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Murray: Sure, Barbie, the system is rigged, but individual women can change the system

By Leah Murray - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Sep 6, 2023

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Leah Murray

Like almost every girl on the planet, I saw “Barbie.” The movie made $1 billion at the box office during its first three weeks. It clearly struck a chord.

“Barbie” is a fun movie. Flipping patriarchy on its head, Barbie lives in a world in which Ken only exists as her “plus one.” He doesn’t think to question the parameters of his existence until he comes to the United States, learns about patriarchy and brings it back to Barbieland. He then trains all the Barbies to believe that their existence was supposed to be Ken’s plus one.

When Barbie realizes what has happened, she’s devastated. That’s when one of the best monologues ever in a movie is delivered by America Ferrera. I don’t remember much of the pink of that movie, but that monologue will stay with me forever. If you haven’t seen it, Google the monologue; it’s available in its entirety.

“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” she says. “We have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”

The thing is, over 30 years ago, a very important woman in my life said something similar to me. My aunt, whom I admire very much and with whom I’m still very close, said she had read a piece by Anna Quindlen, a columnist for The New York Times. Quindlen apparently had said that she wanted to teach her daughters the world was their oyster, but how could she when they go out into the world with a system rigged against them?

“Always stand out and always be grateful,” Ferrera’s character says. “But never forget that the system is rigged.” She goes on to say, “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”

When my aunt said the same to me, something along the lines of “You need to acknowledge the system is rigged and just understand how to adapt so you can do the limited things a woman can do,” I thought to myself, “I don’t acknowledge that. I don’t care what the system thinks I should do.” And I gave myself permission to not want people to like me. At that moment, standing in my grandmother’s living room, I said to myself, “Hell no.” And as a result, the monologue, while excellent, struck a different chord with me.

The world operates on two levels, right? There’s a macro level, the system, and it is path-dependent. History casts a very long shadow and the way we have done things forever is the way we always do things. Think of Ken in the movie: He never questions his very narrow existence until it’s disrupted, and he’s prompted to aspire for more. In our world, for a very long time, men have been in power positions, and as a result, the system is generally rigged against women.

But then the world also works at the micro level, the individual. Every individual can have the imagination to create a new world that ripples out and changes the system. These changes can happen in huge, disruptive moments, or they can happen frustratingly slowly over time. But they always happen as a result of an individual having the imagination to manifest the exact world they want to live in. Which is what I gave myself permission to do when I was 16.

I’ve never acknowledged limits on any choices I wanted to make. I never adapted my desires to fit external pressures. And I’ve never apologized for how hard I’ve worked to make what is mine. To answer the monologue, I’ve been told I’m rude, or out of line, or that I’m doing everything wrong and everything is my fault. And what I have done, since I was 16 years old, is nod and smile, and then go on doing whatever I want.

At a work meeting a couple of months ago, a colleague laughed at me and said I had “swagger in spades.” And I thought to myself, “Hell yes, I do.” The system is rigged; it can’t help it. And I, as an individual, with all my swagger, am fully, actively choosing to be confident that, to the extent the system doesn’t align with my plans, it will adjust. And for the most part, for over 30 years, it has.

Leah Murray is a Brady Distinguished Presidential Professor of Political Science and the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.


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