“Barbie” Isn’t As Feminist As They Want You To Think

Okay, friends! Let’s get into BARBIE!

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want the plot twists revealed, move along! Although I don’t think it will ruin your experience of the movie if you do know what happens: it might even enhance it. You decide.

“Barbie” is a visual FEAST! I loved the design, I squealed at the costumes and set, hair, makeup, and fun of it all. The dance numbers are bangers and the whole production is good summer fun. Margot Robbie was adorable and funny and perfect (literally), and I honestly think that Ryan Gosling should get an Oscar nomination for his work, although he won’t. Comedic roles are rarely recognized.

But “Barbie” is not the feminist statement the mainstream media and many viewers want to think it is.

I loved the pink Girl Power world of Barbieland, and I appreciated that Gerwig/Baumbach broke open the Barbie-verse to include a diversity of Barbies. Issa Rae was terrific as President Barbie, and it was wonderful to see women characters cheer each other on and to have the one celebrated respond with “thank you, I worked hard and I deserved it!” No false modesty, just big glowing smiles. We can dream, can’t we?

I was thoroughly enjoying myself until my critical radar was activated by a little blip in the screenplay and the appearance of cellulite on Barbie as she became to mesh realities with the Real World. Waitaminute. If Barbie & Co. are really existing outside of patriarchal society and do not exist for the male gaze, she (and the other horrified dolls) wouldn’t give a flip about some bumpy skin, which is associated with age. Imagine a matriarchy. Would a society of women see sagging or dimpled skin as something to be horrified by? Up to that moment in the film, I was delighted by the premise that all of the dolls were, well, dolled up in gorgeous outfits, hair, make-up and overblown aesthetic of traditional femininity because it’s PRETTY. Because we love sparkles and rainbows and pretty dresses, not because these trappings make anyone attractive to Kens/men.

That’s how I was when I played with Barbies. I had no inkling of wanting or needing male attention, I just loved make-up, wigs, puffy princess dresses and shiny shoes.

Suddenly I noticed that that, despite the diversity of Barbies in Gerwig and Baumbach’s vision, there were no old Barbies. Someone on TikTok suggested Jennifer Coolidige for the inevitable sequel, which is a brilliant idea. Why the absence of elder Barbies? Why were old women only allowed representation in the Real World? If there can be fat Barbies, another body that is rejected and reviled under patriarchal beauty standards, why no old Barbies?

They had Helen Mirren RIGHT. THERE.

But I filed that small concern away in my mind and continued to enjoy and appreciate the movie (even though I am not a fan of “Closer To Fine”). America Ferrera did a great job as Gloria, the frustrated mother of a surly tween. I loved Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel — his scenes were a wonderful satire of patriarchy, which is what I think Gerwig and Baumbach wanted to accomplish. Did you catch “Tooth Guy” (hilarious Jamie Demetriou) from “Fleabag” as one of his corporate minions? All the Mattel scenes were gold.

Ken’s whole bonkers discovery of patriarchy (horses!) was sly, clever and effective. The audience guffawed at his overwrought conversion but watching the Kens take down Barbieland was genuinely upsetting. I would like to acquire the screenplay and read it because I did not quite follow the plot device of the Barbies being brainwashed into pandering to the guys. I could understand how they were eventually snapped out of their bad enchantment but not at all sure how they were bamboozled into it. The scene where Kens make Barbies listen to them play guitar and sing “Push” by Matchbox 20 brought forth great howls of laughing solidarity from the many women in the audience who have suffered through similar displays of masculine ego by men trying to impress and seduce in insulting ways. It is a brilliant scene, and the movie at its very best.

Close to the end of the film, though, I thought the screenplay committed a serious betrayal of its supposed girl-power message. I have not heard one reviewer — not famous white feminist Susan Faludi — and not any of the Black women I follow on TikTok who had a lot to say about the film’s attempts at intersectionality — mention this moment, let alone hold it up to scrutiny.

