Closing the Dream Gap Begins with Care

Closing the Dream Gap begins with care

Written by Akima A. Brown

This Juneteenth, as we at Reel Families for Change celebrate the historic contributions of Black Americans, I’m equally excited to explore a future rich with possibilities of reimagined liberation. Like so much of our work, this exploration is rooted in stories – those we choose to tell and how we choose to make them. 

While not an immediately obvious symbol of Black liberation and promise, Barbie represents such a story for me. As I share my thoughts on the future of care at work, the barriers we face, and how unexpected allies like a doll manufacturer, a Black actress, and filmmakers can help us overcome them, I hope you’ll see connections that reshape your perspectives on what’s achievable and how we can achieve it.

FROM RUNWAYS TO RUNNING COUNTRIES: ISSA RAE AND BLACK BARBIE

Unless you have been living off the grid, then you know that last summer’s blockbuster hit, BARBIE – directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie in the titular role – has been one of the most talked-about movies of the decade. In addition to being a nostalgia-inducing feature that revitalized the image of the iconic doll, BARBIE also offered a profound analysis of patriarchy against a robust backdrop of diverse representation.

Beyond being a female-driven story, both on- and off-camera, there is something vastly important about America Ferrera depicting a “Real World” stereotypical woman opposite Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie.” Equally as critical and just as readily noted – even despite lesser screen time – is Issa Rae’s portrayal of “President Barbie”. 

Though a Black woman has yet to occupy the actual Oval Office, Rae’s portrayal of “President Barbie” signifies a new era where young girls are exposed to visionary possibilities, echoing the transformative impact her plastic predecessors have had for generations. In an interview with NBCNews.com, Angela Williams, a Black writer and Barbie collector, told the ezine, “You know how there’s one person in the group of friends that always tends to lead the pack and they have the ideas and everybody wants to be with them because they’re so cool. That was my Barbie. …I guess for me, I made my Barbie like the very special person that I thought I should be” (NBCNews.com, 2023).

During an interview on the promotional circuit for the film, Rae acknowledged how Barbie informed her social awareness at a young age, especially as it related to representation, “I felt like there was a lot of pressure, image-wise, playing with white Barbie dolls and my parents making sure I had Black Barbie dolls so I felt represented. Barbies made me aware of race at a young age” (The Hollywood Reporter, 2023).

Image by wayhomestudio on Freepik
BUSTING THROUGH BARBIE’S PLASTIC CEILING TO CLOSE “THE DREAM GAP”

Barbie’s potential as an icon is by no means lost on her manufacturer. As of 2019, Mattel has been involved in a solution-forward initiative known as The Dream Gap Project. According to a groundbreaking 2017 research report, “…gendered notions of brilliance are acquired [as early as 5 years old] and have an immediate effect on children’s interests.” The study found that “these stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance.” 

In collaboration with various scholars, practitioners, and community-based change agents, Mattel aims to close the gap by helping girls see themselves reflected in the women at the pinnacles of leadership, business, and overall social advancement. According to the project’s campaign video, closing the gap requires girls to “see brilliant women being brilliant, and see how they got to where they are” (emphasis mine).  This adds an extra layer to the “see it, be it” mantra that has saturated the gender equity movement for the last two-plus decades. 

Showcasing the “how” requires us to look at the journeys of successful women and analyze their triumphs and their trials. Examining who made it and why will mean nothing without answers to the contrary: Who is missing and why aren’t they here? In addition to things like bias, discrimination, undermined authority, and lack of systemic support that affect all women, are there other challenges that thwart the success of Black and Brown women and girls in this country?

THE PURSUIT OF PROMISE AMID #DREAMSDEFERRED

This speaks to a parallel phenomenon of The Dream Gap that I’m calling #DreamsDeferred. Much like the famed question at the start of the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem“, I’m urging us to explore the harsh realities many Black women face as they strive to ascend to leadership in their careers. If we want the women of the real world to experience the same kind of dynamic representation as those of Gerwig’s Barbie Land, it’s crucial that we acknowledge the intersections of racism and sexism and do something about it. We must examine Black women’s forcible navigation of things like the “pet to threat” phenomenon, respectability/likeability politics, assimilation trauma, and the poor workplace care infrastructures that spur their career exits at disproportionately higher rates than their White peers. We must surpass analysis and take meaningful, effective, and timely course corrective action.  

In far too many instances, ignoring these factors instigates unprecedented harm like in the cases of Dr. Claudine Gay of Harvard University and  Lesley Lokko of Columbia University, or even a loss of life as in the instance of Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey of Lincoln University – Missouri. And to suggest that simply showing Black women in these roles is enough to change anything is hyperbole at best and victim-shaming at its worst.

This directly relates to the stories we tell to ourselves and to one another. Based on this narrative, a lack of visible role models is at fault. While it is true that on-screen depictions have been proven to help change social perceptions, there is also a direct correlation between representation on-screen and the representation behind the scenes. Despite visual media boasting one of the largest workforces in the world, it is still exceptionally homogenous.

