While I didn’t intend to write a blog post reflecting on a lighthearted film about the American doll so many people love to hate, I am stirred by the polarizing responses of friends and their significant others. Spoiler Alert: I’m not holding back. Read ahead at your own risk. This blog post will reveal a potential surprise ending.
How I Came to See Barbie, the Film
My birthday falls at the end of July. It’s usually the hottest part of the summer and also the week when everyone takes a vacation. For this reason, I have never had a birthday party. I imagine it is also for this reason that summer movies premiere toward the end of July. People travel, spend money on entertainment, and hang out with family. This year, I was looking forward to seeing one movie: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. No matter how old Harrison Ford is, I’ll be there to see his latest attempt to lose his fedora. But, with family in town (on vacation), my birthday outing was a last-minute thought to don our dollar store pink leis, headbands, and sunglasses and see Barbie.
I enjoyed the film. I grew up in a generation that called Barbie out for setting unrealistic standards for the female image. I remember hearing that a human with Barbie’s proportions couldn’t even walk properly. So, I went into the movie expecting it to be more of a commentary about female expectations of the world and their role. I was mostly in it for entertainment reasons. I was pleasantly surprised to find the story well thought out and cleverly crafted to portray a world dominated by women and female empowerment. I did not view Barbie World as a model for the Real World to follow; instead, it was a full display of female potential to encourage empowerment at all levels of society.
How Ken was sidelined accurately reflected the Ken doll in the Real World. I never owned Barbie dolls, but occasionally a friend would share her collection, and rarely might there be a Ken doll. Even so, there was usually only one Ken to a mountain of Barbies. The Kens in Barbie World vastly outnumbered their Real World counterparts. In the Real World, Ken was like a king with his harem. In Barbie World, Ken spent each day waiting to be seen by his girlfriend, Barbie.
Rage Against Patriarchy in the Film
One of the loudest complaints against Barbie is its anti-Patriarchy message. The film confronts male dominance in the Real World, calling out ‘patriarchy’ for making it impossible for women to live up to what is expected of them, much less to achieve individual dreams. This point is made very clear (if not a bit preachy) when America Ferrara’s character gives a speech to snap all the Barbies out of their brainwashed state.
Ken is the spokesperson for powerlessness and futility in Barbie World, but he gets a taste of respect and honor in the Real World. In his whirlwind visit that lasts less than a day, he quickly attributes his male ego stroke to two things: the patriarchy and horses. He brings these two ideas back to Barbie World and uses his newfound philosophy to brainwash Barbies into serving the Kens.
Marginalization in the Film
If Barbie represented a first-world power in Barbie World, and Ken was second, then the third-world denizens of Barbie World were the marginalized dolls who failed to reach a market and were discontinued. This included Pregnant Midge (1963), Allan (1964), Earring Magic Ken (1993), Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken (2009), Video Girl Barbie (2010), and Growing Up Skipper (1964/1975).
The spiritual guide and guru of Barbie World was Weird Barbie, portrayed by Kate McKinnon. Weird Barbie was the Barbie who had essentially been redesigned by her owner due to excessive rough play. She lived like a prophetess on the outskirts of town and interpreted Barbie’s existential crisis.
The discontinued Barbie World toys were unique and individual, virtual outcasts. Unlike the Kens, they had a sense of self-identity and had no problem living among the Barbies. Of course, they had neither the numbers nor the status to engage in the conflict on their own behalf. But the story is about Stereotypical Barbie.
I still haven’t given away the ending. Read ahead at your own risk.
Barbie World, A. K. A. The Garden of Eden
Barbie World provided a perfect day every day. Barbie had everything she needed and wanted. She even had Ken, who she didn’t need or want. Barbie World is perfect because it is without unexpected conflict or lack of resources. There is nothing new or created. No children (or childbirth). No creative expression of design. Simply perfection and beauty. Barbie World was a veritable Garden of Eden.
