Spoiler alert: This is a reflection, not a review - it contains spoilers.

A few days ago I saw Barbie. If I’d gone from the trailer alone, Barbie is not a movie that I’d have felt much urge to see. I’m a middle-aged man, who had a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing, and I can’t remember ever playing with barbies; they hold no nostalgic value for me. I can’t remember my sister playing with them either - my guess is that Barbie was seen as outdated and unfeminist, even in the 80s. We were more of a Lego household.

Yet Barbie has become one of those ‘zeitgeist’ movies - everyone is talking about it. So when it was set as the week’s reading for an excellent course I’m taking on Pop Culture and Theology, taught by Dr Janice McRandal of The Cooperative in Brisbane, I was eager to go and see it.

It didn’t take long for the purpose of the assignment to be clear: Barbie is clearly in dialogue with the Biblical tradition – and with the last fifty years or so of feminist theology. It offers us a fascinating exploration of personhood, in all its messy complexity – and it does so by engaging with narratives and tropes that find their origin in the Biblical text.

Barbie starts out with a fun, obvious reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey: this is amusing and functions well to wake the audience up. More importantly, it acts as a primer; it almost shouts to the viewer “this film is going to be packed full of references - if you want to enjoy it, pay attention!”

The film then launches into expository world-building. We’re introduced to Barbieland, populated by the Barbies (packed with main character energy) and the auxiliary, secondary Kens. The whole place has a feeling of unreality: its various inhabitants are plastic, and false; happy but joyless, nice but not kind, entombed in an unobserved monotony. Barbie and Ken, in their various instantiations, exist as the players in this strange and awful faux-utopia, but don’t seem able to observe or reflect upon that existence.

They look like people, they move around, they act like people, but they’re hollowed out and unreal – they lack agency, they lack creativity, they lack personhood.

So God created humans in his image… (Genesis 1:27a)

As we shall see, what personhood is, and the ways that it can be alternately embraced and infringed upon, is the central concern of this film. Hopefully, my fellow Christians reading this reflection will see a commonality with a central understanding of our faith. After all, we confess that humanity is made in the image of God, a God who loves each of us, equally and totally, a God who calls us by name and seeks us out. A God in whom personhood finds its origin. A God who came among us, born as the fully human, fully divine, Jesus of Nazareth.

Reflecting upon personhood, critically and prayerfully, bringing together scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and so coming to understand how it can be both upheld, and trodden underfoot, is Christian business.

Adam and Eve

That Barbieland, with its Barbies and Kens, is a reflection upon the God, Eve and Adam narrative of Genesis 2:4b-3:24 is by no means an original observation. Vox quotes Greta Gerwig, the director and co-writer of the film, stating that she intentionally riffed upon the well-known text: “Barbie was invented first,” she said. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”

The dominant reading of the story of God, Eve and Adam has long been problematised by feminist theologians, such as Phyllis Trible1 and Lyn M. Bechtel.2 Bechtel summarises that reading:

Most, and in particular Christian, interpretations of the story are variations on the ‘sin and fall’ of humanity theme, where the human and woman are created immortal and placed in a paradise. Because they are disobedient and commit the first sin (they overstep the bounds of creatureliness), they fall and are expelled from ‘paradise’, punished with pain and mortality, and life goes from being completely good in paradise to completely evil in a fallen world radically changed by their sin. (p.77)

As in the pervasive reading of the Biblical text that it riffs upon, Barbie’s plot finds traction at a particular moment of change. In its telling, the pivot point is not a moment of sin, of turning away from the Divine, but rather the in-breaking of another kind of transformation, for one Barbie and one Ken: “Stereotypical Barbie” (Margot Robbie), and “Beach Ken” (Ryan Gosling).

Stereotypical Barbie gradually becomes aware of death, the pressure of this growing fixation bursting forth as a question shouted at a party: “Do you ever think about dying?”

The horrified silence that she is greeted with is her answer: nobody else does. Barbie’s new awareness of and fascination with death references the consequence of eating the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” described in Genesis 2:17. The newly existential Barbie starts to become less plastic, more fleshy – more human. Her feet, her skin, and her behaviour no longer manifest an unrealistic, inhuman ‘perfection.’

Beach Ken also comes to a new self-awareness: he realises that he is unhappy. The character is looking for progression and change in a static, shrink-wrapped ‘utopia.’ He is suddenly aware that each day is just like the last, and finds that he is discontented.

The response of these two characters to their new discomfort with their lives puts the plot into motion.

As they start to reflect upon their world, that world and their reality changes, rapidly becoming less cosy and more real. The parallel with Bechtel’s reading of the text is uncanny: so uncanny that I wonder whether Gerwig was aware of it. Bechtel reads Genesis 2:4b-3.24 as a tale of childhood giving way to adolescence and then adulthood. For Bechtel, Genesis 2.4b-3.24 is a theological reflection upon a rite of passage that is almost universal to the human experience. For most of us, childhood ends, the protection and insulation of family fades away, and a messy adulthood begins - so it is for Eve and for Adam.

The Strange Woman

Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon

Stereotypical Barbie is now seen as malfunctioning by both herself and her peers. She is told that this has happened before, and that the accepted remedy is to go and visit with someone at the edge of the society, shunned but somehow powerful: “Weird Barbie.”

