Updated: Aug 2
When my husband and I visit our shared hometown every summer, we often have a big family night at the theater. My teenage daughter had expressed a nostalgic interest in the Barbie movie and, before I had done any reading, I imagined this could be a fun excursion for the women in the family. Upon making this suggestion, it was my mom who alerted me to the controversy. Based on some very negative reviews, she said the movie opposed her Christian convictions. I was caught in a generational divide between my daughter’s desire and my mom’s caution.
After some research, I realized the Barbie movie was dominating the cultural conversation. Hot pink had taken over radio shows, search engines, and stores. So, we made the decision that the film could open the door to important conversations in our home, church, and with our neighbors. My mom, however, made the opposite call. She stayed home with the younger kids while the rest of the family—women and men—made the pink pilgrimage to the theater.
Barbie opens with a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Little girls are playing with baby dolls, and the voice over (elegantly done by Helen Mirren) notes that before Barbie, with baby dolls as the sole option, the only thing little girls could pretend to be were mothers. Upon her invention, girls’ imaginations were expanded. Thanks to Barbie, girls discovered they could be doctors, lawyers, or even the President. The intro concludes with the statement that Barbie had solved all of women’s problems… at least that is what the Barbies think.
The Burdens of Incarnation
The Barbies’ self-obsessed naivety is shattered when Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) enters the real world. After introducing herself to a group of middle school girls, Barbie’s promise of unlimited potential crashes into the reality of imperfect bodies in a world tainted by capitalistic misogyny. To her great shock, Barbie is met with disdain by the girls and not gratitude. Rather than empowering their dreams, Barbie had provoked shame and insecurity. She wasn’t an inspiration. In the words of Sasha, the middle school protagonist, Barbie was a “fascist.”
The tension between Barbie’s pristine self-conception and the painful complexity of being an embodied women in the real world is the centerpiece of the film. America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, gives voice to the strain in a powerful monologue near the end of the film: Women should strive to achieve the success that is now available to them, but never in a way that compromises the culture’s prescribed definition of femininity. The almost full theater was silent at its detonation of this pink glitter truth bomb, except for a few exhales and awed “Wows.” In the vein of Simone de Beauvior, the Barbie movie names the frustration of our age.
In the real world, Barbie also discovers that death, like gender, is an inescapable reality of being an incarnate person. In a conversation with her creator/mother, portrayed by Rhea Perlman, Barbie has mortality explained to her. Mothers stop, Perlman says, so that their daughters can look back and see how far they’ve gone. It’s a beautiful statement that not only disarms accusations that the film is anti-motherhood, it also captures the poignant, deeply sad reality of death.
This theme connects Barbie to the other blockbuster of the weekend, Oppenheimer, a biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb. Both films, despite glaringly different forms, share a foreboding sense of existential dread, a sobering commentary on a pervasive feeling in our age, especially among the younger demographic. If our life, and the life of the next generation, is all we have to live for, we are of all people most to be pitied.
And yet, Barbie makes that choice. She leaves her world of perfection, takes on a real body, including sexual organs, experiences the devolution of the body, and becomes a mortal woman. She does this to experience the deeper beauty of imperfection. It is difficult not to see the parallels to the Christian gospel. Our Lord left perfection for the messiness of humanity, took on sexual organs, experienced the devolution of his body, and tasted death to its bitter and shameful end. Of course, he did not do this for his own knowledge or aesthetic, but for us. Where Barbie can only help its audience accept the reality of death, the gospel offers us an everlasting hope.
Genesis Turned Upside Down
Although Barbie is clearly targeting a female audience, during the movie I found myself wondering if men might also identify with several of the struggles Gloria’s character articulates. That’s a question some strains of feminism—the ones that view advocacy for women as incompatible with any concern for men—simply will not allow. Thankfully, that is not the feminism of the Barbie film. Although some conservative commentators are bashing Barbie as an anti-man movie, that is not my interpretation.
To be fair, the film did miss an opportunity to develop the character of Gloria’s husband and Sasha’s dad, who came off as ignorant. But the most prominent male character, Ken, is highly developed with his own moment of self-realization. In the Barbie world, Ken’s job is to be present and polite, but never particularly helpful. Ken is an accessory; he is not essential. His forced politeness suppresses an ocean of unrequited love and lack of purpose.
