Everyone who’s seen the “Barbie” movie, and it seems that almost everyone has — its box office number has topped $1 billion and is growing — should know there’s an important message for humans in the narrative, a story in which the dolls play with people rather than the other way around.
It is this: Girls can grow up to be — should be able to be — pretty much whomever they want to be. And they should be valued, by others and, more importantly, by themselves, no matter what their face and body look like, what their hair looks like, what role they choose to fill, be it professional or maternal or neither or both.
There are those, among them some conservative Latter-day Saints, who have a problem with that message and the way it’s delivered. There are parents, apparently, who do not want their daughters to see the show. Those may be the girls who could benefit the most from watching it.
A note here: Men are the targets of a lot of ridicule in the film, done in a humorous way, but that’s primarily because men too often rule — and have ruled — over women in too many societies in a way that isn’t humorous. A little payback is warranted on that count.
One of the main targets of Barbie is patriarchy, and that unfortunate form of suppression still exists in the world and certainly inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a prominent way.
“What?” the faith’s defenders say. “Women are valued as God’s choice and precious daughters in the church. They are held in high regard, to be honored with gentleness and kindness and sweetness.”
But a lot of women don’t want to be just choice and precious; they want to be equal. In many cases, they don’t want to be held by the priesthood, they want to hold it themselves. If not that, they’d like the authority, some authority, whatever its name would be, to have the final say on issues inside the faith that are significant to them, not have to take their ideas to the “brethren” to gain permission for those ideas to be implemented.
Many of them would like to be whatever they want to be, not just outside the church, but inside it, too.
Let women be speakers, doers and deciders
As a man, just a regular dude who stumbles and bumbles his way through day-to-day earthly existence, how do I know this? I know it because I have a mom and four sisters, a wife and five grown daughters, four granddaughters, too, and I’ve asked them and a range of other Latter-day Saint women about it. Not all of them agree on every part of the notion. Some don’t seem to mind operating under a strong patriarchy. They sign off on having men run the church, run the stakes, run the wards, seeming almost relieved at being absolved of those responsibilities.
But more than a few are bothered when female voices are not heard, not at the faith’s General Conferences, where fewer than a handful of women deliver sermons, and some who do speak don’t necessarily reflect them but rather what male leadership wants them to be — a reflection of the choice and precious, not the forceful and strong-minded.
I spoke with a Latter-day Saint “sister” not long ago who was frustrated by male leaders in her congregation when she approached them regarding a number of issues about which she was beyond well informed by her professional training. She said her approach was outwardly handled tenderly but patronizingly. Ultimately, the judgment of the priesthood superseded her expert viewpoints.
There are disagreements at times. I get it. There are disagreements between men who have been ordained with some degree of authority, even at the highest levels of the church. It becomes problematic, however, when men are authorized to regularly overrule women in decisions across the organization, here, there, everywhere.
Some priesthood leaders do give authentic attention and respect, not just gentleness and kindness, to what women think and say. But the fact that that attention and respect have to come in the form of a gift from men to women is, in itself, patronizing and condescending.
The whole of that attitude runs deeper than just that.
It starts at early ages when bishops, all of them men, interview girls to measure their worthiness. It continues when girls and young women are encouraged to keep their bodies, their corporal temples, dutifully covered, as though those bodies are something to be hidden from the world and ashamed of, oblivious to the fact that the very act of harping on hiding the female form sexualizes it. It’s evidenced when boys, and only boys, pass the sacrament as a part of the faith’s most reverent and repeated rite every Sunday, while the girls sit on the chapel benches to await the renewal of covenants at the hands of boys. It’s emphasized when male leadership sits up on the stand, perusing and lording over their congregation while their wives tend to small children in the pews. It’s substantiated in sometimes noble causes, namely the founding and forming of families, in the emphasis on the importance of marriage, childbearing and motherhood. While those are fantastic ideals for some, others hear and answer a different personal call.
Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
The church, in some ways, appears to be making small progress in defining and expanding roles. For example, a female friend was recently called to be a stake auditor, a calling that at one time was more than rare for a woman. There are many roles — all of them — that women could fill if they were permitted. Just writing that sentence is a whopping, no-freaking duh.
The “Barbie” movie doesn’t imply that girls should grow up to be women who singularly rule the world — or, for my specific application here, the church. It is that women and men can and should have joint stewardship.
Another target of the film is the crushing notion of the quest for perfection. Lots of women feel that in multiple ways. Lots of Latter-day Saint women feel it in even more ways. That’s what they’ve told me, anyway. And that’s why women often are hard on themselves, feeling as though they are never good enough. Never enough of this, enough of that. The movie encourages women and men that it’s OK to be ordinary, that there is achievement and there is happiness in being and doing simply that.
The movie’s message, were it properly heard, would go a long way toward relieving some of the deeper problems found not just in Latter-day Saint culture but also in the church itself.
Don’t give mere lip service to what women want. Enable them to give themselves what they want. Authorize it. Then, everyone in the church, men and women, can give gifts across gender lines. One of the paraphrases from the film is a reiteration that goes something like this: Women should give respect and license to those around them, but they should also give it to themselves.
Dolls playing with people, not the other way around, in a fun and funny movie, sending a message that girls can grow up to be what they want to be, maybe even leaders, real leaders, dynamic leaders, just like the boys, in the world and in a faith that proclaims itself to be the one true church of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.
Editor’s note • This column is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.