In case you missed it, the Barbie movie has now taken in over $1 billion at the box office globally. I saw the film on its opening weekend, enjoyed it immensely and have been thinking about it ever since. Amid the colour, humour and slightly anarchic plot, the film explored some big ideas, the most interesting to me being its interpretation of feminism. Some years ago I wrote an article for ACR in which I concluded that feminism and my Christian faith are incompatible. Given the self-consciously feminist plot of Barbie and its mass appeal, I thought it might be time to revisit those thoughts.
We are currently in the so-called fourth wave of feminism, and it is not defined by people or texts so much as by cultural moments. The Barbie movie will become part of feminist history for many reasons, but I am particularly interested in it because its central storyline conveyed something of a paradigm shift within liberal feminism, one I had been noticing for some time. In short, I think there has been a movement from ‘you go, girl!’ feminism to ‘you are enough, girl’ feminism.
What I’m calling ‘you go, girl!’ feminism originated during feminism’s second wave, when women were encouraged to find an equal footing with men in the home and workplace. By the time I was entering the workforce as a young millennial woman, the daughters of second wave feminism were wrestling with the idea of the ‘woman who has it all’. In the last decade, the ‘girlboss’ captured the popular feminist imagination, and women who knew how to ‘hustle’ and juggle multiple fulfilling projects at once were considered the ideal. However, the cracks were beginning to show.
In 2012 an article titled ‘Why women still can’t have it all’ went viral. Many women resonated with the confessions of a high profile woman who was struggling under the weight of expectation. Closer to home, Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought picked up on similar themes. The sentiment even reached me as a stay-at-home mother. When I purchased a piece of maternity clothing in 2020 I received an accompanying postcard with just three words on it: “You are enough”.
In light of this, I think that the Barbie movie comes at a time when many women are ready for a more generous feminist vision. The crux of the film is an impassioned speech which provides just that moment of catharsis. In a stunning reversal, an imperfect woman (Gloria, played by America Ferrera) delivers a pep talk to the historically perfect Barbie. Barbie has been brought low by her encounter with humanity and through tears explains that she now believes she is nothing special. In order to comfort her, Gloria explains that Barbie’s insecurities and frustrations are those experienced by all women. In writer/director Greta Gerwig’s view, the speech is a commentary on the “tightrope women are given to walk on” and a way of communicating to them that they are enough, just as they are.
Ferrera’s speech has been a sticking point even for Christian viewers because it articulates such a common experience. While it is true that men also struggle with insecurity and living up to expectation, Gloria’s speech has a particularly feminine quality to it. In her book Gender Revolution Patricia Weerakoon notes that women “tend to be more sociable, sensitive, warm, compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting and more open to aesthetics”. Because of this, I think that the speech is an example of feminine traits wrestling with the feminist call to move about in the world not just on an equal footing with men, but like men. At one level, women really do have to reckon with institutionalised sexism and misogyny, or a ‘rigged system’ as Gloria puts it. But generally speaking it can also be harder for women in themselves to be a boss, or to lead, when they are overly concerned about whether or not a relationship they value is suffering because of it.
While the average ACR reader may not fancy herself a girlboss, navigating family, friends, work and ministry (and the feeling that you may be dropping the ball somewhere) is something that even decidedly un-feminist complementarians can relate to. Through Gloria’s speech, Gerwig seems to be waving a white flag in our direction and suggesting that what can unite us all to the feminist sisterhood is this feeling of not being enough.
So, are we really all feminists now?
Well, as relatable and heartfelt as Gloria’s speech is, its underlying assumptions are worth questioning.
Firstly, it would have us believe that a woman’s struggles and inadequacies are wrought exclusively by a patriarchal system. The film conceives of patriarchy as an insidious force that harms both men and women, and it is conveyed through sexist attitudes and the subordination of women. Complementarian Christians can agree that this is a form of injustice. However, we also know from Genesis 3 that this problem cannot be externalised completely: it begins in the hearts of men and women.
Secondly, we must consider that the promises of second wave feminism may be flawed to begin with. For example, feminist ideals (under the wider umbrella of secular materialist values) have undoubtedly contributed to our society’s fraught relationship with family and work. It is outside of the scope of this article to explore, but much of our perceived failure (for both men and women) can also be tied to our own fragile sense of identity: to our ambition and our greed.
Thirdly, Gerwig’s proposal that the way forward is a simple affirmation must be refracted through a gospel lens. In the popular imagination, to love is to affirm. We crave approval and validation but the Instagram posts, self-help books, and podcasts which only ever seek to build us up will ultimately let us down. Indiscriminate affirmation is not a basis for genuine love. Rather, it has already led our society to some dark and dangerous places. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer: love that springs from our own desires may be a kind of hatred. What love is, only Christ can tell us in his word.
Fourthly, the film’s resolution that we are enough (or ‘kenough!’) strongly implies that we can be enough all on our own. Gerwig’s feminist vision seeks to release men and women from the influence of patriarchy, and in the end Barbie and Ken are viewed as equals who are free to make their way in the world independently of each other. But this is not quite the inspirational ending that we think it is. Equality without unity can only lead to isolation, and as one article brilliantly explains: you cannot be yourself by yourself.
When feminism à la Barbie observes that women (and perhaps men) are struggling under the weight of expectation and seeking affirmation, it is starting to ask questions that can only be answered in the gospel. Indeed, the gospel takes these two rather lukewarm propositions and lights them on fire. In light of the gospel, it’s not just that men and women are not enough, they are dead in their sin. It’s not just that men and women can find rest in the affirmation of another, they can be made alive in Christ and set on a trajectory to perfection in him. And at the heart of it all is the extravagant love of God.
This is perhaps the most enduring reason why the feminism of Barbie falls short of the mark for me. There is heart in Gerwig’s film, even in her expression of feminism, but without love she cannot seem to explain why any of it should matter very much. Why should Barbie in all of her beauty look up and say to an elderly woman that she, too, is beautiful? Why should Barbie leave behind the sunny utopia of Barbieland and take hold of humanity and certain death? It is never clear, and Gerwig trades on common grace and her status as an image bearer to craft scenes that are essentially vignettes of love. But what Gerwig cannot articulate, God reveals in the person of Jesus. He is the fullest expression of God’s love for us.
The love of God is not sentimental: it looks like the death of his own Son. When a love like this is poured out into our hearts it does more than make us feel ‘seen’—it transforms us. Not only is it enough to draw us out of ourselves and remind us that we are worthy and valued (no matter how we may be feeling on any given day), it even gives us the courage and the strength to love and forgive those who have hurt us.
Of Gloria’s speech, Gerwig has said “I am touched by a woman’s ability to look at another woman and say ‘You’re good enough’”. Of the gospel I am able to say, “I am known intimately by God and loved eternally”. Once you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, his is the only word that is good enough.
 ‘Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie discuss Barbie’s surprising feminism | 7.30’, ABC News In-depth, YouTube, 12 July 2023 (viewed 8 August 2023).
 Patricia Weerakon, The Gender Revolution, Matthias Media, p 101.
 See Jennifer Robinson and Keina Yoshida, How Many More Women? (Allen and Unwin) for recent examples.
 See Brian Rosner, ‘The Story of Secular Materialism’ in How To Find Yourself, Crossway, p 123-142.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, SCM Press Ltd, p 22.
 I’m following the lead of Chris Watkin and attempting to ‘diagonalise’ two competing options as a mode of cultural critique. Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, Zondervan Academic, p 19.