4 Ways Barbie Adds to the Church’s Conversation about Gender Roles

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn | Crosswalk Contributor | Updated: Jul 27, 2023
4 Ways <em>Barbie</em> Adds to the Church’s Conversation about Gender Roles

4 Ways Barbie Adds to the Church’s Conversation about Gender Roles

I know what you’re thinking. A silly movie about a doll adding to something as important as the Church’s conversation about gender roles? Yep. Hear me out–or better yet, see it first and then read this article. Because this movie isn’t just a comedy about a girl’s plaything; it’s not just an homage to the imperfect human experience versus a plastic-perfect life.

This movie is a social commentary on what the extremes of gender hierarchy can do to the world. And the Church is just as vulnerable to these effects as the world is, as much as we wish we weren’t.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism is a hot topic amongst Christians of all ages. Should leadership positions be awarded based on merit solely, or should men lead and women follow, regardless of capability? Depending on your interpretation of Scripture, arguments can be made for both.

I won’t say that Barbie solves this universal problem or will make a clear-cut, biblical argument for or against complementarianism versus egalitarianism. But it provides enough striking examples to get conversations going–conversations I encourage you to have between the men and women in your life so you can learn from their experiences. I believe this conversation should start and end with empathy.

So what convictions can be inspired by the Barbie movie? Let’s discuss–but first, a summary for those who haven’t been convinced to see this film yet.

Basic Summary of Barbie

Margot Robbie as Barbie, Movieguide warns parents not to bring their kids to see the Barbie movie

Photo credit: ©Warner Brothers, used with permission.

The basic plot of Barbie is that Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is forced to leave the dream world that is Barbieland in order to find the girl who is playing with her in the Real World. The girl is causing Barbie’s perfect life to show signs of imperfection and mortality (i.e., thoughts of death, flat feet, and cellulite).

In Barbieland, it’s the female Barbies that rule the world. There’s a female president, an all-female supreme court, female doctors and scientists, and construction workers. And they’re amazing at those careers!

The male Kens, however, are nothing more than accessories to Barbie. They mean nothing without their female counterpart. Ken’s job is “beach.” Nothing more. And as such, they have very little respect in their society.

So Barbie goes on an adventure to the Real World by herself, but Ken sneaks into her car and goes along. In the Real World, Ken discovers that men rule the world–whether or not they earn leadership positions or are good at their jobs.

Ken brings this patriarchal thinking back to Barbieland and convinces all the Barbies and Kens that the Kens should be in charge, even though they have no training in those areas and are all immature. In response, the Barbies take back their power, appreciate the Kens more, and let them have some authority in their world (as the narrator says, as much power as women do back in the Real World).

The movie gives you a peek into what it would be like if women ruled the world instead of men–and it’s not great, either. But it leads to many questions like “Why do men so typically get awarded leadership positions that they’re not qualified for?” And even more profound, “Why aren’t they qualified? Why aren’t they being taught true, loving, empowered masculinity?”

And further still: “What do these questions mean for leadership in Church positions, like preaching, worship leading, and marriage?”

1. Start by Seeing the Lies Satan Perpetuates in Society about Femininity and Masculinity

This movie does a great job of pointing out the complexities of both the female and male experience in our society–and how neither party gets their due admiration, recognition, or love.

Sure, men in the real world were CEOs. But they were all portrayed as clueless, whiny children. There wasn’t a single man who was portrayed in a positive light. Even though they were given leadership positions, no one believed they could be good at it. Because no one believed in them, they weren’t properly trained and acted like babies.

And sure, the women in Barbie land were the CEOs instead–and were good at it. But they were also very unkind to the men in their world. The Barbies took back their power but shared very little of it with the Kens. There wasn’t conceptually, societally, room for a woman to be both a leader and compassionate–she was still forced to choose one or the other.

Our society’s overarching, underlying, subconscious belief about men is that they’re above women but also ineffectual and useless. And our belief about women is that they’re below men but also more capable–and therefore controlling, unimpressive, and only recognized if they’re really good at a “man’s” job (not a typically female role like motherhood. Who cares about that?)

I’m painting in broad strokes here, of course. But my point is that Satan is crafty. He is twisted. And neither men nor women are seen as the incredible, strong, capable image-bearers of God. But he’s twisted it so that you believe only your gender is the one that is oppressed and that there’s no way to win.

These double-sided lies about men and women leave both parties with biases and wounds. What it’s like to be a passed-over woman in the Church is a perspective worth listening to. And what it’s like to be a man handed a leadership role that he was never taught to do because no one believed he could do it well is also a perspective worth listening to.

