Reflecting on What Barbie Means at Assets

Ryan Masa

(This contains spoilers to the Barbie movie)

I saw Barbie. I’m guessing many of you have too because Barbie has been the cultural phenomenon of the summer. On its way to grossing over $1 billion dollars within three weeks, the movie has spawned an explosion of pink, viewing parties, hit soundtrack, viral dances, and a think piece from seemingly every columnist, pundit, and blogger in the country. 

I love movies and wanted to see what all the buzz was about, but I also am busy and was slightly indifferent. I was intrigued about the strong feminist message, and wanted to see what was the modern or subversive take on Barbie. On the other hand, did I want two hours of Barbie when I could indulge my adolescent self and spend three hours engulfed in WWII and the creation of the nuclear bomb, or relive my elementary years with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Tough call. I chose Barbie.  

You may know I have a 6-year old daughter. For reasons that I’m not sure I fully understand, I was adamant that she not play with Barbies. I think I believed that Barbie would reinforce unhealthy stereotypes about beauty, body ideals, aspirations, and diversity. Maybe I was unfair. All I know is that whenever a Barbie doll commercial came on TV, my daughter wanted to watch it. I have no idea how it has such a gravitational pull. I refused to buy her a Barbie.  Then, last Christmas she opened a large present and pulled out a Barbie (and the car!). She was over the moon and I did my best to put on a brave face. Obviously I did not share my no-Barbie edict far and wide enough, including well-meaning non-family and friend acquaintances. 

So I brought that baggage to the movie, and really enjoyed it. The movie seems to be resonating on multiple levels with people–as a parable, history lesson, marketing tool, call to action, and commentary on what it means to be a woman in our society, but also what it means to be a man or any gender searching for their authentic self.

One of the most talked about scenes in the movie is Ryan Gosling singing, “I’m Just Ken,” and lamenting how ordinary, undefined, and unsatisfied Ken is in Barbieworld. In Barbieworld, Ken only has a good day if Barbie notices him. The tagline of the movie is, “She's Everything. He's Just Ken.” Barbie is unsettled and uncomfortable in both the Real World (“I feel ill at ease”) and when Ken transforms her former idyllic land into “Kendom,” filled with the same patriarchal ideas he learned in the real world. I don’t see these characters’ plight as equivalent but both speak to the discomfort of when our identities don’t match our Environments. I’m talking about capital-E environments, as in the cultural expectations that limit, fulfill, and define a place. This brings me to Assets.

Over these first two weeks of school, what has struck me most walking around both our campuses is how comfortable students are here. Contrary to Barbie, they seem effortlessly at ease with this place. Sometimes I see or overhear something on campus and think, “You are a little too at ease with the place,” but I take it as a testament to our students' relationships with each other and their teachers. 

I remember a veteran Head of School once telling me that once you become an educator, every book you’ll ever read again will be viewed through the lens of school. I’m going to add a corollary to that rule and include movies too. Both Barbie and Ken undergo an existential crisis, caused by being in a world that doesn’t affirm them. I’ve seen the same crisis in hundreds of Assets students who were mismatched with their former school world.

My favorite definition of learning disabilities is one that I don’t believe I’ve shared before because, while I believe the description, it can be a bit to unpack. Dr. Deborah Waber of Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital talks about learning differences through a developmental perspective. She wrote that a learning disability: 

“is really about the inherent incompatibility between normally occurring biological heterogeneity and socially determined expectations. Within this developmental framework, the problem of children who struggle in school is not one of disability but rather one of adaptation. The proper focus of assessment, moreover, is thus not the skill or even the child, but rather the interaction between the child and the world within which that child must function.”  

In simpler terms, a child with a learning difference has a unique brain. There is nothing wrong with this brain. It’s an amazing, strong brain that is wired a little differently, which nature gave the child for a reason. The problem is not a defect that resides within the child.  The problem is the relationship between a child’s set of skills and the particular environment in which that child is developing. The problem is the ENVIRONMENT.  The environment is not set up to support this brain. It’s not the student’s fault–and yet that’s often the first place schools look when trying to “fix” the problem!  

This makes sense for many reasons. The most obvious is we know how bright our students are and what they are capable of in the right setting. We sometimes see students enter Assets not wanting to get out of the car in the morning, or with an incendiary report card, or bored with school and then fast forward and see them thriving. Listen to Sydnee, or Chris, or Rowan, or Gracianne tell their stories. No other evidence is really needed. What changed? Yes, the child changes, but only because of their lived experience. What changed was the environment–the teachers, accommodations, acceptance, peer groups, instruction practice, etc…  Still not convinced? Think about dyslexia. Humans have only been reading for about 5,000 years. That’s a blink of an eye in human history. Certainly the “dyslexic brain” existed before this, but no one referred to people as dyslexic because reading is a cultural invention that did not exist yet. If there is no written language system, there is no dyslexia. That doesn't mean dyslexia is not real. It is very real; but again, it is the interaction between the child and the world that defines ability and disability.

Sometimes parents start thinking about transitioning their child into or from Assets, and they occasionally reference the “mainstream,” which is a term I loathe. (I guess no one told our robotics team they were swimming in the side stream as they were marching their way to a state championship last year). Yes, students should be developing skills, and those skills should transfer. However, we need to make sure we are always having a conversation about what environment allows our children to be their best selves as learners and individuals. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve heard some version of the following: “Is my child ready to go to XYZ School?”  To channel Dr. Waber, I would encourage you to flip that sentiment and ask a different question, “Is XYZ school ready for my kid?” Is the child and the environment aligned? If not, what’s the cost?

Whenever we have a conversation about school or what a child needs, we need to remember that the deficit was never in the child, so while it’s important to know what skills are currently exceptional or lagging in the child, they are only part of the equation for success. To misalign the child and school would be like telling Barbie she needs to just suck it up and figure out how to survive Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House because that’s the real world. No. Barbie figured out how to get her “individual-world interaction” aligned. Why? Because it's the most just thing to do, and the only way to be your truly full self. 

Through the movie, Barbie undergoes a Pygmalion or Pinocchio transformation and sheds her doll status as she becomes a “real woman.”  Toward the end, Barbie says she no longer wants to be the idea, she wants to “be the one imagining.” I think that is what the movie is ultimately about. Freedom. Freedom only occurs when you are fully able to be your true self–imperfections and all. And being your true self is the only path toward reaching your full potential. That’s what I want for my daughter. That’s what I want for Assets students. I want them fulfilled being their full selves. I want them to be in communities that accept, affirm, and advocate for them being their authentic selves. And if there are people or places who can’t offer this to them, I hope we don’t accept that as the real world, and that the issue resides within our children; instead, I hope we use it as a compass pointing us in the direction of where more work needs to be done because our children deserve to be absolutely who they are. 

Stay tuned for my next movie review when I compare Assets students to Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles! (Kidding, I think).

For our children,