A World Without Love is Never Kenough
Greta Gerwig’s new Barbie film is bright and beautiful, full of playful tropes and nostalgic details that make it one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters. Critics have rightly praised the lavish set design, flawless costuming, and sparkling satire that “brings all the fun, summer sparkle we’ve been waiting for.” If Barbie had a completely different ending, it might have been the best girls-night-out movie I have seen in years; however, rather than resolve the tensions raised by this female empowerment doll, the movie ended by doubling down to the breaking point.
Although everyone is debating the overtly feminist content of the film, the real problem with the beautiful new Barbie movie is not ultimately its feminism, its exaggerated stereotypes, or its political cliches; the problem with Barbie is her committed existentialism. While the candy-colored, well-acted film could have been the sweet and playful movie many women hoped it would be, in the end, Barbie proves to be a cleverly crafted Trojan horse bearing the radical individualism that will devastate relationships between the sexes.
The basic principle of existentialism is best articulated in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line, “existence precedes essence.” Following the lead of Nietzsche, existentialists argue that if there is no God, then material existence has no intrinsic nature, meaning, or purpose, and each conscious individual must make up identity and meaning for themselves. As Sartre explains in Existentialism is Humanism,
First of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself… At first he is nothing. Only afterwards will he be something, and he himself will have made him what he will be.
According to the existentialist, individuals must create meaning and identity for themselves and to accept meaning or identity from others is the great and only sin.
In her seminal text, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir turns this existentialist mantra into a feminist creed: "One is not born but becomes a woman." Beauvoir argues that men have historically oppressed women by defining a woman in relationship to men. For the existentialist, this is wrongly essentialist; it assigns a natural or given meaning to woman based on her biology. To define who a woman is—or ought to be—based on the essential form of her body is to violate her existential rights to self-determination. To be free from oppression, Beauvoir argues, a woman must define herself autonomously, without reference to any source of meaning outside her individual conscious self.
Gerwig’s Barbie movie is thoroughly feminist because it is thoroughly existential. Barbie’s world is a place where women are completely free to define themselves according to their own autonomous preferences. The Barbie Land introduction sequence shows us a variety of Barbies—all identified, not by who they love or who they are in relationship with, but by what they want to do: travel to space, become president, deliver the mail.
This idealized matriarchy where every Barbie lives in her own hot pink dream house is completely devoid of any motherhood or family structure—of any purpose or relationship that might be given to a woman rather than what she has chosen. The film opens with an origin story wherein the newly created Barbie rescues little girls from being forced to play with baby dolls. After independent, infertile Barbie arrives, the young girls of the world celebrate their liberation from motherhood by smashing their babies to bits. The pro-abortion symbolism is disturbingly clear; women are existentially freed by the ability to detach themselves from their fertility and offspring. To confirm Barbie Land as the anti-maternal ideal, a discontinued pregnant Barbie makes a brief appearance only as a fringe object of everyone’s repulsion and scorn.
Kens: Objectified Props for Barbies
The men, or Kens, in Barbie Land exist as little more than objects in the background setting. As Barbie states explicitly with a wink, “Ken is superfluous,” and she consistently treats him as such. In the most entertaining scene of the whole movie, Ken leads a dance number in which he laments being an unwanted accessory to Barbie’s independent identity. He sings, “I’m always #2 ... I’m just Ken.” The film creates a reversal of de Beauvoir’s thesis by making men into the “Second Sex” of Barbie land. Feminists who resent the definition of women in relationship to a male-centered humanity take revenge by defining the Kens in relationship to a Barbie-centered world. These empowered women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. These Barbies don’t live with men in interdependent community or loving mutuality; they are a collective of self-centered, careerist individuals.
This total commitment to individualistic existentialism explains why Gerwig can include a transgender “Barbie” in a purportedly feminist movie. The film is not concerned with the rights and safety of real women, something men identifying as women are seriously threatening at every level of society. Rather, Barbie is concerned with advocating the individual’s absolute, inviolable right to radical self-determination, something transgender ideology fits with well.
Women Hating Women
The plot begins when Barbie suddenly starts thinking about death, her feet fall flat, and she discovers cellulite on her thighs. To solve her existential crisis, Barbie travels to the real world with her unwanted Ken tagging along. When she arrives in California, Barbie is shocked to discover a world of exaggerated patriarchy where men think of her as an object and girls hate her for her beauty. Here, as the teen character Sasha explains, “Men hate women, and women hate women.”