Here it is:

When Barbieland has been restored to a woman-centric land and the Constitution has been restored (the Kens had a plan to OVERTHROW THE CONSTUTION, a plot point that hit too close to home for this American woman to be able to find humorous), Barbie finds the deposed Ken and apologizes to HIM.

“I’m sorry I took you for granted.”

She apologizes to the man who destroyed her home, installed a hostile government in her land, and did all of that because she was daring to live in a way that did not center his desires and needs (particularly for a romantic relationship with her).

This film teaches girls to apologize to their male oppressors. Note that. This is not a feminist film. Nor is it an anti-oppressive film. White Barbie apologizing to white Ken for leading a movement that, among other things, illegally removed a Black president from office? Miss me with that, Greta and Noah. You failed at intersectionality.

I will not stop hammering home this point. According to the logic of “Barbie,” when men destroy women’s spaces because they are not centered, not mollified and not granted romantic attention and access to women’s bodies (whether plastic or not!), they’re just doing this because WOMEN WERE TAKING THEM FOR GRANTED. It’s our fault.

You can bet that as soon as the lights came up, I addressed the row of young girls who were in front of me and said, “You guys, you know that if boys get upset and hostile because you decide to focus on yourself and your girlfriends, you don’t need to APOLOGIZE TO THEM, right?” They immediately said, “YEA!! What WAS that? And the women sitting to my right and to my left chimed in, which was very gratifying. Take that, Hollywood.

What I wish Barbie had said to Ken instead of “I’m sorry.”

Ken, you need to get a life.

Ken, if I want to have Girl’s Night every night until the end of time, I will do just that. Go make your own night. I’m not interested.

Final thoughts:

I have a mixed reaction to the last scene in the movie, which was cute but also could be read as a reduction of Barbie to her new reproductive organs. Lots of ways to interpret that. I thought the scene with Rhea Perlman was over-long and took itself far too seriously and overall I think the film suffered from inconsistency of messagea and the involvement of Noah Baumbach, whose work I have always found to simmer with misogynist resentment.

Michael Cera and Simu Liu are national treasures.

Remember that comments like, “it’s JUST a MovIe, RelAx” or “YoU musT Be fUN at ParTies” are will be deleted with maximum scorn. If you don’t understand the cultural importance and influence of the medium of film, that’s not my problem.

And yes, I had a Weird Barbie. My cousins and I also made Ken and G.I. Joe into lovers. It just made sense to us.

AI And Sermon Prep

My co-worker asked me today about using A.I. as a resource in preaching. Great question.

I did this once, and I don’t see myself doing it again, and here’s why:

When I entered a bunch of my writing into ChatGPT in April 2023 and asked it to generate a sermon about stewardship of the earth, it spewed back a nicely organized set of sentences and paragraphs that kind of sounded like me. It was certainly readable prose. But was it deliverable prose? Was it sermonic? No. Nope.

That is because Artificial Intelligence is not alive, and a sermon must come from the life force: the preacher’s living connection to their body, their life in relationship to the Holy Spirit, the ruach hakodesh, the cosmos, creation. I cannot deliver something that was not born but generated. Jesus said that thing about not feeding our children stones when they ask for bread. Stones actually have a lot more life force in them than does AI.

What do you believe about the transmission of life, hope, love and wisdom-giving energy through the generations, through the natural world, the sacred realm and through and among human beings? The way you answer that question will inform your decision to use or not use AI as a resource in your preaching. For myself, I do not want to begin with something dead and inert and have that enter my brain and creative process. It felt to me like gulping a meal of concrete. After reviewing my ChapGPT-generated sermon, it took considerable time and intention after that consumption of cement to get a sense of the blood flowing through my veins and the creative channels opening. Such a strange sensation, to feel a sense that I need to recover from ingesting inert reproduction of my own syntax and ideas.

I want to explore the fantastic potential of AI but I will not be using it as a resource for sermon preparation.

