What bowling can learn from Barbie-Land

Originally featured in the July 2023 edition of Bowlers Journal 

By Jason Thomas

“You can be a lover or a fighter, 
Whatever you desire, 
Life is like a runway, 
and you’re the designer.” 
– Ava Max, 
“Barbie: The Movie” 

The conclusion of the 2023 Professional Women’s Bowling Association national tour season in August coincided with the cultural phenomenon that was the release of “Barbie: The Movie,” and the parallels between the themes and messages from the film have so much in common with the PWBA that it is impossible to ignore.

In the film, Margot Robbie plays “Stereotypical Barbie,” and lives in a fictional world (Barbie-land) that is run by fellow Barbies of all shapes, sizes, gender identities, ethnic backgrounds and career pursuits. Men in Barbie-land (all named Ken, except for Michael Cera’s Allan), merely exist as a fashion accessory to the Barbies, and serve no purpose other than to “beach,” and dance the night away at the Barbies’ girl parties.
When something happens that forces Stereotypical Barbie (with Ryan Gosling’s Ken tagging along) to venture out of Barbie-land into the real world, hilarity, social satire, and soul-searching (for both the characters and the audience) ensues.
This is where the first similarity between the film and the real-life PWBA becomes apparent, as you realize that the PWBA sort of exists in its own little bubble. In this metaverse, the athletes are respected, appreciated, and given the opportunity to pursue their careers in a fair and equitable environment, even if much of the real world may not take notice, or worse yet, claim that their pursuits do not deserve respect, or even the right to exist. Unfortunately, the world did come to the latter verdict in the case of the PWBA back in 2003, which led one Barbie in particular — Kelly Kulick — to set out into the “real world” to compete on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour against the men.
In 2006, she would earn a coveted spot on the PBA’s exempt tour, which gave her a guaranteed paycheck every week and a place in the exclusive field during the 20-event season. Then, in 2010, she did something that most people thought was impossible, winning a major title on the PBA Tour and defeating two of the world’s bowling alpha-Kens, Mika Koivuniemi and Chris Barnes (both at the pinnacles of their careers), on national television for the win.
Here’s what tennis great Billie Jean King, who knew a few things about leaving her own Barbie-land to venture out into the “real world,” said about the accomplishment: "Kelly Kulick's win at the PBA Tour's Tournament of Champions is not only historic, it serves as a motivational and inspirational event for girls and women competing at all levels around the world."
Liz Johnson’s accomplishments during this time (in addition to a few other notable women like Missy Parkin and Clara Guerrero) should also not go unnoticed. Some may even argue that Johnson’s groundbreaking TV appearance in the 2005 PBA Banquet Open, where she defeated Wes Malott before finishing second to Tommy Jones, served as motivation and inspiration for Kulick. Johnson went on to claim her own PBA national tour title just a few years after Kulick won hers.
Fast forward to 2023 and there is once again a functioning PWBA Tour where four women (Maria José Rodriguez, Lindsay Boomershine, Jordan Richard and Bryanna Coté) earned more than $89K during the 12-event season. That’s not exactly chump change for a four-month-a-year part-time job, but there are still some who either feel that this is not enough, that the tour will never be sustainable without some form of help or subsidization by the bowling industry, or that the PWBA had its chance and should make way for other, more worthy endeavors.
The problem with this thinking is that by letting evolution take its course, it limits what young women and girls can aspire to be. That premise is what the Barbie doll was meant to represent — a woman who can do anything — including being a doctor, a lawyer, the President of the United States, or even a bowling champion. Believe it or not, I actually have an unboxed “Bowling Champ Barbie” circa 1999 sitting on a shelf in my office as a reminder of this.
When thought about in this way, you start to realize that every profession, culture, community or club — whether frequented by women, men or both — is its own Barbie-land that is fighting for the world’s respect and consideration. That is why it is so important that the bowling community continues to support the Barbie-land of the PWBA (and the PBA, for that matter), because it gives the world one more place where childhood dreams can come true.