Photograph by Sean Bernstein on Unsplash
The Barbie and Ken movie: reflections on one of 2023’s most influential, and potentially award-winning, films
January 23, 2024
OK! I admit it. I went to see the Barbie movie. I wasn’t dragged there by my wife or my daughters. I wasn’t around Barbie dolls growing up. (My brother and I had G.I. Joes.) I thought it would be fun to see a movie about Barbie and her world, as an escape, I suppose, and in the end it was either a romp or something much more. It is certainly a serious Academy Awards contender with eight nominations, including in the best picture category.
Ostensibly, the movie is about Barbie discovering that there is a real world where everything isn’t perfect. Her eyes are opened to the hardship and the complexity of life, and even death, but it seemed to me the underlying story was about Ken and his search for independence, seeking an identity all his own, a prodigal son pursuit. Near the end of the film, you find out his true feelings:
Ken: “I just don’t know who I am without you…It’s Barbie and Ken. There’s no just Ken…”
Barbie: “Maybe it’s time to find out who Ken is…You have to figure out who you are without me.”
In the film, Ken hitches a ride in the pink convertible with Barbie and the two discover there is a whole new world out there where the rules are different and the people even more so. At first, they need each other, but soon their adventures part. Ken finds a school library and books espousing patriarchy: “Men Rule.” Convinced that he has found the key to his new identity in this encounter with the “Real World,” he becomes an evangelist for male domination. He returns to transform “Barbie World,” subjugating the other “Barbies” and leading the “Kens” into an era of manly (and horse-ly) leadership. He is finally free of his prescribed role as Barbie’s friend and is now committed to a new, independent life in Kendom. Does this solve Ken’s search for an identity apart from Barbie? You can watch the film to find out. I’ve already said too much.
As I walked out of the theater, I was taken back to my time at Eastern College (now Eastern University). More than once, Dr. Anthony Campolo told a generic story about a student who came to the end of a semester with the solemn news that they wouldn’t be returning because they needed to take time off to go find themselves.[i] Campolo’s observation was that the searcher would soon realize that people are like onions and once you peel off all the socially prescribed roles, there is no hidden you inside. You are the sum of your commitments and the roles that accompany them.
We choose some commitments and others are made for us. We may cut some out or lose some or even have commitments that are perpetually unclear, but if we shed them, there is no essential “self” inside. We are empty. And since commitments are the very things that give us our identity, we usually scramble to find replacements.
We too may jump in the pink convertible with a goal to find ourselves and be free, but one lesson from the movie is to watch carefully what new commitments we make. Like the prodigal’s journey, venturing into the world can end up lonely, chaotic, and, ultimately, a dead end.
What you commit to anew becomes critical. Identity-related commitments are usually made to a partner or family or career or community or faith. Today, I fear commitments of value are being traded for commitments of opposition. I am not for something, but rather against this group or this behavior or that religious body. We end up defining ourselves by who we are fighting, who we perceive to be the enemy. We treat our lives like we are competing on sports teams, wearing our identities on our shirts and bumper stickers and whatever streaming channels we follow. Everyone wants to be one of the winners, thinking that will make us into somebody, regardless of the moral consequences. Ken’s pursuit of patriarchy fits such a world. Such hostile commitments lead to strange bedfellows, and they do not pass the test of time.
One hopes that Ken will clarify his commitments, his “long term, long distance, low commitment, casual girlfriend” relationship with Barbie, find meaning in a career beyond the beach, and can be himself apart from Barbie. When Ken boldly wears a shirt emblazoned with “Kenough” at the end, one is not convinced. His search will continue. New commitments of value need to be made. Barbie assures him, “It’s Barbie and it’s Ken.”
We all may remember times when we have been “prone to wander,” wanting to let go of the roles that feel like they are holding us back and search for who we are. We too may jump in the pink convertible with a goal to find ourselves and be free, but one lesson from the movie is to watch carefully what new commitments we make. Like the prodigal’s journey, venturing into the world can end up lonely, chaotic, and, ultimately, a dead end.
As I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t separate myself from the idea that my own identity is rooted in a commitment to another, Christ. Who am I apart from Christ? When I bound “my wandering heart” to Christ, I became somebody, a child of God. That is the commitment I feebly treasure.
While in prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote many letters and several poems, the most famous being, “Who Am I?” He ponders the gulf between the things others in prison tell him he is and the real Dietrich he knows himself. He concludes with the dilemma unresolved except for one certainty: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”[ii]
Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.