Christians are not just called to grow and deepen our faith but to engage meaningfully with elements of the culture around us — which brings me to this summer’s box-office smash “Barbie.” While the film has already grossed over $1.1 billion in worldwide box office receipts, the reviews of it are all over the map. In fact, “Barbie” makes for a bit of a Rorschach test depending on your cultural or religious worldview.
Although I am certainly no Barbie fan, it is clearly a cultural phenomenon, so with the hoopla now finally dying down, it seemed like a good time to check out the film and review it through a biblical lens.
“Barbie,” which was inspired by the girls’ doll toy popularized by Mattel, stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken, respectively. According to Tribute Movies, the film’s official synopsis reads,
“Living the perfect life in the perfect world, Barbie has it all. One day, when things start changing, her perfect world seems to fall apart. From her shower being cold…to her heels falling flat to the ground, Barbie now has to choose between her perfect life and finding out about the real world.”
Like most films, “Barbie” has positive lessons and takeaways that can be analyzed and applied in a meaningful context. On the one hand, the film highlights how the objectification of women, an ongoing problem in our culture, is terrible. Furthermore, the film highlights how the original Barbie did, at times, present a challenge for women struggling with self-esteem and body image because it created a seemingly perfect, unattainable standard of beauty that was not always beneficial for women’s mental well-being.
The film also highlighted flaws with a corporate culture, both in America and across the world, that pursues monetary gain at the expense of others, often psychologically damaging the lives of individuals in the process. There is biblical wisdom and warning about this, of course, as 1 Timothy 6:10a states, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”
At the same time, concepts explored within “Barbie” present serious issues, especially when viewed through a biblical perspective on gender roles.
To start, film clearly adheres to a radical feminist perspective, and the film’s portrayal of “Barbieland,” a fictitious world, begins to lay the groundwork for an extreme illustration of gender roles. “Barbieland” is a world where women, also known as Barbies, are elevated and hold power. The male characters, known as “Kens,” are treated as second-class citizens compared to the power and cultural influence that the Barbies have. Ryan Gosling’s “Ken” is also portrayed as an individual with incredibly low self-esteem, whose identity is dependent upon validation from Margot Robbie’s Barbie, in whom he is also romantically interested. Several of the “Ken” characters often engage in sexually inappropriate jokes.
Even when Barbie and Ken leave “Barbieland” for the real world, it doesn’t take long for the film’s radical feminist perspective to re-surface.
The Daily Wire’s Dr. Carrie Gress, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-editor of the online women’s magazine Theology of Home, writes, “There are plenty of reminders that the patriarchy always needs smashing, featuring men who are buffoons, clueless, vulgarians, narcissists, and arrogant,” none of whom, she notes, are necessary for daily life, and further suggesting that women’s leadership are all that is needed for an ideal and peaceful world.
The film’s portrayal of feminism stands in stark contrast to the original first wave of feminism in the 19th century, championed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, who helped lead the fight for women’s suffrage, which became nationally recognized in the early 20th century with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Stanton’s work included drafting a list of grievances regarding women’s rights, The Declaration of Grievances, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, and she worked with prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass to help end slavery. It wasn’t until just before the second wave of feminism that the movement merged with communism in the 1930s and 1940s, eventually becoming intertwined with a toxic blend of movies, television, music, magazines, and “the New Left” of the 1960s and 1970s. Out of this evolution came the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, abortion, and all kinds of other social ills.
The film’s portrayal of gender roles seems to dwell on the extremes, either presenting a world in which women are culturally dominant and male characters are introduced as afterthoughts and objectified (Barbieland) or a caricature of today’s world, implying the existence of a patriarchy in which men are culturally dominant, and women are objectified. Furthermore, in the film, Ryan Gosling’s Ken learns from the concept of the supposed “patriarchy” and goes back to implement it in Barbieland, resulting in a takeover of the fictional kingdom where men become culturally dominant. In the process, the film makes the male characters look like villains — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only time in the film when they are portrayed as anything other than weak and insufferable.
While many of the plot strategies and character arcs in the movie are intended to be ironic and not taken literally, the film presents extreme examples of radical feminism and hyper-masculinity, both of which devalue the image of God in the context of gender roles.
Not all conservatives had the same perspective on the film, however, as seen during a “Daily Wire Backstage” episode where popular conservative host Michael Knowles expressed support for the film. Knowles, who stated on social media that he “enjoyed the film,” also pointed out that in the speech made by the character “Gloria,” played by America Ferrera, many of the things which Gloria identifies that make it “impossible to be a woman” are the “result of feminism.” Knowles also believes that the film promotes motherhood during the film’s final scene in which Barbie goes “to see her gynecologist.”
In fact, novelist and conservative commentator Andrew Klavan believes that the film’s director is part of a growing number of left-wing women who are either critical of or outright reject feminism, elaborating that they are concerned about women “being written out of existence by the transgender movement,” which, Klavan argues, is the logical extension of feminism.
Still, the suggestion that the film is anti-feminist feels like a stretch, as it engages in numerous tropes that directly or indirectly communicate an extreme view of gender roles.
When considering the film’s presentation of radical feminism and hyper-masculinity, I am reminded of how, on an episode of Ben Shapiro’s show “The Sunday Special,” Christian author and apologist Dr. Voddie Baucham spoke out against both. Instead, he promoted a biblical view of masculinity that aims to “nurture and protect women, not take advantage of them. Healthy biblical masculinity, he noted, also leads to biblical femininity, where both genders respect and serve one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Baucham pointed to 1 Timothy 5:1-2, ESV, as biblical verification of this ideal:
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
Ultimately, “Barbie” had some positives, like excellent production values, colorful costumes, great acting performances by the cast, and a few suitable lessons, but the film’s presentation of gender roles is extreme and far from what we are called to exemplify biblically.
If any Christian parents decide to let their children see this film, they should plan to have a lot of discussions, before and after, by first explaining how the world views men and women and pits them against each other and then, Bible in hand, contrasting that with God’s perfect, complementarian design for the sexes and the family.
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