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Article Film

Barbie and Life in the Unity of Life and Death

Jude Macfarlane

In this essay we will offer an interpretation of Barbie in light of German philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich’s thought on “life in the unity of life and death.”[1] First we will summarize Ulrich on life in the unity of life and death. Second, we will offer our interpretation.

Ulrich (1931–2020) was a Catholic metaphysician whose thought circled around being as love and how man is constituted by and called to live this love. His first book, Homo Abyssus, dealt with this theme at an “ontological” level (thinking it through according to the metaphysical principles of being, essence, esse, etc). His latter works unfold being as love in various other spheres—e.g. that of freedom, speech, prayer, childhood, scripture, even fairy tales.[2] We will focus on his thought about love as related to life and death.

Ulrich On Life in the Unity of Life and Death

For Ulrich, life in the unity of life and death is the life of love. For, love involves a unity of unity (the side of life) and separation (the side of death). He often illustrates this through the example of the parent (especially a mother) and child.[3] On the one hand, there is a unity of giver and gift. The giver is present in their gift. The mother shares her life with the child. Her life is the child’s life. On the other hand, the giver must give the gift away, she must let the gift separate from herself and hand it over to the recipient. She must die to herself, freely abandon herself, and transfer what is her own into the hands of the other. The mother must let the child be his own person.

We can imagine a person living one side of the unity without or in opposition to the other. Unity without separation: the overbearing, “helicopter,” parent living vicariously through their child. Separation without unity: the parent who gives their child too much independence in a problematic manner—no rules, no responsibilities.

Ulrich notes that man, though, is afraid of death. He fears letting go, surrender, self-abandonment, dying to self. He wants to hold onto his life against death, grasp it safe and secure as his own and no other’s. Death, the enemy, is repressed, excluded, or reduced to an imminent moment of a self-possessed life. This project is futile. For such an “only-life” holding onto itself against death is dead. It is stuck, frozen. It cannot change, cannot grow, cannot sacrifice or surrender, cannot love. And so, man brings the repressed death back in a manufactured perverted form in order to jolt his dead-only-life back to life.[4]

Returning to the mother and child, the mother living vicariously through her child realizes she is not the great and awesome parent she thought she was. Rather it becomes clear that in her seeming self-less love she has emptied herself (in a negative manner) of substance, that she is not really her own person, that she has alienated herself from herself in the child, that she, the “master,” is actually the slave of the slave. As an “only-mother” she has murdered herself as mother. And so, resentment towards the child—the source of the alienation—springs up. Solution: “kill” the child. Push him away by any means whatsoever. For example, the mother who babied her child in grade school now gives the child an irresponsible amount of independence. “Helicopter mom” becomes “party mom.”

The Movie

What does this have to do with the Barbie Movie? In the opening sequence we learn that girls have always had dolls. These dolls were models of little girls. Playing with dolls, real girls would play at being mothers. That is, until Barbie: a doll that is simply a woman. In this scene, Barbie appears (as a ninety-foot-tall Margot Robbie) and we watch as all the little girls smash their girl dolls on the ground. Upon seeing this, I thought to myself: this is abortion, this is contraception, this is independent womanhood opposed to motherhood: this is life (independence, self-standing) against death (separation, motherhood, letting be, being fruitful in another).

Next, we meet “stereotypical” Barbie. For Barbie, every day is greatest, and every Barbie has the greatest job: serving as an inspirational role model for free and independent women everywhere. Not so for Ken. Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him. Ken is, as it were, an “only-Ken,” analogous to the “only-mother,” a being whose entire existence is relativized toward the other. And Barbie—despite the seemingly altruistic nature of her “inspirational” mission—is an “only-Barbie,” an isolated self-circling being caught in herself and unopen to relationship with the other.

Through the pure loving gaze and recognition of Barbie, the Kens awaken to themselves as persons.

Ken (Ryan Gosling) shows off at the beach, gets hurt and healed, and goes to Barbie’s dance party. Here Barbie, mysteriously, has the thought of death, which ruins the vibe for a moment but is quickly brushed aside. Ken asks to stay overnight and is refused: every night is girls’ night—the significance of which will be become clear below.

In the morning, things go wrong for Barbie: bad hair, bad breath, cold shower, and flat feet. Somehow Barbie’s thought of death has opened a portal to the real world. Barbie must go on a mission there to fix the relationship with her owner to restore balance and close the portal. Uninvited, Ken tags along.

In the real world things are not as Barbie expected. Men look at her lewdly, women do not rule the world, rather—as Ken discovers—men do. Ken, however, is unable to get a job since he lacks any real skills and returns to Barbie Land to share with the other Kens what he has learned. Meanwhile, Barbie finds her owner, the child playing with her. The child is a typical cynical modern kid who proceeds to destroy Barbie, accusing her of being a symbol of fascism and promoting sexualized and unachievable standards of beauty for corporate profit. Barbie is crushed. The Mattel Toy company finds Barbie and tries to “box” her in, but she escapes with the receptionist (who is the child’s mother, and the original owner of our Barbie). Child, mother, and Barbie return to Barbie Land.

Things get interesting. Ken has established patriarchy in Barbie Land. All the Barbies seem on board—content to look pretty and provide food and beer for the Kens. Barbie confronts Ken at her former dwelling. Ken is mean to Barbie: how does it feel now! Every night is boys’ night! It doesn’t feel good, does it! Barbie is crushed.

Stepping back, we can note a perverse dialectic at work. That is, a fruitless attempt to establish the unity of life and death starting with life against death. “Only-Ken” was a dead Ken. True, man makes no sense without woman (and vice versa), nevertheless, a slavish “only-husband” or “only-boyfriend” is no real man. Neither, though, is an only-patriarch. Ken’s patriarchy is merely the flipside of Barbie’s feminism. This requires unpacking.

The other who—dialectically—is everything to me, is, in the end, nothing to me. Alienated from myself in their everything, I am nothing to them. And—since I define myself through them—I, as nothing to them, am also nothing in myself; and, so, finally, standing across from my empty nothingness, they too can only be nothing to me. With my empty “needy” or “grasping” nothingness I face the other’s “selfish” or “withholding” nothingness. And, my empty neediness, is, at root, simply another form of “selfish” withholding waiting to reveal itself.

We see this dialectic play out in Ken and Barbie’s relationship. Naive only-Ken is alienated from himself in idealized only-Barbie who doesn’t need Ken. Only-Ken is nothing to Barbie—every night is girls’ night. But, if only-Ken is nothing to Barbie, then Barbie is nothing to only-Ken. Naive only-Ken, therefore, transforms into only-patriarchy-Ken who has no need for Barbie—hence every night is boys’ night.

Barbie takes Ken’s mean treatment poorly and is tempted to give up. The mother gives a moving speech expressing the inner contradictions of being a woman under patriarchy. A plan is hatched. First, the Barbies secretly reawaken each other by sharing more contradictions. Then, they use their feminine wiles to manipulate the Kens into fighting a war fueled by jealousy and suspicion. The dialectic between Ken and Barbie, between man and woman, continues unabated.

Merely identifying this dialectic or the contradictions driving it is no real solution. The mother’s rousing speech does not bring peace but war on higher and more terrible levels. Childish and ignorant exclusion or idealization of the opposite sex (which is not, for all its naivety, therefore unharmful or unmistaken) gives way to pre-calculated deception and organized mass violence. One must overcome the dialectic as a whole. That is, one must suffer. Why?

A dialectic can be described as trying to solve a problem with a new problem. As we saw, problems arise regarding the unity of life and death when one tries to live this unity one-sidedly: beginning with only-life against death, one side against the other. The dialectical solution then brings back the neglected side, but in perverted form: the “dead” only-mother revivifies herself by pushing the child away, or, only-Ken becomes only-patriarch. The problematic solution is, of course, itself a problem calling for a solution, which, if the dialectic is not overcome, leads to further problems and problematic solutions: Barbie subject to Ken resorts to manipulation, manipulated Kens resort to war, and so on. How to end the cycle? How to overcome it as a whole?

The problem must be faced in its truth. All problems are, fundamentally, caused by a lack of love. Only love can overcome the problem. But, when love encounters the problem in its truth, the consequence is suffering, for the problem is an offense against love. Love suffering the problem, suffering the lack of love, is the restoration of love.

This brings us to the turning point of the drama. The Kens are at war. The battle takes place at the beach. As they war, they sing. They sing, “I’m just a Ken.” At first, their song is their war song. But, at the climax of the battle, the force of the two rival Kens’ “beach off” (one simply has to see the movie), transports us to an imaginary realm for a choreographed dance number. And the vibe of the song changes. The vibe of the song is sad. And the sadness brings peace. Arm in arm the Kens sing. It is sad to be just Ken. But the Kens are just Ken together. And now the vibe is peace and joy.

Returning to themselves the Kens have faced the sad truth of their only-Ken-ness—their perverted relationship with Barbie. And by suffering the truth of their only-Ken-ness they have overcome it. They have, as it were, died to their only-Ken-ness, to their empty needy relationship with Barbie. This death is a form of the good death, a form of “letting the other be” and “letting oneself be.” The Kens’ return to themselves, though, is not enough to fully restore their relation to themselves. For in truth, Ken (and Barbie) are not merely isolated individuals. The relation between Ken and Barbie needs healing as well.

After the battle and song, Barbie finds Ken crying at her house. He had hoped the house would one day be their house. Barbie does not love (this) Ken that way. But, for the first time, Barbie looks at Ken with compassion. For the first time, Barbie looks at Ken, not as an “only-Ken,” but as a You, that is, as his own person. “You are not your girlfriend,” Barbie explains. “You are Ken.” And Ken is healed: “Ken is me? . . . Ken is me!” he shouts joyfully from the rooftop, and this awakens the other Kens. Through the pure loving gaze and recognition of Barbie, the Kens awaken to themselves as persons.

Before returning to the real-world Barbie encounters her maker (Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie). The choice to become human is up to Barbie. Yes, she will die. But she will also be able to be whatever she wants to be, and this is beautiful. This is “so much more,” and what the maker had always hoped for Barbie. In the final scene Barbie, now human, goes to the doctor’s office for an appointment with her gynecologist.

At this point we must point out ambiguities. Other than the “maker,” the movie, like most secular films, has no reference to God. According to Ulrich, genuine confrontation with the question of death brings man face to face with the “above and beyond,” with the “hereafter,” with man’s finitude, and with the transcendent and divine. Death implies mortality, mortality implies finitude and contingency, finitude and contingency implies that we receive ourselves from another—from God. But what is the meaning of this reception of oneself from another? Am I given to myself, to be myself, as a gratuitous gift from God? That is, does God, as it were, let the gift of my being “go,” let it “separate” from him, so that it may be mine? (A good separation, a separation [death] in unity with my unity with God the giver of all gifts [life]).

Or is God “holding something back”? Does the fact he is my source alienate me from myself? Does my dependency on him mean I am not really my own person? And, if this is the case, does this not also imply that God is an “impotent” giver, unable to give me to myself so radically that I can really be myself? In other words, does God’s creative gift imply a dialectic of life against death, of self-being against receiving oneself from another, of unity against separation? This is the abyssal temptation. Consequence: I must seize what is mine, grasp what God has been withholding, eat the forbidden fruit, become like God knowing good and evil on my own terms. I refuse dying to myself unto the origin—“whoever loses his life for my sake”—but seek rather to establish myself safe and secure by my power alone.

As noted, Barbie is awakened from her idealistic reverie by thoughts of death. And Barbie does choose to become a mortal human. But has she faced the full significance of the question? Or, has she once again brushed it aside: death as the merely temporal end of life, death as the “price” finite life must pay for concrete, “real” existence and self-creation (concrete and alive, as opposed to an ideal realm, a dream, a play realm, a realm for kids and toys). “Maturely,” accepting the inevitable death then, is not the same as living the unity of life and death now.

And what to make of Barbie’s “maker”? Is the maker an image of a generous God or of the “withholding” and “impotent” God? Becoming human, Barbie is free to be whatever she wants to be. But is this liberation, liberation and independence in unity with dependence, or, liberation and independence against dependence?

And Ken. He is Ken-enough, “Ken is me.” The gaze of the You, of Barbie, has awoken him to himself as an I, indeed, her gaze is, in a certain respect, a gift by which she gives Ken to himself. Ken has awoken to himself as an “I:you,” an independent person always already in relation with the other, a person who receives himself as a gift from another. But what is the ground of Ken’s newfound himself? Does his existence as an “I:you,” transcend itself into a relation with the YOU? That is, does his relationship with Barbie (the finite you), transcend itself into a relation with the infinite YOU, with God, who gives him and Barbie to themselves and to each other? Or does this relation remain trapped on the finite plane? In which case, Ken’s existence as an “I:you” will inevitably devolve into selfish existence as an “I = I,” and the dialectic of life against death will return in some other form.

Finally, does Barbie’s visit to the gynecologist signify a reversal of the contraceptive mindset of the opening scene? Is Barbie open to her fruitfulness as a mother? To the gift of the child? Or is she simply another modern woman taking control of her reproductive health? Or (unlikely) was the scene simply thrown in as a joke? Whatever the answers, these are questions worth pondering.

Jude Macfarlane is a PhD candidate at the John Paul II Institute and teaching fellow at the Catholic University of America. He is writing on Ferdinand Ulrich and teaches philosophy.

Posted on April 9, 2024.

[1] See especially, Ferdinand Ulrich, Leben in der Einheit von Leben und Tod (Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 1999) [Hereafter LT].

[2] For interested readers, English translations of Ulrich’s works on childhood and prayer, as well as his reflection on atheism will soon be published as Three Short Works, trans. D.C. Schindler, Robert Van Alstyne, and Andrew Shivone (Washington, D.C.: Humanum Academic Press, 2024).

[3] LT, 80–91; see also, Ulrich, Der Mensch als Anfang.

[4] LT, 7–21.

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