Back to Forum

What Was I Made For? Barbie and Theology

For this month’s Forum post, I am sharing my remarks from “Barbie: A Panel,” which took place at Marquette University in April 2024.[1] My fellow panelists, all Marquette faculty members, discussed how they use the 2023 film Barbie to teach on topics including feminist rhetorics, toxic masculinity, and cult filmography. As I suggest in this post, it would also make an excellent text for the introductory theology classroom.  

Readers who have not yet seen Barbie will enjoy this essay more if they view the movie first.

***

The way the story goes, she seems to have it pretty good at first: a beautiful home, tasty food, all the clothes she needs, and companions made from the same stuff she is. But soon, doubts creep in. She starts to suspect there’s more to life than the paradise she inhabits. She faces her own body’s limitations. She thinks about death. She seeks out knowledge. She comes to know herself as a creature, but the creatures who are like her have no answers for her questions. She meets her creator, who does have answers. For her creator is intimately present to this creature specifically, knowing her name, awakening her with a breath, and bringing her to insight with the touch of hands.

From her creator, she learns what it means to be the type of creature she is. A creature with great capabilities and lasting limitations; a creature whose difference from other creatures comes with special privileges and responsibilities.

This is the type of creature she is: one made in the image of someone who is not created, someone who dwells in reality and seems to be the source of the knowledge this creature craves. Our creature comes to understand that the one in whose image she is made is intimately involved in her life. Perhaps this one in whose image she is made has something to do with her yearning for more, beyond her perfect world and its easy answers. She comes to know this person. She comes to see that she, and the other creatures like her, need to be saved. And she finds that the one in whose image she is made is “the one who did the saving.”[2]

Through teachings and actions, her savior reveals more about what it means to be the kind of person she is: one who finds joy and deep purpose in loving relationships while suffering when loved ones reject her; one who intimately understands the sinful strategies people make up to deny, degrade and belittle each other, and who rejects them all.

Knowing her savior, the creature reapproaches her creator with a new understanding. She learns that to her creator, she is not simply an object, but more like a beloved daughter. She has not been made to be an object: she is made to be human. To be human is not to nail the performance of powerful plastic perfection, every day the same as the last. To be human is to age, to be vulnerable, to be disappointed by other people, to love them anyway, and to accept our oncoming death. Humans hold the potential of tasting the joy the creator feels bringing something new into being: a garden, a baby, a book, a change for the better. Humans are the people who make meaning, who use our reasoning to form conjectures concerning causality, mortal beings capable of creating ideas that can live forever. All this the creature learns by coming to know her creator and her human Savior.

So that’s the story Catholic theology tells about human purpose. Now I’m going to talk about the Barbie movie.

If you’ve seen the movie, you get the joke: Barbie, whose plot I just described, is an excellent point-by-point reflection of Catholic theology’s understanding of creation, salvation, and human purpose. At the same time, it is, rightly, critical of the human practice of organized religion. Now for sure, we don’t see any organized religion in either Barbie Land or the real world. We don’t know if there is a Pope Barbie or how many followers she has on the all-Barbie Supreme Court. However, when Stereotypical Ken is bragging about his success introducing patriarchy to Barbie Land, listen to what he says: “We just explained to them the immaculate, impeccable, seamless garment of logic that is patriarchy!”

Immaculate—a word strongly associated with Catholic spirituality, carrying a lot of gendered baggage for its use to describe the Virgin Mary. Impeccable—literally means without sin. And “seamless garment” is an almost uniquely Catholic term, coined by the late Cardinal Bernardin to describe a full-spectrum approach to protecting life from womb to tomb. These are pretty complex terms for a guy whose job is “beach!” For me, this line is clearly a subtle suggestion that while absorbing the delights of male domination, horses and fur coats on his trip to the “real world,” Ken encountered organized religion and found it to be thoroughly contiguous with his developing understanding of patriarchy. And given the documented history of organized religion’s complicity with the sins of patriarchy, so undeniably linked that multiple modern popes have apologized for it, this is absolutely a fair hit from Gerwig and Company. We also hear a critique of religion in the line that follows this one, Gloria’s reference to colonialism and its impact on Indigenous peoples, another historical sin for which the Catholic Church shares complicity and again, totally fair game.