Upon entering the real world, however, Ken discovers there are clear advantages to being male. He is not ogled but admired, and staring into the well of history shines back male faces that look a great deal like his own. Drunk on the power and respect previously denied him, he returns to Barbieland to awaken the rest of the Kens to embrace their potential. As the pendulum swings, the Barbies caught under Ken’s spell become just as incidental to his new society as the Kens were in Barbie’s. When the humans discover the change, teenage Sasha proclaims the hopelessness many feel with a statement that articulates the idea that “Men hate women; women hate women, and nothing will ever change.” It is not a figment of my theological imagination to a hear an echo in her words of Genesis 3:16.
Greta Gerwig, the film’s director who majored in English and Philosophy after attending a Catholic high school, acknowledged that she was making an explicit connection to the Genesis narrative. The movie even features a hand touch between Barbie and her creator reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. But Gerwig inverts the Genesis narrative so the woman, Barbie, is created first with an explicit purpose. The man, Ken, is created later merely to accessorize her story. Ken knows his place and opens Barbie’s eyes to her privilege. When she encourages him to find his own purpose, he corrects her: “There is no Ken without Barbie.”
This is the theological genius of the film. The inverted world of Barbieland exposes a sadly common misinterpretation of Eve in Genesis 2:18. She is merely Adam’s “helper,” ancillary to the purpose he was given by God to keep the garden. The man is the priest-king of creation, and the women is his aid. In this interpretation, it would be ludicrous to have an Eve without an Adam, just as it is unthinkable to have Ken without Barbie.
When women are viewed as the daughters of an unnecessary Eve, they struggle to find their own purpose and meaning disconnected from men. They struggle to know what it looks like to take up their own cross in answer to Jesus’ call—a call given to all disciples, not just the male ones. The universal invitation of our Lord exposes this popular reading of Genesis as a false one, awakening us to the fact that the more faithful interpretation was always there, for those with eyes unclouded by patriarchy to see it. Adam could never achieve his purpose, to steward creation, without Eve. God’s proclamation of the man’s “not goodness” follows immediately after God’s articulation of his vocation (Genesis 2:15–18). The narrative is designed to emphasize the impossibility of the man fulfilling his purpose without the woman. Far from diminishing Eve, Genesis is elevating her!
In alignment with a mutualist reading of Genesis, the film also presents both patriarchal and matriarchal worlds as unpalatable. Barbieland with aimless Kens is unjust, but so is Kendom with subservient Barbies. The movie, which is a summer blockbuster after all, ends on a hopeful note that Barbieland will become a world in which both women and men find individual purpose and healthy partnership.
But what about our world? Sasha’s exasperated statement of mutual hate between the genders, and Gloria’s articulation of women’s double bind reverberates even at the end of the movie. Hope for mutuality, it seems, might best be left for the dreamworld. Like the film’s discussion of death, Barbie expresses the challenging reality of sexism without offering an enduring hope.
Again, this is where the Christian message finds its opportunity. Christians are as guilty as anyone for failing to achieve the ideal of mutuality between the sexes, but it is our sacred texts that lay out the ideal with unmatched depth and beauty. What Barbie and Ken wished for is a description of the Christian church, where all people find their identity, worth, and purpose in Jesus Christ, and where men and women cannot relegate one another to the margins because both are necessary for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth (1 Corinthians 11:11).
Moviegoers might have been driven to Barbie by nostalgia, or controversy, or simply to participate in the cultural zeitgeist. And I certainly don’t think every Christian must see the film. I respect those, like my mom, who’ve chosen not to contribute their time and money to this pink summer blockbuster. But since seeing the film, I’ve had several good (and difficult) talks with both my mom and my daughter about its themes. I suspect that’s true for millions of people trying to navigate the tensions in our world between feminism and patriarchy, between men and women.
I hope Christians who do see the movie will engage these conversations. Our culture is struggling with questions about power, gender, purpose, and death. Barbie raises these questions brilliantly, but believers can point to the One who ultimately answers them: the Triune God who created all humans with purpose and for partnership. Only Jesus Christ, as creator and incarnate redeemer, can tell each of us who we really are, what we are for, and that we are profoundly loved.
UPDATE - Kaitlyn Schiess sat down with Amy to discuss the Barbie movie and her article. Subscribe to Holy Post Plus to watch the interview now! https://www.patreon.com/posts/bonus-interview-87033946?utm_medium=clipboard_copy&utm_source=copyLink&utm_campaign=postshare_creator&utm_content=join_link
Amy Peeler is Professor of New Testament and the Kenneth T. Wessner Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College. She also serves as associate rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Geneva, Illinois, and is a pundit for The Holy Post. She is the author of Women and the Gender of God.