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Barbie’s sparkling pink Gnosticism

Movie tells women to do everything except what their bodies are created to do

Margot Robbie in a scene from Barbie Warner Bros. Pictures via Associated Press

<em>Barbie</em>’s sparkling pink Gnosticism

In the new movie Barbie, Greta Gerwig wants you to believe that being pregnant is weird. Midge, a pregnant Barbie doll that serves as the butt of many jokes, was discontinued “because a pregnant doll is just too weird.” Midge has no speaking parts, and characters throughout the movie are repeatedly taken aback whenever she appears. Barbie wants to empower women to be anything they are or choose to be (in the film, Barbie comes in every career, country, shade, size, and even sex) — except, apparently, the one thing that most women eventually hold in common: becoming a mother.

Mattel’s Barbie doll has always provoked conversation about womanhood and the female body. She has been an icon of femininity in the truest sense of the word: Barbie was the ideal. But Barbie has also been plagued by controversy, with some claiming she perpetuated unattainable standards rather than empowering women to overcome them. The Barbie doll’s meteoric success and then rapid decline, however, is only a mirror reflecting deeper cultural questions about what it means to be a woman.

Gerwig’s task as Barbie’s director was to create a movie that celebrated the doll while also acknowledging her controversial status in American culture. But if Barbie is a symbol of unattainable beauty standards, the Barbie movie is a symbol of incoherent feminist standards. Where earlier waves of feminism sought for women’s equal participation in democracy and the marketplace as women, modern feminism seeks to transcend—even leave behind—the female body altogether. Barbie exemplifies this in its exaltation of choice (“women can be anything they choose to be,” including, apparently, biological men) with its concurrent scorn for pregnancy and childbearing (“a pregnant doll is just too weird”).

The Barbie movie underscores our society’s modern obsession with individualism, a philosophy that would pit even our own bodies against their biological purposes.

What is this feminism that says we can choose to be anything except what our bodies were created for? How is it a victory for women if we have to amend our bodies to be like men’s to exist and succeed in the marketplace? Why is it looked down upon to be “just alone in a house raising kids,” as Robin Gerber, the biographer of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, said in an interview? And why is being a mother held as just one in a series of so-called “career options” available to women, when our bodies were literally designed for motherhood?

The Barbie movie underscores our society’s modern obsession with individualism, a philosophy that would pit even our own bodies against their biological purposes. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has observed, individualism (which pervades feminist and even transgender ideologies) says, “I am what I myself choose to be.” But, he continues, contra individualism, “I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.” Though he is not explicitly speaking of biology here, it is fair to conclude that part of that inheritance is our physical selves. “What I am, therefore,” MacIntyre concludes, “is in key part what I inherit.” This includes our bodies.

Any feminism that denies our bodies is just Gnosticism painted pink. The idea that one can free one’s true self from the prison of the body in an effort to transcend it is not new. And just like in the early church, Christianity offers a much more coherent and joy-filled vision for femininity rooted in our created nature.

I watched Barbie with my 8-month-old daughter in tow. Unweaned, she is as far from Gnosticism as you can be and is unable to forget about my body any more than I can forget about hers. Sitting in the dark theater, I saw myself in Midge, the pregnant Barbie, and didn’t find the movie to be empowering (even while I did enjoy all of the sparkles and pink). I did, however, feel a sense of awe and womanly glory to be able to give my body as a gift to my baby girl, just as I have ever since she came into being. It’s normal. It’s incredible. And there’s nothing at all weird about it, despite what Greta Gerwig might have to say.

Katelyn Walls Shelton

Katelyn Walls Shelton is a Bioethics Fellow at the Paul Ramsey Institute. She is a women’s health policy consultant who previously worked to promote the well-being of women and the unborn at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Union University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, John, and their three children.


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