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Using Barbie & The Evil Queen to Recalibrate Our Stories

By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder



As women, we often let ourselves be bound by stories.

Those tales--both in our culture and in our heads—have been with us since our earliest days. Who didn’t sigh while watching Price Charming slip the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot? Who didn’t cringe as Cruella da Ville threatened the lives of those Dalmatian puppies? Who can’t recount how a family member or the high school popular clique or the dreamy boy who didn’t ask us to prom “ruined our lives”?


And yet, stories also have the possibility to launch us past these self-created barriers so we can step into our power. By changing the perspective or even the descriptive words that we use, we can start to shift our trajectory from “victim” to “heroine,” from “doll” to “an authentic and empowered woman.”


Awash in Pink


Speaking of the latter, much of the hype about women during the summer of 2023 was centered on the Barbie movie. Initially, I didn’t buy into the hype; I thought that the movie was going to be a self-serving accolade to a perfectly coiffed doll with an unrealistic figure. Hazy memories from my childhood emerged of playing with Barbie and Ken, and then later efforts by Mattel to keep their Barbie brand relevant as they attempted to navigate the tumultuous cultural changes over the years. My view on the movie began to change after watching Ryan Gosling recount his 10 Kenergy essentials for GQ Magazine. His tongue-in-cheek performance modeled after his performance as a secondary dollKen made me rethink my preconceptions.

I talked a girlfriend into going and we soon were immersed in the “pinkness” of the movie —and the cast’s stellar performances. But it was the nuanced screenplay by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach that surprised and intrigued me—and enticed me to not only go back to the movie theater for a second screening but to buy a copy (and then invite unsuspecting houseguests into watching it).

The movie made me stop and consider the impact that Barbie had on our generation of women. Even though the dand some of those initial dreams were planted in not only our heads but subsequent generations of young girls and offered an unrealistic view of beauty (including those continually arched feet), they also did give us and future generations the opportunity to dream—to create a vision and stories-- about what we could do with our lives. While some degree of the glass ceiling continues to remain in many professions, we’ve had more educational and professional opportunities than our foremothers had by Barbie.


The movie’s sly message around patrimony also got my attention. The power of horses aside, the movie reinforced how important it is—especially in this day and age when we face increasing uncertainty—to invite everyone to the table. Yes, some may not be “prepared” to step into leadership roles (in the movie’s case, this group was the Kens). But it also shouldn’t be assumed that just because you have specific characteristics—whether that’s a specific gender, age, religious or political viewpoint, or educational status—that you shouldn’t be included in the process. These times that we’re navigating offer an opportunity to develop a new model where everyone—all of the Barbies and the Kens AND Allan, Skipper, and Midge—can work together to find a way forward.


Giving Age It’s Due

Age also holds a special place in the Barbie movie as part of the powerful speech given by the character Gloria, played by America Ferrera:

 

“You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard! It's too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault!”


 

Yet, ultimately, the three characters who were instrumental in providing context and soul to the movie were all older women. Narrator  Helen Mirren, who is in her late 70s, offers a wise and insightful view of all things Barbieland. Rhea Perlman, 75, serves as a reminder of what it truly means to be human and also to be an innovative woman in her role as Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler.


And then there’s the third woman —Ann Roth, who was 91 at the time of the movie and is an Oscar-winning costume designer--who converses with Barbie at the bus stop. Gerwig noted that this was the first time Barbie had seen anyone who was aging. In the movie, Barbie commented,  “You’re beautiful!” to which Roth’s character replied, “I know it.”


It’s been reported that the scene almost was cut, but Gerwig as the film’s director held her ground. She explained her reasoning for the scene to Screenrant.com: “There's this hysteria around maximizing everything and I think sometimes the part where you age or things break down isn't without its own beauty.”


Raveena and Clytemnestra




Barbie wasn’t the only female archetype that landed on my radar in 2023. Over the summer, I finally watched the 2012 movie Snow White and The Huntsman,” a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. I was interested in Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the evil Queen Raveena, who went to extremes in search for eternal youth and beauty—and the resulting power that comes from that.


Sadly, that story of needing to maintain youthful beauty as we age is one that tethers many older women today. We hesitate to show our gray hair, display our smile lines, or acknowledge our body’s sagginess  We’ll take drastic steps—whether that’s surgical procedures, using harsh chemical compounds on—or in—our bodies,  or starving ourselves so that we can keep a “youthful” face and figure.


But interestingly, the 2012 adaption of Snow White also introduced the idea that Raveena’s decisions were based on childhood trauma. And that addition resonated with me as I continue to learn more and more about the power of trauma to not only influence our choices but to have a far-reaching impact on our emotional and physical health.


That realization was reinforced when ISW Columnist Mara Soloway passed along Jennifer Saint’s novel, Elektra, which looks at the Trojan War through women’s eyes. 


One of the women who was featured was Clytemnestra, the half-sister of Helen of Troy. 


As a quick refresher, Helen--, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world and was married to Menelaus of Sparta-- was kidnapped by Paris, a prince of Troy. Her husband vowed to return her to Sparta and enlisted his brother Agamemnon (Clytemnestra’s husband), who before heading into battle does something unforgivable in Clytemnestra’s eyes.


In much of the mythology that I’ve previously read, Clytemnestra is portrayed as a power-hungry shrew who kills her husband upon his return in order to consolidate power. But Saint’s recounting offers an entirely different perspective, suggesting that Clytemnestra might instead be a heartbroken mother whose decisions—like Theron’s Raveena—are informed by trauma.


Claiming Our Story



The lessons of Barbie, Gloria, Raveena, and Clytemnestra suggest that we can begin to write—and believe--a different story about our future as older women. That means we need to be brave enough to let go of the characters that culture reinforces as being the only ones relevant for older women—the cruel witch, the evil stepmother, the dowdy crone, the “cougar.” 


One way is to consider the archetypes that are playing out in our life and then make the bold decision to write our own mythological heroine’s journey. Best-selling author Caroline Myss notes that we each have a set of archetypes—the mother, the father, the trickster, the judge, the warrior—that are an integral part of our lives, as well as lesser ones that come on line during different phases of life.


Together, these archetypes create a personalized and active pattern that can span—and sometimes morph--over generations “We engage in our lifetime in mythic patterns that have been part of evolution long before we came—and we will do our bit to participate in those evolutionary patterns in our life, to take them forward and move them along,” Myss explained in a YouTube video clip.


Knowing this, I’d invite older women to consider what would happen if we each began to embrace and activate healthy and empowering archetypes that we want to integrate into our own stories. How can we take purposeful steps to bring those characteristics online in order to create a better life for ourselves while also serving the greater good?


Let’s make 2024 the year where we explore our own stories, clarify what we want in our own life, reject diminishing labels, and embrace our own inner and outer beauty as an older woman. By becoming the wise woman, the healer, the advocate, the peacemaker, the Earth mother, the stateswoman, or the sovereign, we can continue to develop a deep well of talents and skills that are so needed in the world today!


Note: This column includes an affiliate link to Bookshop.org.





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