Since the film moves chaotically between satire and sincerity, it is difficult to know how to interpret Sasha’s statement. However, given the speech Sasha’s mother makes later in the story about how perpetually miserable it is to be a woman, Sasha’s bitter quip feels like a deep confession from the filmmaker.
Modern feminists seem to hate women as much as they believe men do, for the female body confronts all of us with our intrinsic dependence on one another and ultimately upon God. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” We only know ourselves as women and as men through our relationship with each other, and we only know ourselves as humans in relationship to the God we image. The female body reminds us of this interdependence and the givenness of our existence, for our mothers literally gave us life. Modern existentialists, feminists and misogynists alike, hate the true meaning of womanhood because they hate anything that would remind them of their creaturely nature or put definitional limits and who they are and what they can do.
As Barbie experiences this animosity and rejection in the real world, she learns to empathize with the pain of others. Ken, on the other hand, experiences admiration and respect in the real world and learns about the patriarchy. While Barbie enjoys a misadventure with the executive board of Mattel, Ken sneaks back to Barbie Land to try out the patriarchy. Barbie eventually escapes Mattel and brings her new friends, a mother and daughter with a broken relationship, back to Barbie Land. When they arrive, Barbie is shocked to discover that the Kens have taken over, brainwashed the Barbies into obsequious girlfriends, and turned all the dream houses into man caves.
To dismantle the patriarchal “Kendom” and take back Barbie Land, Barbie and several misfit friends devise a plan to free all the brainwashed Barbies from their internalized misogyny. They decide to turn the Barbies against the Kens by “giving voice to the cognitive dissonance of living in patriarchy.” In other words, each individual Barbie gets a secret lecture in critical social theory to expose the hegemonic social structures the Kens have created in order to keep the women powerless and controlled. The Barbies go woke and stage a revolutionary coup using, not physical strength and violence, but feminine powers of seduction and deception.
The night before the big vote on Barbie Land’s new constitution, the Barbies ask the Kens out on dates, pretending to enjoy their time and attention. Late in the evening, just when the Kens think the Barbies actually care, the women get up and leave, turning their attention to a different Ken in order to make the men jealous and pit them against each other. This power play works, and the Kens stage a splendid beach battle while the Barbies slink off to the capitol to veto the new Kendom constitution.
After saving democracy through voter suppression, the Barbies reestablish the old matriarchal system that again keeps the Kens controlled and relatively powerless. The Kens are given a fringe of new opportunities to keep them happy and hopeful, but no real answer for how men and women might share power is in any way explored. Barbie Land becomes the reversal of Gerwig’s modern real world where men still rule, just more covertly.
The heroines resolve the immediate conflict between men and women through deceptive manipulation, embracing for themselves the very will to power they claim to abhor in men. For this reason, many critics see Barbie as a critique of both misogyny and radical feminism. If this is true, then what positive vision of womanhood and the relationship between the sexes does the film have to offer? Let’s see how the story ends.
The End of Existentialism
Female dominance now restored, our lead Barbie and Ken try to work out the conflict between the sexes through the microcosm of their own personal relationship. Ken comes to Barbie hoping they can be together now. He confesses that he always thought one day they would share the dream house together. However, Barbie flatly rejects Ken. Indeed, she shames him for his longing to have a relationship with her. She shames him for being a man who wants to do things for her and earn her affection, to find his identity and purpose through mutual loving relationship with a woman. Barbie lectures Ken on existentialism and the necessity of defining himself relative only to himself. She asks men to do the impossible: “figure out who you are without me.” While Ken wanted to understand his identity through love, Barbie is committed to total autonomy.
While Barbie does apologize for being generally unkind to Ken, her speech reveals the tragic sadness of individualistic existentialism. If we make radical autonomy our highest value and commitment, then we will create a world without love. The existential duty of individuals is to create a world of independent meaning for themselves, and there is no transcendent higher meaning that can reconcile those individual worlds. We become a collective of individuals whose independent desires perpetually war with each other. Where self-determination becomes the ruling principle, the conflicts between men and women will be utterly irreconcilable, which is exactly what Barbie tells us in the end.
