On Being Human: Reflections on Greta Gerwig’s Barbie Movie

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The “Barbie” movie was a 2023 summer hit. As the highest-grossing film of the year, the flick has become a cultural icon. This is no doubt due to its expert marketing, nostalgia-inducing subject, and its playful set and tone. Yet there’s something deeper lurking beneath Barbie’s pretty pink fun house and plastic-like perfection—something that struck an emotional chord with its audience. For a movie about a doll, the film has much to say about what it means to be human. In this piece, I’ll dissect some of these themes and assess their helpfulness for understanding what it means to be human in light of key biblical texts. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to do so without divulging spoilers, so pause this read and watch the movie first if you’re not keen on such exposure.

Being Human Means Meaningful Suffering

Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in a world of plastic perfection. Her synthetic skin is flawless, her feet are permanently shaped to fit the stereotypical ideal of feminine beauty, and she wakes up each morning eating a perfect breakfast and floating down from her perfect house to go about her perfect day. As she says in the beginning of the film, “It is the best day ever! So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.” However, as the film progresses, we see that this is the life that she must leave behind for her to go about the process of becoming human.

The film unabashedly claims that to be human is to be a finite creature with an end. The first sign that the veil has been torn between the Barbie and human worlds is the doll experiencing thoughts of death. Gloria (America Ferrera), Barbie’s owner, is experiencing very human struggles which are spilling over into Barbie’s pink domain. When the doll enters the human world, she sits near an old woman on a park bench. Observing her wrinkles and sagging skin—evidence of the human imperfections and ageing process Barbie came to this world to prevent—she proclaims softly to the woman, “You’re so beautiful.” At the poignant ending of the film, Ruth Handler (Rhea Pearlman) tells the doll that she created her to be an idea that never ends. Wanting her to have a full grasp of the consequences of choosing to become human, Ruth informs Barbie that humans only have one ending. Yet Barbie chooses to become human all the same, seeing the gift of being a meaning maker as greater than the loss of living forever.

As Christians, we have a complicated relationship with death as a part of our human identity. We understand death to have been a result of the fall (Gen 2:15–17) and that it was not a part of God’s original plan for humanity’s perfection. Nevertheless, in a now broken world, it functions as a reminder of our proper relationship to God and his place as the source of all life, safety, and goodness (Ps 144). Indeed, when God decides to ban Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden out of concern that they will eat from the tree of life and live forever (Gen 3:22–24), an oversimplistic understanding of death as an enemy easily leads to reading an insecure and vengeful God into the text. Yet such a view neglects the fact that the “knowing good and evil,” which Adam and Eve attained by eating from the forbidden tree, was marked by the introduction of sin, shame, and fear into the world—the very things that plague both the human world and the hypothetical “Barbieland” depicted in the film (Gen 3:1–10). Thus, the insertion of death into the world was an act of divine mercy, especially in light of the resurrection promise of access to the tree of life within a perfected heaven and earth (Rev 21:1–22:5). With all this in mind, we must hold this same tension as we face death now, not placing our hope in dominance over death through either radical life extension nor in the use of medical technologies to obtain the death of our choosing (e.g., euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide). In other words, we must think about what it means to die well.

The movie suggests that the reward of being mortal is to be one of the meaning-makers of the world. Indeed, this evidences a tension of being human—finite creatures with an end yet created with great purpose as the imago Dei. This instills in us an inherent thirst for meaning, a sense that we must exist for something beyond ourselves. It is a driving force behind our pursuit of learning, our creation of art, poetry, and story, and it underlies our appetite for beauty. However, there’s something lacking in Ruth’s assertion, and the filmmakers intriguingly seem to admit it.

Ruth suggests that humans are those who come up with things like patriarchy and Barbie in order to deal with the discomfort of the human experience. Since these are the two ideas that have been slowly dismantled within the plot, Ruth proposes that human meaning-making alone is not only limited but also forms the very foundations of the oppressive systems we fight against. Ruth neglects the reality that our thirst for meaning should drive us back to the source from whence all meaning doth spring. C.S. Lewis’ character Psyche states this driving force well: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from . . . the place where I ought to have been born.”[1]

We know that the gospel offers a greater hope: the Son of God entering our chaotic world to conquer death and sin, and to open the door to restored relationship as humans with one another and with the divine. This is not only a resurrection hope but a restoration of human meaning-making in this life as well. Thus, Jesus opens the door to being truly human, both in this life and in the next.

