“Barbie” Isn’t As Feminist As They Want You To Think

Okay, friends! Let’s get into BARBIE!

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want the plot twists revealed, move along! Although I don’t think it will ruin your experience of the movie if you do know what happens: it might even enhance it. You decide.

“Barbie” is a visual FEAST! I loved the design, I squealed at the costumes and set, hair, makeup, and fun of it all. The dance numbers are bangers and the whole production is good summer fun. Margot Robbie was adorable and funny and perfect (literally), and I honestly think that Ryan Gosling should get an Oscar nomination for his work, although he won’t. Comedic roles are rarely recognized.

But “Barbie” is not the feminist statement the mainstream media and many viewers want to think it is.

I loved the pink Girl Power world of Barbieland, and I appreciated that Gerwig/Baumbach broke open the Barbie-verse to include a diversity of Barbies. Issa Rae was terrific as President Barbie, and it was wonderful to see women characters cheer each other on and to have the one celebrated respond with “thank you, I worked hard and I deserved it!” No false modesty, just big glowing smiles. We can dream, can’t we?

I was thoroughly enjoying myself until my critical radar was activated by a little blip in the screenplay and the appearance of cellulite on Barbie as she became to mesh realities with the Real World. Waitaminute. If Barbie & Co. are really existing outside of patriarchal society and do not exist for the male gaze, she (and the other horrified dolls) wouldn’t give a flip about some bumpy skin, which is associated with age. Imagine a matriarchy. Would a society of women see sagging or dimpled skin as something to be horrified by? Up to that moment in the film, I was delighted by the premise that all of the dolls were, well, dolled up in gorgeous outfits, hair, make-up and overblown aesthetic of traditional femininity because it’s PRETTY. Because we love sparkles and rainbows and pretty dresses, not because these trappings make anyone attractive to Kens/men.

That’s how I was when I played with Barbies. I had no inkling of wanting or needing male attention, I just loved make-up, wigs, puffy princess dresses and shiny shoes.

Suddenly I noticed that that, despite the diversity of Barbies in Gerwig and Baumbach’s vision, there were no old Barbies. Someone on TikTok suggested Jennifer Coolidige for the inevitable sequel, which is a brilliant idea. Why the absence of elder Barbies? Why were old women only allowed representation in the Real World? If there can be fat Barbies, another body that is rejected and reviled under patriarchal beauty standards, why no old Barbies?

They had Helen Mirren RIGHT. THERE.

But I filed that small concern away in my mind and continued to enjoy and appreciate the movie (even though I am not a fan of “Closer To Fine”). America Ferrera did a great job as Gloria, the frustrated mother of a surly tween. I loved Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel — his scenes were a wonderful satire of patriarchy, which is what I think Gerwig and Baumbach wanted to accomplish. Did you catch “Tooth Guy” (hilarious Jamie Demetriou) from “Fleabag” as one of his corporate minions? All the Mattel scenes were gold.

Ken’s whole bonkers discovery of patriarchy (horses!) was sly, clever and effective. The audience guffawed at his overwrought conversion but watching the Kens take down Barbieland was genuinely upsetting. I would like to acquire the screenplay and read it because I did not quite follow the plot device of the Barbies being brainwashed into pandering to the guys. I could understand how they were eventually snapped out of their bad enchantment but not at all sure how they were bamboozled into it. The scene where Kens make Barbies listen to them play guitar and sing “Push” by Matchbox 20 brought forth great howls of laughing solidarity from the many women in the audience who have suffered through similar displays of masculine ego by men trying to impress and seduce in insulting ways. It is a brilliant scene, and the movie at its very best.

Close to the end of the film, though, I thought the screenplay committed a serious betrayal of its supposed girl-power message. I have not heard one reviewer — not famous white feminist Susan Faludi — and not any of the Black women I follow on TikTok who had a lot to say about the film’s attempts at intersectionality — mention this moment, let alone hold it up to scrutiny.

Here it is:

When Barbieland has been restored to a woman-centric land and the Constitution has been restored (the Kens had a plan to OVERTHROW THE CONSTUTION, a plot point that hit too close to home for this American woman to be able to find humorous), Barbie finds the deposed Ken and apologizes to HIM.

“I’m sorry I took you for granted.”

