It takes a lot to get me out to the theater these days. It takes even more to get me to a theater on a Wednesday night. But, I got swept up in the Barbie movie hype — like so many others who contributed in helping the film directed by Greta Gerwig rake in more than $356 million dollars in its worldwide opening weekend, making it “the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.”
I arrived at the theater early and watched the audience stream in. Suburban women in pink shirts with matching Barbie-head Cricut designs. Little girls decked out in tiaras and boas. Trios of teenage girls and gray-haired ladies. What I didn’t see: any boys. From where I sat in the theater, I counted three men, including my friend’s husband, who, along with my friend, graciously allowed me to tag along with them on their night out. But no young boys. As far as I could tell, no one had brought their son to see Barbie.
Maybe that’s not surprising. For one, the movie has a PG-13 rating for suggestive references and brief language, so parents with younger children may not be racing with their kids to the theaters. And secondly, young boys, especially those who’ve never had an iota of interest in playing with a Barbie, may simply not be interested in the movie, which is neither animated nor features talking elements. To them, Barbie may feel like a “girl movie.” (Full disclosure: my son, who was at sleepaway camp when I went to the movie, would’ve certainly rolled his eyes if I had asked him to come along — he’s never shown an interest in Barbie, despite every opportunity to play with his sister’s dolls, which admittedly, she wasn’t very into either.)
But, a theater full of girls and women watching a movie that’s decidedly feminist seems like a missed opportunity. Perhaps we should be encouraging our sons to see the Barbie movie — not only to reinforce the idea that there’s no such thing as “girl” movies and “boy” movies, but also because the Barbie movie can serve as a jumping-off point for a lot of important conversations we should be having with our sons.
The premise of Barbie is essentially this: Barbie — played by Margot Robbie — experiences an existential crisis that leads her, and Ken — played by Ryan Gosling — on a journey of self-discovery through the human world.
Barbie’s first experience with “the real world” comes when she’s rollerblading in Venice Beach. Wearing a fluorescent, skintight leotard, she notes that she’s ill at ease and senses an undertone of violence. Beside her, Ken, appearing calm and happy, confirms he’s feeling none of that. He simply feels “admired.” That moment alone is a conversation starter — a launching point to help our sons understand the way a man and a woman might experience the same moment. Both Barbie and Ken are new to “the real world”, they’re both obviously outsiders, but it’s only Barbie who senses that need to be hyper-vigilant. Women around the world will relate to that feeling; men likely less. It’s hugely valuable for our sons to see the contrast in that moment — and then talk to them about it.
Likewise, our sons probably won’t intuitively understand the pressure society puts on women to be perfect. In the movie, America Ferrera eloquently addresses this exact issue — and if you’ve been on any social media in the last few days, you know the monologue I’m talking about. While I’m not sure one speech in one movie will move the needle far in terms of helping our sons understand the pressure women are up against, it certainly will open the door for a conversation.
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Another conversation starter: the movie’s all-female Supreme Court and government, and the criticism surrounding that. Many of the critics of the Barbie movie claim that the movie empowers women by disempowering men. They say the Kens — the men — are portrayed as powerless and voiceless. As a widowed mom to a son who’s surrounded by women, the very last thing I want to do is empower my daughter at the expense of my son. But creating an all-female government in a fictional world is actually doing the opposite of disempowering. It’s giving our sons a chance to experience what it may feel like to see yourself underrepresented in government, to experience a reality they may otherwise have not.
To me, that’s empowering our sons. We’re giving them the gift of empathy, especially if afterward we talk about how it felt to see themselves under-represented in government, about what they thought Ken must feel when he’s treated as something superfluous, and about how that translates to the real world.
(And, by the way — spoiler alert — it appears the critics of the movie didn’t make it to the end, where Barbie recognizes her mistake in not treating the Kens equally.)
Ultimately, we should take our sons to see the Barbie movie for the same reason we take our daughters. Because we want to make them more empathetic to the people around them. Because we want to make them better humans — regardless of whether they’re fans of Barbie or Ken.
Before you go, check out these celeb dads who are proudly raising feminists.
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