Post Author: Pastor Courtney R. Young
Note: This post contains a brief mention of birth and body image.
Venus figurines are among the oldest pieces of art humans have created. Through them we can see that there is an ancient relationship between figurines and the elevation of some kind of ideal on behalf of a community or culture. Venuses in their many forms have represented the ideal feminine or feminine power throughout the ages. Mattel’s Barbie doll is a very recent addition to the Venus lineage. Prehistoric Venuses are voluptuous and plump – a visual representation of a voracious fecundity. The Barbie that most of us grew up with appears to be missing a couple of ribs in order to be both curvy and slim. She represents the industrial West’s hope for freedom from the demands of the fleshiness of life. She insists that one might be able to both give birth and keep their figure.
In Greta Gerwig’s recent fantasy comedy Barbie, early on the audience is introduced to Stereotypical Barbie as she wakes up in her giant seashell bed, a reference to “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli. Soon Barbie’s world is turned upside down because she is unable to suppress her persistent thoughts of death. As I watched her dilemma unfold, I realized that viewers would be embarking on a journey of an epic scale. It is a primal journey that has echoed throughout human history and storytelling.
One of my favorite childhood authors, Gail Carson Levine published a book in 2008 called Ever. It tells the story of a young woman named Kezi who, like the daughter of Jephthah, was promised as a sacrifice by her father. At the same time that her father makes this promise, Kezi falls in love with a god. In order to both fulfill her father’s oath and remain by the side of her love, she embarks on a journey to become a god herself. In the end, she succeeds when she realizes that she must be able to preside over some kind of paradox, two disparate things that come together to create a life-giving tension or dynamism between them. She becomes the goddess of both awareness and uncertainty. Kezi makes her incredible journey propelled by the certainty of her own death. The specter of death looms large in a story when a protagonist must confront the paradoxes of life.
In Stereotypical Barbie I recognized another goddess about to make a descent into a kind of underworld to become more fully realized, not unlike Inanna, Isis, Anat, or Kezi. Barbie had to understand that she presides over a divine paradox. It is not enough that she is simply perfect: beautiful, successful, intelligent, and accomplished. She’s missing something. Venuses and goddesses throughout the ages have never simply been goddesses of fertility or love or domesticity, but life and death, fertility and war, domesticity and drunkenness, love and power, healing and judgment.
Stereotypical Barbie is able to uncover the other aspect of herself when she meets Gloria, the real woman who has been playing with her and introducing her to thoughts of death and general angst. Together Barbie and Gloria come to understand that Barbie doesn’t represent perfect women but women in all their extraordinariness and ordinariness. With a fuller understanding of her position and influence in Barbie Land and the real world, Barbie strikes a better balance between both.
When the movie ends with Barbie visiting a gynecologist for the first time, the viewer is assured that Stereotypical Barbie has stepped into her divine complexity. She is both extraordinary and ordinary. She is ready to embrace her capacity to give life and make demands of it. She is ready to navigate life’s beauty and hardship, possibility and disappointment, happiness and longing. Barbie shaped many of our imaginations of femininity and womanhood. Now her journey to the underworld and back again shows us the way to a deeper understanding of womanhood. She can inspire us to never be reduced to just one aspect of ourselves. Instead, may we learn how to stay open to receiving the divine gifts that we’ve yet to realize are there.
Courtney Young is a Lutheran pastor from Minnesota. Currently, she is serving as an interim pastor, writing a book, and is perpetually waiting for the next Michelle West novel. Connect with her at www.courtneyryoung.com.
Image by: Courtney Young
Used with permission