She apologizes to the man who destroyed her home, installed a hostile government in her land, and did all of that because she was daring to live in a way that did not center his desires and needs (particularly for a romantic relationship with her).

This film teaches girls to apologize to their male oppressors. Note that. This is not a feminist film. Nor is it an anti-oppressive film. White Barbie apologizing to white Ken for leading a movement that, among other things, illegally removed a Black president from office? Miss me with that, Greta and Noah. You failed at intersectionality.

I will not stop hammering home this point. According to the logic of “Barbie,” when men destroy women’s spaces because they are not centered, not mollified and not granted romantic attention and access to women’s bodies (whether plastic or not!), they’re just doing this because WOMEN WERE TAKING THEM FOR GRANTED. It’s our fault.

You can bet that as soon as the lights came up, I addressed the row of young girls who were in front of me and said, “You guys, you know that if boys get upset and hostile because you decide to focus on yourself and your girlfriends, you don’t need to APOLOGIZE TO THEM, right?” They immediately said, “YEA!! What WAS that? And the women sitting to my right and to my left chimed in, which was very gratifying. Take that, Hollywood.

What I wish Barbie had said to Ken instead of “I’m sorry.”

Ken, you need to get a life.

Ken, if I want to have Girl’s Night every night until the end of time, I will do just that. Go make your own night. I’m not interested.

Final thoughts:

I have a mixed reaction to the last scene in the movie, which was cute but also could be read as a reduction of Barbie to her new reproductive organs. Lots of ways to interpret that. I thought the scene with Rhea Perlman was over-long and took itself far too seriously and overall I think the film suffered from inconsistency of messagea and the involvement of Noah Baumbach, whose work I have always found to simmer with misogynist resentment.

Michael Cera and Simu Liu are national treasures.

Remember that comments like, “it’s JUST a MovIe, RelAx” or “YoU musT Be fUN at ParTies” are will be deleted with maximum scorn. If you don’t understand the cultural importance and influence of the medium of film, that’s not my problem.

And yes, I had a Weird Barbie. My cousins and I also made Ken and G.I. Joe into lovers. It just made sense to us.

The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

[This was originally a paper I wrote for my doctoral program in 2008. – Victoria Weinstein]

There’s Something About Mary: The Poetry Of Mary Oliver Among Unitarian Universalists

There are three poems by Mary Oliver in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  To put her prominence in context, there are six readings in the hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one by Henry David Thoreau, seven by Rabindranath Tagore, and eleven from the Book of Isaiah. She is therefore not overly-represented in the hymn book, but is unquestionably the poet of choice in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country and was chosen to give the prestigious Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2007. If any secular literary source can be said to have achieved the status of “sacred scripture” within a religious movement, it is safe to say this of Mary Oliver’s poetry among the Unitarian Universalists.

As a woman named Marcia wrote recently on a blog posting asking Unitarian Universalists to comment about the prevalence of Mary Oliver poetry in their worship services, “All I know is that when people ask me if we read from the bible during worship services, i say ‘Yes, but not as often as we read mary oliver.’[1]  On the same post a woman named Terri comments, “The very first UU service I attended featured a Mary Oliver poem…and the very first UU small group session I attended on Prayer used her poem “Morning Poem”[2]

Unitarian Universlist minister Judy Welles writes,

I use Mary Oliver a LOT. . . I love the simplicity of her poetry; I respect the art of saying something very rich and nuanced with just a very few words. She is a MASTER at that. And she loves life so much. And she is so grateful. She takes great pleasure in simple things, notices things to be grateful for that most of us would miss. To put it simply: she knocks my socks off.[3]


So what is this about? What about Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks so powerfully to members of this small religious movement? I have two key theories, one positive and one more cynical, that I want to explore more fully in this paper:

