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MONDAYS WITH PATMEI |Reprogramming Barbie and Ken

I did not have a Barbie doll when I was a little girl. In fact, I did not like playing with dolls when I was a kid. I played with real kids like my cousins or neighbors and we loved making our own toys we called props and we invented our own games and scenarios. There were no limits to what we can imagine and create together. We can be everything everywhere all at once.

I was able to play with Barbie only in my 30s when I was looking after my then four-year-old niece, Myca, in California. That girl had everything Barbie — dolls, clothes, accessories, shoes, tent, bicycle, DVD movies, books, dream house, tea set…the list goes on and on.

I don’t recall Myca having a scientist Barbie because all her Barbies were glamorous ones with frilly, girly dresses, but my dear Juju (that’s what we call each other) grew up to be a biochemical engineer who leads her own team of scientists in creating solutions to the world’s pressing problems.

I wonder if it was Barbie or the fierce feminists in her real life — her Nana, her Mom, and her Tita — who shaped her view of herself and of the world.

My mom was not so excited to be watching the movie Barbie with me. She said she could not relate because she did not play with Barbie growing up. She pointed out that she did not give me any Barbies to play with growing up either so she did not understand why I wanted to watch a movie version.

I wanted to watch Barbie because it was written and directed by feminist filmmaker Greta Gerwig. I was curious how a feminist would tell a Barbie story. Because Barbie was deliberately designed to be an open-ended doll that does not tell a story but to facilitate someone else’s, as Tarpley Hitt, author of a forthcoming book about Barbie, wrote on The Nation. According to Hitt: “In making Barbie, Greta Gerwig, therefore, needed to tell a story about an icon that purposely did not have one.”

So in the Barbie movie, there is Barbie Land and there is the Real World. In Barbie Land, everyday is a perfect day and all the Barbies believe that “all problems of feminism and inequality have been solved” in the human world. Because in Barbie Land, Barbies run all branches of government, own houses and cars, and win all the Nobel Prizes.

Meawnhile, men in Barbie Land are “just Ken” and his job is just “Beach.” Ken “has a great day only if Barbie looks at him.” Without Barbie, Ken is nothing.

One day, something goes wrong with Stereotypical Barbie. She starts thinking about death, develops cellulite, and her arched feet designed for high heels suddenly turn flat. She is advised by Doctor Barbie to seek answers from Weird Barbie who, in turn, tells her to venture into the real world to look for her human (the person who plays with her). Barbie goes on a journey and Ken goes with her because, well, he is nothing without Barbie, right?

In the real world, Stereotypical Barbie and Ken realize that they are not in Barbie Land anymore. Barbie gets ogled at and sexually harassed while Ken feels admired and respected.

Barbie finds her human, Gloria, who turns out to be a sad Mattel (the company who makes Barbie) employee. Gloria wants to design an “ordinary Barbie” and is struggling with her relationship with her daughter. Ken, on the other hand, discovers the Patriarchy in the real world and brings the concept back to Barbie Land and transforms it into a Kendom.

Barbie is rescued by Gloria and her daughter after Gloria sees Barbie being chased by Mattel executives who want to put her back in a box. The three of them go back to Barbie Land to discover that the Kens have taken over their world and the powerful Barbies have been brainwashed into submission.

Barbies regain control of Barbie Land through reprogramming of the Barbies and creating divisions among the Kens. While the Kens are fighting among themselves, the Barbies take control of Congress and change the Constitution.

Ken learns that he is #Kenough even without Barbie. And we learn that Barbie and Ken can just be friends and should not be pressured to be in a romantic relationship.

It is a fun and funny toy story that is filled with parables on feminism, patriarchy, power, and capitalism. I don’t know how much of the movie’s message will be absorbed by the audience who have not been reprogrammed. Judging from the diverse reactions of people who have seen the movie, it seems it will all depend on how you have been programmed or at what stage of your programming you are in now.

Programming is simply the “set of coded instructions for automatic performance of a task.” In humans, our attitudes, behavior, and habits are shaped by how we were programmed throughout our lives. These programs come from different sources — family, religion, schools, government, culture, mass media. Each source reinforcing all the others. We all started as a blank slate and are later shaped by these various influences. And since everything is learned, then anything can also be unlearned. We can program and reprogram.

Towards the end of the movie, Barbie meets her maker and was told: “Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever.” On that note, Stereotypical Barbie chooses to be human. She said she prefers to be the one who creates meaning rather than remain an idea.

I believe my Barbie-loving Juju transformed herself into the empowered and powerful woman she is today because she was raised and unconditionally loved and supported by feminist women who lived real, meaningful lives.

Yes, it takes a feminist movement to program and reprogram a Barbie and a Ken.


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