Barbie was envisioned and created by Ruth Mosko Handler in the Real World. Mattel is the supernatural power that maintains and polices the bridge between Barbie World and the Real World. Ruth and the Mattel executives make up a divine council. They are creators, life givers, and overseers of Barbie’s perfect world.
Barbie was created in a woman’s image. She was made for imaginative play by girls who aspire to become something more than Mother. Barbie was in the image of a woman, and she inspired women. She could be beautiful and intelligent. She could pursue a successful career in any field. Barbie had the agency to live her perfect day until onset of an identity crisis tempted her to think about something new—death.
Barbie’s quest to reconcile her crisis leads us all to the end of the film, where Barbie makes a choice similar to the one made by the first woman in Genesis 3. She exchanges her perfect life for a flawed one, an eternal life of bliss for a life of age and death. Barbie’s journey introduced her to the life of her creators. With this knowledge, she was not satisfied with life as merely an image of her creator. She sought to become a creator herself. In this way, Barbie gives us insight into our own humanity. What does it mean to be made in the image of our Creator?
In Our Image
Imago Dei is a theological phrase used to describe the relationship between the Creator God and human creation. It is Latin for “Image of God” and originates in the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs only twice, in Genesis 1.27 and Genesis 9.6, from the Hebrew phrase צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (image of Elohim).
So Elohim created the mortal in his image,Genesis 1.27 (my translation)
in the image of Elohim, he created them;
male and female he created them.
An image is thought to be more than a likeness. It is a replica with powers of representation. The Hebrew word for image, צֶ֥לֶם, only occurs thirteen times in the Bible. Three refer to mortals created in the divine image (Genesis 1.26, 1.27, & 9.6). One refers to a son born in the image of his father (Genesis 5.3). The rest refer to foreign enemies or enemy deities. An image is a thing created. Humans are created in the image of God. Humans create other images. Barbie is imago hominis, the image of humans. In her quest to become “a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made,” Barbie says. “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea.” She considers eventual death an acceptable tradeoff. While we do not have the agency to make the kind of choice Barbie made, we may find representation through Barbie’s choices.
Barbie’s conversation with Ruth, her creator, could be compared with Eve’s curiosity in Genesis 3, where she ponders the meaning of God’s command to avoid eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in a conversation with a serpent. Is Ruth acting the part of God or the Serpent to Barbie’s Eve? God and the Serpent are one in this analogy. Ruth offers no command against Barbie’s desire, nor does Barbie need her creator’s blessing. Barbie is granted full agency to make whichever decision. The one caveat? The consequences are permanent.
Unlike Eve, Barbie is gifted with a vision of what her life will contain in the Real World. She is made aware of death. Still, Barbie chooses the more fulfilling life of a creator, knowing that part of becoming a creator means living a finite life.
Aging with Grace
Barbie’s choice may seem odd to many women who might like to exchange mortality for Barbie’s female figure and her luxurious lifestyle. But perhaps we can learn something from Barbie. She had it all and chose to live our life, flat feet, cellulite, and all. One scene stands out to me when I recall the movie. The first woman Barbie encounters one-on-one in the Real World is an elderly woman seated at a bus stop. Barbie stares at her, “you are beautiful,” she says. The woman replies, “I know.” A short time after this, Barbie is reprimanded by teenage girls for setting unrealistic standards, making them feel bad about themselves.
Before watching this movie, I could sum up my thoughts about Barbie the same way as those teenage girls. Barbie is an unrealistic representation of what it is to be a woman. However, in the movie, I saw a beautiful woman feel ugly in the face of powerlessness and then trade her power for a life of greater significance. Barbie did not try to sell me on a perfect life, or a life without pain or suffering. Barbie taught me that even if I had the ideal of perfection, I would crave mortality.
Barbie left me thinking about mortality and human agency. Death is fundamental to life. The mortal existence includes a powerful capacity to dream, imagine, and create. The expense of which is aging and death. Barbie ate from the Tree of Knowledge and gained mortality, just like a human.