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Pride & Prejudice & Mothers, Oh My!
If Barbie triggered your religious trauma, you're not alone
When my friend invited me over for a girl’s day, it was supposed to have been a catch-up for all the time we’d recently lost together now that she was married. She was 20, I was 19.
“Come over and see my new apartment,” she said. “We’ll spend the whole day together. I’ll make lunch. And I have the whole boxed set of Pride & Prejudice, so we can finally watch that too.”
She referred to the BBC depiction of Jane Austen’s classic. 6 VHS tapes long, demanding a marathon of best girlfriend time. My friend had been married a few months now and was adjusting to what it meant to be a new Christian wife. We hadn’t had any time alone to dish and debrief, and since my own wedding rapidly approached, I craved time to ask her all the nitty gritty questions about what marriage was really like.
When I showed up with bags of Twizzlers and M&M’s in hand, her husband stood behind her at the door. My friend reached to pull me into a hug. “He’s going to join us today if that’s okay,” she said.
Before I could mutter, “But it’s girls’ day” she was already turning toward the kitchen in some kind of little-wifey smiling dance I’d never seen her do.
She put mitts on her hands and opened the oven door. “I made pound cake for hubby’s day off,” she practically sang.
I set my bags down on the sofa and sighed, accepting her husband as our new third wheel and chaperone. I’d been the third wheel for enough dates to know the drill. Sarcasm bit my throat. The three of us would have a great day—no insider gossip or debriefing allowed.
Eight hours later, I sat in their dim living room spellbound. Colin Firth. Jennifer Ehle. Jane Austen. Sweeping vistas of Pemberly. I loved it all.
“Did you feel all that tension?” my friend asked, smiling.
“It’s like foreplay,” her husband cracked. “So now you know.”
They laughed over their shared joke.
I didn’t get the joke. First of all, at 19 and unmarried, I didn’t know what foreplay was. But I also didn’t think literary tension necessarily resulted in sex. Did it?
I would’ve asked my newlywed best friend if I could have. But one of the realities of being a Christian wife is that we didn’t have girls’ days anymore. We included our husbands, so they didn’t feel left out. Like Charlotte bringing Mr. Collins along when Lizzie came to visit—my friend and I were never alone together again, after having grown up together. We were wives now.
Books are a fundie girl’s best friend
Before that day I already loved Austen’s books, along with the Bronte sisters and LM Montgomery. But after that day, I got married, stepping over the threshold into a life neither church nor literature prepared me for. When I went to the library as a young fundamentalist wife, I played it safe, never checking out modern books as I’d been taught to ban myself, but also unable to marinate in the stories of innocence I used to consider refuge.
Instead, I followed the timeline into the Gilded Age. Tess of the d’Ubervilles, The Awakening, and The Yellow Wallpaper expanded the complexity of female characters beyond pretty prospects for marriage and dancing and falling in love. I didn’t read modern books until years later when my mind was breaking from fundamentalism and my heart was too.
Reading new books was like making new friends while keeping the old—one is silver and the other gold. For every Girl with the Pearl Earring, We Have Always Live in the Castle, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Handmaid’s Tale and Salinger’s Nine Stories, I still held tight to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Sense and Sensibility with love in my heart. There was no reason not to see the books of my youth in any other light than golden nostalgia, even if they weren’t my first picks anymore.
So, I might have never encountered the darker layer of how my love of Pride & Prejudice hadn’t really served me, had it not been for Barbie.
Unlike most moviegoers, I came to the Barbie movie without any nostalgia. I wore brown, not pink. My primary attraction was Greta Gerwig’s brilliant development of female characters. I’m a grown-up Barbie virgin who headed to the theater for cultural and artistic reasons, not personal sentiment. I don't have Barbie memories from childhood, and I was a mother who didn't buy her for my daughter. Most of my reasons were religious, from the way I was raised to the way I raised my girl.
