Barbie, memento mori and liberation

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
 on September 1, 2023

Just as one envisions a skull in a classical monk’s cell, as a memento mori – a reminder of one’s mortality — so too the pink utopia of the seemingly perfect Barbie World is disrupted in the movie — by a question about death.

Barbie Land does not usually deal with such serious subjects since every day is presumably fun and easy — at least for “Stereotypical Barbie.” Although many of my friends had Barbie dolls in childhood, it was not an item that met the litmus test of “necessity” that my frugal parents used to measure all things to be purchased — or not. And later, I tried but failed to prevent my daughter from having a Barbie, since the original dolls could cause great disappointment when one’s teenage body looked nothing like the doll. Or as the human “tween” in the movie angrily tells Barbie, “You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented.”

This is a great shock to Barbie because she thought that with all the liberated women in Barbie Land taking on all the important roles in society — from president to doctor to construction workers, etc. — that women in the REAL world would be grateful to her. She also assumed that the CEO and board of directors of Mattel would be women, but there was nary a one!


This is all so different from Barbie Land where the men are “just Kens” — a sort of occasional accessory to the women’s lives, but otherwise not of much relevance. Therefore Ken, who’s tagged along with Barbie to visit the REAL world, is thrilled to discover that the men there have way more power, prestige and control. Ken quickly adopts this idea in one of many funny scenes, like that showing him in a hospital, asking if he can do “just one little appendectomy.” No, he’s told, because he’s not a doctor. “But I’m a man,” he replies, seemingly assuming the doors to the O.R. will fly open because of his “superior gender,” but not so. Undaunted, Ken is eager to return to Barbie Land to tell the other Kens how much more power they can gain by adopting some real-world patriarchal ideas. And they do their best to swing the power pendulum in the opposite direction, succeeding in at least gaining more rights than they had before.

The heroic story of the main Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, has those classical elements of the protagonist encountering numerous dangerous surprises and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. In one scene, she is chased by “monsters” — Mattel men — who want to put her “back in the box” because she’s asking too many dangerous questions. Barbie runs down a corridor full of doors, and going inside one of them, she discovers the “ghost” of her creator Ruth Handler. Ruth is shown sitting in her modest 1950s kitchen designing Barbie dolls and their clothing. One of the main lines that somehow struck me in this great movie, is in this scene when Ruth tells Barbie that she can always think better while sitting at a kitchen table. Many great ideas have been born in such humble places.


Adela recently bought her first Barbie dolls at age 71 — Dr Barbie and her best friend — inexpensively purchased online at Amazon.


As you’ve likely noticed online, there’s no end to the writing being done about the Barbie movie, including thoughtful religious or spiritual articles like this one from Sojourners:

In the movie trailer one can also see a rich diversity of body shapes and skin tones as per the 2016 evolution of the doll:  After not having been in a movie theatre for about a decade, I’m so glad I went to see this one. Ultimately, the movie is about everyone’s liberation, and how that requires all of us to make room for others. In other words, “love your neighbour as yourself” because as the Lakota say Mitakuye Oyasin — all are related or interconnected in God’s good Creation.


  • Adela Torchia

    Adela Torchia is interim priest-in-charge at Two Saints Ministry, and an honorary assistant at Christ Church Cathedral.

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