An early draft of this review was originally published on August 2, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
Subscribe, and you’ll read many of these reviews while the films are still breaking news!

Okay, okay… here it is at last*: my first post about Greta Gerwig’s Barbie!

With enthusiasm, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve have already seen Barbie three times!

And I think it’s a very likely to land near the top of my “Favorite Films of 2023” list.

While Barbie the Character draws scowls from these girls, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie is getting rave reviews from almost everyone, including Christian women. [Image from the Warner Brothers trailer.]

Were you hoping to hear something different?

It seems that most film critics have been nearly unanimous in singing this movie’s praises for weeks now, so this post may seem merely redundant and unnecessary. But I’m happily jumping on the bandwagon and waving a pink flag in celebration of the summer’s most popular movie.

Are you surprised that writer like me who identifies as white, male, and Christian is… pro-Barbie?

I have no doubt my review will upset and even exasperate a few readers — specifically, those with whom I share a history in conservative evangelical circles, and who remain convinced that any artist who challenges a patriarchal system is challenging “the will of God.” I’ve moved far enough beyond the borders of narrow ideologies to be able to look back and realize how myopic and ill-informed I was when I embraced such hierarchies. I’m dismayed, but not surprised, to hear voices from within those circles condemning Barbie — particularly the voices of white male conservatives who feel their claim on “God-given authority and headship” is being threatened. To try to preserve their unearned privilege, they’ve decided to attack the movie as a toxic influence, defending something they have self-centeredly endorsed as “a Biblical model of manhood and womanhood.” They apparently believe the Christian thing to do is to rally around celebrities who are ranting on podcasts and literally setting fire to Barbie dolls, like dangerous grownup versions of Toy Story’s Sid.

It seems some right-wing pundits — men, specifically — want to see this Barbie locked up for threatening their patriarchal privilege. [Image from the Warner Brothers trailer.]

I could easily turn this essay into an argument about that “Biblical model,” which I no longer see as “God’s mandate” but rather as an opportunistic distortion of the Scriptures by men and for men, one that contradicts Jesus’ own teaching and example.

But any such effort would probably balloon into a book-length testimony. I’ve seen so much damage done within patriarchal systems, particularly within churches and Christian schools. When we treat everything in the Bible as equally prescriptive, without paying attention to how Jesus “makes all things new,” we abandon his example and teaching. I’ve got scars from men who have lashed out when I’ve challenged the kingdoms they’ve built on misguided and exploited Old Testament passages.

But let’s put that aside for now. In an upcoming post in this short series on Barbie, I’ll offer some thoughts about why I believe Gerwig’s Barbie seems scary to some evangelicals, and why I think they are missing the ways in which the movie actually advancing the teachings of Jesus.

First things first: It would be better, in a case like this, for a white, male, and religious film critic like me — even as a fan of Barbie — to step aside and listen to those who are among the movie’s target audience.

Ken (Ryan Gosling) revels in mansplaining his privilege and entitlement to real-world women. [Image from the Warner Brothers trailer.]

So much has already been written about this movie (powerfully and beautifully, I might add) by other people of Christian faith — and, specifically, by women of faith — that I am inclined to begin by pointing you to their outstanding work before I share my own thoughts and feelings on the film.

Read Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:

… [T]he path the movie traces is more than a little theologically familiar: a paradise lost, destroyed by the “knowledge” of “good” and “evil,” and a path back to restoration (with some bonus reflections on being created for a purpose by a Creator). And there seems to be some built-in interrogation of the Genesis narrative, too. Would it be better, after all, for Barbie and Ken to have continued living naively in a paradise where Ken is just “and Ken” and everyone seems happy all the time? Or did gaining knowledge of the outside world actually make them aware of their free will and equip them to live better, more fulfilled lives? It’s a question some theologians have approached throughout history, and one that recurs when we think about history: Golden ages often appear that way because we were naive to what was “really” going on back then, not because they were actually better.

… [A] blockbuster (or a doll) need not be brainless to be fun. Gerwig’s solo directing career thus far (which includes Lady Bird and Little Women) is a triumph of reimagination, an exploration of what it means to find out who you are and not allow yourself to be shaped by nostalgia and sentimentality while also living with deep, real love. That she managed to infuse the same sensibilities into Barbie is something near a miracle. I can’t wait to go see it again.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a moving meditation on being embodied humans, specifically embodied women.

Gnosticism — the dualistic heresy that bodies and the greater material world are bad, and that God rescues us out of our bodies, through a gospel available via some secret knowledge — rages today as much as it did in the first few hundred years of the church. Then, the first Christians had to continually reassert the goodness of bodies, made evident in God in Christ humbly taking on flesh, and defeating sin and death through his body, nailed to a cross. From the Incarnation to the Cross to the Resurrection, the Christian story tells us that our bodies are good.

Barbie [argues] that it’s better for Barbie, for us, to say “yes” to being embodied, than to try to live within escapist consumer fantasies of perfection. It is better to live as human women than as plastic dolls; for while plastic dolls never have sagging boobs or cramps, they also never know the joys of a beautiful meal or the hug of a loved one or the feel of sand between their toes and mountain air in their lungs. Only embodied people know these gifts.

Poor Barbie. She’s learning what it’s like to live under the curse of systemic discrimination. [Image from the Warner Brothers trailer.]

Christians are as guilty as anyone for failing to achieve the ideal of mutuality between the sexes, but it is our sacred texts that lay out the ideal with unmatched depth and beauty. What Barbie and Ken wished for is a description of the Christian church, where all people find their identity, worth, and purpose in Jesus Christ, and where men and women cannot relegate one another to the margins because both are necessary for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth (1 Corinthians 11:11).

Finally, Robin Harris at Theopolis offers a full synopsis of the film — complete with major spoilers (so avoid reading the full essay until you’ve seen the film) — and praises the film’s wisdom. Here’s a spoiler-free excerpt:

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?

In Part Two, I’ll share my impressions of the film’s strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll offer those views within the context of my own experience with toys, dolls, and action figures.