Hollywood worships big movie franchises, so fans can expect “Barbie” sequels.
One plot proposal quickly emerged from an unlikely source — Sister Mary Joseph Calore of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in St. Cresson, Pennsylvania.
“‘Barbie becomes a nun’ would be a great sequel,” she wrote on the X platform, formerly Twitter. Her post contained this pitch to Warner Bros. executives: “Dissatisfied by endless parties and user friends, an eating disorder, spending addictions with clothes and shoes, and cohabitating with the shallow & unemployed playboy Ken, Barbie’s sportscar has been parked more and more at an adoration chapel. She is seriously giving thought to draining the pool, putting her condo on the market, cutting her hair and donning the religious habit.”
That would be a twist after a cinematic manifesto arguing that life as a real woman is painful and complicated, but it’s better than being an iconic plastic doll.
“This movie should have been silly and fun, but it ended up being preachy and earnest,” said Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, a former Catholic nun who became a screenwriter and Hollywood script doctor. “I mean, how far can you go with a story about Barbie?”
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s previous work has been impressive, stressed Harrington, who teaches at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. With “Little Women,” Gerwig showed the ability to offer a fresh take on a familiar story. Now, “Barbie” will draw intense scrutiny, because Gerwig will direct at least one movie in the upcoming Netflix take on “The Chronicles of Narnia” novels by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
“Barbie” contains ambitious attempts to mix serious, even if tongue-in-cheek, social commentary with pop-culture mythology — such as a shot-for-shot homage to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary dawn-of-consciousness scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The big “Barbie” question, noted Other Feminisms writer Leah Libresco Sargeant, is stated in a soundtrack ballad — “What Was I Made For?” The key is that “Barbie” praises the “pursuit of meaning, while any discovery of meaning is excluded,” noted Sargeant, a popular atheist blogger who converted to Catholicism in 2012.
Ultimately, Barbie “receives her own benediction from the film’s Higher Power — the ghost of Ruth Handler, the real-life creator of the doll. Barbie wants to be her own storyteller, rather than a conduit through whom stories are told. She looks to Handler for permission to become human, but Handler disclaims any authority over her creation. Barbie can decide who to be … without anyone else’s input,” wrote Sargeant for The Dispatch.
Although the film includes a highly symbolic contact between Barbie and Handler — which Gerwig based on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” — Sargeant said it’s clear her creator is “one more person stepping back to avoid being a barrier to the pursuit of the Self.”
Then again, that “Barbie” scene can be interpreted as a positive theological statement about what it means to be human, argued Brigid McCabe and Laura Oldfather, writing for the progressive Jesuit magazine America.
As Barbie faces her fear of leaving “dollhood behind,” her creator takes her hands and “tells her to ‘feel.’” This leads into a montage of “young girls and grown women, laughing, talking, playing and enjoying their lives. … When Barbie opens her eyes again, she has tears on her face,” wrote McCabe and Oldfather.
“This felt very reminiscent of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Contemplation of the Incarnation,” which asks believers making a Jesuit retreat to “imagine the three Divine Persons gazing down on the earth full of people. … These scenes, of so many different people and emotions, flash before Barbie, and she is overwhelmed with the joys and sufferings of the world, with women at the forefront.”
One thing is clear, said Harrington: Gerwig didn’t want to make what Hollywood pros often call a “stupid good” movie that is merely clever, creative and entertaining. She wanted to critique “toxic masculinity,” gender, motherhood and the marketing of pricey princess dreams.
“I don’t think anyone wants to live in the Barbie world that’s shown in this movie,” she said. “But no one wants to see a Barbie movie about the challenges of being a real woman, either. The vehicle that is this movie cannot support a weighty subject like that. … This is a movie about a doll. Think about that.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected].