I got the chance to see my wonderful girlfriend Alex last week and we got into an intense conversation about how men are feeling in society these days. A key theme was whether men are “lost in the wilderness,” to quote an article in the Washington Post that she sent me after our meet up. Alex asked me for my thoughts about it.
The article is found HERE. In it the author writes that “men, especially young men, are getting … weird.” She writes about the rise in aggression, misogynistic behavior and the rise of the “manosphere.” It’s a very provocative and interesting point of view about toxic masculinity and how the concept of what masculinity SHOULD be is confusing men the world over.
I have to admit I struggled to respond to Alex. My first thought was to say, “Good. I’m glad men are struggling because women spend 98.7% of their time struggling to figure out what it means to be feminine.” Then I thought…no, that’s too aggressive (ha!), I should feel some empathy for those lost in the wilderness, even if they got themselves lost by refusing to take a compass and being unwilling to ask for directions. And then I thought, well dammit…how do I strike the right tone in my response when it is so hard to articulate how I feel and I don’t want anyone to think I’m mean. I like men. I’d like them to be happy. But on the other hand, some of them deserve to suffer for how they have behaved for time immemorial. And for those guys I have less than zero empathy. So as I respond to Alex, do I go for a blended 50% empathy? Or what?
And then I saw the Barbie movie.
Holy crap. I was expecting silly kitsch and great costumes and what I got was silly kitsch, great costumes and some deep-as-hell gender politics. It was incredible. The movie is not just 2, but 5 thumbs up. It makes me wish I had more thumbs. I have never in my life seen the true plight of women in our current American society so perfectly and precisely captured. It blew my freaking mind, and it gave me the answer I needed for Alex.
If you haven’t yet seen the movie, go see it now. Take your whole family – especially the boys and men. The women will cheer, and the men will perhaps have an epiphany, or at least a glimmer of recognition of what women face in the home and workplace every day and how we struggle to find our place. Never in my life have I felt so seen. And my friend Pam, who joined me at the movie, had the same reaction, as has every single woman I know who saw the movie and talked to me in the last 24 hours. My husband, the lone man in our group of three last night, did not dress in pink as Pam and I did, but he definitely got the punch line about the things I have been talking about all these years, including in the last few weeks when I had a particularly weird set of horrible job interview interactions that were clearly meant to put me in my decidedly girl-defined place (I was told I was kind of old, too aggressive because I had ideas of how to make operations better, and informed that a sales candidate I interviewed felt demeaned because I wanted him to prove he could write and present well – shame on me!)
Barbie Movie Spoiler Alert! – movie details below…
In the movie, Barbie lives in, well, Barbieland, which is run by women. Men are cute but generally superfluous. Women are autonomous, hold every job including President and all of the seats on the Supreme Court Justice. Women have all the respect, all the power and lead with empathy. Men are nice and all but meant mainly to beautify the lives of women. Huh, interesting, I wonder how that feels? (FYI, that was sarcasm, in case you didn’t notice)
When fortunes change in the movie because Barbie is dropped into the real world of humans, she and Ken see Barbieland’s effective mirror image: a world where women are cute but secondary, and where men set the tone, rules and, god help us, fashion choices. The men in Kenland lead with testosterone, aggression, desire to make women submissive and, for some reason, horses. In other words, they are the same guys “lost in the wilderness” in the WSJ story Alex sent me. Sometimes the Ken-men are confused by their own complex feelings about all this and yearn for something simpler, including for men and women to just get along. Sound like the real world? Yeah, I know. It kind of is our real world, except for the horses. In our world it’s actually cars that make the man.
The movie strikes a very sharp contrast between a world led by men vs. a world led by women and gives a glimpse into what it could look like if everybody just got along and respected each other for who they are. The movie is punctuated by laugh out loud moments that are good enough to make the movie great for that reason alone (the very best one, I think, is when Barbie is horrified to learn that cellulite exists in the real world). But in many ways the best and most striking moment in the movie is when America Ferrera, a wonderful actress in any setting, gives the key monologue in the film about how women are supposed to act in our current world. The monologue was so perfectly accurate and honest that my chin dropped so hard that they had to make room for it in the theater basement. I have never heard the actual experience of women stated so starkly, so well, so directly. I wish I could have found the whole monologue on the internet, but it’s not there quite yet. This article summarized it in short, mentioning “the ways that women have to be strong, but not too strong so as to not intimidate men. The ways we have to love our children but not make them our whole identity, and certainly never complain. The ways we have to smile and nod and apologize when we’ve done nothing wrong so as to not upset the apple cart. And above all else, we’re supposed to be grateful for the table scraps we’re tossed and accept them with a smile.”
