Is the ‘Barbie’ Movie the Greatest Biblical Retelling Ever Made?

Gerwig's dazzling extravaganza flips the Genesis story on its head.

I expected a lot from the “Barbie” movie. A d’var Torah was not on the list.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading now. Put on your favorite pink frock, trot over to the nearest cinema, then come back to me. Spoilers ahead.

With fervor verging on zealotry, I have been anticipating Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” since I first saw those iconic women’s names linked in one sentence. I reasoned that director Gerwig, at the height of her creative powers, could choose to tell any story that inspired her. I trusted that she would continue the work of interrogating American womanhood begun in her earlier films, “Lady Bird” (2017) and the meticulously researched “Little Women” (2019). What I did not anticipate was how “Barbie” would interrogate the problem of creative power itself. 

The source of this story is far older than the mid-century doll; in fact, it goes as far back as the Book of Genesis. “Barbie,” I was thunderstruck to realize, retells the story of the Garden of Eden.

The already record-breaking movie is a dazzling, multi-layered extravaganza, with cinematic influences ranging from Jacques Demy to Stanley Kubrick, and literary references as high-brow as Proust and as canonical as, yes, the Torah. The joy of “Barbie” is its humor, its painstaking visual design and its ability to simultaneously celebrate and satirize its own source material. But the soul of “Barbie” is a contest between the seeming binaries set up in the story of the Garden of Eden: good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, creator and creation, woman and man. (I am not the only viewer to notice this. Alissa Wilkinson, writing for Vox, connects the Genesis themes in “Barbie” to Gerwig’s play with theology in “Lady Bird” as well as the director’s tongue-in-cheek comments comparing Barbie and Ken to Adam and Eve, respectively.) It is not a straightforward or literal retelling; rather, Gerwig draws on the Hebrew Bible as one of many texts that combine into a world fantastical yet familiar, like a memory of childhood warped by nostalgia.

The basic plot of “Barbie” is simple: Life exists in two parallel universes — Barbieland and the real world. Barbieland is harmonious, frictionless and immaculately designed. Conflict is nonexistent and every day is the best day ever. It’s a hyper-girlie plastic paradise, envisioned, no doubt, by a woman. (Actually, a team of women, as detailed in this Architectural Digest tour of the Barbie Dreamhouse set.) It is, in a word, edenic, but it’s also a childlike fantasy of adult life.

Then there’s the real world, our world, rife with duplicity, resentment, sexism and corporate culture, among other ills. In Barbieland, the women, all named Barbie, and the men, all named Ken, live in blissful ignorance until our heroine, Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, begins contending with intrusive thoughts and bodily changes — Barbieland’s version of knowledge of good and evil. It signifies a fissure between the two universes, and Barbie sets out on a fact-finding mission to the real world. This is the primary conflict of the film: leaving paradise and moving through the imperfect world as a human woman.

Gerwig departs from the narrative of Genesis — there is no snake, no expulsion, and the boundaries between the two worlds are porous. But she zooms in on the implications of two major relationships that the Bible takes for granted: man and woman, and God and manpersonkind. 

On the sexes, the Torah tells us:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” … He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man.

This framing of the relationship between man and woman provides a theological justification for a patriarchal social structure: woman, made from man and therefore impossible without him, exists for the purpose of helping him. No wonder Lilith peaced out.

In “Barbie,” Gerwig turns this on its head, using as a jumping-off point the historical advent of Barbie in 1959, which preceded the introduction of Ken two years later. Ken’s sole purpose is to be Barbie’s boyfriend, as if Mattel, the toy company that produces the doll and serves as a villain in the film, had said, “It is not good for Barbie to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for her.” In the film, Ken’s — the Kens’ — dawning awareness of this unequal structure is the secondary conflict, and the more surprising and poignant struggle. 

Notably, in the Bible, Eve has no such awakening; in fact, after the birth of her sons, she vanishes from her own story. To wit, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth. After the birth of Seth, Adam lived 800 years and begot sons and daughters.” (Mazel tov, Adam. You have any help with that?) So Gerwig addresses herself to Eve’s plight, only slant. By switching Eve for Adam, she shows us the self-effacement and erasure that inevitably accompany subservience.

Subtler references to Genesis are sprinkled throughout the film. It opens with an homage to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” reimagined as little girls playing with baby dolls in the pre-Barbie era that is, for Gerwig’s purposes the prehistory of, in the Biblical phrasing, “the earth being unformed and void.” Later, Barbie’s transformation from idealized doll into real woman brings about an unfamiliar feeling of embarrassment — “Barbies don’t get embarrassed!” another Barbie exclaims — just as Adam and Eve only experienced shame at their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit. 

These moments fit into a larger tapestry of intertextuality. Yet I am convinced that the Genesis story is a central source because of the appearance of one major figure: God (represented by Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman). Handler, the inventor of Barbie, was Jewish, as is Perlman, and although this factors minimally into my reading, you, obviously, love to see it. More important here is her role as creator, and her responsibility to her creation.

Barbie encounters Ruth twice: Once in an idyllic, domestic corner of Mattel headquarters, where Ruth is low-key omnipotent, and once, at the end, back in Barbieland. It’s only in their second meeting that Barbie understands she is meeting her own creator. Barbie, after all, looks like Barbie, whereas Ruth is a self-described “five-foot tall woman with a double mastectomy and some tax evasion issues.” How, then, do we understand the notion, the promise, that “God said, ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness’”? The Ruth character says she developed Barbie not as a representation of herself, but as a representation of her dreams for little girls, so they could imagine growing up to be whatever they wanted. It’s a gentler power, one with fewer strings attached.

It’s also a cozier conversation than anything Adam and Eve get from God. First, He tells them not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or they’ll drop dead (a lie). Then, after they eat the fruit and survive, He curses them for disobeying Him. He saves the worst curse for Eve, since she ate first: “In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (female heterosexuality truly a curse). Then He casts them out of paradise without so much as a “Good luck!”

Barbie’s final conversation with Ruth rewrites this encounter. Barbie, having experienced both sides and hungry for knowledge of good and evil, decides to leave Barbieland. Ruth positions herself not as Barbie’s creator, which implies a fixed subject-object status, but as her mother, designating a relationship that can evolve as both parties grow. Ruth takes Barbie’s hands, framed in a shot that evokes Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and in one concrete act of female empowerment, Barbie becomes human. Whereas in her first trip to the real world, Barbie and Ken hilariously announce their lack of genitals, the film ends with a perfect gag: Barbie at the gynecologist’s office. Part of being human is to inhabit a body, in Barbie’s case, a woman’s, and that requires upkeep. And, sorry God, but in the real world, we can make childbearing a little less painful, too.

Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” has something new to say about the biblical story of creation, and maybe I do too. Bereshit, the first chapter of Genesis, was the Torah portion at my bat mitzvah, almost a quarter-century ago. My own d’var Torah was some bullshit — a friend had shared with me unwelcome (that is, unflattering) gossip, which inspired me to write a jeremiad on the nature of knowledge of good and evil. Pure childishness. 

Going back to Bereshit, and back to “Barbie,” I can reconsider these models. Like Barbie herself, I can finally declare, “Today I am a woman.”

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