Weird Barbie references and plays upon the trope of the ‘Strange Woman’, which finds its origin in the eponymous character of Proverbs 1-9. Carol A. Newsom describes this trope and identifies its use in popular culture in a 1989 book chapter,3 reflecting upon a rather stark example of the trope in the movie Fatal Attraction. As a type, the ‘Strange Woman’ has an agency of speech and sexuality which runs counter to expected societal gender norms; she is therefore typically portrayed as a figure of danger, imperilling male agency and male domination, and posing a particular risk to males who are in the adolescent stage.

Weird Barbie lives in a strange house, whose walls stand at odd angles, bedazzled with whorls of colour. She herself is a ‘painted woman’, having seemingly drawn upon herself and her clothing; her hair stands up in a punkish, rebellious mess. Barbieland is devoid of embodied sexuality, yet Weird Barbie is still an outsider: she sees, she reflects, she makes plans, she seeks and observes change, and so she is weird, strange.

It’s an interesting comment upon the figure of Proverbs that it is Weird Barbie who holds the knowledge of the path that Stereotypical Barbie must embark upon, and who pushes her to take it. She sends Barbie off on ‘paths that are crooked’, and she’s even ‘devious’ in how she does this (Proverbs 2:15), but the crooked path is what Barbie (and Ken) need.

As the Strange Woman would, Weird Barbie intervenes in the nascent adolescence of Stereotypical Barbie: but in a positive way, encouraging her to embrace change, and to reflect on her experience. We see here, perhaps, the difficulty of discerning the bounds of the prophetic: and how any society with hierarchical structures will push those that challenge its apparatus of power to the margins.

And so, Barbie departs from Barbieland, and enters into the ‘real world’ of the film: Los Angeles, in the contemporary United States. Unbeknownst to her, she brings with her a stowaway: Ken.

Entering into a strange reality

Arriving in the real world, we see Barbie and Ken struggle through a fish out of water experience. For the first time they experience patriarchy, they witness the effects of scarcity and poverty, and they react to these in distinct ways. Both engage with the real world with an unsurprising naivete.

Is this the real world, though, that they have arrived at?

I’ve read quite a few articles on Barbie, and I find it fascinating that scant attention is given to Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). Their narrative arc is essential to the film: Gloria and her daughter develop in a way that parallels the development of Stereotypical Barbie, taking the message of the film and firmly applying it in a critique of Western society.

Gloria holds an administrative position at Mattel: she’s clearly bored and unfulfilled. She’s subject to disrespect at the hands of the patriarchy: boxed in by a role in a corporate culture that denies her full personhood, imprisoned by economic forces, ignored and belittled by the men to whom that same culture grants a near monopoly on freedom, agency, and authority.

It is her artistic expression – her rebellious reflection upon her situation – that somehow, numinously connects with Stereotypical Barbie. Barbie and Gloria come into a reciprocal relationship, both coming to realise their situation, each grasping for a fuller life, each trapped in unrealities that are eerily similar.

Once again, the film makes canny use of architecture to make its point. Each Mattel employee works in a cubical: distinct, hard edged, taking unbounded space and breaking it up into scarce, scanty, beehive-like cells. These boxes are placed far apart, speaking of a desire to prevent genuine, human relationship between employees. These people are doomed to be cogs in a machine, worker drones – their personhood has been infringed, minimised, denied.

And so the movie sets up two reciprocating groups: the Barbies (and Kens), products of a productised world, and those who live in, and who are captured and damaged by, the ‘real’ world – a confining, dehumanising modernity.

Gloria and her daughter aren’t obsessed with death: they’re starting to realise that they’re not, even in their ‘real’ world, living life.

All together now

In the film’s final act, we see Beach Ken import patriarchy into Barbieland, eventually counteracted by the intervention of Stereotypical Barbie. The message here seems to be that the power structures of any society need to be self-critical, and in particular, open to critique from below: in this case, from the Kens. I worry that this comes too close to endorsing the ’not all men’ argument, somewhat negating the feminist content of the film by suggesting that there are always two equal sides to the issues of contemporary society. Our society does of course face myriad intersecting issues: but posturing as the underdog has long been a favoured tactic of those who seek to dominate.

However, not all is lost. Like any good work of theological reflection, Barbie doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. This film leaves its viewers with their own work - their own reflection - to do.

At its conclusion, Barbieland, its occupants, and the male concerns of the Kens fade away, centring the fate of Stereotypical Barbie.

In dialogue with the ghost of her own creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), Barbie states her intention for the future: she wants to be ‘part of those who make meaning, not the meaning they make.’ A creature, in dialogue with her creator, stating that she will commit her life to finding meaning in the world: perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Barbie, now adopting the name Barbara Handler, is beginning to embrace a calling to be a theologian, or, near-to-best, a philosopher.

And so, as the film’s last line so clearly tells us, Barbara Handler embraces a messy, fleshy, embodied life. She begins to live: and eventually, she will die. So it goes.

(You might also enjoy this reflection by Michelle Eastwood, an Australian theologian.)

  1. Trible, Phyllis. “A Love Story Gone Awry.” In God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, by Phyllis Trible, 72–143. Overtures to Biblical Theology 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978. ↩︎

  2. Bechtel, Lyn M. “Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2.4b-3.24.” In A Feminist Companion to Genesis, edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan, 77–117. The Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993. ↩︎

  3. Newsom, Carol A. “Women and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy Lynne Day, 142–60. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989. ↩︎