Why Barbie Learning To Cry Is Such a Pivotal Moment in the Movie—For Her and for Us

Photo: Warner Bros./W+G Creative

This article contains spoilers for the movie Barbie.

No matter your lived experience with dolls and gender and power, you're bound to take away a lesson or two from Barbie (the movie), which delivers a panoply of cultural commentary. Through the eyes of Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie)—and by proxy, director Greta Gerwig—we experience the unfairness of the patriarchy and the impossibility of womanhood as if for the first time, in ever-so-vivid color. But perhaps the most heart-wrenching lesson of the movie came in a scene that Gerwig was asked to cut, and which she called the "heart of the movie:" a scene in which Barbie experiences crying for the first time.

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Sacrebleu! (Or, perhaps, sacre-rose?) Behold how our blond bombshell learns to turn on the waterworks. The doll-face emotes beyond the perma-grin—and therein lies a key lesson about the importance of feeling your feelings even when the societal standard would suggest otherwise.

Later in the film, Stereotypical Barbie says, “I also just learned to cry. First, there was one tear. Then I got a whole bunch.” She seems vexed by this sudden deluge. The most curious part of Barbie’s explanation is not about the crying, however, but about the learning. For so many viewers, I suspect the idea of learning to cry is akin to a child learning to play with a doll or action figure. Isn’t crying, just like playing, instinctual? Doesn’t the reflex come naturally?

“Tears signal to others that we need help, and we feel relief when others respond.” —Jessica Harvath, PhD, psychologist

Barbie’s lessons in tears invite us into her learning lab where we, too, may examine why crying sometimes feels, as she puts it, “achy—but good.” Psychologist Jessica Harvath, PhD, says that crying can be both a biological release and a messenger. “Tears signal to others that we need help, and we feel relief when others respond,” she says, adding that this response can provide “connection and soothing” that are so necessary for humans.

However, Dr. Harvath explains, “in a fast-paced, individualistic environment with lots of distraction [aka the world we live in], connection and soothing can start to look self-indulgent and shameful.”

Experiencing shame is also a new frontier for Stereotypical Barbie in the film. At the moment when she explains the experience of learning to cry to a male executive at Mattel, Inc., the executive is effectively dressed like he just left central casting for Men in Black. His eyes are shielded by dark sunglasses; if he were crying, perhaps he would not want anyone to know. Whereas Barbie, who has always worn a pair of rose-tinted glasses, is learning how it feels to finally remove them in exchange for the experience of raw vulnerability.

These juxtapositions of the woman-esque Barbie characters feeling their feelings and embracing connection versus the male Mattel executives and Ken dolls shirking the need for either feeling or connection is one of the most important tensions in the film. And perhaps in our world, as well.

Why we should view crying much like Barbie does—as a supportive response to emotion

Our culture's perception of tears is largely rooted in gender-based stereotypes. “Men who cry are weak, and women who cry are incompetent—and neither trait is desirable in a leader,” says Dr. Harvath, recounting the common stereotypes. “I would rather we understood tears as a key part of effective emotional regulation.”

After all, the path toward regulating our emotions begins by allowing our bodies to feel their genuine feelings, says Dr. Harvath, and crying may be one such outlet for our emotions. “We think more clearly when we are not diverting our attention toward suppressing emotions,” says Dr. Harvath.

Relatedly, crying may also support our nervous system's response to stress. When we are suddenly upset or encounter trouble, our bodies respond by entering fight-or-flight mode, which involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The result? A spike in heart rate and blood pressure, and the feeling of being on edge, maybe even tense or trembling. However, after a good cry, the parasympathetic nervous system can take over, allowing our bodies to properly process and respond to whatever trauma has occurred. Put simply, crying can move us from the waiting room of feeling stuck to the war room of making decisions and taking action.

Crying, for so many of us, is an emotional response we have been socialized to unlearn.

And yet, crying, for so many of us, is an emotional response we have been socialized to unlearn. Though our cries announce our entry into the world—the sound of which can offer enormous comfort to those going through the harrowing job of birthing us—crying soon enough becomes a liability.

The repercussions of becoming known as the kid who sobbed at school or the woman who bawled in a board meeting are grave and far-reaching. The Michael Jordan meme is trotted out quickly and handily. (The very fact that Michael Jordan, arguably as iconic as Barbie, acknowledged the meme in his eulogy to Kobe Bryant, speaks volumes about our discomfort with emotionally appropriate reactions, particularly for men). The price of our public tears is often too high for our reputations to pay—so we hold them back, instead, and endure the psychological fallout of doing so.

It's for that reason that Dr. Harvath is lobbying for a change in the way we describe and view crying as a culture. She suggests we change the term “ugly cry” to “power cry.” Although often spoken in jest, the term “ugly cry” is misogynistic and shaming.

“We don’t have to add a layer of shame onto an already painful experience,” says Dr. Harvath. Not to mention, that temporary pain of crying serves a key purpose. “Tears are both affect notification and affect regulation in one neat little bundle: They let us know something is wrong or upsetting, and they help us process those feelings so we can feel better and deal with what’s wrong,” she says. “That’s powerful, not ugly.”

Even with her iconic Dream House, fantastic wardrobe, and sporty-sexy convertible, Stereotypical Barbie knows crying is a potent release from stress or terror, one that can empower our bodies to function best. To comment that someone cries "like a girl"—or like a Barbie, thanks to Gerwig's version—should be a compliment rather than an insult.

If Barbie, with all her career accomplishments as an astronaut, aerobics instructor, concert violinist, and more, can benefit from good emotional health and clarity of thought, I suspect the same is true for the rest of us, whether in Barbie Land or beyond.

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