Whining vs. Winning: Barbie vs. Kipling
Towards the end of the Barbie movie, Gloria, a mid-level manager at Mattel, Inc, played by America Ferrera, lets loose a bitter monologue about how tough it is to be a woman. She could have merely cited the Book of Genesis, which is wiser than her own script-writer:
“With painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Genesis explains that the patriarchy was a consequence of sin. (Including, no doubt, the form it supposedly takes at Mattel’s board, which is depicted in the movie as entirely male and obnoxious.) Because human babies have big heads, childbirth was dangerous before modern medicine: the ancients compared it to battle for men. And when Adam was told, “to dust you shall return,” this applied to Eve as well. Our bodies eventually conk out.
It’s Tough to Be a Woman
But Gloria says little of death, disease, childbirth, or patriarchal oppression. Rather, she complains that people expect too much from females:
“It is literally impossible to be a woman … Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”
Life for women is full of Catch-22 traps, Gloria explains: Be thin without bragging; wealthy without demanding money; a boss without being mean; a caring mother without bragging about your kids over much. Be grateful, without denying progressive pieties. “The system is rigged,” she says:
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.
Gloria’s rant ends, like a fireworks display, in a perfectionist flurry of “nevers,” then with a final “Boom!”, a conclusion of pure melancholy:
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.
Men are not pure villains in this movie, merely useless and absurd. At another point, someone complains that the one thing men and women agree on, is hating women. I can’t relate. I like most women I know, and they don’t seem to despise one another. But maybe that is how things are in Hollywood.
“If”: The Pressure of Expectations
Anyway, Gloria’s rant reminded me of “If,” a poem by Nobel Prize-winning English writer, Rudyard Kipling. “If” also touches on the pressure of expectations. While it is addressed to a young man, not a toy woman, its chief difference lies in Kipling’s call to embrace responsibility:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Stan Dale Embraced Kipling’s Call to Heroism
In a remarkable missionary biography called Lords of the Earth, my friend Don Richardson told the story of a young Australian boy whose life was transformed by that poem.
Stan Dale was, to be blunt, a wimp. His alcoholic father roughed him up. His mother believed she would become a famous actress, letting “dreams be her master.” Stan also endured bullying at school. When he told Dad that other boys called him a “weakling,” his father replied, “They’re right! You are a weakling!” But did not teach him to become strong.
Then one day Stan’s teacher read Kipling’s poem to the class. The boy embraced this call to heroism as the creed of his young life.
So Stan beefed up in body and mind. He lifted weights, ran, and read by the hour in the community library. When tough guys challenged him to go into a haunted house or swim into rough seas, he rushed in boldly.
Then Stan went to a meeting and heard about a man who had fulfilled Kipling’s ideal of humble responsibility to its highest extent: Jesus Christ.
When World War II began, Stan signed up. Flying over the mountains of New Guinea, he saw village after village that had never heard of Christ. So after the war he enlisted in a new army: he became a missionary and brought the Gospel to the Yali people high in those mountains. The Yali lived in the rainy shadow of the island’s spine, villages at perpetual war, losers often consumed. The day Stan entered their valley, he stalked unarmed into the midst of a mob of armed warriors threatening him, and brought war to a halt by sheer force of willpower and courage, or perhaps by divine intervention.
I will not spoil the rest of the story for you. Enough to say that in service of Christ, Stan lived out the ideals set out in Kipling’s poem. The “weakling” became a gutsy and heroic leader, who filled “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death in Stone Age New Guinea.
Hollywood Needs a New Philosophy
Both movie and poem offer models for children. Barbie is a fairly entertaining film, though a bit pink for me. The screenwriters aim some jokes at grownups in the theater, and many hit their mark.
But the movie lacks soul, not just because it is about plastic dolls. “There’s no crying in baseball.” Crying is welcome in adventure stories, and when Barbie learns how, that shows she is becoming human. I don’t mind if my heroes are male or female, old or young, black, brown or white, clever like Gandalf or dim like Forrest Gump. Nor do I mind a few tears and stumbles.
But do our children really need to be taught how to whine? In fact, women work in all walks of life in America: contrary to the film, five of eleven members of Mattel’s real board are female.
Life is not always kind to the sons of alcoholics or “wimps” like Stan, either. The ancient Stoics were “tutors to Christ,” and so can be modern Stoics, like Kipling. And really. A martyrdom complex from a rich actress whom, at the age of 23, Time put on its list of 100 people who are changing the world?
Our filmmakers need a new philosophy. If they can’t quite make it to Christianity, there are intermediate steps along the way. They could at least quit pointing the wrong direction.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.