Being Human is Being an Embodied Gender in Relationship[2]

It’s not hard to notice that gender dynamics are a key theme throughout the film. Barbieland is a matriarchy in which women rule society, and men are sheer afterthoughts. It’s girls’ night every night. The Kens appear to have no houses and only have a good day if the Barbies look at them. While it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the movie is promoting a distorted feminist agenda, the satirical nature of the film is made clear at several key junctures. When Barbie and Ken (Ryan Gosling) first enter the human world and notice clear elements of patriarchy in this strange land, Ken notes that everything appears to be reversed.[3] At the end of the film, after patriarchy has been both introduced and destroyed in the world of Barbieland, presidential Barbie states that the goal should not be to return to the way things were before, for “No Barbie or Ken should be living in the shadows.”

This reveals that while patriarchy[4] is an obvious target of the film’s makers, the relational and power dynamics at play within gendered relationships are clearly also a concern. Gloria’s now iconic monologue about the cognitive dissonance created by all the expectations of what it means to be a woman is paralleled by Ken’s similarly famous musical diatribe about the difficulties of manhood.[5] Ken’s favorite song, which is played on the radio station in Kendom and which he sings at Barbie in the campfire beach scene, is an uncomfortable story about a victim who becomes the abuser within an healthy relationship.[6] The desperation such power dynamics create even within same-sex friendships is also explored, with the Barbies taking down the Kens by feigning to afford power and then creating a scarcity of this social resource, pitting the Kens against each other as they desperately try to gain it back.

The filmmakers assert that this power struggle is the result of a false placement of identity. Barbie has placed her identity in stereotypical societal expectations of her—she is stereotypical Barbie. Ken’s identity is in his relationship with Barbie. After the Barbies and Kens are reconciled to one another, one of the Kens turns to the others and states, “We were only fighting because we didn’t know who we were.”

The answer to this struggle is one of healthy partnership. When the Barbies take Barbieland back and Ken flees in sadness over his lost power, Barbie follows after him. Her approach is one of compassion, recognizing her own fault in taking him for granted and seeing his deeper struggle for meaning and identity. The movie similarly explores the importance of partnership within the mother-daughter relationship and within same-sex friendships.

Lest one think that the film explores this reality of gender only as an abstract cultural creation, I should state that it puts forth a surprisingly embodied understanding of such realities. When Barbie first enters the human world and experiences being treated as a sexual object for the first time, the filmmakers give her a joke in which she retorts to the men objectifying her that she does not have a vagina. It’s an intriguing scene in which a core physical characteristic of being a woman is also explored as a force of social capital in a patriarchal world. She does not have a vagina, so she does not have the resource the men seek—the one they feel entitled to elicit from her. In other words, it’s a statement denoting her sexuality as an embodied being and her sexuality as a resource in a gendered power dynamic. This scene is made even more important at the end of the film when Barbie has decided to become human. In the final scene, the now human Barbie is shown visiting her gynecologist. Not only has she accepted this distinctively human characteristic of being a woman, but she has accepted both the rewards and struggles that this entails—physically, relationally, and culturally.

There is much in this movie that actually aligns with a biblical understanding of embodied, gendered relationships. The Genesis account affirms that our creation as male and female is core to our creation as humans (Gen 1:26–27). Both sexes, created in the image of God to reflect and glorify him, were also made in accordance with and for one another (Gen 2:18–23).[7] Yet when Eve chose to eat of the forbidden fruit, an odd curse was placed on her head: “Your desire will be towards your husband, but he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16b). Due to the near exact repetition of this phrasing regarding the relationship between sin and Cain (Gen 4:7),[8] I have long been convinced that this curse denotes the introduction of a power struggle between the sexes. Man and woman were created to be with one another, but now competition would mark their relationship. No matter which sex reigns, this power struggle will remain, and neither party will be winning. We’ve seen this throughout our history as a patriarchal society, and we see this now in some of the more distorted understandings of modern-day feminism.

The Barbie movie takes seriously just how far-reaching our embodied gender is for our experience of being human. As Christians who seek to protect the sanctity of distinct sexes as a good creation of God, I sometimes think we actually don’t take gender seriously enough. If being created as distinctly male and female is core to our creation as human, that this very element would be cursed in the fall has devastating consequences. With this power dynamic introduced into sexed relationships, we now must struggle to pursue the same unity for which we were created. Furthermore, this means we indeed have a remarkable ability to develop oppressive social constructs around gender. We not only sin as humans, but we also sin as our gendered selves in relationship with both the same and opposite sex. We can sin as our gendered selves, and we can have deep wounds as gendered beings. While experiences such as gender dysphoria are extremely complex and cannot be reduced to any one factor, I do not doubt that such wounds and such sins play a formative part.