What’s interesting is that, if the film locates organized religion amid the other patriarchal elements found in the real world, it’s the real world that Barbie chooses to embrace, live in and ultimately die in. And it’s not like she’s naïve to its problems: she spent long enough there to experience sexism, threats of violence, to see inequality and to conclude that “The real world is forever and irrevocably messed up!”

But then again, it’s not so much that Barbie chooses the real world as that she chooses to be human, and the real world is part of the deal. From a theological perspective, that’s also an interesting choice, and the movie doesn’t quite spell out her reasons. Sure, there’s the B-roll of human life at the end, and the banality of Barbie Land where every day’s the same, but still, why throw aside pink convertibles and Beach for a lifetime of catcalls and Pap smears? I think the film actually allows us to give the same answer Catholic theology would give: human life is precious because we’re mortal beings capable of transcendence. That is, we’re beings who can die, and we’re capable of somehow, reaching beyond this earthly existence. Even after Barbie chooses mortality, she can say “I don’t think I have an ending.” And that’s the story about human life that Catholic theology believes.

Even when her creator, Ruth Handler, tells her “Ideas live forever,” Barbie isn’t content to be an idea. She chooses the life that will end in death. Although it’s played for laughs, her visit to the gynecologist is a subtle reminder that she chose a body that can sicken and die. When humans transcend our death, it isn’t as an object, a plastic doll forever in a landfill or even a really hot piece of intellectual property. We live beyond death as persons who are known and loved by name.

The way theology sees humanity, our dual nature as humans who will die and who are capable of transcending death in eternal life gives a precious vitality and energy to our short time here on earth. Our ability to transcend makes us want more—a better use of our time and talents, a richer and more deep spiritual life, meaningful love and relationships, and a lasting legacy that will live beyond us in terms of our efforts to do better by this messed-up world.  And we can go after these good things, because unlike the Barbies in Barbie Land, our world presents us with choices. And that’s where our mortality comes in, and things get really interesting.

When you’re “part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made,” that means you can create something good, or something terrible. When you’re one of the people that does the imagining, you might get it wrong! Just because you’re creating doesn’t mean you’re making something good—the movie clearly tells us that patriarchy is “made up.” Plenty of people make bad choices with their power to make meaning. And when you’re mortal, you don’t have infinite time to get it right.

Humans can work hard to bring justice to unfair systems or we might be part of the people who sustain patriarchy. Because we have freedom, we can get things seriously wrong. And because we’re mortal, there’s a deadline on our efforts. Humans are playing life on challenge mode, compared to the Barbies in Barbieland. Perhaps the film suggests, with Barbie’s choice to be human, that the challenge is worth it. That Barbie sees the preciousness of a life struggling to do and be more, for and with others, knowing that death is waiting in the wings.

What was I made for? To grow old and die. To need: Pap smears and comfortable shoes and friends. To see clearly how the world is messed up. To try to be the one who does the saving.

Works Cited

Barbie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Warner Bros., 2023. Hulu, hulu.com.

Caveny, Kathleen. “Barbie Land and losing paradise: Theologian muses on this summer’s blockbuster.” National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2023, https://www.ncronline.org/culture/barbie-land-and-losing-paradise-theologian-muses-summers-blockbuster

[1] I would like to thank Dr. Lilly Campbell, the panel organizer, and our co-panelists, Drs. Paul Gagliardi and Sarah Stanley, for their illuminating contributions. Cathy Kaveny’s reflection on Barbie remains one of the most insightful.

[2] All text within quotation marks is quoted from the film.