenge. Weird Barbie (my favourite character, played by Kate McKinnon) sent Stereotypical Barbie on a quest back to the real world to find Gloria (a low-level Mattel employee having an existential crisis) and her daughter Sasha, who discarded her Barbie doll years earlier.
When the trio returns to a Barbieland in shambles, Ken’s sidekick, Allan, and all of the other discontinued Barbies team up to voice ways in which the matriarchal society that existed before the Kens took over was also flawed and excluded them.
They ask for a new place ― not a return to the past or a punishment for anyone. In the end, Stereotypical Barbie tells Ken to get a life that doesn’t depend on others for happiness ― a life that gives him equal status without infringing upon the status of anyone else. I want that for your sons and my son as well.
In the spirit of cooperation, my son signed off on this essay about our excursion. It’s just one instance in an ongoing process of negotiations between parent and child. I’m grateful to see glimmers of the man he is becoming, even wrapped in a sometimes surly exterior.
One day, months before we saw Barbie together, he surprised me during a car ride by saying how messed up it was that people were boycotting a product advertised with the help of a transgender celebrity.
It’s those small interactions that convince me he understands his privilege and sees a world that desperately needs diversity. Going forward, I’ll keep teaching him about this messy world whenever I can ― even if it’s at the movies and with the help of a doll ― and I’ll keep saying and doing things that embarrass him, a skill that he swears I excel at. And he’ll do his best to grow into the man he’s becoming, who currently wears a men’s size 11 shoe. I am hopeful that he will learn to tread lightly to avoid stepping on Barbie’s Birkenstocks.
Wendy Besel Hahn (she/her) is the nonfiction editor for Furious Gravity (May 2020), a collection of 50 stories by D.C.-area women. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Scary Mommy and The Fem, and is forthcoming in Hippocampus. She lives in Denver, where she is working on a novel.