With all this in mind, in pursuit of restoration within our gendered relationships, we must be in pursuit of healthy partnership as men and women—and as men with men and women with women.[9] Indeed, this must involve rejection of a truncated understanding of being human that involves striping the body of its God given sex. However, it also must seek to be restorative given the effects of the fall in our social experience of such biological sex. As both participators and shapers of culture, we must assess how our culturally shaped expectations of gender and gendered relationships stem from our broken pursuit of identity in the power we have over the other or our desire for it. Pursuing a redeemed relationship in being with each other as men and women, we must see it as within the purview of “love of neighbor” to restore true justice in gendered relationships and to seek the good of the other. CBHD’s Her Dignity Network was founded on the principle that a woman’s dignity is human dignity. Just as her dignity is human dignity, so his dignity is human dignity as well.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego, CA: Harvest, 1980), 76.

[2] I use the term “embodied gender” here to denote the fact that sex is both an embodied physical reality and that it has far-reaching social and relational consequences, all of which cannot be boiled down to biological realities. This is not to say that the two can nor should be separated, but that the concept of biological sex is not enough to explain the experience of living in a gendered world. This is why phenomenological understandings of embodiment are both helpful and important; it’s not just about the body, but about the lived body. Further, this concept of “embodied gender” leaves space for the reality that some of our constructs around gender are indeed mere social creations, and, as Christians, we must avoid conflating such social constructs with God-given realities regarding sex.

[3] This appears to be the key function of setting up a matriarchy in Barbieland. By critiquing matriarchy in the film, the viewer is given a fresh perspective on the injustices created by patriarchy. This is similar to Tolkien’s view of the invitation towards “recovery” through fairy stories, whereby the reader re-gains a clear view of the world by being freed from the blinding power of familiarity. For more on this “recovery” process, see J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tree and Leaf (United Kingdom: George Allen and Unwin, 1964). The clearest evidence of this as the purpose of the reversal in the film is at the end when presidential Barbie affords merely a lower circuit court judgeship to the Kens requesting a position in the Supreme Court. The narrator chimes in and states, “Well, the Kens have to start somewhere. And one day, the Kens will have just as much power and influence in Barbieland as women have in the real world.” In other words, you’re supposed to be angry with how the Kens are treated in Barbieland in order to foster anger at how women have been treated within a patriarchal system.

[4] Note that patriarchy (just like matriarchy) is a system whereby a power differential is established by societal structures according to gender. This does not mean that men are the inherent enemies of patriarchy. In some circles, the term has been reduced to a reference to men as the enemies to be overcome in order for women to be empowered. This neglects the complexities of such systems and the recognition that while men benefited in very real ways from this societal structuring and women were oppressed in very real ways, men were also the victims of this system (e.g., by being forced into rigid assumptions around what it means to be a man).

[5] Ryan Gosling, “I’m Just Ken,” Barbie the Album (2023).

[6] Matchbox Twenty, “Push,” Yourself or Someone Like You (1996). Rob Thomas clarifies this specific meaning of the song in the lyric annotations on Genius.

[7] I say “in accordance with” due to the use of preposition and noun combination, kenegedo, for the creation of the woman. This denotes that she was “like/opposite him” or “according to him” as a counterpart to him. That men and women are created for one another comes from the declaration that it was not good that man was alone.

[8] When speaking of sin, God tells Cain, “And its desire is towards you, but you, yourself, must rule over it.”

[9] No doubt, the theologically trained mind reading this piece will want to know my particular position on the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate. I have refrained from making this a core part of the argument because I believe the pursuit of healing within gendered relationships should be core to both sides. With that said, I find it more helpful to describe what I affirm regarding a biblical understanding of gender rather than use categories that exist as more of a spectrum than a binary. First, as stated previously, I affirm that men and women are created as equals with complementarity but not hierarchy. Any sense of hierarchy that now exists in our world is therefore a result of the fall. Thus, men are not created to lead, and women are not created to follow. The Genesis narrative is not primarily concerned with an ontology of gender, but with telos—we are created to image God, and our union is essential to the “goodness” that marks our creation as humans. With the union of men and women as good, and with the reality of a power struggle now making difficult this dynamic, Paul’s contextualized, theologically grounded exhortations are seeking to be restorative—upending the struggle and setting both men and women on the path of sanctifying, self-sacrificial love within each side of the relationship.