Big Question Barbie

This blog post is the script of a talk I gave for Ignite Marquette. Dr. Conor Kelly of Marquette’s Theology Department and I were invited to speak about Barbenheimer: Lessons on Being Human.

Drs. Conor Kelly and Liz Angeli at Ignite Marquette, September 27, 2023
With Dr. Conor Kelly at Ignite Marquette, September 27, 2023

Big Question Barbie: What Barbie teaches us about trusting our curiosity

I didn’t expect the Barbie movie to make me think about the human condition. One of my biggest takeaways from the movie was the power of questions and curiosity. And I’m not talking about everyday questions, such as what show should I stream next. I’m talking about Big Questions, the kinds of questions that make us cringe, that make us uncomfortable, and, in the case of Barbie, the kinds of questions that initially seem to destroy us and our world but then take us on a hero’s journey where we meet ourselves, maybe meet our maker, and where we rebuild our life from what we learn.  

Big Questions can be seen as wrong questions. When we ask these kinds of questions, people around us can shut down and even slowly back up, like the Homer Simpson gif where he’s sliding back into the hedges. But these responses tell us that we’re doing something right. Nothing changes if we stay comfortable, and Barbie shows us this when, during a seemingly spontaneous, carefully choreographed dance sequence, she asks the question, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Her question is greeted by record scratches, crickets, and silence. This is the moment when the movie really begins because this is when Barbie wakes up to the possibility that she’s missing something, something big.  

Before she asks her Big Question, Barbie and the Barbies around her echo in a chorus of “this is the best day ever, and so was yesterday, and so is today, and so is tomorrow” and so on. If every day is the best day, no day is the best day because by its very definition, best implies one, supreme, ultimate – if every day is best, the days become average and monotonous. Perhaps this monotony leads Barbie to her curiosity about death, which ultimately interrupts the series of “best days.” Her Big Question leads her to see her reality for what it really is, not what she hopes it would be.

For example, we know from living in the Real World, that humans have flat feet – we’re not Barbie, perched up on our tip toes in perpetual high heels. We don’t fly from one story of our house to our car. Water that pours out of a showerhead first thing in the morning is cold. In Barbie Land, that water is non-existent, and she thinks she’s actually showering, but she’s not. She thinks she knows what it’s like to engage in and experience life, but, as humans, we know she doesn’t know. When Barbie follows her curious question, her world falls apart, and she becomes relatable. Barbie’s journey begins when she dares to break the monotony.  

To guide her on her quest, Barbie visits Weird Barbie, the shaman, wisdom figure of Barbie Land. Using a pink high heel and a Birkenstock, Weird Barbie faces Barbie with a decision that we all encounter once we wake up to reality: We can go back to our regular, pink high heel pump life, which is uncomfortable and will always be uncomfortable until our feet go numb so we don’t feel the pain but we know we look good, or we can know about the truth of the universe, which, like a Birkenstock, may be uncomfortable at first and may not be the most glamorous item of clothing, but it is practical, supportive, and provides the best, solid foundation for a journey with uneven ground.

Of course Barbie chooses the pink high heel. It’s what she knows, and it’s super glamorous and attractive, which makes it an easy choice even though it puts her feet into unnatural positions. Like any good shaman, Weird Barbie pushes Barbie to choose the Birkenstock, that unknown that will lead to experiencing the vibrancy of life.  

At this point in the movie, the music changes. We leave behind the highly produced pop vocal prowess of Dua Lipa and Lizzo for the acoustic, raw sound of the Indigo Girls and their anthem, “Closer to the Fine.” For background knowledge, when the Indigo Girls arrived on the music scene in the 1980s, they were fully themselves, two lesbian women with acoustic guitars and jeans in a music landscape of pop princes and princesses with carefully groomed images rife with heterosexual sex appeal and high production value. The Indigo Girls were not afraid to show up as they were; they didn’t contort themselves to fit what society wanted them to be, even though it would have been more comfortable for a mainstream audience and, thus, perhaps they could have made even more money.

