The Barbie movie: Why finding embodiment is the best balance between traditional and modern ideas of womanhood and feminine power
Last night I saw “Barbie,” and I am in awe of how amazing this movie was. Aside from the incredible performances of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (my favorites being their movement/gesture acting as they struggle between their plastic reality and their desire for human emotion), the movie was brilliant. To me, it reflected an understanding of the history of feminism and the importance of advocating for the natural essence of women’s beauty. A beauty definition which I so rarely see reflected in Hollywood and in my traditional Orthodox Jewish community. The film did not choose matriarchy as the best solution to patriarchy, but instead it showed the downsides of both ideologies. It showed how both have failed women and it reflected the importance of re-defining womanhood in its most basic natural definition.
Barbie goes on an inner journey and, in doing so, she sheds what society expects of women, and, in the end, she internalizes a deeper more wholesome definition of womanhood. This definition goes beyond the conventional political and religious influences of what makes a woman. Instead, that deeper definition of womanhood involves women having an integration between their inner selves and their physical bodies, so that they are not relying purely on their physical body as an expression of their power.
Instead, the inner strength that a woman cultivates manifests in a physical expression — of being centered — a form of being in touch with your body in a healthy way, as opposed to the quality of the relationship with the body being dictated by external political, religious or cultural influence.
It is this natural holistic approach to the body that I have so rarely seen reflected in the beauty standards of the Orthodox Jewish community (in particular the North American Orthodox Jewish community). Instead of finding balance, often two extreme options have been presented. On one side, women can feel pressured to move away from physicality, spiritual to the point that one can so easily disconnect from the body. On the other side, women succumb to societal standards of beauty, relating to their bodies as objects of an external gaze (“the pretty wife”). This may be rooted in the experiences of young single women in the shidduch world feeling pressure to stay thin in order to get married or a hyper-focus on fashion where in some communities (influenced by New York Jews), dressing to the nines seems to be the norm. Long sheitals (wigs), high heels, and mainstream fashion have become just a slightly more modest version of the sexy Barbie beauty syndrome.
Instead of either of those extremes, I am advocating for a more balanced perspective, where the body becomes a true house for the soul — or, as the movie suggested, a “a mojo dojo casa house.”
As Barbie becomes more in touch with herself, we discover that being human means being less plastic. For example, through the course of the movie, Barbie’s skin sheds its smooth, perfect plasticity and becomes softer and more textured. A more obvious example is when Barbie’s lifted arches, made for high heels, collapse into normal flat feet made just right for Birkenstocks. Her fear of having to wear Birkenstocks was an expression of her fear of relinquishing the sexy, plastic discomfort of perfection. At the beginning at least, Barbie seems to be confronted with a difficult choice between a Birkenstock body and a Barbie body. In the end, she chooses a Birkenstock body as the best most comfortable choice for her womanhood.
Even the dance choreography of the film shows this transformation between mainstream commercial culture that oversells the body into a deeper embodied practice, that moves from the inside out. The Brittany Spears-style dance of the first scenes gives way to the breakaway Martha Graham-esque dance techniques of the “I’m Just Ken” dance, demonstrating the space to evolve the internal/external connection that is possible.
In my own life, I’ve chosen embodied practices of movement, such as yoga, healthier forms of dance styles, healthy eating, emotional intelligence-building, and mindfulness over practices that seek to conquer the body for power – therefore creating harm.
As a baal teshuvah (someone who grew up secular but became a religious Orthodox Jew), I have been exposed to feminist influences and I have also been exposed to traditional understandings of modesty where women are seen as working alongside men for the purpose of a relationship and not a power struggle. I have witnessed the positives and failures of both sides. The feminist modern side that taught me to find individuality outside of the role of mother and caregiver, but demonstrated a lack of support for seeing the beauty in these roles, and the Orthodox side, wherein the caregiver role of wife and mother takes dominance over finding time to foster an identity of personal individuality.
While I have absorbed the contradictory ideology of these two movements, I have always sought to embrace the positives of both and critique the downsides of each. It has been difficult to navigate a world where I have seen the extremes fail to come to balance. However, my exposure to the holistic world (the movement of embodiment teaching) has given me the tools to navigate myself, and to integrate these two seemingly contradictory approaches. When I figured out how to not just follow the mainstream but rather, how to come into a balanced place of listening to one’s inner voice, the ability to navigate between these two worlds became a tool for true personal empowerment.
In the last scene of the movie, Barbie walks up to a receptionist’s desk. We think it’s going to be a job interview. But instead, as her final act of conquering her femininity, we are surprised to realize she is actually at her gynecologist’s office, in her pink Birkenstocks. The Birkenstocks are a statement of her true self-empowerment. She has chosen comfortable shoes instead of choosing to wreck her feet for beauty. She has chosen a simple definition of womanhood that takes her beyond the influences of history and politics. She has chosen to be her natural self. She is neither a sex object, nor is she interested in a gender war. In the end, she has found a modest, intelligent, and natural way of being. She becomes a woman.
Like Barbie who had to live between Barbieland and the real world, women of today like myself live between two worlds (a traditional world and a modern world). My hope for both traditional and modern societies that I live in is that they come to the deeper realization that this movie has taught me. We will always be struggling between these two identities if we can’t come to a place where we understand that learning how to be both embodied and natural, in balance, is where we find our true power. We need to learn how to be less plastic and live a deeper sense of inner awareness coupled with learning to give to others. Most importantly, we want to come into a state where we are more truly integrated into our mojo dojo casa house (in terms of the casa being our bodies, our roles in our homes, and our true selves)… It is there where we will then find a deeper understanding of womanhood that integrates political, religious, and cultural influences, and where we own this integration through a personal self-map.
This is my new Barbie model: Balanced Natural Barbie.
I await the day when she gets launched into this world.