Despite having three daughters, I can’t say I ever expected to discuss the theological implications of a movie based on Barbie dolls. And yet, Barbie is dominating headlines, not only for bringing in a whopping 155 million dollars on its opening weekend, but also for garnering thought-pieces on the deeper meaning of its plot and for its cultural implications about the identity and value of women. A Vox article, for example, compared its plot to the biblical account of the Garden of Eden, with a primal couple living in a paradise before newly discovered knowledge about good and evil taints the world with corruption.
Whether or not director Greta Gerwig intended that particular angle, her “Barbie” not only engages with contemporary discussions about feminism but also the biggest of worldview questions, such as “What’s the meaning of life?” “What has gone wrong with the world?” and, “What will fix the world?” In the process, Barbie tells a story of the world that, beneath its shiny colors and self-aware snark, more closely reflects the tenets of postmodernism than the truths of Scripture.
In Barbieland, the meaning and purpose of life is to be happy, and happiness means a woman-run society of libertine freedom and unhindered expression. Lines repeated throughout the film include “Barbie is every woman, and every woman is Barbie,” and “Barbies can be anything, so women can be anything.” In this view, to be empowered is to be free of restraint and responsibility. Something that is also communicated in its view of motherhood.
Both Christian reflection and common sense betray what’s wrong with this subjective view of happiness. If happiness is what life is all about, and our experiences of happiness swing on such an extreme pendulum of circumstance, freedom, and expression, how can anyone be happy for long? True happiness, as C.S. Lewis taught, is a byproduct of a life well lived, rather than the goal. Happiness requires that we are connected to something larger than ourselves, ultimately God. We belong to the One who made us for Himself, and, in Him, we find true joy.
Barbie’s answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” is, well, men. When she is cast into the “real world,” she discovers that its brokenness is due to the actions and attitudes of men, primarily against women. As one character proclaims, “We can only agree on one thing. We all hate women. Men hate women, and women hate women.”
This is both an astute observation and an odd complaint in a society unable or, more accurately, unwilling, to say what a woman is (other than as a “non-man”). In the world of this movie, every man is both oppressive and oblivious. Barbie can outsmart them all while Ken only “slows her down” and “gets into trouble.” Rather than accept the female-ruling class of Barbieland, Ken longs to emulate the powers of middle-aged white men in the “real world.” So, he introduces his own brave new world, “Kendom.”
But in the world of Kendom, the ultimate obstacle to happiness and freedom is men. They are not good. Women are. This is, of course, the same framing of reality that shaped second- and third- wave feminism.
In the biblical account, sin is disobedience and the longing for autonomy. What’s wrong with the world is the conflict, pain, and death that resulted. Sin has infected the world ever since and has turned the sexes against one another. Men have screwed up the world. So have women. Both were created good by God. Both are not good because of sin.
In the film, Barbieland is fixed by expelling the patriarchy. Barbie calls on one of the “real” women from the “real” world to preach the gospel of oppression to brainwashed Barbies. The unthinking Kens turn against themselves. The Barbies are given a Barbie-fied version of Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique: Women are victims of oppression and can never win. They are even victims of their own bodies, shaped as they are by the design of motherhood. On this point, the movie is not subtle. In a scene from the film’s first two minutes, young girls, bored with their baby dolls, smash them on the ground until their heads explode. A pregnant Barbie is also hinted at as being “creepy” and is discontinued.
In the end, Barbieland is made new, restored to the paradisical, women-run society it once was. The Kens “find themselves” too, but apart from Barbie. In other words, men and women were not made for each other.
Or were they? Much of the film’s discussion has to do with the final scene, in which Barbie chooses to not live in the restored Barbieland utopia, but in the real world of humanity instead. As such, there’s a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the reality of human bodies, especially the female body. It’s not clear if Gerwig intended this final scene as a sort of undermining of the subjective portrayal of Barbieland. What is clear, whether she intended it or not, is that this is a world of objective realities, and the answers to life’s biggest questions can only be found by first acknowledging that.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Michaela Estruth. If you’re a fan of Breakpoint, leave a review on your favorite podcast app. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
Have a Follow-up Question?
ListenAll Audio Breakpoint: Podcast Breakpoint This Week: John Stonestreet The Point: 60 Seconds Find BP on the Radio
© Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.