  1. Oliver writes poetry that is imbued with theology that is particularly resonant with the Transcendentalist, neo-pagan and ambiguously Theistic strands of Unitarian Universalism (I use the term “ambiguously Theistic” to refer to those who do not identify as traditional Theists, but who may be agnostic with a strong mystical bent, or atheistic with a sense of immanent divinity that, for personal reasons, they refuse to name as God). Oliver’s talent for capturing theophany and immanence in a few verses or images is breathtaking. She is the Muse of choice for many who have trouble articulating the holiness in everyday things and events, but who strongly feel its presence.
  2. Oliver writes poetry that is almost entirely interior; preoccupied with private thoughts, feelings and reactions to her immediate natural surroundings. It is the rare poem that takes Oliver into an urban or even suburban setting or finds her among a group of other human beings. In her poetic persona, she prefers the company of her dog, irises, otters or grasshoppers to that of people (save her beloved partner Molly Malone Cook who appears unnamed in many of her poems).  “Oliver worship” within Unitarian Universalism in the current era may represent, therefore, a holding onto rampant individualism and self-absorption that is currently being challenged by 21st century proponents of a far stronger community ethos in the denomination.

Speaking as an individual, I am a sincere fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Speaking as a minister and liturgist, I believe that her prevalence in Unitarian Universalist worship is a mixed blessing, and that her poetry should be more intentionally balanced with other poetic voices; especially those that lift up the importance of seeking transcendence truths in community.


The first reading by Mary Oliver that appears in Singing the Living Tradition is her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work, 1986).  It is reprinted in its entirety but made into a responsive reading, as the italics will indicate:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Imagine the reaction of the newcomer to Unitarian Universalist worship hearing a minister or liturgist intone that first line, “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good!?? What kind of religion is this, anyway?  Read in a private context, I find this poem to be a beautiful statement of spiritual freedom, rejection of the efficacy of religious guilt to effect healing and wholeness (“you do not have to walk on your knees …repenting”) and a celebration of the interdependence of all life and each person’s special place in it.  Read in a corporate context, however, this poem makes me cringe.  Phrases like, “You do not have to be good” and “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – so hospitable to the individual reader’s soul, sound to my ear very weak and permissive theology when read responsively in a worship setting.  Do worshipers hear these words differently in the privacy of home versus the public space of the religious meetinghouse?  Are preachers being entirely responsible when they use them and then do not exegete them somewhere in the service? Or do worshipers have an instinctive understanding that poetry within the context of worship is not, in fact, literally sacred scripture but one possible illumination among many of the preacher’s message and the community’s values?

One Unitarian Universalist wrote, “[Oliver’s] poem ‘Wild Geese’ is sort of like a creed to me (and I share this in common with a minister friend of mine, who also committed the poem to heart).[4]  Given that Unitarian Universalists reject creeds, such a comment is surprisingly fervent. Another active Unitarian Universalist gave the poem even higher prominence in her spiritual life, writing,

I love Mary Oliver because her poems “West Wind #2,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Journey” saved my life–literally. They gave me the strength and courage to do some hard things–basically to get out of a life that was killing me, and into one that is full of love and joy. Oliver will always hold a special place in my heart for that.[5]

In a religious tradition that has largely abandoned language of salvation in the 21st century (emphasizing, if anything, that humanity has to save itself), it is perhaps inevitable that its adherents will seek salvific messages where they can find them in other, extra-congregational sources.

The second Mary Oliver poem which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook (also from Dream Work) is “Morning Poem.”  Again, italicized portions indicate the intention that this be used as an antiphonal or responsive reading:

Every morning the world is


Under the orange sticks of the

sun the heaped ashes of the

night turn into leaves again.

And fasten themselves to the high

branches – and the ponds appear

like black cloth on which are

painted islands of summer lilies.


If it is your nature to be happy

you will swim away along

the soft trails for hours, your

imagination alighting



And if you spirit carries within it

the thorn that is heavier than

lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –


There is still somewhere deep

within you a beast shouting

that the earth is exactly what

it wanted –


Each ponds with its blazing lilies is

a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning,


Whether or not you have ever

dared to be happy,

whether or not you have ever

dared to pray.

Like “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” addresses the suffering individual (“the spirit that carries the thorn that is heavier than lead”), claims that the individual is in the right place (Nature or Earth) and affirms that that place is inherently sacred.  There are resonances with the Book of Genesis in the first line (“Each morning the world is created”), and again, the human is affectionately reduced to the most creaturely of beings (“soft animal” in “Wild Geese” and “a beast” in “Morning Poem”).  As in “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” claims that whether or not the human being is particularly religious (“whether or not you have ever dared to pray”), the natural world invites each person to actively participate in the immanent, divine order of things.  It is a reading which, when I ventured to try it with a congregation during worship, did not flow very well, but it contains some memorably beautiful images (the orange sticks of the sun/the pond with the blazing lilies) and a comforting theological message that traditional spiritual practices are not necessary to commune with the “answered prayer” that is Nature.

