How To Talk About the Barbie Movie with Your Kids
This year, instead of an action thriller, the blockbuster event of the summer is a woman-directed, woman-led film about self-discovery. We’re excited to see people of all genders seeing and talking about the Barbie movie, especially since gender expectations continue to do a number on all of us, including our kids. In fact, the CDC reports a disproportionate impact of our national mental health crisis on girls and LGBQ+ youth. Even though it’s PG-13 (if kids want to join and see a movie about their favorite toy, it should be with parental guidance), Barbie gives us an opportunity to help kids of all ages understand and make meaning of this icon of American girlhood, created in the context of 1959, now re-imagined in 2023.
We also need to join our kids in thinking through this movie because, while Barbie is a young kids’ toy, Barbie isn’t exactly a kids’ movie. There are complex ideas about gender and beauty standards, and even existential angst. While your young person might be happy to enjoy Barbie for the dance numbers, jokes, and celebration of all things pink, we think it’s worth an eye roll to unpack the questions and themes that this movie raises.
In full transparency, Girls Leadership has partnered with Barbie for years through its social impact program, the Dream Gap Project. The Dream Gap Project is based on research that shows how, starting at age five, girls start to internalize our society’s gendered messages that they aren’t as smart or capable as boys. This program supports organizations like Girls Leadership that work to understand and address the gender and racial biases that girls face every day. Two years ago our Girl Advisory Board listened to 200 young girls across the US, as part of this partnership, and heard from the girls just how gender bias shows up for them, and for their dreams of leadership and shared power. The report from this qualitative study, She Knows Her Power, shares the insights we learned. We hope that talking about this movie is another opportunity to be intentional about the messages we give all our kids about how gender expectations can impact our relationship to speaking up, our relationship to leadership, and power, or our ability to make choices in our lives.
If you loved the neon rollerblades, but want to get into the messages on feminism and perfectionism, we put together some questions and talking points. These definitions and questions are intended to be starting points, but remember that there’s no right answer to find; what matters is discussing your ideas and values together.
What IS the Patriarchy?
The word patriarchy is used eight times in the Barbie movie. For most kids, this is a word that you might need to explore together.
- Is this a word that you’re familiar with?
It means, “a society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.”
- Do you think that “patriarchy” is a good description of the real world? In what ways is this true and in what ways is this not true? Do any parts of your life feel like a patriarchy where boys or men have more power or control?
If your kids don’t see signs of the patriarchy in their everyday world, it might be worth pointing out visible power imbalances, such as our history of male presidents, or the gender imbalance in congress, or all the male faces on money, or the fact they may have never seen a woman pilot a plane. Girls tell us that they see the patriarchy show up most often at recess and in PE class, where power is not shared equally amongst the genders.
When it comes to power, it is important our kids understand that White women got the vote in 1920, but Black women didn’t get the vote until 1965. If our kids are going to start to talk about patriarchy, it is important for them to see the ways that it is consistently intertwined with racism.
- In the movie the opposite of the real world patriarchy was Barbieland, where the women have all the power, and the men have none. What other alternatives do you think could exist?
Swapping out the imbalance of power from one side to the other side is an idea that doesn’t strike most kids as fair. An idea that most kids want with their own siblings is a word that is tossed around even less frequently than patriarchy, is “egalitarianism.” This is the idea that all humans are inherently of equal worth and value.
What Pretty Really Means
At one point in the film, Barbie sits next to an elderly woman at a bus stop and says, “you’re so pretty.” This is an unexpected interaction by Hollywood standards – usually only young people with certain face and body types are called pretty. Should that be the case?
- What does pretty mean to you? Do you think other people have the same definition of pretty?
Cultures come up with their own definition of pretty. The original Barbie was based on a doll from Germany, so the beauty norms were Euro-centric. Now with more shades and sizes, different Barbies are based on different beauty definitions from different parts of the world.
- When did you learn what pretty was?
Because being considered “pretty” is a big part of our culture’s expectation of girls. Adults start talking about how girls look very early, and very often. Strangers comment on girls’ looks. Many girls share that to feel like they are judged by adults and peers alike on something they have little to no control over. Many girls share that it feels like a relief to have places to go where being considered “pretty” doesn’t matter, like being in nature, or playing sports, or just having a friend group that focuses on other interests. It can be helpful for all our kids to hear about this pressure. Boys also share that while the pressure to look a certain way may not begin in infancy, or pre-school, they also feel free to be muscular, with biceps, or the Ken doll level of ab definition.
Consider sharing with your kids when you first felt pressure to look a certain way. One of the easiest way to diffuse this pressure is to acknowledge how common it is. What makes the insecurity even harder is the belief that we are the only ones experiencing it.
- How can we expand the idea of what “pretty” is? Is it as simple as deciding to see things differently? What else might need to change?
It can be helpful to acknowledge and talk about all the sources of messaging about appearances, from grandparents, to advertisements, to promotions on social media. When we talk about where these messages come from, what drives them (fear, profit, insecurity, etc.), then we can take the power away from these messages. They aren’t the truth, they are an opinion or message communicated often for gain. It is only when these messages are invisible, and ubiquitous that they feel like the universal truth. See if your young person can tap into the difference between how they feel about themselves, and what makes them feel great in their bodies, versus how other people see them.
The Power to Be You
The career Barbies in the movie are very powerful figures, like President of the United States Barbie, Supreme Court Barbie, or Astronaut Barbie.
- Do you ever feel pressure to be the best at school or activities, and succeed at this level?
Kids tell us that they feel the pressure to be the best, or one of the very best starting in kindergarten. They tell us they feel this in school, in sports, in art, with friends, and even at home. Not only that, but they feel they should be one of the best naturally, effortlessly, or, as Beyoncé would say, as if they “woke up like this.” If you feel this pressure too, even as an adult, it can be helpful to share this, so they don’t think they are the only ones. To help diffuse the pressure to be perfect, it can help to focus on effort over talent.
- Gloria suggests the idea of “Ordinary Barbie” towards the end of the movie. Does aspiring to be ordinary sound like something you can imagine thinking? Why or why not? What is uncomfortable about it?
It could be fun to explore together why the “Mattel executives” in the movie said that Ordinary Barbie was projected to sell. Maybe that is because they know we all want a break from this pressure to prove ourselves through achievement. Exploring what makes Ordinary Barbie an appealing concept or not may help bring to light contradictions that many people wrestle with.
Educators & administrators (including school counselors, CBO staff, after-school staff, and other youth-serving professionals): You’re invited to join us on September 20 for the Brave Space Groundwork workshop. In this interactive and engaging couple of hours, you’ll learn how to create brave spaces and center the SEL needs of all the youth you serve.
Parents & caretakers: We have a workshop just for you! Girl & Grownup workshops (for grades K–8) offer brave and fun spaces for girls to explore the power of voice together. In these Girl & Grownup workshops, you’ll both learn practical communication skills to put into practice right away.
Ready to get brave? We’re ready to support you!