Greta Gerwig’s new film, Barbie, has been criticized, probably rightly, for having too many ideas and layers to properly bring in any for a landing. Gerwig herself thought the script was so “wild and anarchic” that she was surprised WB agreed to make it. Many see it as yet another feminist screed against the patriarchy, another entry into an endless parade of stories about repressed women who need to girl-boss their way through the patriarchy into self-actualization. And it is precisely because there is no one concrete through-line that so many viewers saw just that, or some variation of it. But I would contend that, despite the explicitly feminist frame of Barbie, Gerwig has offered us a refreshing departure from the standard girlboss fare and made an essentially conservative point: that the path out of our sexual disorientation is to embrace our design, givenness, and time-boundedness.
In Barbie Land, women run everything. All work, meaningful and menial, is Barbie work, and every night is girls’ night. The Kens are accessories, existing only to be pretty and smile and wave, happy only when the Barbies smiles back. Every doll in Barbie Land has a Real World little girl owner, whose actions and emotions in the Real World can influence their Barbie back in Barbie Land. “Weird Barbie”—with singed and chopped hair, marker-stained face, and permanently in the splits—was played with too hard by her Real World owner.
Our Barbie, Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, has lived an uneventful Barbie life of sparkles and parties, when her life takes an unexpected turn: her feet go flat, a spot of cellulite forms, and she is having thoughts of dying. To stop herself from malfunctioning, she must travel to the Real World to find and cheer up her owner. A vision of a little girl playing Barbies with her mother guides her to a middle school, and to the little girl, Sasha, now a glum teen. She expects to be welcomed with open-arms for being the little girl’s Barbie come-to-life, and for empowering little girls everywhere, but Sasha rebuffs her with the truth: Barbie is responsible for setting unrealistic standards for feminine beauty, for destroying girls’ innate sense of worth, and for fueling sexualized capitalism (the irony of Barbie being produced by Mattel is not lost on Gerwig, who takes every opportunity to poke fun at the corporate men running the company).
Heartbroken and confused, Barbie wanders away. In time, Barbie discovers that it is not the little girl whose sadness has disrupted her perfect Barbie world “with her thoughts and emotions and humanness.” In a second vision of the mother and Sasha, our perspective shifts and we realize that the sadness and heartache did not come from the girl at all, but from her mother, Gloria. Gloria’s girlish dreams have given way to the dull grind of middle aged reality. Her beloved daughter, now a glum tween, pulls away from her mother’s embraces. In her loneliness and heartache, Gloria has been sketching ideas for dark Barbies that reflect her current state: anxiety Barbie, cellulite Barbie, and irrepressible thoughts of death Barbie. Unable to be like Barbie, Gloria has made Barbie to be like her.
Gloria’s speech at the climax of the movie names the impossible position of women under the patriarchy: women must be powerful but also unintimidating, sexy but also serious, intelligent but never critical, an attentive mother but also a powerful career-woman. Society then punishes women for not living up to the standard. The doll that was created to free little girls to dream of being anything they wanted to be, ended up just giving women more ways to fail, more ways to be commoditized. In the throes of Barbie’s existential crisis she cries, “I can’t do brain surgery, I’ve never flown a plane, I’m not the President.” Even a doll cannot live up to the pressure of infinite actualization. I am skeptical of the way Gerwig is using “patriarchy” (I think modern liberal society would suffice); after all, some have pointed out that men feel many of the same pressures. But Gerwig wants us to fully enter into the problem as it really is, and not how we imagine it. It’s a problem we probably can’t solve, but we can ease the tension by naming it.
With nothing but endless possibilities and a plastic, sterile body, Barbie could not give women anything real to ground to, or to order their womanhood toward. In Barbie Land, there are no seasons, no Lent or Easter, no death and rebirth, just “the best day ever, just like yesterday, and tomorrow, and every day forever.” Absent change, seasons, the movement toward death and rebirth, there can be no real joy. Dolls can laugh but never weep, and without tears there is no joy.
Gerwig also deserves credit for not conflating adult maturity with the idea of “making your own meaning.” Her call to women to leave behind dollhood and girlish dreams is a call to givenness, community, sisterhood, and time-boundedness.
At the end of the movie, Barbie has put off the unreality of dollhood, but she knows there is more. Who is she, if not an object, a product? Barbie comes face to face with her creator (real life Barbie inventor, Ruth Handler) and tells her that she wants more than to be an idea, more than a thing made. She has already received her personality and appearance from her Creator, but now she wants to be a creator. She wants to be one of the people who do the imagining.
Ruth responds that before she takes the step of becoming human, she needs to show her what it really means. Barbie closes her eyes for a final vision, a montage (complete with Billie Eilish’s song, “What Was I Made For”) of mothers, daughters, and sisters; around the table, playing, being silly, celebrating. It is a vision of womanhood beyond atomization and self-protection. It is a vision of entangled sisterhood across generations, women embracing pain as they move toward each other, of raucous joy, of life and death. It is a vision where our human drive and ability to create is directed outward instead of inward in an endless cycle of self-tinkering. Barbie takes her first real breath as Ruth bestows humanity on her.
The final scene shows Barbie taking her first steps into human womanhood. Sasha and Gloria, now reconciled, wish Barbie good luck as they drop her off at a tall office building. We wonder if she is about to have her first real Girlboss job interview, or perhaps her first day of work. Instead, walking up to the front desk she says, “I’m here to see my gynecologist.”
While this is far from being a fully-fleshed out vision of womanhood (Notably, no men are around in the final scene), Gerwig is pointing us in the right direction. The path to recovering your personhood is to embrace your design, and design is given, not self-made.
Gerwig is meeting women where they are: exhausted with impossible standards, ashamed at never measuring up, and totally disoriented from reality. She lovingly pokes fun at the delusions we traffic in in order to “put on” our personhood, as if we are the sum of the roles we assume. Gerwig, a deeply Christ-haunted artist, traces givenness back to the Giver.
Gerwig told the New York Times that she wanted the movie to feel like a Shabbat blessing.
“I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that.’” Through Barbie, Gerwig wants to offer us a blessing: the knowledge that we are of infinite worth, not because of our beauty or market value, but because we have received our personhood and design as a gift. Gerwig leaves the next steps up to us, but she points us in the right direction: what were you made for?
Robin Harris is a Bible resources writer for Revelation Media. She tweets at @robinjeanharris.
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