By Rev. Allie McDougall
Love her or hate her, the Barbie doll has been a staple of popular culture since her invention in 1959.
Although the popularity of Barbie has waned in recent decades, there exists enough brand recognition and nostalgia for generations of women for the newly released “Barbie”, directed by Greta Gerwig, to be a smash hit. It is currently on track to make $1 billion at the box office and has been hailed as a critical darling.
I myself have seen it twice, the first for the purposes of this column and the second because I found myself delighted by its depth, nuance, and theological potential. We must be honest, this film is undoubtedly a 2-hour commercial for Mattel products, but it is also a thoughtful meditation on womanhood, the successes and failures of feminism, masculinity, capitalism, motherhood, and even existence itself. What was thought to be a fun, fizzy popcorn movie about North America’s favourite girl-boss doll is catching audiences off-guard with its exploration about what it means to be alive, embodied, and fulfilled. Two things can be true at once!
Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” gets a taste for the struggles and challenges of womanhood through the lens of Gloria, a disenchanted and depressed working mom who has been playing with her adolescent daughter’s dolls. Barbie gets a taste of existential dread, self-loathing, and yearning that are incompatible with the plastic perfection of Barbieland. In the process of learning how strange and difficult human existence is, Barbie also learns how enriching and beautiful life can be when people (women especially) are not constrained by stereotyping or pressure to conform to an impossible standard.
Barbie’s journey leads her back to her creator – quite literally. In the third act, the spirit of Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie dolls takes a prominent role in the transformation from doll to human and the two share the moment in which Barbie takes on humanity as mother and daughter, Creator and creation.
The scene evokes Martin Buber’s I-Thou dynamic when Barbie declares to Ruth that she no longer desires to be the idea, but the one who does the imagining. The transformation from object to subject is ultimately what grants her humanity. Atop this realization, popstar Billie Eilish sings “What Was I Made For?”, written specifically for the film’s soundtrack. The poignancy of this climactic scene has been catching viewers off-guard with its symbolic power, this writer included.
The wild success of the film indicates that the deeper themes of “Barbie” are striking a chord within this cultural and existential moment. Greta Gerwig, the director and co-writer of the film, has openly discussed the Christian and philosophical influences on the script, which was completed at the height of the pandemic. Barbie, as a product, has long been a canvas for girls and women to project their hopes and aspirations onto.
The product’s current tagline is “You can be anything!”. In Barbie, we have the ideal vehicle for exploring the alienation and disorientation the accompanies modern living and Gerwig expertly plumbs the depths of possibility in the film. Entrapped by the impossible paradoxes of womanhood but enchanted by the range and beauty of an imperfect life, Barbie’s existential crisis is a mirror into our own grappling with meaning-making and identity.
The resonance of “Barbie” within the culture illustrates and exposes for the Church just what the spiritual yearnings of the day are. People are struggling to differentiate themselves outside of the constraints of gender roles and the standards of success and perfection dictated by capitalist patriarchy. They are seeking to connect with and gain the approval of their Creator, whether they acknowledge that Creator to be God or not. They are struggling to embrace and define identities for themselves that are nuanced and authentic to the human experience. The Church has the theological and spiritual resources to help people address the themes exposed by “Barbie”, which is perhaps the most surprising entry point for us into the world of secular pop culture. The phenomenon that is “Barbie” offers an opportunity to open a conversation in our families and communities about existence, meaning, and identity. To quote Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”: come on Barbie, let’s go party.
Rev. Allie McDougall is the Curate at St. Paul’s and St. James', Stratford.