And while the last ten years have seen many screen industry equity and inclusion programs seeking to increase the number of diverse workers, they often fell short. Even with the increase in raw numbers, diverse workers’ percentages remained largely stagnant – especially in leadership positions. Experts in the field suggest that career entry and advancement programs focused solely on increasing the number of diverse workers, like Black women, without addressing company culture can often be performative and perpetuate more harm than good

Rather than singular programs related to equity and inclusion, studies suggest that companies do better with retaining diverse leaders — even without a diversity hiring program — when they integrate fully immersive care solutions like adaptive leadership, flex-work accommodations, and embody a culture of learning.

When these solutions exist, they not only benefit women leaders already at work, but they also help to increase new leadership entrants. This is especially true for Women Leaders of Color. With many women leaders exiting the workforce due to discrimination, unfounded questioning of their ability, and exhaustion, adopting an adaptive leadership model sets the tone for a supportive environment conducive to the majority of workers’ success. By embracing reasonable expectations, flexible work structures, and compassionate accountability companies can foster cultures of inclusivity and understanding that enable employees to thrive as empowered work stewards.

But just how exactly are we to do that in the screen industry?  

BEYOND BARBIE: HONORING, ADVANCING, AND CELEBRATING BLACK WOMEN

As someone who’s spent nearly three decades studying radical compassion, liberated living, and empathy-driven change management — the last ten of which while working in the screen industry — here are three things I recommend:

  1. Believe Black Women
    To quote author and activist Reshma Saujani, “Stop trying to fix the woman. Fix the system.” In essence, stop trying to address the symptoms and get to the root of it. Black women are saying that they don’t feel seen, heard, and valued. Saying, “That’s not true. I see you” is wildly unhelpful. It forces Black women into games of “Oppression Olympics”, requiring them to repeatedly provide subjective evidence of their hardships until the listener is satisfied enough to validate their claims. Consider instead that vocal Black women have historically been the catalyst for positive change. So believe them the first time.

2. Trust Black Women
Ava Duvernay was denied funding for her latest feature project ORIGIN. She sought nonprofit funding for the film and it opened last year to critical success, despite a limited release. Viola Davis was told she was “too dark” and “unsexy” to play a leading woman, only to go on to global fame as Annalise Keating, win an Oscar for her role in Fences, and make a name for herself producing “overlooked” stories as co-founder of JuVee Productions. Angela Bassett and Gina Prince-Blythewood were both underestimated for their work as supporting actress in BLACK PANTHER 2: WAKANDA FOREVER and director of THE WOMAN KING, respectively. However, Bassett would have the last laugh when her peers would elect her for an Honorary Oscar. Prince-Blythewood would surpass expectations by taking #1 at the box office opening weekend. In every instance, a Black woman who was told what she could not do, beat the odds and did it with excellence. If she says she can then trust here — and maybe help.

3.  Prepare the Others
Perhaps one of my favorite viral trends of late has been the wave of workers expressing that PTO does not mean “paid time off” as we once believed but rather “prepare the others”. According to the creators, regardless of whether or not the time is approved, they aren’t coming. Essentially, it’s a signal to the Old Paradigm Gatekeepers that time for personal care is not a question and our health and well-being will not be sacrificed. I love it because it means that whether or not folks are ready for radical well-being, it’s still coming. And that’s exactly how I feel about the Black women’s renaissance moment: prepare the others. Ready or not, it’s time for Black women to live the lives we desire and deserve; full of dignity, respect, rest, care, imagination, exploration, and joy. When Black women thrive, society thrives. And we are ready to flourish. So, get ready… and prepare the others.

CHAMPIONS OF CHANGE: WORKING TO ADVANCE EQUITY FOR ALL

In the end, eradicating #TheDreamGap and #DreamsDeferred requires a multifaceted approach. Not only must we empower women and girls to take their rightful place as leaders and innovators, but we must also ensure that society is equipped to embrace them when they do so.  This is especially true when it comes to Black and Brown women and girls. Fortunately, Mattel understands this. 

Much like their dolls provide a visual concept of what’s possible, Mattel’s Children’s Foundation funds organizations like She’s the First and She Should Run, that drive tangible progress toward change. Both work to boost confidence and promote self-advocacy as well as centering community awareness, change management, and policy reform efforts. Likewise, they’re deeply committed to tackling the intersectional challenges of gender-racial inequity.

This kind of intersectional, nonperformative practice is precisely what RFC strives for within the screen industry. Rooted in anti-racist practice and radical care, we are committed to creating spaces where dignity, respect, and opportunity are accessible to all. We understand that care, in its essence, serves as the cornerstone for liberation and societal progress, addressing the broader issues that stem from inequality and injustice. As we reflect on the transformative potential of stories and symbols like BARBIE, I invite you to reimagine a future where we care enough to see everyone fulfill their potential. 


To learn more about our work and how you can help create a more worker-supportive, family-friendly screen industry, visit our website at www.reelfamilies.org.

 

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