These days I excavate the remnants of high-control religion and share my experiences and discoveries as I heal. I also seek ways to overwrite and reclaim the losses of the past and reframe cultural experiences I once abstained from or vilified with curiosity. Choosing to see Barbie was a kind of inner-child therapy. I thought I’d love it the way I loved Gerwig’s Little Women, Lady Bird, and Francis Ha, and maybe put a little bit of myself back together in the meantime.
Maybe I’d finally understand why so many girls loved dressing and redressing tall, skinny Barbies. Maybe I’d laugh at the permanent high heel feet and cheer for the feminism. Maybe I’d leave the theater feeling body positive and smiling the way I saw so many others share in their post-movie selfies.
I figured a few triggers would rise—enough women had reported crying at America Ferrera’s speech, and the conservatives were zesting up their man-lather of outrage. But what I didn’t see coming?
Depression Barbie and the Pride & Prejudice collision.
I was startled by its appearance. Caught completely off guard in the midst of a movie that had already challenged so many sensibilities. When Darcy’s proud proposal flashed across the big screen, I felt my stomach clench. The inside of my ribs braced, forming the armor that attempts to shield my tender, activated self from harm. Sweat broke out on the back of my neck. My fingers felt cold. The scent of popcorn suddenly seemed nauseatingly burned and nutty. My mouth watered in revulsion.
I tried to laugh with the rest of the theater but it was an unsteady huh-huh sound that came out, not a guffaw or a giggle.
The rest of the film swam past unseeing eyes as I bit the insides of my cheeks and tried not to cry. Not because it wasn’t okay to cry in Barbie—plenty of others were. But because I knew I’d just snagged a wound so deep that if I released even a single tear, it would break into a racking sob.
I held my body still and took slow, even breaths. By the time the credits rolled, I had every feeling tucked back down neatly behind my speechless smile. I left the theater fragmented, half of me ready for cultural commentary, the other half crouching back in 1994.
I had approached Barbie girls in a Barbie world with as much innocence as any little girl reaching for that pink box, unaware of the complexity headed my way. And after the nervous laughter wore off, I knew I had a lot to unpack.
I left Barbie triggered.
A Trigger is a Replay
Triggers are information. Trying to avoid triggers when you have CPTSD is like trying to cross a lawn without touching the grass. They happen. And I’ve learned that when they happen, I can learn a lot about myself, who and what hurt me, and how to heal.
So, as much as I wanted to laugh this one off and blend in with Austen and Barbie fans alike, I wasn’t able to. For former fundies like me, the Depression Barbie joke landed differently. It landed with a thud, a punch of realization that once again, we were in the world, but not of it.
In his book Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing, author David Richo defines a trigger as “any word, person, event, or experience that touches an immediate emotional reaction—for example, sadness, depression, anger, aggression, fear, panic, humiliation or shame. Words, behavior, attitudes, events, or even the presence of certain people, can incite reactions in us over which we have no control.”
“A trigger is a replay of an earlier experience, arousing post-traumatic stress we wish to avoid. Every trigger is a catalyst for grief. Our sudden reaction is how we begin to show that grief.”
I have a series of experiences I wish to avoid.
The tip of the trauma iceberg is my wedding night. The wounds broaden from there, to the months before my wedding, when the violence started, to the rest of my marriage and excommunication. As the ice merges with the water, it comes to my upbringing as an evangelical and my early childhood experiences.
I’ve melted a lot of this iceberg through therapy. Only rarely do I find another bergy bit or growler—medium to large pieces of ice that spawn off the main chunk of the glacier.
The thing with viewing triggers as information, and as catalysts for grief, is that triggers can also signal a fresh wave of deconstruction—a series of probing questions that drill down to the bottom of a belief or experience. If “deconstruction” names the process of dismantling what I believed about God and faith, it was only the top layer of the excavation.
What comes next is the secondary and tertiary layers of everything that existed around faith—every comfort, experience, and relationship. Seekers who deconstruct religious beliefs also deconstruct their family relationships, generational traumas, attachment styles--and a series of memories that on the surface, might feel beloved.
Survivors and exiles bond over shared stories of church camp, favorite hymns, youth groups, family dynamics, songs on CCM radio, inside jokes, and what we were allowed and not allowed. Often the stories are funny, and we get a chance to laugh some of our trauma out instead of always crying it out. But it always burns when something we loved is found to have harmed us.