Emerson and Thoreau said much the same thing in far more prosaic language in the 19th century, of course, unintentionally striking a nearly-fatal blow to the nascent Unitarian movement and leaving a legacy of anti-institutionalism and sporadic church-going that has not abated since their time.  Oliver is a worthy heir to this strand of the Transcendentalist tradition, enthusiastically exhorting the reader to throw themselves down in the grass and worship in that manner, or to do so by floating in a pond, or by spending a summer’s day savoring blackberries on one’s “happy tongue.”

In the last of her contributions to the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods”[6] is excerpted as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

This is a fitting final verse of a poem that juxtaposes satisfaction and goodness (trees turning their own bodies “into pillars of light”) with sadness and even nihilistic imagery (“every pond/no matter what its name is/is nameless now”), but it seems a startlingly inappropriate message for a church to perpetuate.

For one thing, Oliver makes a definitive pastoral statement that works beautifully for her poem but that has no place in a institution whose founder advised us not to love what is mortal as though our lives depended on it, but to love God in that manner, because our lives do depend on it. Similarly, this poem strikes me as a questionable inclusion in a hymn book because, taken out of context of the larger poem, the phrases read as a therapeutic sound bite for “getting over” losses one might have suffered.  Who is to say when the time is to “let it go?” Mary Oliver doesn’t say, but grieving worshipers hearing this on a Sunday morning might legitimately wonder if they are being in some way admonished for not being able to “live in this world” appropriately.  This might be an overly-sensitive concern, but if people are listening carefully for images of God that may offend them (as they often are in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where the vast majority are “come-outers” from more conservative faith traditions– or who come unchurched and critical of traditional religion), are they not listening especially carefully also for words that may spiritually guide and advise them?

Mary Oliver is at her best and most theologically inspiring when writing about theophanies in ordinary life. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive contains what are for me her finest poems in that vein.  In one poem, “The Kitten,” Oliver describes taking a stillborn kitten with one eye from her house cat’s bed and burying it in a field behind her house.

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local newspaper.

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive. . .

The poet is saying that even this tiny dead being that would have been regarded as grotesque by most people is part of what is natural, and is therefore to be marveled at as evidence of an infinitely creative Creator.  It is her constant refrain; to render the unremarkable remarkable, and the ugly or even treacherous aspects of creation worthy of attention and reverence.  Oliver invites us into solidarity and fellowship with all of life.  She is the anti-Annie Dillard, who so delights in dashing sentimental or anthropomorphized notions of the natural world against the rocks of gleefully clinical descriptions of the horrors of Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

Oliver’s magnificent poem “Humpbacks,” around which I once designed an entire worship service, is a glorious revelation of the theophany of the humpback whale (see Appendix B) as it “smashes through the surface” of the ocean and hangs “for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky/like nothing you’ve ever imagined/ like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness/pouring heavenward.”  As in many of Oliver’s poems, this one is also about the relationship between the human body and the other embodied aspects of creation.  It begins as a creation story, evoking a “country of original fire” in which we live and move and have our being, and later echoes Genesis as it connects the magnificent appearance of the whales to “the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of [the primordial] darkness.”


As she often does, Oliver ends her poem with an exhortation to the reader, saying,

Listen, whatever it is you try

to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you

like the dreams of your body –

It is these exhortations, these evangelical moments in Oliver’s poems that are most treasured by those who hear her within the context of worship.  “Don’t love your life too much,” she says in the voice of a butterfly at the end of her poem[7] “One Or Two Things.” And this treasured phrase that appears at the end of “The Summer Day,” a poem I have read at half a dozen memorial services, asks her ultimate question:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” [8] Her theology is broad and humanistic, “incantations drawing us forward to a more authentic life.”[9]

What, then, will Unitarian Universalists make of Oliver’s development as a poet of distinctly Earth-based, broadly humanistic spirituality (with a smattering of Christian images and references sprinkled throughout), to a grieving woman hungering and thirsting after the God of Christian faith in her recent collection, Thirst?

