“Let’s go see Barbie,” my daughter-in-law said in a moment of spontaneity on the movie’s opening weekend. We knew this Hollywood production would be silly and fun and full of nostalgia and bright colors. And it certainly delivered! But we weren’t prepared for a deep, profound, soul-searching look at patriarchy and women.
[spoiler alert] In Barbieland “Stereotypical” Barbie lives a happy and accomplished life naively believing she has conquered every roadblock women face. But when she personally enters the real world (our world), she discovers that men ogle her and women hate her. Devastated, she learns that “she has been making women feel bad about themselves since she was invented.”
On the other hand, Ken encounters a different real world. Here both men and women look at him with admiration. Here men aren’t just an accessory to Barbie but in fact dominate everything. Delighted, he takes his discovery of patriarchy back to Barbieland and leads the others Kens in converting it to Kenland by brainwashing the Barbies.
Seeing this, Barbie gives up. In steps her childhood owner (from the real world) to give “voice to the cognitive dissonance required to being a woman under patriarchy.” In a stunning audience-silencing monologue, she describes the tensions and mixed messages that women have felt, and still feel, in a world dominated by men.
We have to always be extraordinary but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. We have to be thin but not too thin, and we can never say we want to be thin you have to say you want to be healthy. But also you have to be thin. You have to have money but you can’t ask for money. Because that’s crass. You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean. You have to lead but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother but you don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also look out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior which is insane but if you point that out you’re accused of complaining. Because you’re supposed to stay pretty for men but not so pretty you tempt them too much or you threaten other women. Because you’re supposed to be part of the sisterhood but always stand out. And always be grateful but never forget that the system is rigged so find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard, it’s too contradictory, and nobody gives you a medal and says thank you. And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong but also everything is your fault. I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single woman tie herself into knots so that people like us. If all of that is also true of a doll just representing a woman, then I don’t even know…
Patriarchy is finally robbed of its power and matriarchal order is restored in Barbieland—with one change. Ken discovers he has an identity apart from Barbie. He learns that simply being a man is enough. And Barbie acknowledges and apologizes that she has taken Ken for granted.
For a moment, I wondered if the movie was too hard on the Kens. And I wasn’t satisfied that the Barbies’ only concession is to give them the same level of participation and leadership that women have in the real world.
But then I realized this is where we need to start—acknowledging the on-going imbalance of power and understanding what patriarchy does to women.
For example, I resonate most with the dissonance around gratitude (And always be grateful but never forget that the system is rigged so find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful). Because in truth, I am grateful. Grateful that God has created me a woman. Grateful that I’ve had more opportunities than generations before me, that my husband doesn’t demand that I serve him, that I see examples of women paving the way for me. But I have also used gratitude to minimize the reality that inequality still exists. And not just for women—for people of color, for the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and many that I do not see in my limited circle of the world.
We also can’t stop here. Patriarchy or matriarchy cannot be our only options. The goal is not one gender dominating or the other taking over. We should go further. And as believers we can. The blessed alliance described in Genesis chapter 1 and 2 provides a way forward—men and women, serving God together, side-by-side, as allies, in the building, cultivating, and nurturing of God’s kingdom. Only when we utilize each other’s gifts and talents to the fullest will we see the flourishing of all God’s children.
If you have never voiced aloud the inequalities you have experienced or acknowledged them on behalf of other women, I encourage you to do that. Then, begin working toward a true, honest, blessed alliance in your corner of the world.
And could we please make a sequel where Barbie and Ken rule together?
For a more philosophical and theological read, see Neither Ken nor Barbie – A Movie Review by Amy Peeler.
For a thoughtful description and analysis, listen to The Deep Dive Podcast from Axis, Barbenheimer, August 2, 2023, start at 5:40.