Greta Gerwig, the movie’s writer & director, deserves a Nobel Prize for that monologue, not just an Oscar.
Interestingly, my husband and I had dinner with another couple a few weeks ago. We got into a discussion of a similar nature about what it’s like to be female in the working world and I relayed some of my recent challenges on the job hunt front. The male part of the couple, a great friend and wonderful attorney with whom I worked for several years, was very empathetic but also added, “But that’s not so common anymore, right?” Both his wife and I lost it and the poor guy had to take the slings and arrows of two enraged women who know that this patriarchy BS happens every day and every week to nearly every woman we know. What he should have said is that this anti-female crap is so common that it is not even noticed by men anymore. Women are so weary of speaking about all this and, at this moment, somewhat powerless given that the patriarchy of which Barbie’s Ken speaks is alive and well and unfortunately flourishing in our current society as we speak. It’s exhausting.
And if you didn’t already believe that real life is stranger than fiction, I offer you this observation, pointed out to me by my friend Gillian. Some male reviewers saw the movie one way, while many female reviewers had quite another perspective. Here is a great example:
Wall Street Journal’s film reviewer, Kyle Smith, had a view on the Barbie movie that some women (me) would find entirely predictable coming from a 59-year-old man: he hated it. “As bubbly as the film appears, its script is like a grumpier-than-average women’s studies seminar. At one point, nearing the climax, “Barbie” stops cold so a Mattel doll designer (America Ferrera) with depressive inclinations can deliver a long monologue on how miserable it is to be female. For instance, she feels pressured to have lots of money but also pressured to not appear to seek it.” Um…yep.
Meanwhile back in the land where women are allowed to have an opinion, Alissa Wilkinson of Vox, a woman of 40, finds the movie “thoroughly delightful and often gaspingly funny”. She writes: “When a tragedy strikes — I won’t ruin it — Barbie is forced to leave paradise and go to the real world, and Ken hitches a ride. When they get there, they discover that they’re suddenly self-conscious and aware of being looked at (this movie’s version of Eve and Adam discovering their nakedness). The plot soon thickens, because not only does Barbie realize that women do not have the same kind of standing in the real world as they do in hers, but men can leer and jeer and make crude comments and stupid decisions, and it’s just sort of what they do. Meanwhile Ken … discovers patriarchy.”
There is a line in the Barbie movie that goes something like this, “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you’ve robbed it of its power.” If only that were true.
When I got home, I returned to Alex’s email. And here is what I came out of my brain:
I spent days processing how to respond to the article about how men are confused by what it means to be masculine these days, but the Barbie movie made it very clear to me what is going on. The current zeitgeist of (American) men is that when some of them could actually see women making real progress and becoming equal-ish, they freaked out and over-corrected to keep on the high side of the balance of power, and that’s where we now are. These bad guys are seeking to over-assert their dominance and unfairly keep their standing as large and in charge.
And yet, many men are completely fine with equality – it is this group of men who are now off balance because they are being rejected by the other guys, just like women have been. The other guys – those that have long been just fine with putting women in their place — are doubling down on their toxic masculinity and grasping to keep the control they have long enjoyed. They are not lost in the wilderness, they have been totally outed for who they are, and our society has made it acceptable for them to give words to their thoughts, and that is what’s actually different. It used to be uncool to say horrible things out loud. Now it defines you as someone to follow on social media. People need to shut up again and keep their awful thoughts inside their heads. It would be better if they learned to get along with women and embrace equality, like the good and smart men have done (all 23 of them). But at least society should stop giving the jerks a platform from which to spew their awfulness. The good guys are confused because they are not sure whether they should be on team XX (where the women are fine, but not really their natural pack animals), or on team XY (where the dudes look like them but are acting weird as hell).
If we could lose those terrible men in the wilderness, that would be what they call the start of a good day. If young men are actually having a hard time deciding which team to be on, that is just sad, because it means that we have failed as a society to raise our children to consider people equal; that concept, if true, makes it absurd to believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, and gives truth to the notion that it bends towards same as it ever was.
Come on young men hear me out: you will get more women to like you if you are respectful and supportive of them. Acting like a misogynistic jerk will not get you more women. Trust me. We talk amongst ourselves. It will just get you more reprehensible men.
In summary: everyone – you have to see the Barbie movie! It is a feminist anthem and a cautionary tale and refreshingly funny as hell. Take the men to it though. That’s who should really see it – especially young men who are looking to find out how to live life to its fullest. The lesson is there in stark pink glitter. Embrace it. And also laugh at the silliness of what women are willing to put themselves through to find joy. Life is absurd, plastic, and potentially fantastic if we can make it so.