Ella pulled up her kayak next to mine and we overlapped our paddles to float back eastward on the afternoon waves together. It was her last visit of the summer. She will enter high school this fall, in a large city, hours from this unique oasis of quiet and slowed pace. 

Flashbacks of holding her for the first time, of her clinging to her crib railings straining to look out the window, or lifting her out of the stroller to toddle on the boardwalk scavenging for outdoor discoveries was part of my quest to ingrain Mother Nature. I intentionally took Ella out at every possible opportunity, to sit in the grass, to discover the broken blue robin’s egg on the sidewalk, to sniff the dandelion and rub it on her nose, making it yellow.

Now, her legs stretch and fill the length of the kayak. She wears an adult life preserver yet just celebrated her 14th year on the planet. There is no comparison to the world she maneuvers in and the one I tried to figure out when I was her age. Or, is there?

“Nana,” she began, “Have you seen the movie, Barbie?”

“Well, no, I haven’t. I guess I didn’t know what to make of it. I can’t imagine what they would do with it,” I paused, reflecting on my first Barbie.

Of course, I wanted a Barbie. This was my first case of being swept up in a cultural phenomenon beyond my childhood level of understanding.  I don’t know how these clouds of culture cover us from horizon to horizon, but one Christmas, there she was, in her black and white striped bathing suit, standing on tiptoe in a box with my name on it.

She came with a small catalogue, displaying an array of clothing options, with a wedding dress at the end selling for $5.00 – outrageous. My parents succumbed to providing a few outfits, to get Barbie off the beach, but my allowance didn’t provide much variety. My motivation led me to designing clothes and then using some of my mother’s scrap to sew together other options.

Before Ella was born, I dug out my Barbie box, where the now iconic, 50+ year-old doll rested in storage. The glittery golden cocktail dress, the long, tight black evening gown, the ski pants and a few of my sewing attempts were bunched inside with loose high heels, a tattered wedding dress and Ken. Poor Ken, so often had I tried to put his arm into the sports jacket that it hung loose from its socket. Better stated, it pulled completely out, waiting to be reinserted after he was dressed.

“In the movie,” Ella continued, “The main Barbie wore a swimsuit just like your Barbie. All the women in the movie were named Barbie. They had that hairdo and Barbie Dream houses and a Barbie car. Can you imagine everyone being so much the same?”

“That is an unnerving image!” I answered.  “How completely bland that would be!”

I didn’t know how unnerving that felt until I went to the movie several weeks later and experienced everyone being called Barbie or Ken and start each day with a plastic smile, a plastic breakfast, and another repetitious “Groundhog Day” treadmill. But wait, does that represent our world?

For the next twenty minutes, Ella related movie moments worth discussing.

“In Barbie’s world, even the president is a woman!” she observed. “All the businesses, every career was open to women. They were independent, decision-makers, and worked together. Barbie thought she had opened the world to equality for women and then she went to the Real World.”  Ella stopped. She already had a good idea of what that was like. I remember learning about “the real” world. I remember wanting to be a boy so that I could do things – like get my clothes dirty, play sports, not have to worry about my manners, for starters.

The waves continued to carry us across the water as her movie review flowed on, punctuated by, “I won’t tell you the ending. You should see it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.” (Hint?)

So, a few weeks later, I did. I didn’t manage to go with Ella, but with three friends, delighted to check it out. Personally, I wanted to experience what Ella described from the “All woman governing body” to “Weird Barbie” – the doll whose hair got chopped off, was made to do the splits too many times and likely had a little girl, like me, sewing her clothes.

The four of us being of vintage Barbie stock, spent two hours poking each other in the ribs, shaking our heads, grimacing at the toxic masculinity that we endured, marveled at the Barbie plan to use jealousy as a trick, laughed out loud and were pleased with the not-so-hidden-messages to both genders. It seems we can be “Barbie” without the appendage of “Ken” and visa-versa. If nothing else, that is a healthy takeaway.

There is a “not-so-healthy” takeaway for those who wanted to emulate the image of Barbie. The unrealistic “boobs to waist” ratio; the tiptoe feet; the immaculate appearance. This was even more evident to me when I saw Barbie in different countries. Was it not enough for an Anglo girl to attempt to emulate Barbie’s exterior, but what of the likelihood of that happening for the beautiful diversity across the world? What about the young Guatemalan girl living in San Pedro de las Huertas playing with her tall, blond Barbie?

Our kayaks reached the dock just in time to prevent Ella from telling me the ending. I would need to see the movie, if for no other reason than to share later with Ella’s musings and profound insights.

Our attitudes about diversity begin as children, playing with dolls…