Seeing my younger self in the new blockbuster ‘Barbie’ movie

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by Brianna Albers |

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I didn’t even know about the “Barbie” movie until I saw people talking about it on social media. I watched the trailer and thought, “That looks like a funky little movie.” But I wasn’t particularly enamored with it. I figured I’d watch it once it hit streaming services, as I do with most box office hits.

Seven months later, and I was experiencing major FOMO (fear of missing out). A friend from college saw it on opening night and texted me their glowing review on the way home from the theater. Meanwhile, folks on the internet were raving about “Barbie.” So I finally made plans to see it with friends. We bought tickets for opening weekend, opting for the ultracushy lounge chairs that feel like you’re on a cloud.

I’m not a movie person. I prefer the in-depth character arcs of an eight-episode TV series. (Remember when seasons used to be 22 episodes long? Those were the days.) But seeing “Barbie” on opening weekend reminded me just how much I love going to the movies, especially when the theater is packed with people in varying shades of pink.

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I won’t write about what “Barbie” meant to me; the internet is flush with such opinions. But I do want to touch on what it meant to see wheelchair Barbie on the big screen, even if only for a moment.

Growing up, I never really played with Barbies, but I loved the franchise. “Barbie as Rapunzel” was one of my favorite movies, while “Secret Agent Barbie” kick-started my lifelong love affair with all things espionage. I’m a child of the 1990s, so I was particularly vulnerable to the bubblegum pink feminism of Barbie. But it was more than empowerment.

One of the characters in “Secret Agent Barbie,” Becky, is in a wheelchair. Her role, while small, was instrumental in my budding relationship with stories. It was the first time I’d seen myself in a major franchise. Becky was physically less impaired than me, with my SMA — if it weren’t for the wheelchair, you’d have no idea she was disabled — but I didn’t care.

She was me.

I played “Secret Agent Barbie” over and over again, only stopping when I lost the ability to use a conventional keyboard. But I carried its influence with me. With time, I started a collection of characters like Becky: girls in wheelchairs who starred in my favorite stories. There weren’t many. Felicity Smoak from The CW’s “Arrow” is one of the few that come to mind. But they were all the more special because of their rarity.

They were me. And they were mine.

Eventually, I started writing my own stories. My list grew to include characters of my creation. I realized that, more than anything, what I wanted was to give every little girl — and every grown girl — what Becky gave to me.

Two decades later, and I’m sitting in a darkened movie theater in my pink dress and pastel rainbow Converse. “Barbie” opens with a bombastic musical number, and somewhere among the countless extras is a dancer in a wheelchair. Physically, they’re less impaired than me. In the back of my mind, I wonder if the actor is actually disabled, or if Hollywood persists in its rampant ableism. But for a brief, bombastic second, I see in myself the little girl who played “Secret Agent Barbie” until her body couldn’t anymore.

Wheelchair Barbie shows up a handful of times throughout the movie. She doesn’t even speak. But her presence has me greeting my past self just as Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, greets an older woman while waiting at a bus station. “You are so beautiful,” she says, and the words reverberate, bleeding in time like oil through water.

“Barbie” is a love letter — not to womanhood, but to humanity, to the peculiar ache of being alive. I sat in the theater, surrounded by people in pink, and felt time split before me. I was 28-year-old Brianna, with two tattoos and a master’s degree in mental health counseling. But I was also 8-year-old Brianna, gasping in delight every time Becky rolled on screen.

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Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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