Girls Are Finally Big Box Office Draws!

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

The word “patriarchy” has never been mentioned so often in a movie!

The old theme of Plato’s cave shows up again. Remember the allegory in The Republic where prisoners imagine the real world consists of shadows that appear on a wall inside their prison cave? One prisoner escaped. He returns to disbelief when he reports on the real world outside the cave. The prisoners are
reluctant to leave the cave and face the real world.

Now you know the whole storyboard of the Barbie movie! I am assuming readers of this essay have seen the movie. The plot is not the point; the buzz is in the commentary on women’s lives in the last 60 years.

Upon first seeing the blazing pink trailers for the Barbie movie, I had no interest, but the reviews
made clear, this is not a Barbie and Ken romcom. I am not speaking from sentimental experience
playing with Barbie dolls and accessories with friends. Barbie dolls came out in 1959 and took a
few more years to make it to my remote childhood. By that time, I had a sturdier-shaped
teenage doll with measurements that made designer fashions easier to sew. I remember being
mostly interested in using fabric scraps to sew clothes for the doll.

In my maturity, I have become interested in helping girls over the speed bumps of tweens and I have written a book that points out the actual girls found in the Bible. This age group was a fraught time for me, as for all females. Until recently, biological changes were discussed in hushed voices with a tinge of shame.

We Always Have Little Women

There has always been Little Women, but no other movies come to mind that realistically
confront girls’ coming-of-age issues. Now recently I have seen two movies target specifically the
physiology of females hitting puberty. Barbie is in the theaters now; earlier I saw Are You There
God? It’s Me Margaret.
Finally, maturing girls can see themselves confronting the physical
challenges of moving into womanhood. These movies can serve as starting points for discussions between girls, and girls and their mothers-mentors.


Speaking from the other side of menopause, I appreciate that both movies feature cameo
appearances of the creators of their fictional characters. Judy Blume herself appears as the
author in Are You There God? In Barbie, Ruth Handler (1916-2002) the inventor of the Barbie
doll, is played in the movie by actress, Rhea Perlman, from the sitcom Cheers. Perhaps the most
poignant moment is when stereotypical Barbie, the main character played by Margot Robbie,
meets a real-life elderly woman on a park bench. This role is played by Anne Roth (1931- ), not
an actress, but an Academy award-winning costume designer. English actress, Helen Mirren, needs no
introduction, a stunning model of mature women’s style, is the all-knowing narrator throughout
the film. Here are four examples of women representing many decades of accomplishments.
This is a lovely nod to real women’s creativity and empowerment. We could use more of this!


I admit an issue of my own at this point. During the few moments of the film when Barbie first
sees an old woman on a park bench, she gushes, “You are beautiful!” My first reaction was that
this was a naïve attempt to be polite on Barbie’s part. Not so! The director, Greta Gerwig,
determines this scene to be the heart of the movie, because this woman had lived and was living
a full authentic life. Thank you from my heart! To my dismay, I realized how reluctant I am to
find my age group beautiful. That is my personal lesson from Barbie.


The movie begins with joyful Barbie dolls living their fun lives in an imaginary adult world. No
limits appear on the horizon: the refrigerator is always full, the closet is deep, the cars have gas, and
every day is the best day ever. Any future is possible: astronaut to zookeeper. Ken comes on the
scene, but merely as an accessory. He is not invited to the all-girls party. Granted he is
disappointed, but he is free to pursue his own interests. He is not abused or exploited. Both Ken
and Barbie are clueless as to why they would want to spend the night together. Afterall, they are
dolls with no genitals.


The first cloud on the horizon appears in the form of Weird Barbie. She was deprived of the
charmed Barbie life, whose owner chopped off her hair, drew on her face, and left her in a
permanent “splits” position. We become aware that the Barbies are puppets of the real girls
who are playing with them. Weird Barbie forces the choice between Birkenstocks or high heels
and stereotypical Barbie emerges out of her cave bubble and into reality. This hard lesson brings
Barbie to a new level.


So, what do Barbie dolls say about girls?

We grownups are concerned about the premature sexualization of girls, but that is from our mature perspective. Girls revel in identifying with Barbie looking like a superwoman, imagining a future doing superwoman jobs. Girls are happy being girls, with little concern for boys on the fringe. Likewise, boys do the same thing with superhero figures doing superhero things, growing into futures with superpowers.

Girls don’t figure into boy’s imaginary play figures either. Some viewers are upset with the opening scene to the tune of the 2001 Space Odyssey theme where girls are destroying baby dolls. This illustrates girls’ discovery that they can imagine careers. Childbearing, rearing, and families will come with maturity but doesn’t have to be at the forefront in their prepubescent years. Likewise, boys don’t include child-rearing and family life in their imaginary futures either.


As in the movie, it is with the complication of The Fall, when the snake raises its ugly head, that
girls lose their childhood confidence. Not only are the boys-men not content to build their own
world of man caves, but they preempt the women’s spaces and bully the women themselves to
be their servants. Women, in their fallenness, are all too often willing to comply with being men’s
playthings, in the attempt to regain the oneness originally intended by the creator. The movie is
unrealistic in imagining that all women in one accord will come together to sabotage the men
to overthrow their patriarchy. There are always holdouts who are willing to do the bidding of
men, for the favor of men. This is not a man-hating movie, unless the goal is to preserve
patriarchy. It illustrates, with dark humor, the unequal power and truth of millennia of
disfunction between the sexes.


From a Christian point of view, the conclusion is unsatisfactory. The end point in the movie is
that both Barbie and Ken must discover their authentic selves apart from sex roles. As
Christians, we discover our identity and authenticity as image bearers. We work out our
fallenness and forgiveness between the sexes while acknowledging our indebtedness in Christ.
This movie does not claim to be Christian, so we don’t go to it expecting this message. As the
movie eventually illustrates, Ken and Barbie −women and men− are complete characters in
themselves. They don’t have to be in a romantic/married relationship. The movie hints at a
future of men and women cooperating in equal relationships in marriage and work, but this
vision is faint for my taste. Perhaps in a sequel.


The last scene in the movie has Barbie, now a real woman, negotiating the real world and on
her way to her first appointment with a gynecologist. Now she has a vagina. We feel for her.

NOTES:

  • My book is Bold Girls Speak by Mary Stromer Hanson, Wipf&Stock 2013.
  • The movie has no violence, bad language, or sex. Some humor will be over the heads of younger
  • children.
  • Two movies I have seen recently with a Christian message and featuring mature women
  • successfully negotiating the world of gender is The Miracle Club, 2023, in theatres recently, and
  • Carmen 2021, now on Amazon Prime

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top