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film In the Beginning, There Was Barbie

Turns out Greta Gerwig’s 'Barbie" movie is a Biblical metaphor after all...

"She's Everything. He's just Ken.",Poster for the film 'Barbie - Warner Bros. Pictures

In a May feature in VogueBarbie director and co-writer Greta Gerwig cheekily compared Barbie and Ken to Adam and Eve. “Barbie was invented first,” she said. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”

The quote snagged some attention, in part because Gerwig has played with theological themes before in her work — most notably in Lady Bird, in which Sister Sarah Joan borrows the wisdom of philosopher and mystic Simone Weil to advise her titular charge. The Genesis comparison does sound a bit like a joke, though, at least when applied to plastic dolls. In the Bible, God makes the first man, Adam, from the dust of the ground, and then knocks him out, takes his rib, and fashions it into a companion for him: Eve, the first woman. They live in a perfect world, the Garden of Eden.

God has one command for his creations: They can eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden except one, the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Naturally, that’s what they do. (It’s humanity’s first failure in the “you had one job” department.) Immediately they realize they are naked, and they feel ashamed, and after receiving a series of curses having to do with labor (both of the agricultural and natal kind) they are sent out into the cold, hard, not-so-paradisiacal world.

And that’s the story of why life sucks.

While that’s not strictly the story of Barbie — a delightful and often gaspingly funny movie, by the way — it turns out Gerwig wasn’t just having a laugh when she brought up the creation myth in the Vogue interview. Barbie is thoroughly, and more or less textually, a surprisingly wise excavation of one interpretation of the text and its meaning, as well as the meaning of Barbies as products of culture, the gender wars, and feminism more broadly. You know, typical blockbuster stuff.

There’s a history of filmmakers talking a big game when it comes to taking existing intellectual properties (Marvel characters, say, or nostalgia sequels) and “saying something” with them. Occasionally it works (see Black Panther or Rogue One). More often it is, at best, pretty shallow; consider Ocean’s Eight or Captain Marvel or, wondrously, Cats, which director Tom Hooper described as being about the “perils of tribalism.”

Barbie is not the kind of IP that naturally lends itself to cinematic and philosophical musings. But in Gerwig’s hands, along with her co-writer Noah Baumbach, it’s sly and just about as subversive as a movie can be while still being produced by one of its targets (toy manufacturer Mattel, which the movie relentlessly tweaks over discontinued Barbies and Kens) and distributed by another (Warner Bros. Discovery, which gets one expertly barbed zinger). Loaded with movie references from the ’60s beach party genre to the trippy dream ballets of midcentury musicals — and, uh, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey — it is cinephile wish-fulfillment rolled in nerdiness and covered in pink sprinkles. Should Barbie be a smash hit, Mattel may wish to replicate its success with other IP, but it’s hard to imagine any future films rising to Barbie’s level of sheer cleverness, rather than pure corporate pandering.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

On the 2001 point: The movie (like one of its trailers) begins at the very beginning, with a scene ripped from Kubrick’s film. In his, a tribe of apes in a barren prehistoric landscape learn to make tools and then are suddenly confronted by a giant, mysterious, towering rectangular monolith. In Gerwig’s, a group of little girls equipped only with baby dolls and tea party accessories are suddenly confronted with a giant towering monolith of their own: a curvy Barbie, which inspires them to smash their boring baby dolls. In voiceover, Helen Mirren announces that, thanks to the creation of Barbie and then her many career-focused iterations (Doctor Barbie, Scientist Barbie, President Barbie, and so on), “all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved” in the real world.

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“At least,” she says, as the crowd snickers, “that’s what the Barbies think.”

The Barbies live in Barbieland, an analog for the Garden of Eden, where every day is a sunny and perfect day — especially for our heroine, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie). Her home is a Barbie Dream House in Barbieland, where the Barbies run all aspects of the world. She has a load of friends, all named Barbie, and a boyfriend named Ken (Ryan Gosling) who hangs out with the other Kens at the beach. He is not a lifeguard, nor is he a surfer; his job, he insists, is “beach.”

One day, in the middle of a party, Barbie suddenly starts thinking about death, for no reason at all (especially because she’s a plastic doll and one that is, as you probably know, virtually indestructible). When a tragedy strikes — I won’t ruin it — Barbie is forced to leave paradise and go to the real world, and Ken hitches a ride. When they get there, they discover that they’re suddenly self-conscious and aware of being looked at (this movie’s version of Eve and Adam discovering their nakedness). The plot soon thickens, because not only does Barbie realize that women do not have the same kind of standing in the real world as they do in hers, but men can leer and jeer and make crude comments and stupid decisions, and it’s just sort of what they do. Meanwhile Ken ... discovers patriarchy.

I should say at this juncture that while Robbie is a reliably excellent Barbie, it is Gosling who absolutely steals the show, in part because the character of Ken is terrific and in part because he’s committed so hard to the bit that just looking at him move his arms is somehow hysterical. Gosling’s face is just a little odd, a little asymmetrical, and he pulls off “big doofus with a big doofus face” and “vaguely sinister idiot” with equal aplomb.

Ken’s discovery of patriarchy (which seems to have a lot to do with the subjugation of women and with horses, as far as he can tell) is the means through which a sort of original sin leaks into Barbieland, though by the end of the film it’s clear that this isn’t a typically shallow Hollywood take on feminism. Sure, Barbies were created to teach girls that they could be anything, but what else did they do? (By the end, we learn that in a truly ideal world, the Barbies and the Kens would live in harmony and equality — and that won’t happen overnight.)

But the path the movie traces is more than a little theologically familiar: a paradise lost, destroyed by the “knowledge” of “good” and “evil,” and a path back to restoration (with some bonus reflections on being created for a purpose by a Creator). And there seems to be some built-in interrogation of the Genesis narrative, too. Would it be better, after all, for Barbie and Ken to have continued living naively in a paradise where Ken is just “and Ken” and everyone seems happy all the time? Or did gaining knowledge of the outside world actually make them aware of their free will and equip them to live better, more fulfilled lives? It’s a question some theologians have approached throughout history, and one that recurs when we think about history: Golden ages often appear that way because we were naive to what was “really” going on back then, not because they were actually better.

Let me not give you the wrong impression here: Barbie is an impressive achievement as a film and far, far funnier than any studio comedy I can remember in recent history. There are perfect jokes about everything from stilettos to boy bands to fascism and Matchbox Twenty; I’m still giggling at some of the gags. Barbie probably isn’t for very young children, though the spectacle could get them engaged, but tweens and up will find something to love.

Yet fun and thoughtfulness can go together; a blockbuster (or a doll) need not be brainless to be fun. Gerwig’s solo directing career thus far (which includes Lady Bird and Little Women) is a triumph of reimagination, an exploration of what it means to find out who you are and not allow yourself to be shaped by nostalgia and sentimentality while also living with deep, real love. That she managed to infuse the same sensibilities into Barbie is something near a miracle. I can’t wait to go see it again.

Barbie opened in theaters on July 21.