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Barbie, DeSantis, and the Inextricable Mess that is Being Human
I wouldn't say there are spoilers here, but I would say that if you feel particular about spoilers, you might want to save this until after you see Barbie
The Board of Education in Florida, under the leadership of Governor and flailing presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, approved new curriculum standards for African American studies that would force teachers to highlight supposed “upsides” of slavery, and to teach students about the violence perpetrated “against and by African Americans” during the Jim Crow era (emphasis mine). This is the natural extension of Ron DeSantis’s culture war, which includes book bans and the expanded Don’t Say Gay law, and the Stop WOKE Act, which prevents classroom instruction which could inspire “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological stress.”
Of course the only child DeSantis and his ilk imagine attending school are straight, white boys. They don’t care about the psychological distress of a black child internalizing the message that racist violence is their fault, or that slavery somehow benefited their ancestors and thus themselves. There is no thought for the psychological distress they inflict on children who aren’t allowed to talk about their families because their parents are gay, who are told over and over again that their queerness makes them inappropriate, a danger to other children. The psychological distress experienced by girls and trans kids who are told their bodies aren’t their own means nothing to the DeSantis administration, as it means nothing to the administrations of the many other states which are passing abortion and trans health care bans with impunity.
Using terms like psychological distress and anxiety even go so far as to suggest that there is a misguided protective impulse behind the conservative war on education that is simply not there. Not least because while in the short term this seems to benefit white kids and white boys in particular, the long term impacts rob everyone of the kind of wholehearted, open society from which we’d all benefit. And worse, this kind of education, which attempts to elide all of the complexity that comes with truth, creates a horrendous cognitive dissonance that we spend all our energy fighting, leaving nothing leftover for actually building a better world.
Of course conservatives all hate the Barbie movie.
One of the main thrusts of the movie is the inescapable contradictions in womanhood in particular, and as a result, humanity more generally. And in fact, identifying and calling out those contradictions is how they ultimately save the day. As an inveterate people pleaser and consummate try-hard it’s been a relief over the past few days to have the Barbie movie spring into my head at moments of peak anxiety to remind me that I don’t have to do all the things, and neither does my writing. But more than that the movie reminds us that identifying the cognitive dissonance, the impossible standards, and the contradictions is the first step to healing from them. To get better, you first have to say where it hurts.
There are a lot of parts of American history that are incredibly distressing. Slavery was brutal, dehumanizing, and violent, and both it and the racism that was constructed to justify it are as much a part of the foundation of our country as are our democratic ideals. But to obscure this truth, to try to hide or mitigate the brutality of it and its lasting impact not only forces everyone, but Black kids especially, to try to match a reality and a message that are mutually exclusive and prevents us from actually addressing the harm it does.
There is an extremist contingent in this country that wants to erase all of the complexity from our lives. They want the world to be made up of simple rules - this body part means this gender means this job. America is a place where if you work hard you’ll succeed, and so if you don’t succeed it’s because you didn’t work hard and you deserve what you get. If you do succeed, it's because you worked harder than other people and you did it all on your own. If you’re a billionaire it’s because you’re smarter and you work harder than anyone else. People who don’t have what you have just didn’t earn it. But this simplicity further empowers the powerful and tells everyone else that they are too much, that their experiences are false or unimportant, that society cannot accommodate them and so they should get back in the box, or die.
Complexity is not a vice. And while much of the contradictions in contemporary society are social constructs born of racism and misogyny and bigotry, some of it is just the messiness of consciousness, of knowing that we are alive and that life is finite and of loving people who are whole universes unto themselves, completely incomprehensible and yet somehow connected. To grapple with that complexity is to try to understand someone else’s experiences, knowing that you cannot fully, and yet trusting them to be the expert on those experiences. It’s recognizing the ugly truths that form the foundations of our country so that we can address them, understanding how we got here so that we can use it to inform where we’re going. It only feels easier not to acknowledge this, but the truth is the cognitive dissonance debilitates us like splinters under the skin, infecting everything.
Ron DeSantis and his fellows are buoyed by a simple world where everyone does what they are told, where they can claim they have never benefited from anyone else’s pain and that the rules that privilege them are innate. That same simple world that would have the rest of us imprison ourselves and hand them the key. But we know better. The truth will out, as long as we keep telling it.