Letter To The Editor

What was I made for?

By Cait Bennett September 20, 2023

Disclaimer: There are light thematic spoilers for Barbie ahead. Also, I’m spending some time talking about my experiences and the holistic experience of cis-women, and I’ll be using the terms “women/femme” or “the woman/femme experience” for flow. This is not meant to discount the complex and worthwhile discussion of how the trans-femme/trans-woman experience may be similar or different. As a cis-woman, I don’t feel qualified to write about that, but if you are, you should send an opinion piece to the Polytechnic!

Taking a look through the “Not Like Other Girls” subreddit, I can see that my 12-year-old refusal to wear pink isn’t unique. It’s the urge to reject femininity in fear of being perceived the way society perceives other women— dainty, pretty, and simple. Not as strong, powerful, or smart. It was only eight years later that I realized I could wear flowers in my hair and run the Jonsson Engineering Center shop floor. It’s not like this expression of femininity was contradictory with my goals. And when a student made a comment, the Student Machine Shop Supervisor, John, shut it down with a world-famous death glare.

Once I realized that I could be femme and be in charge, there was this new urge to find my place in the world as a woman. Should I work within the broken system to slowly subvert expectations, or should I call the issues out from the get-go? Should I keep the flowers out of my hair until I’ve gained enough respect for them to be irrelevant, or should I show up to meetings flowered up and prepared to fight about unconscious bias? It’s an advantage sometimes to be underestimated, to be viewed as unthreatening. People leave you alone, allowing you to get things done faster. But it also reinforces stereotypes about what a woman “should be.” What’s the right thing to do?

If you haven’t heard of the Barbie movie at this point, you might be living under a rock. It’s not just about Barbie—it’s about self-definition, the patriarchy’s effect on men and women alike, and the cognitive dissonance of being a woman in our society. We watch Stereotypical Barbie break out of her shell and develop a strong sense of self. We watch Beach Ken discover that he’s not just an accessory to Barbie, he has agency over his own life. The movie features a gorgeous melancholy song by Billie Eilish called, “What Was I Made For?” This song has been playing on repeat in my head for a while now.

Despite my raving, there’s one area in which the movie falls short. We never see self-expansion happen for Doctor Barbie or Physicist Barbie the same way it happened for Stereotypical Barbie. By the end of the movie, they’re still unchanged. Is it fair to say all of those Barbies are happy to be one-dimensional, so long as the dimension is “empowering”? Have we decreed that it is not empowering to be pretty, or to be a mother? As a former President Barbie, it was exhausting to avoid being. Tree-Hugger Barbie in front of administrators. Sometimes I just wanted to be… soft, relaxed, gentle, and free-spirited, like my mother. Beachy wind in my hair, sand in my toes, floating in the water surrounded by nature. It’s not that I felt unsupported or discriminated against, I just had this notion that it wasn’t empowering to be Hippie Barbie. I had to be President Barbie or Engineer Barbie. That’s a fascinating level of cognitive dissonance, because my tree-hugging, beach-loving, free-spirited mother has a doctorate, is an Associate of the American College of Cardiology, and is one of the most powerful women I know.

I wish I could see the Doctor Barbie of the movie discover that her whole personality doesn’t need to revolve around medicine for her to be taken seriously. I wish my internal Engineer Barbie could see that she doesn’t need to ignore her other passions to prove her worth. I wish we could have watched every Barbie become as multifaceted as Stereotypical Barbie became. America Ferrara, who plays Gloria, has a gorgeous monologue about the contradictory nature of being a woman, but President Barbie could be Poet Barbie too, standing on a pulpit screaming, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself! I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Self-definition is complicated, even independent of gender. I recently shared with a friend that I felt I wasn’t made for STEM. I was raised by two English teachers, read Great Expectations by the time I was 11, and my highest marks were in history. My cousin would recite Feynman lectures over Thanksgiving dinner when we were bored, and I wrote poetry about quantum mechanics. That was the start of my STEM story. But the real motivator was a middle school ex-boyfriend (the type you hold hands with in the halls and call it dating). He told me that there were too many engineers in the world, and that I wasn’t good enough at math to be an engineer anyways, so why bother trying? I broke up with him, studied hard, jumped ahead two years in math classes, graduated a year early, and now have my degree in electrical engineering. Spite continues to be a delicious motivator—nothing is sweeter than the look on someone’s face who didn’t believe in you after you succeed.

Nevertheless, I return to the belief that I wasn’t made for STEM often. Why do I think that? How would I even quantify what I was made for? I have to work hard to be good at STEM—painting, writing, sketching, they all come more naturally to me. The inspiration to write in particular strikes me randomly and with overwhelming vigor. But when I try to write it always sounds so rigid, like it’s not my voice—which is why I never wrote my Top Hats on time when I was Grand Marshal. Maybe scientific insight is supposed to strike the same way the writing does: when I least expect it, when I’m least trying, and usually when it’s least convenient.

Maybe the question is wrong. “What was I made for?” indicates a lack of agency—made by whom? Who’s to say I don’t make myself? Maybe it’s more valuable to ask, what am I crafting myself into? What experiences am I choosing to become a more well-rounded, beautiful, empowered version of myself? What am I devoting time and energy to that will build my worldview and sense of self? And who is taking that agency away from me?

Maybe we’re not made for any one thing in particular. Maybe we’re blank slates until we’re inundated with information that integrates to form a sense of self. You step out into the world, taste test bits of life, solve the puzzle over and over again. You learn photorealistic sketching and you can be Artist Barbie, and you learn Cadance and become Analog Designer Barbie, and you replace a sink and become Plumber Barbie. That’s not to say finding your identity is that simple—I’ve found myself recently pining to be a gold person instead of silver. I wish I could elaborate on that point, but shockingly, words escape me.

It’s a joyless endeavor to assume that you’re made for only one thing or another, rather than assuming you’re not made for anything in particular. Rather, you’re made for everything all at once.