Et Tu, Tony? Finding Lessons in the new Barbie Movie


I’ve mentioned the Mockingbird Ministries website in the past. I write for it occasionally. Two of the things I appreciate about it are 1) the commitment to finding grace in unexpected places and people, and 2) it’s way more plugged into popular culture than I am.

So this 1 + 1 = a great article about the director of the new Barbie movie, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig’s previous films include the wonderful “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” I admit, I never would have expected a Barbie movie to be grace-filled. In fact, it might have been the last place I would look.

But read this excerpt (in italics) from an interview with Gerwig.

“I really thought of [the plot of Barbie] like a spiritual journey,” Gerwig says. The Barbies live in a world that has “the comfort of fundamentalism”; there is no death, aging or shame, and “you never have to wonder what you’re meant to do.” Then cellulite slithers into paradise. The idea that “you’re not going to follow a path that’s been laid out for you,” Gerwig says, “comes with a fair amount of terror.”

Helping Barbie navigate her topsy-turvy new existence are other women. Some are already embedded in her history but one is a stranger, a woman she notices while she sits on a bench, gathering herself. It’s a type of woman she has never seen before, because there are no old women in Barbieland. This woman is played by the 91-year-old, Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, a friend of Gerwig’s. (“Do you have many friends who are, like, 90? I do, weirdly. I have three real friends, not pretend friends, who are now 91, 90 and 91.”)

When Barbie looks at her, she finds her beautiful and tells her so. The woman already knows. Suddenly Barbie, the fraught aspirational figure, has beheld someone she might aspire to be, and it is a radiantly content nonagenarian, reading a newspaper on a Los Angeles bench, who knows what she’s worth.

The idea of a loving God who’s a mother, a grandmother — who looks at you and says, ‘Honey, you’re doing OK’ — is something I feel like I need and I wanted to give to other people,” Gerwig says. When it was suggested that this scene, which Gerwig calls a “transaction of grace,” might be cut for time, she remembers thinking: “If I cut that scene, I don’t know why I’m making this movie.”

“Honey, you’re doing OK,” may be a blessing you need today. So there it is from a 91-year-old in the movie “Barbie.” Who knew?

Gerwig speaks in the interview of the experience of sharing in neighbor’s Shabbat meal and being blessed as part of the traditional blessing of the children.

It’s a testament to Gerwig’s singular earnestness — a level of sincerity unavailable to many of us — that using Barbie to affirm the worth of ordinary women feels, to her, quasi religious. She told me that when she was growing up, her Christian family’s closest friends were observant Jews; they vacationed together and constantly tore around each other’s homes. She would also eat with them on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner, where blessings were sung in Hebrew, including over the children at the table. May God bless you and protect you. May God show you favor and be gracious to you. May God show you kindness and grant you peace. Every Friday the family’s father would rest his hand on Gerwig’s head, just as he did on his own children’s, and bless her too.

“I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that,’” Gerwig told me. “ ‘You are a child of God. I put my hand over you, and I bless you as a child of God at this table. And that’s your value.’ I remember feeling so safe in that and feeling so, like, enough.” She imagines people going to the temple of the movies to see “Barbie” on a hot summer day, sitting in the air-conditioned dark, feeling transported, laughing, maybe crying, and then coming out into the bright heat. “I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner,” she said. “I want them to get blessed.”

It sounds to me like Gerwig’s movie is offering young girls and women just about the opposite of what social media hits them with, which is a relentless wave of anxiety about whatever they are not. “Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that . . . You are a child of God.” Amen to that.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.



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