Palm Sunday Sermon: Anointing Woman

READING The Anointing Woman  

Mark 14 + Matthew 26: 6-13

SERMON “The Anointing” Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein 2002

The global Christian community enters Holy Week today, the drama of the final days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, his last meal with his closest community of disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his sham trial, his crucifixion. Today is Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the Holy City that had been occupied by Rome since 63 AD, so for about 90 years by the time this happened.

 Arriving by colt, or donkey, depending on which account you read, he is nevertheless consistently reported to have been cheered by hundreds of ardent fans and  followers. If you have ever seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” which treats Jesus like a rock star, that isn’t  inaccurate. He was a messianic celebrity to his people (the Jews living under Roman occupation) whose lives were very hard, with very few rights under the law, taxed into poverty, expendable, and murdered en masse when they dared to rise up against Rome. There was nothing unique about Jesus’ method of execution; Rome had been using this public form of torture and execution for a long time. The historical accounts are dreadful and the victims unknown and unnamed.

This is a very dramatic, crowded, busy moment in the gospel narrative. Think of protests you have been to, the noise, the clamor, the anger, the hope, the intensity.  Think of marches, people upset about injustice, coming together at a gathering spot after a trek with their families, friends and children to hear admired leaders. These are all appropriate analogies since Jesus’ message, although mystical, theological and religious, was always grounded in justice, in the demolishing of hierarchies of domination. He is beloved not just because of what he says and the vision he promotes of the kin-dom of equals, but for the miracles he has performed: he has healed the disabled, the chronically ill, he has raised the dead. And to his crowd of supporters, he has kicked the right hornet’s nests.

I was quoted this week [2022] in the Boston Globe as saying that Easter had deeper meaning for me as I learn more about systemic racism, the state-sanctioned brutality that is part of the unfortunate fabric of American society –  that has protected the privileged at the cost of a segment of society that has been enslaved, demonized and victim-blamed for centuries. There are too many parallels between  Jesus’ community’s predicament and that of colonized and enslaved peoples throughout all of history –  and although Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have different meanings for people depending on their religious, ethnic and cultural identity, he is for us an avatar of prophetic witness and radical, revolutionary love. 

He is the opposite of an emperor; he is a servant-healer, an advocate. He is the opposite of the project of empire; he is the project of empathy, which in Unitarian and Universalist theological tradition, is God’s own project, God’s own longing.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the experience of another being: to allow the body, mind, spirit to exist with that other being, opening oneself to to feel what they feel.  Some people come by this quality naturally, and being natural empaths can go hard for them. ( I have a form of empathy that causes me to feel physical aching when I see even images of injuries. It’s not a convenient quality: I have fainted during hospital pastoral visits, no matter how much I mentally prepare.)

Too much empathy can make one feel like a sponge for all the sorrows of the world, but little or no empathy is not a workable alternative. We see that today, we see it in savage, barbaric examples in Ukraine, what is being done to the people, animals and land there… we see it also in our own country, most recently in mind in legislative violence that dehumanizes women, and transgender youth. The world is never short of case studies in empathic absence and failure: All indecency and cruelty begin when the perpetrators of it fail or refuse to imagine the impact of their behavior on others, or on their environment, which also has its own consciousness. 

So I want to look at a moment in the gospels where God’s project of empathy was lived out not by the main character, Jesus, but by an unknown woman we know only as The Anointing Woman. 

Jesus has stopped for dinner close to Jerusalem, in Bethany on the West Bank.  His confrontation with the powers and principalities is going to come to a head very soon. But for now, dinner with his disciples at the house of Simon the Leper. 

It was the custom in those times to recline at the table and to be have the meal served by women or servants. I mention this because when Jesus presides at what we call the Last Supper, he takes on the role of servant, upending social expectations and subverting gender roles.

In the house of Simon, Jesus is in the midst of a crowded social situation, we can imagine that he and the twelve disciples are tired, as it has been a busy and highly charged time being who they are and doing what they do. Not only are the eyes of the adoring crowds upon them, so are the eyes of the political authorities. There are spies and informers around.

