From Electric Lit:
“What might this be?” had been a question that, in the course of my thirty-five-year career as a clinical psychologist, I’d posed to clients hundreds of times. It was, in fact, the customary prompt used when administering the “Rorschach,” which is a type of personality measure that calls for asking a patient to look at ambiguous images on a set of ten “cards,” each one resembling an inkblot, and then spontaneously offer up what it looks like to them. Considered by many in the field to be useful in gaining access to the unconscious, it is typically used by clinicians as a helpful tool for working toward a diagnosis, using that set of ten cards, each one presenting an image different than the last. As such, diagnosing helps the psychologist zero in on the patient’s emotional state as it relates to past history.
Since closing my therapy practice in 2019 to build a writing career, I’d given little thought to the “Rorschach.” Until two weeks ago. I was popcorning my way through an afternoon screening of Barbie—this summer’s blockbuster hit—and began to contemplate how I would characterize the film, if asked. The question intrigued me: was it possible that a show ostensibly about the travails of a famous plastic doll created for young girls––first in Barbie Land, and then in the Real World—could be hailed as a movie about something far deeper? Something more than a live-action cartoon?
“So, what did you think?” I’d asked Ava, my perceptive thirteen-year-old niece, and movie buddy, as we’d moseyed our way home from the local AMC. Not wanting to influence her reaction, I avoided sharing that I’d pegged the story and visuals as a terrific mashup of creative and shrewd, or mentioning any scuttlebutt about the movie being either controversial or without substance. “It was great!” she replied. “Funny—with a good message about just being yourself.” I nodded, reading her remark for a deeper level, just as any good psychologist would. Barbie had resonated with Ava as a flick about identity and belonging. I wasn’t surprised: she was, after all, a young girl part of today’s cultural and physical wave of adolescence, and certainly, the film’s pitch for self-acceptance had been one of its overarching refrains.
A day or two later, however—after neighbors and friends who’d also seen the movie weighed in when I asked in a conversational tone—I had the chance to peruse several of the many “think pieces” that had surfaced online in the wake of the film: they quite often put forth the idea, in layman’s terms, that Barbie was its own kind of inkblot. An inner voice, one that had often brought me insight, now prodded me to consider this question like each of the ten cards drawn from the full Rorschach set: Hadn’t Barbie offered up a kaleidoscope of visual images—all of which illuminated many kinds of ideas—the kind only a film could offer?
Intrigued, I began to mull, in earnest, the questions Barbie posed. The varied responses I’d heard suggested that there were myriad ways of understanding the movie’s “real” message: Was Barbie, espoused by the several women with whom I’d schmoozed, simply a full-bore treatise on feminism in disguise? One that offered a cheeky takedown on the principles and practices of male dominance? As interesting, perhaps, was my observation that while these gals seemed in agreement about what the film had really meant, they were evenly split about whether its message was one to be celebrated or eschewed—and why.
An activist pal who was considering a run for our local library board in order to be heard as a voice against censorship, pronounced one afternoon that Barbie’s message was a more subversive one. Instead of mere entertainment, was it instead a poke-in-the-eye polemic aimed at the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on a woman’s right to abortion? I hadn’t given a lot of thought to seeing the movie from that angle, I confessed at that point. She’d looked at me with astonishment—and then with irritation. “How did you not get that?” she’d nearly shouted. “When Barbie protested Ken’s plan to overturn the Constitution in Barbie Land? And lectures him on how intensely the Barbies worked to make the Constitution everything it was? That it couldn’t just be undone in a day?” And then the way Ken answers, ‘Both literally and figuratively—just watch me?’”
Link to the rest at Electric Lit