See the lie Satan is trying to tell you about yourself and the opposite gender. And start fighting back with truth and empathy.

2. Patriarchy Is Not Good, But Neither Is Demeaning Men

As we continue to grapple with what each gender’s roles should be in the Church, let’s heed Barbie’s warning that uplifting women doesn’t have to mean demeaning men. We can call women smart without calling men stupid. We can appreciate women’s aptitude without making men seem like animals in comparison.

Let’s strive to see the innate worth in both genders because both men and women are made in the image of God.

3. Female Career Aspiration Is Good, But So Is Being “Ordinary”

Personally, when I was a young girl, I loved that Barbie had so many careers and interests. She was a doctor, a policeman, and a fun beach-lover, which meant I could be all these things too!

That is the magic of Barbie. She didn’t need a man to be these things or have the material possession that she had. It was her Barbie Dreamhome that she bought with her own money. As a young girl, I was so inspired by that.

The ugly flipside of this aspiration is that it can leave women feeling less than if they don’t reach those milestones. On the one hand, it was great that Barbie wore lipstick and went to space. But on the other hand, it led to women in society feeling like they had to wear lipstick and go to space or they didn’t have worth or meaning.

At the end of the movie, one of the main characters has the idea that Mattel should make an “ordinary” Barbie. She doesn’t have to have an impressive career. She was a regular person. She could be a mom or not be a mom. It was up to her.

This is getting closer to what I think women in the Church should be encouraged to go for. Yes, tell young girls they can be like Deborah, Mary, and Lydia. They should be told they can plant churches and evangelize the world. But they should also be told that their ordinary, everyday faith was just as impressive to God.

It seems to me that women are sometimes given typically male leadership roles in the Church if they’re extraordinary in that area. But for the man to have that role, he just needs to be average. Young girls need to know they can be extraordinary but don’t have to be seen to be valued by God.

4. Female Agency Is Good, but Partnership Is Ideal

Photo credit: ©Unsplash Duong Huu

One scene that hit a little too close to home was when Barbie was sitting on a bench in the Real World, trying to concentrate on finding the girl playing with her. Ken interrupts her multiple times, and she eventually just says, “Ugh! I could do this so much faster myself!”

Ken responds with, “So you really want me to go be by myself? What am I supposed to do?” and gives her a scathing, wives-and-mothers-of-sons-will-understand-this-look–which basically says, “You want me to be responsible for entertaining myself? Are you kidding?”

We laugh at scenes like those because they’re too real. But do they have to be? Do women have to be controlling? Do men have to be immature?

Are these stereotypes only perpetuated because 1) Men aren’t taught how to be men and 2) Women constantly feel like their agency and well-being are threatened? That’s my theory.

I believe that women’s overarching sinful nature is to be fearful and controlling, so they take over, and men’s sinful nature is to be fearful and afraid of failure so they don’t lead. We see this dynamic play out in Genesis 3.

What can be a beautiful partnership is when both genders trust God. Trusting God for women can look like trusting men’s leadership, and even if all goes wrong, they trust God to take care of them anyway. Trusting God for men can look like stepping up to leadership and trusting God to help them succeed or still be there if they fail.

Men should be taught to step up, and women should be taught to trust.

But does this mean that men should ONLY lead and women should ONLY submit? In society, in the Church, in families? I have no idea. That’s why this is just a conversation starter!

Complementarians would say yes, men and women are given clear-cut roles, regardless of ability. Egalitarians would say no, that leadership should be merit-based, regardless of gender. I don’t know if there is a clear answer, and neither does Barbie.

But I do know that both male and female perspectives are valuable and should be heard.

So take time to ask the people in your life questions. Ask them what they feel like society uses to define them. Ask them how society treats them unfairly. Ask how being a man or woman has limited them in what they want to do and what type of person they want to be.

And whatever you decide about your role because of your gender or talent, do so in light of your counterpart’s struggles. We’re all commanded to love each other (John 13:34), and we’re all called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

See Barbie in theaters starting July 21st; it is rated PG-13.


5 Themes in Barbie That Will Surprise You

4 Things Parents Should Know about Barbie

Are Traditional Gender Roles Created by God?

Have Christians Had Gender Roles Wrong All This Time?

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ronstik

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.

Looking for Wholesome Family Films This Christmas Season? Listen to Our Culture Expert Share Her Top 5 Family-Centered Films - Perfect for Family Movie Night!

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.

4 Ways Barbie Adds to the Church’s Conversation about Gender Roles