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  • Debbie Dougherty

Hey Barbie, Where are Your Mama and Grammy? The Erasure of Older Women.

An older Caucasion woman
Barbie's Mom is beautiful. Picture by Freya Clark

If my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds are accurate barometers of women’s (and some men’s) leisure activities, we have pretty much all watched the Barbie movie. And for the most part, we collectively loved, or at least appreciated, the Barbie movie's empowerment messages.

Why is that?

Giving Voice to Women's Frustrations

Because the Barbies give voice to our current frustrations, the relentless criticisms, the requirement for perfection, the ongoing paradoxes that hound women in modern society. There is so much wisdom imparted in this movie. My favorite:

This makes me emotional and I'm expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and emotion at the same time, and it does not diminish my powers. It expands them.

Yes! I have written about the ridiculous tendency for businesses to attempt to separate logic from emotion in previous blogs and in my previous research, and I am delighted to see this false binary reconnected in such a powerful way.

Giving Voice to Women's Empowerment

This Buzzfeed article describes some of the empowering revelations in the Barbie movie. Reading this article, and others like it, makes me happy. Yes, we worked hard for the award, and yes, we deserve it. Yes, we can be the leaders. Yes, we can have a rich inner world.


Barbie's Feminist Wisdom

And yet, does anyone else wonder where all this amazing feminist wisdom came from? I guarantee that it did not emerge from a solo epiphany by lawyer Barbie. It is unlikely that her forever young pals came up with it. It seems even more unlikely that it emerged from the nightly dance parties hosted by Barbie.

I will tell you where these feminist wisdoms come from. These wisdoms come from our mothers, our grandmothers, our great aunts, our inspiring teachers. From our mature women friends, and from the church ladies who are the backbone of their communities. They come from our elder women who have been around long enough to develop this type of wisdom.

Feminist Wisdom and Struggle

Feminist wisdom comes from the women who have profoundly struggled for the right to bodily autonomy, the right to work, the right to divorce, the right to lead, the right to live, the right to love who they want and when they want, the right to make their own decisions and to acknowledge and own their own accomplishments. They struggled so that we can struggle less, struggle differently.

All of which begs the question: Where did Barbie’s Mama go? Where is her Grammy? Where are the beautiful wrinkles, the greying hair, the stiff joints that collectively are the product and the producer of the profound wisdom that guides Barbie through the travails of youth?

In the entire Barbie Movie, there are three mature women. In fact, for me, the most profound scene in the movie was when Barbie turns to an older woman sitting on a bench beside her and says

“You are beautiful."

The older woman says, “I know.”

Wow. Right?

Knowing your beauty when the rest of the world writes you off? That is wisdom that is gained from the experience collected across time.

Barbie Did Not Create Feminism

I will tell you something else. Barbie did not create feminism. The movie certainly uses feminist thought to put words to women’s experiences, and I am glad that Barbie was able to bring these wisdoms to new generations of women. But Barbie did not create these wisdoms. Barbie’s feminist Mom’s, Grammy’s, Aunts, older lady friends, Teachers. These are the women who created these feminist wisdoms.

And these feminist wisdoms, created by our wise women now speak to an entirely new generation of feminists. Yay. Except, the women who created these wisdoms, once again, are erased from the record, a reflection of a larger society that dismisses women as they age.

What a shame.

The Erasure of Older Women in Entertainment

The erasure of older women is as old as the entertainment industry. Take Disney for example. Freya and I can only think of one Disney Princess with a living and present Mom.

Part of the reason for this erasure is that older women are considered socially extraneous. Consider, Both President Biden and Donald Trump are in their late 70’s and are the front runners for their party’s nomination for president. And while people recognize that these men are old, they apparently are not too old to hold the highest office in the United States Government. In contrast, a woman is considered old once she hits 40. The disparity of perception is ridiculously clear.

But there is another reason women are erased from these grand adventures. Generally speaking, a woman’s primary role is to create order out of chaos. Disney (and apparently Barbie) require chaos as the pivotal piece of the story. To allow this to happen, the Mom figure must go.

As a result, in society and in our entertainment industry, just as women gain the experience to say something wise and meaningful, they are silenced, ignored, and treated with contempt.

Where is Ken's Mom?

At least we know that Barbie has a Mom, otherwise she would not impart all of these wisdoms. And in the movie, when new wisdoms are required, Barbie brings in a mom character, Gloria (played by America Ferrera) to explain the impossibility of current iterations of femininity.

It is equally clear that Ken does not have a Mom.

For me, the saddest creature in this film is Ken. He is just standing there waiting to be seen, to be validated by Barbie. I recognize that the Ken role is

  1. an accurate representation of how girls play with the Ken Doll in real life, and

  2. a role reversal from real life, in which women are expected to be validated by the male gaze.

Here is the real. If Ken had a feminist Mom, he would not be the one-dimensional social drag in the film. It would not be so easy to turn him into the morally simplistic bad guy. Maybe he would have a moral compass that would allow him to contribute to the Barbie stories in more meaningful ways. At least he would make for a more interesting and complex bad guy, right?

Where is Barbie's Mama?

At the end of the Movie, we get to meet Ruth Handler, Barbie’s original creator. She is a bit of a Goddess character in the film. That was nice. I really enjoyed seeing Rhea Perlman play this powerful role.

But I missed meeting Barbie’s Mom. You know, the woman who raised Barbie with feminist sensibilities.

Action Steps?

Mattel, I see that you have a line of role model dolls. I see that these role model dolls look very young and flawlessly beautiful. Would you please also give Barbie a Mom doll and a Grammy doll? Make them wise and thoughtful, imperfectly beautiful. Give them greying hair, a few wrinkles, and sparkling eyes. Bring to life the older women in your film so that our children have brilliant and wise role models to play with.

Disney, would you please stop killing off and disappearing the Mom characters? Maybe you could create an inter generational adventure, where Mom's and Grammy's are part of the Princess story? That would be a fun movie, don't you think?

People out there, look to mature women for wisdom. Your life will be better for it.

A picture of the author and artist team behind this blog
Debbie and Freya, Mom and Daughter.

A note to my readers. Thank you for your patience as I took a break from this blog over the past few weeks. Last week was the harvest and preservation week for my garden. Now it is time to get back to my writing. My gratitude to you for reading my words.

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Spot on! Reposted on my Cronebabe page.😊

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty

Thank you!

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