Updated: Jul 24, 2022
When I was a kid, I played with Barbie dolls. My play consisted of the usual dress-up: The impossibly fitted clothes, the high-heeled shoes that never stayed on, accessories that didn’t seem to really go anywhere. Barbie posed, had coffee with her other doll friends, and occasionally went on dates with Luke Skywalker, my younger brother’s action figure. She and I would sometimes meet up with other girls and their Barbies, swap clothes and shoes, and engage in the chit-chat we thought expected of grownup, glamorous women.
What my friends didn’t know was that my Barbie had a secret life. Hidden beneath those trendy clothes and hats that were constantly askew, my Barbie was a secret agent. Even at the height of their relationship, Luke Skywalker didn’t have a clue that my Barbie was a kickass spy who smuggled information between the various warring factions of my imagination. She played dumb around all the other Barbies, of course, but in reality she and Princess Leia, my other favorite childhood doll, were partners in a game of espionage and intrigue that lasted well into my tweens, when the operation was disbanded in favor of more pressing demands on my time. Getting through adolescence requires every ounce of strength a nerdy, insecure teenage girl can muster.
So imagine my delight when I realized that my Barbie’s story had made it to the big screen. Atomic Blonde is MUCH more violent and sexy than my childhood fantasies, but Charlize Theron is indeed my Barbie come to life in the role of Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 double (triple?) agent operating in Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
Atomic Blonde isn’t a great movie, but it is damn good and wildly entertaining. It’s the kind of movie that makes one think, “Why aren’t there more movies like this?” and by that I don’t mean fast-paced, action-packed films that feature a sexy, kickass protagonist who’s smart, focused, and inconceivably good at hand-to-hand combat. Of those movies there are aplenty. With male protagonists. Atomic Blonde has been touted by some critics as a female John Wick, and I suppose the comparison is valid. There are some outstanding fight scenes, and there is certainly an element of revenge underlying the plot. A key difference is that Broughton is working a real job with a real entity, not as a member of some super-secret assassin’s society. She has an actual job that she chose to do...A job I allowed my Barbie to have, but never thought about pursuing for myself.
When I hear people complain about all-female reboots of movies like Ghostbusters or Ocean’s Eleven, or the increased presence of women in previously male-dominated franchises like Star Wars, I wonder if they realize what it’s like to grow up watching movies in which most of the people who look like them are always secondary characters. Even though Star Wars was really about Princess Leia’s covert mission to save the Rebellion from certain annihilation, the movie focused on Luke Skywalker and his mission to save her. In movies I watched growing up, the female characters needed saving, relying on men to do the dirty work while they watched and waited and sometimes screamed. Ugh, the screaming. I’m not saying that all-female reboots are great movies, and I’m not saying if you didn’t like the newest Ghostbusters you’re a sexist pig. I didn’t care for it myself, mostly because I was annoyed by the stupid plot and by Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon’s characters.
What I am saying is that having more movies that feature female protagonists, good and bad, who act on their own volition, who aren’t waiting to be saved, and who can take care of themselves is important and necessary. We’ve given an entire generation of young girls Disney movies with strong female characters whose prime directive was NOT to find a nice boy and get married: Brave, Frozen, Moana come to mind. Those little girls are growing up, though, and they need grownup movies that feature the same types of female persona. Lorraine Broughton’s mission isn’t to find a man, and she doesn’t need rescuing. Wonder Woman’s mission is to herself rescue the men, women, and children put in harm’s way through the actions of Ares, the embodiment of male aggression. Imperator Furiosa in the Mad Max reboot spends the entire movie trying to deliver a group of women to a promised land run exclusively by women, only to return to free everyone from tyranny.
Overcoming the message that women are meant to be saved instead of being the masters of their own fate is a challenge. The female protagonist in my novel Vagabonder is a smart, accomplished scientist who has no interest in romantic relationships. She makes her own decisions and pursues her own interests, and when those interests do lead to her capture, her rescue isn’t the mission. But she does need rescuing. Old stereotypes die hard. I’m getting there, though. The female protagonist and antagonist in my work in progress square off against each other not over a romantic rivalry or popularity contest, but over the truth. No rescuing, or mansplaining, required.
My Barbie retired from the world of imaginative espionage more than 35 years ago, but movies like Atomic Blonde bring those days back for me and give me inspiration as a writer and a woman to create female characters who are smart, capable, and flawed, just like Barbie. Her shoes were useless, her wardrobe stunning yet impractical, but she still managed to undermine a vast conspiracy that involved the Playskool little people and members of the Imperial forces. I hope we see more female-driven movies, books, and television series, both good and bad, because women and girls deserve to see themselves represented in roles where they aren’t just a damsel in distress or an objective for a more developed male character. It’s time Barbie got a reboot.