I bought a Barbie T-shirt from Hollister after the film’s opening week. I was at the register checking out while my son tried on hoodies in front of a mirror. My daughter, irritated in the mercurial, teenage way, looked at it and said, “Oh, you got it?”
That balmy, summer night at the theatre while the credits rolled, I gathered the greasy nachos container and crumpled napkins from my lap and tried to answer the question, “So, what’d you think?” My answer was too big to convey, and maybe it was for her, too. She added with an eye roll chuckle, “I saw you crying so many times.” When I asked her, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “It wasn’t what I expected.” Makes sense, I thought. Barbie worries less about the kid. It’s a mother’s diary entry. Thus, the experience is cloaked in maternal love. I drove home with an emotional headache that spread across my forehead, reveling in all the clever feminist jabs and threads, the fireworks of complexity dazzling my mind, and the ways in which my son should learn from it; however, it’s Gloria and Sasha’s storyline, the arc of redemption for the aching heart of a mother with a teenager, that makes the film exceptionally for the mother of a teenager girl.
A mother of a growing daughter uses her own experience to understand theirs. We consider our daughter’s whole selves in everything we try to do, and in that, remember all the vulnerabilities we had at their age—knowing our childhood traumas bubble as we try to assuage any possibility of theirs. It’s an unfair experiment for the mother, and most of us flounder. Yet, all this is internal, unseen. It could be 8:30 am and we’ve already dug deep inside when they walk out of their bedrooms in a little crop top and jeans, eyeliner on too thick, gloss on too strong, and we don’t like our initial reaction. We know what we want it to be; we were them not long ago. They don’t want judgment any more than we do. They want to explore the world on their own terms. They bemoan everything as “annoying.” They sense the world is for them and, ironically, mothers despite their intentions, are at the front lines putting reasonable doubts in their heads with every look we give them, every advice we try to shape—often blurting them before racing to work and before bedtime. And so, we face a disparity: the mother is the one who often sets the terms despite her own war with them.
I’m 40 years old, and unlike many I know, my Barbie story has nothing to do with my childhood. And on the screen on that night of surprise, Barbie opened up its palm to reveal the greatest surprise of all—acknowledgment. Barbie is a symbol for the ache of my experience; it’s personal and broad, and it has everything to do with desperately wanting to do well and wanting my daughter to see that, exposing a secret: I crave validation from my child; I want her to see me so she knows how I see her. But it’s not her job. A child should be self-absorbed at this age, body and mind changing so fast and all. And yet can anyone deny that other balmy night when she was born, extending out of me, her birth marking both of us?
That pink t-shirt hung in my closet for a few days before she removed the tags and wore it to see the movie again with friends. I asked her what she thought this round. She said, “I liked it. I knew what to expect this time.” She walked off in my shirt that is our shirt, tucked in the back of her wide-leg 90s jeans to show her waist, and long hair alongside it, and turned up the Barbie soundtrack on her silver phone the way I used to do on my silver CD player, and went back deeply into her world—both of us pushing our terms and growing up, floundering in love.