After rejecting Ken, Barbie worries that her personal story doesn’t have an end. Barbie’s real-world creator, Ruth Handler, appears to provide counsel and guidance. This is Barbie’s Pinocchio moment; will she remain a doll or accept mortality in order to become a real woman? Ultimately, Barbie chooses to leave Barbie Land for the real world because she wants to be the one who makes meaning, not the thing that is made. This is the destructive heart of existentialism: the desire to be as gods, to be the Creator and not the creation. While creativity is a beautiful and essential part of our humanity, it is always what Tolkien calls sub-creation–dependent upon and responsible to the moral authority of our Creator. We are not free to independently determine the meaning and purpose of our lives; we are called to receive meaning and value from above.
The key to interpreting a story is to examine the final answer offered to the fundamental conflict of the plot. Barbie raises the perennial question, can men and women find a way to live meaningful lives together? The movie’s answer is no. Barbie chooses to leave the imaginary world of Barbie Land, but to what end? What is the telos or purpose of her new human life?
When Barbie arrives in the real world, the first and last thing we see her do is arrive at the gynecologist. This is a funny but reductive and incoherent last word. What is a real woman? Simply someone with a vagina? How does this fit with the film’s pandering to transgenderism? What is a vagina for? She has rejected her relationship with men and we are given no indication that she intends to start a family. Is the foundation of meaningful womanhood an annual pap smear and birth control?
All the movie ends with is a vague gesture toward meaningless female empowerment. To be a woman is to be anything you want to be, which is really to bear the existential burden of perpetually creating and sustaining yourself. No wonder modern women are miserable and resonate so deeply with America Ferrera’s monologue. We were never created to invent and sustain our own identities amidst a chaotic and meaningless world. We were meant to receive value and meaning as a gift from God. Yet liberated existentialists desire independence above all, and so they can’t know who they really are, and even the feminists don’t know what a woman is.
In a good and humane story, the hero or heroine resolves the fundamental conflict through love, by sacrificing something costly and significant for others. That’s the way the world works. Conflicts are resolved not when individuals further assert their own will and advantage, but only when someone chooses to suffer a personal loss in order to restore relationship. This is the pattern of every truthful story; selfishness leads to conflict and tragedy while sacrifice and love create joyful restoration. Stories that attempt to create restoration through selfishness lie to us as they create plot problems and lack emotional resonance. The hollowness may be covered over by sentimental music, pretty actors, trite platitudes, or a montage of home videos showing individual women happily embracing the seasons of life, but it is there, and we feel it.
If Barbie and Ken learned that they needed each other, that the reconciliation of the sexes comes through accepting our interdependence and learning to love one another, then this would have been an incredible movie. The film could have used the imaginary world of play to find a way for men and women to live together in mutual affection and love, as children are made to do.
The Ancient Lie, Retold
But Barbie does what our postmodern, post-Christian culture does best: take all the positive, virtuous, and creative aspects of culture and use them as a vehicle for the ancient lie: you shall be as gods. This is the religious creed written into the famous majority decision of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The film wants to be a Pinocchio story wherein Barbie becomes a real woman. However, Pinocchio becomes a real boy, the velveteen rabbit becomes a real rabbit, and girls become real women when they learn to sacrifice for others—when they learn to love. Ken understood this. Ken knew that he was made for a relationship, and, before Barbie shamed him into radical existentialism, he wanted above all “to know what it’s like to love, to be the real thing.” Perhaps this is why Ken is the only character with a song to sing.
In the end, Barbie is the story of Peter Pan and the failure to grow up. Barbie stepped out of a world of exaggerated gender stereotypes and into a world not of sacrificial love for others but of self-centered independence. This is why the ending of Barbie fails. Maturing from girlhood to womanhood means accepting the identity and responsibilities that come with being a woman, and it means learning to love others more than yourself. The failure to accept the life we were given by our Creator is a failure to grow up. It is an adolescent fantasy to think we have absolute freedom to invent ourselves and live life independently—and such an immature, self-centered, existential fantasy doesn’t look any better on a woman than it does on a man.
 1 Corinthians 11:11-12.
Annie Crawford is a cultural apologist and classical educator with a Master of Arts in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She teaches apologetics and humanities courses and is co-founder of The Society for Women of Letters. She has written for The Blyth Institute, American Thinker, Circe Institute, The Worldview Bulletin, Classical Academic Press, and An Unexpected Journal, where she is a founding editor and writer.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/existential-barbie