Never did I ever expect one of those iceberg growlers to be some of my favorite literature.
The trigger I expected from Barbie was around options for girls and motherhood role play. Gerwig didn’t disappoint—the film opened with a Space Odyssey spoof that probably just seemed like a dramatic and silly Easter egg to most viewers.
Little girls role-play mommy. Barbie emerges and rocks their world. They bust out of the mold and follow her down the road to a bright new future full of diverse possibilities.
But to former fundies? Those little girls playing with baby dolls in the dirt look like fundie homestead culture. They’re a depiction of the restricted life planned for us before we were born: you have one destiny, girls. One job. It’s the reason we didn’t dream about what we’d be when we grew up because we already knew. We’d be wives. We’d be mothers. The End.
When the movie opened with those little girls busting the mold, my first thought was Psalms 137:9 : “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,” which is a verse about revenge. Strange place for my mind to go I guess, but a fundie survivor’s head is full of random scriptures taken from the context.
My second thought was to metaphorically buckle in. Barbie was going to be a long, triggery ride.
I did okay through the flat feet, Weird Barbie, parallel worlds, patriarchy, trad wives, and poor Allan. The clever quotes and quips kept me engaged as a writer, an artist, and a fan. But then the Depressed Barbie fake commercial ran, Colin appeared, and bam! My body recoiled and shut down, the way it does in an involuntary trauma response. I froze.
Even worse, I knew right away only other fundies would understand this one from the inside out.
Because to the rest of the world, marathon viewings of Pride & Prejudice provide a funny punchline of what sad, smart girls do when they face mini-existential crises and heartbreak. Austen was satirical, comforting, and feminist for her time.
But to Christian girls raised in and headed for fundamentalism, Pride and Prejudice was something else altogether.
It was part of a canon of literature we were allowed when modern books were banned.
The lovely femininity and strict social conventions around gender were present-day expectations.
Lizzie was humored for her sass-within-bounds but valued and praised for her eventual conformity.
Lydia served as our warning not to be silly or reckless.
Wickham, our fate if we sinned by chasing desire.
Awkward and greasy Mr. Collins was our secret fear because we too had an urgent obligation to get married and secure a good match. Attraction and love didn’t really have that much to do with it.
We watched marathon viewings of Pride & Prejudice (and Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma, etc) for hope, not a funny punchline. A model of life ahead. Entertainment that reinforced our values. Instruction on how to navigate patriarchy within patriarchy, even if Jane Austen herself would’ve challenged it.
For us, P & P provided the sexual tension that was supposed to serve as foreplay in a lifestyle that denied us real sex education. We knew our lives would change dramatically once we were married, without any way to share the truth with our friends. Moments like what Lizzie and Charlotte shared offered a rare peek of what to expect.
It’s a pattern well beyond Austen’s titles. Because classic literature was used against us, to reinforce and mold us into sweet, feminine, docile women of the past, we often related to our literary heroines in unhealthy ways. For example, empathizing with Mr. Rochester and the Phantom of the Opera, and even Darcy’s awful first proposal. These poor men! Maybe they couldn’t help being mean. Maybe we could fix them with our kindness and love.
What did Pride & Prejudice have to do with sex education? The answer is nothing. And I went into marriage without preparation for what it meant to be a Christian wife. I went in expecting prim manners, ardent love and affection, and longing for long walks in the countryside, even if it rained.
Those expectations were as realistic as Barbie’s permanently high-heeled feet. But that moment in the end, with Barbie and her creator, offered both my inner child and my inner 19-year-old a choice every survivor gets to make: either remain in my Dreamhouse forever or become a real girl in the real world.
I don’t think of my old friend often anymore. I certainly don’t think of her husband. Losses are part and parcel of both fundamentalism and recovery; survivors learn pretty quickly that situational bonds break. But once we’re awakened, we have the power to refuse to be a tool for our own subjugation and to grow into complex women with choice, autonomy, and way more than a single identity.