Lessons in Pink
We recently watched the Barbie Movie which is a brilliant film. Greta Gerwig directs a genuinely smart and satirical film. When Barbie was in theaters, much angst and fear swirled around it. There were also many rave reviews from those I trusted. Most of the complaints came from people who never watched it to begin with. The fervor was so loud that many even said they were boycotting Disney. That boycott shoes how uninformed people can be since the film is a Warner Brothers film and has nothing to do with Disney. I was looking forward to finally seeing the film myself. It did not disappoint.
From the opening homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Barbie is the obelisk and several girls smash baby dolls against rocks, to the many quotes referencing other films, the script is amazing. The dominant story shows us that ideas and ideals are more complex than we would like. But even in its endless complexity, the core truth of Barbie is just that; life is complex and we can find ourselves feeling outside or inside at any moment. The movie was self-differential in its commentary and I appreciate Mattel was in on the “joke.” A favorite quote comes at Barbie’s low moment of feeling unattractive when the narrator breaks the wall and says, “Note to the filmmakers: casting Margot Robbie is the wrong person if you want to make this point.” This is when the inception style layers peeling back show us that Gerwig and Noah Baumbach created a special movie with biting commentary.
The existential crisis experienced by Stereotypical Barbie throughout the film is the dominant story, but the story that got everyone’s proverbial knickers in a wad is the story of patriarchy. Before I discuss the core piece of that, I wanted to highlight a very subversive (in a good way) line in the film. The intern who ushers Barbie into the Mattel board room filled with men asks a question amongst the discussion about the room being only men. “I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?” Boom! Because of the ideas of patriarchy, the man without power sees himself as a woman, since women lack power within patriarchy.
But which idea in the movie sparked the outrage? Why were many Christians so upset that they were willing to boycott a company that had nothing to do with Barbie? In Barbieland, Ken is an accessory. Ken’s only real purpose is to be an accessory for Barbie. in fact, Barbie does not even consider how her actions toward Ken could hurt him. This is why so many were upset. When the male character is portrayed as women have been throughout entertainment, politics, and even religion (as an accessory); the dehumanizing truth of that role stands exposed. The shoe is out on the other foot, and suddenly everyone is upset. Ken, being an accessory, bites cultural norms like patriarchy in ways that illuminate the harm those norms may cause.
Much of American Christianity is shaped by patriarchal assumptions, which is why so many recoiled at the truth presented in Barbie. Even in Christian traditions where women have leadership roles, there are often assumptions that the women present are wives rather than pastors. When that culture is exposed by watching a popular movie, the reaction should be self-examination and possibly repentance. Instead, many railed against the movie and spoke about its evil. Some traditions see women as unable to lead even when scripture refutes that idea, but those of us who are part of egalitarian traditions really need to check our own assumptions if Barbie makes us feel uncomfortable. Our sisters in ministry could use some relief from constantly having to defend their God given call.
I pray we can enjoy art like barbie especially because it may make us uncomfortable. Those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ talk about being made uncomfortable by the Spirit, maybe The Barbie Movie preveniently exposes our own fears and allowance of patriarchy as a norm rather than a problematic attitude. Maybe we all just need to realize that we can be “Kenough” as we strive for equitable action in the church.