Barbie is big. Its $150 million marketing campaign was more than was spent on the film itself, as the makers decided early on that they wanted it to make an impact. One of the most surprising takeaways from this film (alongside questions about gender roles, stereotypes, struggles and what it means to be men and women) has been its position on mortality.
We don’t really talk about death very much. When you google “talking about death”, most of the results point towards why we should be having these conversations, convincing people of the need to discuss it – presumably indicating that nobody is or feels they should.
And yet, a friend shared with me that her colleagues confessed that watching Barbie “made me scared of death”. So with this in mind, I sat down to explore what Barbie has to say on mortality with Becky Lui, Dean of Residents at Macquarie University’s Robert Menzies College and an evangelism coach with Evangelism and New Churches. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet and wants to, be aware that there are major spoilers ahead.
Barbie’s mortality and the search for meaning
“One of the main themes I haven’t heard people discuss as much is death,” says Mrs Lui, who has observed the film’s impact on the students she cares for and people around her.
“The driving predicament of the movie begins when Barbie has irrepressible thoughts of death, which lead to her having problems in Barbieland,” Mrs Lui says. “She discovers that this is because her human counterpart in the Real World is having these thoughts, so she sets out on a quest (and Ken tags along) to make things right for her human.
“The context of the movie and the contrasting ways Barbieland and the Real World are presented provide a lot of social commentary around gender roles, patriarchy, feminism, etc but I think at the end of the day, the main problem that needs to be solved is the problem of death.”
Mrs Lui observes that repressing thoughts of death is what most people do every day to function, yet the issue of death leads people to ask questions about mortality and the search for meaning. “The movie’s third act is quite chaotic because if you start with the problem of death, you need to solve it,” she says.
In the final act, Barbie faces an identity crisis. Barbieland is reclaimed, equality has been promised to the Kens, the humans return to their world but what becomes of Barbie? “Barbie wants to become a human. She wants to live, she wants to create, her life will have meaning, and pain and joy, but she will ultimately die and she decides it’s worth it. So the problem of death is resolved the way a lot of other movies resolve it. Which is, to not resolve it. It is to accept it, because living is worth it, even if it means dying. But in the gospel, we actually have a solution to the problem of death.”
One of the reasons that Barbie is making a stir is because of the social commentary on what it means to be men and women in the society that we live in together. “One of the things I actually enjoyed was that the presentation was nuanced, there are social problems but the solution isn’t to replace patriarchy with matriarchy – we need something better than that, which involves men and women being equal but the film wasn’t prescriptive in the exact structures that we need,” Mrs Lui says. “I took it as a call that men and women need to work on it together and I believe the Bible provides foundations for a better vision.”
"A phrase that is likely to enter mainstream conversation is “I am Kenough” which is one of the solutions that the movie puts forward to the struggles of being a woman (or a man). For Christians, this is probably the message that we should disagree with the most. The gospel message tells us that we are not enough, and we do not have to be enough, for God. Jesus Christ coming into the world and dying for our sins and our failings displays to us just how much we are not enough. Instead we can say to ourselves: “I am known and I am loved. Christ is enough.”
Three ways we can use Barbie in discussions
“The problems Barbie is raising are real, and we need to engage,” says Mrs Lui, who recognises that the film provides an opportunity to listen to the pain people are feeling. “Barbie was a fairly nuanced presentation of the problems as well as critiquing some of the other solutions on offer (i.e. matriarchy). The danger is assuming that Barbie has a message that it isn’t saying. It’s helpful to listen to the anguish that so many women and men in our society are feeling. The point is to listen.”
Be part of the conversation
“I think Barbie is a good conversation partner, because the ending is open,” Mrs Lui says. “There is this vision and desire of men and women to have a society where they are equal in value, worth, dignity. The question is how do they do that? It’s inviting a response.
“There is a bit at the beginning where Ken wants to spend time with Barbie, but every night is girls’ night. When the patriarchy comes in, Ken says, ‘Every night is boys’ night’, and in this reversal you see that this is not a solution, because he still doesn’t get to spend time with Barbie and it is poignantly sad. Hurting each other is not the answer, and that’s a powerful message worth considering. Christians have the tools to engage with this.”
Reflect on your own response
Barbie will evoke a number of responses from its viewers, whether that’s delight and laughter, tears and feeling seen, or discomfort and frustration. “It’s helpful to explore what we are feeling and why we feel this strongly after watching Barbie,” Mrs Lui says. “The speech by Gloria [the human mother] is very emotional. What makes people feel uncomfortable? Why do men feel uncomfortable watching it? Exploring the discomfort and recognising the message is “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be” is also uncomfortable. Explore the feelings. If men feel uncomfortable and if women feel emotional, what resonates?
“When I cried at Gloria’s speech, not all of that speech reflected my personal experience. I haven’t felt all of those things. But I felt the collective pain of my sisters around me. I’ve seen women struggle with all of those things, even if I haven’t myself. How does the movie speak to that? What does the movie offer for solutions? What biblical answers do we have, and are they the same or different?
“As we connect with people, we want to invite them along to meet Jesus, where we find our worth. There is always going to be common grace and special revelation. Barbie is very strong in common grace wisdom. Greta Gerwig’s insight into presenting the problem in all its nuance – the goodness of men and women but they’re not functioning together, the goodness of humanity but they’re not functioning together – is so insightful, but it’s missing the special revelation of how Jesus can redeem and change hearts, and change societies.”
Header image sourced from Warner Bros Pictures