There is a garden that wraps itself around the perimeter of my childhood home. There, the sky is grey, and the wind whistles — slow and cursive. A single vine bends over the white boundary wall and rests its head on the cracked windowsill, looking in.
Inside, on the cold marble floor, a little boy builds his own house; one with pink walls and a broken rhyme scheme that drowns out the whistle of the wind: “I’m a Barbie boy, in a Barbie world.”
Early on, I knew that I grappled with two contrasting choices, ones that rarely intersected. Never, if society were to have its say. Cities changed, seasons melted away, but the revelation always stayed with me: Barbies were my muses, and choreographing their movement was like weaving together a tale. As a writer, I was looking for a story, and I found it — in measures both big and small — in a dreamhouse.
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Today, when Barbie is finding a home again, I trace a way back to mine.
Growing up, I wanted to be framed within that pink-tinted kitchen world, but the rules were simple and frankly, unyielding. Indoors, my parents would shrink themselves endlessly to make space for who I was. But outside, the norms were straitjacketed and I was told, in no uncertain terms, Barbie was a rite of passage to girlhood, and girlhood alone. It was an unwritten, sweeping rule – often entangled with slurs, stereotypes and stigma. In the two decades since, Barbie has become an object of both hurt and healing.
Chastened and often outraged, I clung to what might still be considered a doll, but the more “more manly” version of it. The G.I. Joe became my choice of weapon — a silent protest against the weight of expectations, one that I grasped with reluctance, desperately hoping that one day I would find a way back to my Mattel-themed toyland.
It is July 2023, and I am experiencing what some might call deja vu. A feeling of being at crossroads. In 24 hours, a cultural warfare of epic proportions will be unleashed as Barbie and Oppenheimer debut on the big screen. As legions of fans make a beeline for the Barbie tickets, notions of masculinity and its connotations be damned, I stand here, avenged. I cut through years of repression and solitude and endless brave faces to go back to my winter-cold marble floor, where there was an illusion of choice.
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Time and time again, I’ve cracked open my window this past month to let summertime flood in, fingers crossed in hopes that it brings with it that single vine and an answer. After 17 years of longing, the childhood question has come back once again. This time around, however, it has morphed into another framework: Barbie or Oppenheimer? My body is stifled with indecision, a habit perhaps because the restrictive confines of gender norms are no longer valid.
Why have I settled so far into this toxic masculinity that I do a double take on my own liking?
To me, Barbie is no mere movie. It is a gateway into the past, where I have an opportunity to fill my lungs with air and sing “I’m a Barbie boy,” unabashedly. And yet, with equal ease, I embrace the fact that I might want to watch Oppenheimer, without having to choose a side. To see these as valid, strong works of evocative arts without having them impinge on the constructs of fragile masculinity is liberating for me.
Barbenheimer is the threshold – a chance to turn back the clock and find myself again. A catharsis of sorts.
It is neither Barb-enheimer nor, by turns, Barben-heimer. There is nothing divisive in its name or nature. The power, instead, lies in this unique combination that allows you to choose both, but also neither. So, for that little boy and his pink dreamhouse, I choose both.
One ticket to Barbenheimer, please.