Something about it startled me then—maybe the garbage bags he held, filled not with garbage, but artifacts, or maybe the garbage bag he’d filled with nothing, the one the man draped over his face and body after taking his seat. Or maybe it was the way the thumping became rhythmic, the hand beneath the bag moving up and down, pushing up against the plastic surface so that it billowed—flapping sails of a boat in storm’s midst. Three of us sitting there—me, the man and a woman sucked so deeply into her screen that she was nothing more than a body on that train car. The train car growing warmer and smaller with each quickening thump, each stroke beneath that bag. Beneath that bag, as if the man sheltered the childish inclination to believe that his inability to see the world equated to the world’s inability to see him. But I could see him then, could feel the nature of his act in the nausea unsettling my belly. That bag wouldn’t hide him from me. That bag only hid me from him—only precluded him from acknowledging my recognition of the vile act. With no bag of my own, my phone dead cold, I shielded myself with my eyelids, with the silent counting of numbers in my head. Thumping, thumping, on and on. The train stopped. The doors opened. My eyes met the floor as I walked out. On the stairs, my eyes met those of the woman from the train car. Her face contorted. What do you want? she seemed to ask, as though there was no reason for me to be looking at her. None at all.
The second time, it was a man rolling down his window as he turned off 5th Avenue. The car was moving so slowly that I thought it might stop. It didn’t. No, the man continued driving, one hand on the wheel, the other moving around his unzipped pants. He stared at my face pale with horror, and he kept going. The car slugged along, but I couldn’t move my eyes from the scene. It was so horrible, so unthinkable—I couldn’t help but hope I was hallucinating. The third, or fourth time, it was a man walking towards me on the sidewalk. I was far away. It was dark. I told myself I was overreacting. However, as I advanced closer, and he veered away to the opposite side of the street, a squiggly trail of liquid clearly colored the concrete behind him. There was no imagining that.
I arrived in New York City this summer with a romantic version of what my life would be like there. Perhaps they had been the movies and books that painted the city’s noise and its crowds the colors of opportunity, that had made the city’s chaos—which I’d begun to experience on family excursions to the Met or at weekend dinners with friends—seem exhilarating, rather than frightening. And indeed, when I arrived in New York for a ten-week-long internship, my life felt exciting. I was living alone, making my meals, sauntering about to experience all the restaurants and museums and events I could. I felt, for the first time, very grown up. I felt very free. But then I didn’t. Displays of public indecency jolted me more than I’d like to admit. Living in the city this summer, I felt I was experiencing patriarchy as I had as a little girl—as something new. Something scary. Something honestly, quite heartbreaking.
In the highly anticipated Barbie movie, Margot Robbie leaves the female-headed world of “Barbie Land” to enter the “real world,” where men love horses and love patriarchy even more (or at least this is how Ken sees it). The movie has come under both intense praise and complex criticism, with Jill Lepore going as far as to call it “a bizarre, creepy love letter to tyranny and capitalism” in Time. And she may very well be right. The movie does not do enough to address the intersectional and class-based challenges inseparable from the experiences of womanhood. However, the movie does one thing very well—it depicts, on the big screen, the experience of encountering patriarchy for the first time.
It’s an experience most women might remember from their childhood. It was the dress code that told you to cover your shoulders. Or the gym teacher who nudged your legs down for a “girl push up.” It was the walking down the street to hear a strange call from an unfamiliar man—the compliment that made your blood go sour. That one of the first things Barbie experiences upon entering the real world is sexual harassment, sexual assault, is no mistake. The scene, through the satirization of Barbie’s dress and her onlookers’ remarks, is meant to be funny. But it is also, foundationally, quite poignant—Barbie is the young girl’s doll—an emblem of childhood play, naïveté, imagination. In Barbie’s harassment, then, we must question what it means for her “girlhood” to be taken away. What it means for her to become a woman in her new, blatantly discriminatory, context.
In the suburbs of New Jersey, where I’m from, I’ve never experienced public indecency. I’ve rarely been cat-called. Though I experienced my fair share of “jolts” at a young age through the subtler patriarchal messaging of books, movies, interactions, dress codes, and perhaps most importantly, ballet, I grew up in an environment where I didn’t feel that patriarchy posed an imminent threat. It existed, and I acknowledged it. But it felt weak, and I, strong. At the very least I could ignore it; could pretend a blissful equality of experience with few tangible consequences.
In New York City this all changed. My body felt raw. My bare skin, dangerous. Within days of arriving there my TikTok feed saturated itself with videos of women wearing “subway shirts”—large T-shirts or jackets worn on the subway to cover crop tops and miniskirts from the public eye while taking the train at night. After spending my life thinking very little about how my appearance might influence my treatment, I found myself in a city where people expected their appearance to not only affect their treatment, but their safety. I’d left the world of Princeton and entered into a world that jolted me; that made me aware of the dangers awaiting me beyond the plastic of my own pink Mattel box.
I think this was why Barbie, while not my favorite, continued to itch its way into my thoughts, not just weeks but months after I watched. I saw it while I was still living in New York City. In fact, it was on my way to the Times Square AMC that I encountered the man on the sidewalk; it was in my rush to meet up with friends that I sidestepped his cum and gagged at his bliss. After, as I sat in the movie theater and watched America Ferrera’s monologue, my first instinct was to cringe at her complaints that felt so obvious, so clichéd. And still, I could not ignore how down my cheeks and onto my hands, the tears continued to roll. They fell silently. I did not know when they would stop.
In Ferrera’s words I heard a sort of eeriness, nostalgia. I didn’t realize it then, why I was so impacted by the film. But I think I get it now. Barbie came to me in the right place, at the right time. Prompting reflection, recollection, the film engendered me to re-engage with my past at a moment when temporality converged, and I was once more that little girl—angry, frustrated, and confused with the world. In that theater, on that sidewalk, and simply, in New York City, I was constantly reliving my girlhood; constantly remembering how it felt to be reckoning with the fact of a world wholly different from what I had expected it to be. But I wasn’t just remembering it. I was feeling it. And I’m still feeling it. Even back home, on campus, I remain beyond the confines of the plastic pink boxes that both shelter and blind. I am just as heartbroken now as I was, all those years ago.