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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Where I saw the Incarnation in Barbie

Once the embarrassment of the pink glow emanating from my seatback monitor faded, something unexpected happened. I found myself wiping away a tear at a movie that, by all standards of our Western culture, my masculinity should have prevented me from watching without a scowl. While traveling, I was shocked to see the incarnation in Barbie (released in 2023, written by Greta Gerwig, and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling).

I’m sure I’ll come to regret this article later, either because it will be misunderstood or generalized beyond what I intend. Despite this, I think it's worthwhile to write because there is beauty in seeing the miracle that is the incarnation in unexpected places. Isn’t that part of the beauty of the nativity? That God would be announced to lowly shepherds, born among animals, and placed in a feeding trough? I suppose it can’t be any more offensive to see God become man in a Pepto-Bismol pink depiction.

What we find in the incarnation is a massive condescension, a limiting of the power and majesty of God into the frame of a human baby, and subsequently, a human man. The incarnation is also a willing, uncoerced acceptance of God the Son to the following hard truths: you will suffer, you will die, you will truly be among humans as one of their own.

So when Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) approaches Ruth (played by Rhea Perlman), who created (or may we say begat?) Barbie, and asks to be human, Ruth responds by saying she cannot in good conscience allow her to make that decision without knowing what it means. Specifically, Ruth wants Barbie to know that to become human means she will suffer and die—two things that weren’t possible while she lived in Barbieland. Reaching out her hands, Ruth takes Barbie’s and shows her the full extent of what it means to be human. She sees in her mind's eye depictions of humans of various races and experiences. A single tear drops from Barbie’s face, and in a beautiful cinematic moment, she resolutely says, “yes.”

While Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” played in the background, I wanted to jump from my seat and cheer. Here was the reason why any earthly hardship is bearable and any human asking, as Eilish did, for purpose or meaning has an answer. Jesus said “yes” and became man to live among us, suffer and die, and be resurrected that we may have a sympathetic high priest and savior.

Far from a tacit endorsement of the entire movie, instead, as we have only begun to do, I want to explain why the incarnation provides a firm foundation in a movie that is attempting to point out a certain piece of brokenness our world experiences: that modern masculinity and femininity are not as they should be.

For Barbie, once she leaves Barbieland, she sees that women are frequently objectified, disrespected, and exploited. What she thought she had done as a model of female empowerment led to the exact opposite—a generation of young girls who felt that to be beautiful they had to live up to a standard only possible for those made of fixed petroleum polymers.

Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) understands his value and worth only “in the warmth and gaze” of Barbie. He is a man defined by his romantic partner and by his occupation, caricatured as only “Beach.” Not a lifeguard, not a surfer, just “Beach.” Because of this, he is led to a climactic existential moment in which he claims “I’m just Ken.”

Though the movie makes its own explicit answer for these problems, its hidden answer, of the Incarnation, is the only satisfactory beginning to fixing a broken masculinity and femininity. In the Incarnation, godly womanhood and manhood are not cast off but are elevated by God taking on human flesh. From the beginning, this God made man made them Male and Female (Genesis 1:27) and in His image. Now, in the womb, he clothes himself with flesh.

Jesus, as male, is the epitome of masculinity. He does not find his identity in his occupation, nor in his possessions (instructing instead to sell what they have and follow him, Matthew 19:21), house (of which he has none, Matthew 8:20), or a romantic partner. Instead, he sees his masculinity as rooted in the glorification of God, always doing the will of the Father. Here is where Ken can find his meaning; he is “Kenough” because Jesus is enough.

What of Barbie? The earth offers no greater example of femininity than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Incarnate God so frequently meets with and elevates women to a higher degree than modern feminism ever could. He respects, listens to, and honors women. His character and actions are so far from objectification and exploitation that a careful examination of them causes the modern treatment of women (to which the Barbie movie points) to lie exposed for the travesty that it is: an objectification of the very image of God.

Though Mattel didn’t plan to point to the Incarnation in their depiction of Barbie made human, and there are many things Christians should object to in the movie, truth somehow shines through. If we open our eyes, we see reflections of Jesus and what he did for us in the unlikeliest of places. That’s why, though I’m not sure those around me on the plane would understand, it’s okay I had to wipe away a tear at the end of a movie that culture would tell me I should have left frustrated by, because the world and culture don’t define my view of masculinity or femininity (isn’t that the point of the movie?), the Incarnate God, Jesus, does.

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