Out of nowhere, with no introduction, enters the Anointing Woman :one gospel account identifies her as Mary of Bethany, the three others do not give her a name. She has a jar of precious perfumed oil (today it would be essential oil) worth about a year’s wages, and she pours it out and anoints Jesus’s head – or his feet, depending on which version you read. This is a symbol of messianic recognition, as kings were so anointed at their crowning. But anointing a body with oil is also a ritual at the time of death, in preparation for burial, which was also the role of women in Jesus’ time and cultural context. That’s why the women were the first at the tomb on Easter morning.

But let’s go back to the dinner. I imagine a sense of hubbub. People talking over each other. Passing of dishes. Food, drink, people in and out. 

The woman comes into this scene and walks up to Jesus. To get the oil out of an alabaster jar, the jar has to be broken, so she can’t save any of the oil, it’s all flowing onto Jesus. One of the Scripture passages describing this encounter mentions that powerful fragrance. 

Again, depending on which version we are reading, she is either touching Jesus on his head, or she is at his feet, and in two reports, she is crying onto his feet and drying her tears with her hair. 

Tears, and oil. She does not say anything, or if she does, it was not remembered. The Anointing Woman breaks into the ( mostly male) center of activity and does this incredibly intimate, immediate thing with Jesus. 

No one really knows what it means. There is no consensus whatsoever on the identity of the anointing woman or the meaning of what she does. 

But I don’t think we need scholars and theologians to interpret what it means. We can simply watch the moment unfold in our imaginations: She enters. She is poor and yet she carries precious oil, worth a lot of denarii. She sees this man, the savior, the promised one foretold by the prophets, eating dinner in the next room. Maybe what she saw in him is the Messiah.  Or maybe what you saw was a tired man who has walked many many miles stopping to give teachings and to heal the sick in body and in heart; a man whose feet are dusty who is hungry, a man who is grateful for food.

Whatever she saw in him, whether or not she had seen him up close before, she saw him with profound empathy. And that is why I cry whenever I read this passage. Alone of all the characters who meet  Jesus along the way of the gospel journey, the Anointing Woman doesn’t ask him for anything, doesn’t ask him to heal her, doesn’t ask him questions about how to attain eternal life, doesn’t touch him clandestinely so that he can heal her of a medical condition… all of which are fine things to ask of a prophet and healer and teacher!! They are poignant requests! But she alone, she sees Jesus as the vulnerable one. She sees what is ahead for him. She recognizes that he is in danger, she knows the outcome, she enters the room like truth itself, with love, with empathy, she pours out this beautiful ointment on him. Alone in the room, both she and Jesus understand the poignancy of what she is doing.

The disciples don’t get it. They start in immediately with petty attack, why did you do that, we could sell that oil and take care of more people, what are you doing, what a waste!

She has no response. I picture her in this intimate closeness with Jesus, bringing this act of beauty and care to him that transcends words and argument. Sometimes it is not time to debate, strategize, argue and compete. The poet Jeni Coyzyn wrote, “The way towards each other is through our bodies. Words are the longest distance you can travel/so complex and hazardous you/lose your direction.”

The woman with the oil walked right to him, to the center of everything, to the center of attention, not to make a point, not to present an argument, not to get something for herself but to give, to recognize, to bring the moment from chatter to stillness, from dinner time to the inevitability of death. She infuriated everyone there who thought they knew better than her how to spend the richness of that fragranced oil but she knew exactly where it belonged: not as an item for sale, but as a blessing to be bestowed, out of her poverty a spirit of abundance. 

History has not known how to interpret her, how to identify her… or how to emulate her. We still tend to miss or distance ourselves from the inbreaking of the holy with chatter, debate, and critique. But Jesus himself is reported to have spoken in her defense, chastised the petty and critical reaction to her gesture and said, “wherever the story of my life is told in the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I thought, therefore, that you should also know about her.

The Anointing of Christ, Julia Stankova 2009