Have you seen the Barbie movie?
By all indications, it is a box office smash. Millions of people have seen it world-wide. Apparently, Barbie is helping revive the movie theater industry which hasn’t recovered since the pandemic. The movie is a surprising phenom.
I went last week with my 13-year-old granddaughter, but even before I went, I experienced some of the buzz. A clergy friend enthusiastically admitted she had seen it, twice. Another friend made her husband promise he would see it. Even if you haven’t seen it, I bet people in your church have. I mentioned it at youth group and the young women in the group lit up with smiles.
I volunteer in an English Language Learner (ELL) program on Monday nights. Barbie was the topic of our class a week ago. The class included women from Brazil, India, Korea and two Iowans. Barbie is known internationally. Every woman had a story to tell about growing up playing with Barbies.
I remember the last time I played with Barbie dolls. It was just a few years ago. My sister hosted a family dinner. After dinner the women headed to the living room and the men went to the family room to watch a football game. My sister got out a big tub of Barbie dolls and clothes. It was supposed to be for my granddaughter to play with, but as we all talked my nearly 90 year old mother, my sister, my daughters, my niece, my nephew’s girlfriend, and my granddaughter all reached in, grabbed a Barbie and began dressing them in the distinctive Barbie fashions. Four generations of women playing with Barbies. That was one of the last days my family gathered with my mom. She died a few a months later.
There was one man in the ELL class. He had nothing to say about Barbie. Nothing. No comment. No observations. It was as if a wall went up between the women and the man. Even before any of us had seen it, the movie was already revealing something about gender. The Barbie movie is decidedly pink. The title “Barbie” is written in soft pink cursive. Barbie wears a lot of pink as she moves about her pink house and drives her pink convertible. Obviously pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Or at least it has been since the 1940’s when clothing manufacturers began “gendering” clothing colors. (Before that time pink was considered the more masculine color! What!?) In my local theater “Barbie” is being shown along with “Oppenheimer” and “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning.” Those two movies are devoid of pink. If nothing else, you can count the number of women and men in each movie and discover clear gender distinctions.
I don’t want to give away the plot, but Barbie begins to sense that something is wrong. She feels things she hasn’t felt before. She senses some sort of suffering. She decides to investigate. Barbie is a doll, and the story is fiction, but the nudge Barbie feels looks a lot like the nudge of grace we Methodists feel when we wake up to something we haven’t realized before. We don’t always act on our nudges. Barbie does.
It is not really a kid’s movie, although children who see it will probably enjoy it and miss the bigger themes. There is no foul language, no graphic sexual behavior, and no violence, but something far more unsettling happens here. Barbie observes the world around her. She thinks about it, and she begins to question the way things are. In bright pink technicolor, her questions reveal some curious things. And then the movie turns the bright pink spotlight on us and asks us to question things too.
The movie is a parody on gender, and the rigid definitions we have placed on what it means to be female and male. The movie asks us why we think the way we do.
The movie is also fun. The thinking-questioning-reflecting part sneaks up on you.
Thinking-questioning-reflecting can be a dangerous thing, at least to the status quo. It’s disruptive. Thinking-questioning-reflecting leads to rethinking. Thinking-questioning-reflecting together with other people results in conversation. This morning I chatted with a Methodist lady at the gym, and she told me that she especially likes to think-question-reflect with someone who sees the world differently than she does. “It enlarges my world!” she said. Jesus appreciated thinking-questioning-reflecting. He asked good questions: “Who do you say that I am?” “Do you want to be made well?” Those are still good thinking-questioning-reflecting questions.
There are lot of forces at play in the world that would rather we didn’t do much thinking-questioning-reflecting. Racism, sexism, and homophobia thrive in places where people are not thinking. So often these days our thinking-questioning-reflecting is censored by our toxic politics. We are afraid we will offend. “Why do we think the way we do?” is a loaded question, an affront to polite conversation. Best to keep our heads down and our questions to ourselves.
“Why?” and “what if…” are so useful. They open up possibilities. The right questions allow us to explore things we have overlooked. And who knows what might happen when we do that.
John Wesley once wrote “We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God…but as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” “Think and let think.” John Wesley did a lot of thinking, and he changed his mind from time to time. He set that in motion in us. Methodists are thinking people.
Barbie is a rigid plastic doll, whose head is probably hollow. I left the Barbie movie wondering where my thinking might have become plastic, rigid, and empty-headed. And I know, I know, it’s just a movie. But honestly, I felt a nudge of grace asking me to wake up, to see the world and my place in it with fresh eyes. Why do I think the way I do? What if the world were arranged differently? In the movie, Barbie set off to explore those questions. That took a Barbie doll sort of courage. We human types could benefit from some thinking-questioning-reflecting and summon human courage to explore possibilities. Why is the world so pink and blue and so divided in so many ways and what have we lost in the division? How does God see those divisions?
One last comment. My granddaughter thinks you should go to the Barbie movie. “It helps us see our imperfections,” she said. Well, amen.