What ‘Barbie’ and female representation means for us

By Janie Walenda

It’s odd when the most successful film of the year is the most controversial.  However, “Barbie” has earned close to 1.5 billion dollars, sparkling in glittery pink and sparking waves of outrage. 

Christians could easily dismiss the “Barbie” film immediately.  At first glance, it seems to embrace every idea about gender that stands opposite to Christian values.  These fears are not necessarily unfounded.  

The film embraces every feminist buzzword and plot trope it possibly can.  And in a world with many conflicting ideologies, we have to be cautious about what we allow to affect our worldview.  We never want any film or piece of media to be the lens through which we see the world.  

But sometimes media can be a window into the lives of other people, giving us new perspectives.  Film can express emotions and experiences in a way that’s hard for us to put into words.  The “Barbie” film put in words and on-screen many of the experiences and emotions that I have had as I grew up, and also gave me a perspective on the experiences the young men around me have faced.  More importantly, it has opened up several conversations about these experiences.  

The film highlights the problems of viewing either gender only through the lens of their relationship with one other. Professor Erin Shaw, Assistant Professor of Women’s Ministry, appreciated the insights of the film in this area.

“[It] did a good job of portraying some of the ills of matriarchy and patriarchy … when truly we’re meant to be complimentary.”  

A more underrated element of the film is its subtle celebration of motherhood.  “Barbie” portrays mother-daughter relationships as something beautiful and valuable, even in the messiness.  

Hollywood’s representation of motherhood is often rocky, and Shaw highlighted several Hollywood tropes she views with caution. 

“Anytime where we see women demeaning husbands or demeaning motherhood or rejecting their responsibilities to find themselves.”

But of course, Hollywood is a secular institution, expecting it to completely conform to Christian values is foolish. That’s a nugget of wisdom from my dad that I’ve held onto, and something that Professor Shaw reiterated.

“It’s hard for Hollywood to get Biblical womanhood right because they’re coming from a different worldview,” Shaw said.

While “Barbie” may illustrate and celebrate some truths about womanhood, the solution portrayed in the film ultimately falls flat for Christians.  “Their solution is self-definition apart from your maker [which] doesn’t work because we have been made by a Creator God,” Shaw said. 

So if we know that Hollywood films like “Barbie” will never have a Biblical portrayal of womanhood, why should we care?  What should a Christian’s relationship with representation in the film be?  Do we join the crowd that rolls their eyes at every attempt to push representation on the big screen or those who cling to it as a lifeline?  As is often true in the Christian life, we are called to respond differently. 

In my experience with media, there are two different kinds of female representation.  Films like “Barbie” and “Captain Marvel,” are centered on a woman’s experience and celebrate womanhood.  It is also important to create films where women are represented, but their characters and storylines aren’t about being women.  “Black Panther” and “Ahsoka” are wonderful examples of stories that have many complex, well-rounded female characters without their gender being a talking point.

Personally, I like having more female characters. I like feeling represented in media.  I was excited for “Encanto” because Mirabel wore glasses like me and wasn’t portrayed as a nerdy or ugly character.  Even in films like “Captain Marvel” where the blatant feminism gets annoying, I still root for Carol Danvers and get excited when she’s onscreen.  To this day I will defend “Turning Red” with my life because it is so precious to me to have a teenage character who grows and matures while still being silly and confident.  

But I’m also tired of defending “Turning Red.”  I’m tired of justifying the existence of every female-led film like “Barbie.”

Film isn’t only a window; it is also a mirror.  Media can reflect how we feel and act in a way that gives us clarity in our lives, in both an affirming and convicting way.  When I point to a character or a film and say that it feels like my experience, I’m giving other people a glimpse into how I feel and think.  And if people dismiss it, or refuse to give it a chance, it feels like they’re dismissing me.

That’s not to say that just because I have a personal connection to a film, no one is allowed to criticize it ever.   Every film has its problems, and I like analyzing films critically.  But as representation has become more prominent, it’s easy to dismiss films we see as not for us, without considering what it means for other people, and our relationship with them. These films can be a special look into the experiences of those closest to us, and that is an opportunity to cherish.

Janie Walenda is a junior Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation and cold brew. When she isn’t obsessing over her own nerdy interests, she’s usually absorbing her friends’ nerdy interests.

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