Barbie and the Impossible Dream

The Barbie Movie is an international phenomenon—in part because of its clever use of humor to explore some basic human conflicts.  Toward the end of the movie America Ferrera, in the role of an “ordinary” mom, finally breaks down and explains the impossibility of living out the dream of the “perfect” American woman.  Her monologue, which will probably become the stuff of acting classes in the future, goes more or less like this:

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. …You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people.

You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood….

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.

 While much of this monologue relates specifically to the expectations placed on contemporary western women, history suggests that such impossible expectations have been placed on both men and women since the dawn of civilization.

Ancient Greek men, for example, were expected to combine the seemingly incompatible qualities of physical beauty and strength, artistic accomplishment, bravery and skill on the battlefield and on the playing fields, generosity, wisdom, kindness, and cleverness. This extraordinary ideal was carried over into medieval times, and continues into the present day. 

Poor Ken, in the Barbie movie, is the ideal of male beauty and buffness, but is unable to attract Barbie because he lacks the sensitivity, courage, and wisdom that he is also “supposed” to have in abundance.

In the resolution we learn, as is the case in so many children’s stories, that “it’s best to just be yourself.” Yet, of course, “just being yourself” means being a person who is less-than – a person who is somehow lacking. Because the impossible dream doesn’t disappear.  It simply steps back for the moment.

We are certainly the only species that sets up impossible ideals for ourselves and then fails to meet them. Is this trait part of our human nature within social groups?  Is it actually possible to live in a society without experiencing these expectations and either struggling to live up to them or actively rejecting them? Share your thoughts in the forum!

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