“Closer to Fine” tells the story of a seeker searching for herself in all sorts of places, from bars to universities to the mountains, and the lyrics remind us we can seek and seek and sometimes our answers don’t come from just one place. We get glimmers of answers to our Big Questions in the eyes of a stranger at a bus stop or when we slow down to see someone from a new perspective. So, it’s no surprise that the Indigo Girls voices accompany Barbie as she journeys to the Real World.  

As Barbie journeys, she is begrudgingly accompanied by Ken, but she has two notable companions: her curiosity and her trust in her curiosity. When the higher ups at Mattel try to get her back into the Barbie box, convincing her it’s what’s best, at first, she believes them. Then something deeper within her wakes her up – the familiarity of the smell, the closed in surroundings don’t feel right, and even though she doesn’t know why, she trusts the unsettled feeling and steps out of the box to play a cat and mouse game through Mattel headquarters where she ducks into a room to meet her Maker, Ruth Handler.  

When Barbie first meets Ruth, she doesn’t know who she is, and neither do we as the audience. Ruth is quite literally Barbie’s maker, she invented Barbie in real life. As we watch the two meet for the first time, we see Ruth the Maker gaze upon and delight in her creation – there’s a knowingness in her eyes that speaks to a confirmation of, “You are doing what you have been made for.” Ruth is pleased to see that Barbie has made it to Mattel headquarters, as if she knew Barbie would take this journey all along. Imagine our Maker, be that God, the Divine, or Universal Connection, as knowing us at such a deep level that they take delight in seeing us ask Big Questions that shift everything.  

Barbie’s Maker made her to showcase possibility and potential, not to create strict gender norms and stereotypes. But we as humans, as the Barbie audience and consumer, put those roles and stereotypes on each other and on ourselves and on Barbie. We live in a “what we ought to be” mindset because we think our Maker has made us for one purpose: to be Astronaut Barbie, President Barbie, Roller Skating Barbie, etc.

We’re not made to be our job title. Who we are is not our career or major or hobby. Barbie learned that who she is is someone who wants to feel all the feelings, to participate in humanity, and to experience the experience. We can’t have the bad without the good. We can help each other wake up – once we’ve started our journeys and really started to experience what it means to be human, we can help others wake up, much in the same way Barbie, Gloria, and Sasha unprogrammed the Barbies once Ken brought the patriarchy to Barbie Land.  

During college, you’re invited to ask these Big Questions. We want you to ask them because they bring people to a stop. They interrupt reality as it ought to be. Those stops make us see the world in new ways, question the status quo, and bring about change. First, they bring change in you. Then, that change can spill out to the rest of the world. As Ruth says at the end of the movie, “Humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever.” Ideas start with questions. So, what are your Big Questions? Thank you.  

Questions for reflection & discussion 

Describe the last time you trusted your curiosity.  What did it feel like?  Who was with you?  What was the result? 

During the movie, we hear a song in which Billie Eilish asks, “What was I made for?”  What does this question mean to you?  How would you answer it? 

Kate McKinnon, who plays Weird Barbie, shared in an interview about the movie, “It’s a person who was raised as one thing and thinks they are that thing, but knows somewhere deep down that they’re something else, and it’s that journey of self-actualization that every human being is on and is thwarted in every human being by these rigid gender roles and these ideas of what we ought to be.” What “ought to’s” are you placing on yourself? What in this question resonates with you? How and why does it resonate? 

How do you define Big Questions? 

What Big Questions have you asked in your family, friend group, or in classes or extracurriculars? 

What growth have you seen stem from Big Questions you’ve asked? 

If you hesitate to ask Big Questions, what or who is stopping you? Why? 

Who are you being accompanied by as you ask Big Questions? Who is your Weird Barbie, Ken, Gloria, and Sasha? 

Who are you accompanying as they ask Big Questions? How do you respond to their Big Questions? 

1 thought on “Big Question Barbie

  1. Thanks for raising these questions and for focusing on the lessons experienced by Barbie’s character rather than Ken’s.

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