Have you seen Barbie yet? I’m a little late to the game, but recently my family and I watched it at a local theater and it was one of the most responsive and excited groups of people I’ve ever watched a movie with. Like a lot of things in 2023, it felt like the return of pre-Covid public entertainment was one reason for the euphoria. But there’s something about this movie in particular that’s bringing about a fever pitch.
It’s nostalgic. It’s funny. It’s visually striking. The acting is superb. The music’s catchy. The interplay between the Barbie world and the real world is creatively portrayed, without being too cliche. In all, the movie has a lot going for it. It’s, just, fun.
But there was something that left us feeling hollow afterward. On our walk home, after a few minutes of internal processing and silence, my wife broke the ice: “I think it needed a love story.” “Mmm,” I agreed, “Tell me more.” She elaborated: “I just wanted to see some kind of sacrifice or deference, but it kept hitting a glass wall every time I thought it might go that way.”
If you haven’t seen it, there are several moments in the movie where Ken declares his love for Barbie, only to be rejected with a “That’s really not what we need right now”-type sentiment. Even the God-figure (Barbie’s creator), after teasing us with a tear-inducing speech of “You’re perfect, in spite of your flaws, Barbie,” (the most powerful moment in the movie, in my opinion) quickly pivots to the “You can do anything you want” messaging that rounds out the rest of the film. It ends with the narrator holding out hope that Kens would rise up in status with Barbies in Barbieworld just like women would rise up in status with men in the real world. And it all just kind of…happened…without a shade of self-giving or sacrifice from any of the characters. It was as if the messaging itself was the main character more than Barbie, who just kind of dragged everyone along to the not-so-surprising conclusion.
Now, I realize that a love story in the Barbie movie in the year 2023 was never going to happen. But it’s interesting to consider why it couldn’t happen. Love requires sacrifice, which implies neediness. It’s built on the foundation of putting others first, which implies distinction. It often catches us by surprise, because the one who we think has some kind of priority suddenly desires to become lesser for the sake of the other. But all of this has a hard time living in a story where equality, independence, and self-aggrandizement wear the cape. It’s like a squishy ball when you press down on the center and the internal contents get pushed to the outside. Some themes just can’t co-exist; instead, one thing gets decentralized at the expense of the other. In this case, love.
It’s a somewhat surprising turn for director Greta Gerwig who isn’t aloof to sacrificial love in other works of hers like Little Women and Ladybird. But maybe that’s the point. We’re all a bit like her, trying (even unintentionally) to move on from love – to find ultimate meaning in the self rather than in the objective deference and sacrifice of another.
When it comes to the divine romance between Jesus and the Church, it’s predicated on the fact that the bride and the groom are different. We are not God, and he is not us. He’s the stronger party who willingly lays down his life for us, the weaker party. He puts us first, even scandalously, by becoming “just a Ken” in our place. For love to truly take root, someone needs to give, defer, and suffer. But, as it is, the clamoring for equality and extreme independence poisons the roots of romance, just like the law drives a wedge between God and people because it’s built more on posturing and work than receiving and grace.
Christianity isn’t a story about rising up to be like others, nor of a God who tells us we can accomplish whatever we put our minds to, but of a lover stooping down low and sacrificing himself for those he loves. Directionality is important, both in spirituality and storytelling. All it takes is a little bit of love to set things in the right direction (down, that is, not up). Not just in a marriage, but in all kinds of relationships, big or small — a love that considers others more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3), and a love that makes us okay standing in the shadows while others shine.
I like to think that if the story continued, maybe Ken and Barbie would come to see this. Barbie 2, anyone? But then again, without love, it would keep getting lost in all of the strivings for sameness. Thankfully, love comes from above not from within, so our hope is set not on getting this all figured out, but by fixing our gaze on a bloody cross where heaven kisses earth in a way that is undeniably self-effacing yet breathtakingly beautiful.