I attended the Installation of a new Unitarian Universalist minister in March of 2008 which used Thirst’s first poem, “Messenger” as an antiphonal benediction read by several of the new minister’s colleagues. The poem begins, “My work is loving the world,” and proceeds with the usual Oliver specificity of reverence — the inevitable lists of aspects of creation she wants to be sure we will not overlook in our hasty pace of life (“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird/Here the quickening yeast/there the blue plums/Here is the clam deep in the speckled sand”).  But at the last line, a surprise. Rather than her customary reminder that life is brief and therefore must be savored, Oliver ends her poem with a reference to eternal life:

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is,

that we live forever.[10]

For close readers of Oliver, this phrase is a shift, a hint that something is changing in the poet’s spiritual orientation.  Later in the collection (“Musical Notation: 1”) we find Oliver referring to all of creation as God’s works – more specifically, in traditionally gendered language as “His works.”  Another surprise.

“Have you noticed?” she asks.  Yes, in Thirst, we have noticed for the first time in this collection that Mary Oliver is a faithful Christian woman, weaving glorious poetry out of an all-too human struggle with meaning in the aftermath of a shattering loss.  “Dear Lord,” she begins one poem, and later in that same poem affirms, “Still I believe you will come, Lord: you will…”[11]

Will wounded ex-Christians, agnostics, humanistic, Jewish or Buddhist-oriented Unitarian Universalists who love Mary Oliver’s poetry so much that they take her words as personal creeds and commit them to memory feel betrayed by their Muse’s new direction? Will they accept it and follow where she leads with literary appreciation and healthy self-differentiation? Will they dismiss her devotion to the Christian Way as the disappointing, if understandable, reaction to losing her partner of forty years (a kind of regression, if you will)?  It will be interesting to see how frequently, if at all, poems from Thirst are included in Unitarian Universalist worship services, meditation circles and retreats.

I personally find Thirst to be Oliver’s most mature and powerful collection in a long time, as I had begun to find her work vapid and formulaic.  It is not only the details of her Christian life that I find beautiful and resonant (a description of trying to remember the lectionary lesson when one is depressed, disoriented and grieving; a simple report of attending church and then walking the dog; the plea for God to still our pounding, anxious hearts and bring us to the peace that passeth understanding; the mystery of Eucharistic transformation of bread, wine, self and community), it is the new sense of deep relationality which I find in these poems that inspires and moves me. Oliver’s shift from a poetic voice of such total interiority that it bordered, for me, on irritating self-absorption (no matter how literarily beautiful) to a voice that recognizes and even, in a bittersweet and poignant way, celebrates dependency, inter-dependency and community is, to this admirer, a great literary fulfillment.


[1] Commenter Marcia on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008. Spelling original.

[2] Commenter Terri, ibid.

[3] Commenter Judy Welles, ibid.

[4] Commenter Terri on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008.

[5] Commenter Doxy, ibid.

[6] Mary Oliver, American Primitive (Little, Brown & Company, New York: 1983), 82-83. See appendix A for complete poem.

[7] Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 120-122.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Rev. Jen Crow, “This Wild And Precious Life,” Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 16, 2006.  http://www.rochesterunitarian.org/2005-06/20060716.html

[10] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006), 1.

[11] Mary Oliver, “Making The House Ready For the Lord,” Thirst (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), 13.

Nevertheless, She Persisted: A PeaceBang Love Letter To Miss Bette Midler As Dolly Levi

I saw Bette Midler play Dolly Gallagher Levi, the legendary leading role in Jerry Herman’s musical “Hello, Dolly!” on Wednesday night, June 14th. It was the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and I felt that this would be the perfect way to celebrate: a return to my first church and my original religion, the Broadway theatre.

I have said many times that “Dolly” is eternally popular because it’s a resurrection narrative. The irrepressible Dolly, primarily a matchmaker (the source material is Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker”) is “a woman who arranges things/ for the pleasure and the profit it derives.” Some of the things Dolly arranges are “furniture, and daffodils, and lives.” She is a force of nature, a keen social manager, and a brilliant finagler in the ways that all widows who are left without a comfortable fortune have to finagle if they’re to keep themselves in potatoes and striped stockings, let alone chicken and dumplings.

When we meet her, Dolly is tired of finagling. She has a goal which she shares with the audience early on in the show through the device of talking to her dead husband, Ephraim Levi: she is going to get the well-known “half a millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder, to marry her. She is going to marry well and rejoin the human race after many years away. As she sings in the title song, in a phrase with pathos that is easy to miss amid the jubilation of all those dancing waiters welcoming her back to her old Saturday night stamping ground, the Harmonia Gardens,

I went away from the lights of 14th Street/ and into my personal haze/ But now that I’m back in the lights of 14th Street, tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days!


Photos by Julieta Cervantes. Click to enlarge. 

If “Hello, Dolly!” is done even passably well (it’s a hard show to ruin), the audience will always burst into cheers when the trombone starts its well-known slide into the brassy trumpet chords that signal Dolly Levi’s endearingly garish, brave, be-plumed appearance at the top of the stairs at Harmonia Gardens. We weep because it is a resurrection moment, a theatrical Easter morning that thrills the same pagan soul that contrived the Orphic Mysteries and the Eleusinian Rites. “The lady… she’s here!” cries one young waiter, too much of a newbie to remember Dolly himself, but fully aware of how much she is loved and missed by the rest of the crew. The men gather around at the foot of the staircase in expectation, the curtain at the top parts, and here she comes, descending in joy, a touch of girlish trepidation, and beaming adoration down on the waiters below. She will serenade several of them by name,

“You’re lookin’ swell, Manny/I can tell Danny/you’re still glowing you’re still crowin’ you’re still/goin’ strong

You’re looking great, Stanley/lose some weight, Stanley?

On Wednesday night, June 14th at the Shubert Theatre, Miss Midler serenaded all of us, as I have no doubt she does to all her audiences every night. Midler has the most profound gift for intimacy I have ever seen in a performer, radiating warmth and her unique brand heartening humor and moxie to every row of the house. Midler’s genius is also in her inimitable sense of pacing: she never allows the tsunami of adoration coming to her from across the footlights to throw the show off its timing and manages to conduct the energy so that she uses it in the service of the work and not for personal egotistical gratification. I have seen the latter phenomenon many times from great divas (male and female), and while I too was cheering their irresistible charismatic force, a tiny part of me resented the frequent distractions and emotional manipulation. Bette Midler is an irresistible charismatic force for whom applause does not seem emotionally necessary as a salve for some original wound. She receives it graciously and with delight as someone who is as much in thrall to the gods of the theatre as we are to her. She has too much discipline as an artist to covet the applause or play to it for its own sake, and for that alone I will admire her forever.


Midler with the marvelous David Hyde Pierce, who manages to give the usually one-dimensional Horace Vandergelder an actual emotional arc. 

When Midler made her entrance, the audience simply roared with love and excitement. She had just won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress In A Musical on Sunday evening when she made headlines for shutting down the orchestra when it tried to play her off as her acceptance speech outran the allotted 90 seconds.  Since Broadway theatres are dark on Monday, and (Broadway star in her own right) Donna Murphy plays Dolly on Tuesdays, we were seeing Miss Midler in her first evening performance since the Tonys. It occurred to me later that evening, reflecting with my companion about the overwhelming thrill of Midler’s presence and the audience’s monumental reaction to her entrance, that part of what we were cheering for was not only the brilliance of her performance but for her “nevertheless, she persisted” moment at the Tony Awards.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Bette presciently remarked that her greatest fear is that her country’s greatest years are behind it. She has been a scathing critic of the idiocy of the Trump regime, and I am not the only one who regularly hoots with appreciation at her public remarks on his and his cronies’ thieving and lying.

Miss Midler has persisted. She has been speaking her mind with a deathly combination of wit, truth and keen intelligence for a long time, and she has, thank God, never stopped. She has had a long career that defies categorization: she is singer, actress, cabaret chanteuse, performance artist, old-school vaudevillian, movie star, Broadway diva, comic. She is a mermaid, a mogul, a matchmaker. She persists. No orchestra can silence her, no role can daunt her, no audience member can resist her. Dear Miss Midler, I see what you did there, every brilliant choice of interpretation and communication and generosity to your fellow actors and the love and life force you brought to every minute of it.

I am so glad that you persist. You were right — in these terrible times, we need Dolly. And we need you.