Barbie, Humanism, and Death

Mild-to-medium spoilers for Barbie.

I expected the Barbie movie to be enormously fun. It was.

I expected it to be gorgeous, art-directed within an inch of its life, with a look both explosively oversized and finely detailed. It was.

I expected it to be feminist, with a sharp and complex depiction of gender roles and gender expectations. It was.

I even expected it to be surprising, to the degree that you can ever expect to be surprised. And boy, was it surprising. It was a wild rollercoaster ride, an intense mashup of giddiness and sorrow, with unexpected emotional nuance and plot turns that came out of left field.

What I didn’t expect was a powerful humanist view of death.

Mortality is one of the strongest, clearest drivers of the movie. Barbie’s entire journey begins when, out of nowhere, in the middle of a choreographed dance number with all her friends, she asks out loud, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” From that moment, everything changes for her. The non-existent milk in her fridge expires; the non-existent water in her shower runs cold. The awareness of death engulfs her life — and it forces her to venture into the unknown and leave behind her comfortable, blissfully ignorant paradise. (It reminded me of the “Existential Crisis” episode of The Good Place, when Michael becomes aware that he might die and it radically pivots his character.)

But during the course of the movie, Barbie begins to envy human life. She sees humanity up close, she feels human emotions — and she wants more. And mortality is a central part of that envy, that hunger. Sadness and loss become emotions that she treasures and values. In fact, some of her most intense, life-changing moments are with old women — old women who know they’re beautiful, old women who value change and messiness, old women who love their lives and understand that those lives are coming to an end.

It’s a surprisingly humanist view of death. There’s no whiff of a belief in an afterlife; no false reassurance to Barbie that death isn’t real. It’s very much the opposite. What Barbie learns is that the finality of death makes life valuable. Death makes us pay attention. Death drives our ambition to make something of our short lives. Death drives our appreciation of fleeting moments, inspiring us to sit still and experience them. Death is a deadline — and people are notorious procrastinators, driven by deadlines. Death is the shadow that lets us see the outlines of life. And death makes us value other people’s short, fragile lives as well as our own.

I’m not going to dig into every detail, partly because I don’t want to spoil the movie more than I already am, and partly because I wasn’t watching with a notebook in my hand. (Note to self: I need to start taking notebooks to movies again.) I’m just saying: Of all the powerful emotional surprises in Barbie — and there were a lot of them — this was, for me, the most powerful. It’s a key part of what makes the movie so joyful, so intense, and so seriously, genuinely good. The giddy fun of the movie’s opening scenes were, you know, giddy fun. But the shadow of death underscoring the rest of the movie is what made it human.

Barbie, Humanism, and Death

2 thoughts on “Barbie, Humanism, and Death

  1. 2

    The Barbie that I really connected with was Weird Barbie. Frazzled hair, drawn-on face, homemade dress, a lot of my childhood dolls eventually looked like that. And in a way, she’s the Barbie equivalent of an old person. The years have not been kind, and she no longer looks or acts like a Barbie is supposed to, but when they need someone level headed who knows things, she’s the one they turn to. (Plus the brilliant Kate McKinnon was an inspired choice to play her.)

    And the one Barbie that I thought was a glaring omission was naked Barbie. Their clothes are so hard to put on them, that just giving up and not bothering seems to be the rule. It’s hard to imagine a little girl’s room without a naked Barbie or two in the toybox. I imposed a dress code for Barbies for my daughters, that any doll brought into the living room had to be dressed.

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