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'Do you guys ever think about dying...?' - Barbie

Pat Allerton reflects on the Barbie movie, the societal questions that it answers and the existential question that it doesn't.

Pat Allerton is vicar of St Peter’s Notting Hill, sometimes known as 'The Portable Priest'.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Greta Gerwig's Box-Office smash hit movie

So I’ve just got home from watching the brand new and much acclaimed ‘Barbie’ at the cinema (don’t worry, I also watched ‘Oppenheimer’ last week). It’s 11pm, my wife and our 8.5 month old daughter are asleep upstairs and despite having church in the morning, I feel stirred to write some thoughts.

First and foremost, huge congratulations to Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, the whole cast, crew and team. It’s an absolute belter! Full of laughs from beginning to end. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would encourage anyone else to go and see it.

But secondly, far from being the shallow, plastic cliché that you might expect, what you actually get is an intelligent, searing critique, albeit somehow gently done, of the world we live in and what’s predominantly wrong with it. Which is, you guessed it, men. Or more specifically, patriarchy.

The film begins in ‘Barbieland’ where everything is seemingly perfect, as encapsulated by Barbie when she describes the day we first meet her as, ‘the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.’ That is, until we meet Ken (played by the excellent Gosling). It is here that the first inkling of imperfection or wrinkle in their world is detected. As the narrator (voiced by Dame Helen Mirren) makes clear, ‘Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.’ (We’ve all been there guys). His niggling insecurity and consequent competitiveness towards other Kens however, still aren’t enough to wake Barbie from her dream-like state and reveal that all is not well in paradise.

Issues of equality, respect, independence and identity are addressed in a way that left this 'pale, stale male' challenged but not condemned. 

That moment arrives unexpectedly, during what appears to be a standard evening with ‘a giant blowout party with all the Barbies, and planned choreography and a bespoke song’ to which Ken is told he should ‘stop by’. The dance is breathtaking, the happiness palpable, and yet suddenly, as if from nowhere, Barbie blurts out the pivotal line in the film, the hinge on which the whole (Barbie) world turns, ‘do you guys ever think about dying?’ Cue the DJ’s vinyl record screeching to a halt, the choreography closing down, the dancers looking at her in disbelief, and the general sense of a serious buzz-kill. ‘Dying to dance’, she disingenuously adds, desperate to keep the party going, to shrieks of relieved delight and Dua-Lipa's return. Disaster averted, reality restored.

Except it’s not, it’s simply avoided. Avoided by everyone that is, bar Barbie. Something has changed for her, she knows it, and she must somehow find out why. That wrinkle in her world (along with the wrinkle on her thigh) turns out to be caused by a tear in the fabric separating her plastic world from the real one.

Long-story short, avoiding spoilers where I can, Barbie and Ken then embark on an eye-opening, perspective-shattering, journey from their world to the real world in order to find out where such unnerving questions (and cellulite) were coming from. Major issues with (or norms within) our world are encountered, from the objectification of women (Barbie receives immediate unwanted attention from all kinds of men), to the totally unmerited respect of any man (with someone even asking Ken if he had ‘the time’). They each go on an existential journey of discovery, with Ken delighted to learn that in the real world, men rule the roost (except for a brief time when he thought that horses did). Inspired with fresh vision, he quickly returns home in order to make some fundamental changes to and establish much of the best practice that he’s witnessed in patriarchal L.A.

I won’t say how things end up, but suffice it to say, issues of equality, respect, independence and identity are addressed in a way that left this ‘pale, stale male’ feeling both challenged but not condemned. Kudos to the team for getting that balance right! However, as big and important as these issues are, and as satisfying an ending as was reached from a social justice warrior’s point-of-view, it struck me that the biggest elephant of all was still left there in the room, or at least charging around on the beach. Because the very question that began her journey, the deepest one that woke her up, is the very one that’s just left hanging, unaddressed and ungrappled with.

The music stops and that is it. And yet don't our hearts long for more?

It’s almost as if that moment of existential angst on the dancefloor (and who hasn’t had one of them), realising the fragility of our own mortality, did nothing more than focus Barbie on the need to lay hold of everything she can in this life, rather than exploring the reality (or not) of the next. Our culture has a word for it. YOLO, if you didn’t know, standing for ‘you only live once’. Which of course is true, whether you’ve got faith or not. But the Christian worldview would go further, saying that whilst indeed you only live once, the Scriptures tell us that you also live forever (or YALF, to coin a phrase). Which sounds ridiculous on the face of it (the concept, not the phrase, although granted, YALF might not catch on). After all, as the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler, tells us in the film, ‘ideas live forever, humans not so much.’

Unless, of course, they do, or can, which only our creator could possibly make possible. And so Ruth’s appearance raises another interesting question, if she made Barbie, who made Ruth? Only when we’re dealing with questions of this nature can we be positioned to take on the big mama (I was tempted to say ‘daddy’) question of, ‘do you guys ever think about dying?’ Which, of course, every one of us does. You can’t be human and avoid doing so. You’d have to be a doll in a made-up world.

But it’s a frightening thing to do, whether in Barbieland, in England’s green and pleasant land or anywhere for that matter. Because it all just looks so final. Like the music stops and that is it. And yet don’t our hearts long for there to be more? For one more song, for the beat to continue? Dare we hope for resurrection where life and light beat death and darkness? Because as beautiful as this life is, with all its opportunity for growth and freedom, be it in self-revelation and actualisation like Ken (the film ends with him wearing a hoodie that says, ‘I am Kenough’), or greater progress and equality on a socio-political level, experience tells us that until we have an answer for Barbie’s first and biggest question, then our own days here on earth, however good, happy and choreographed, will always be rudely interrupted by the reality of death and its long shadow. Find an answer for that... and let the DJ’s music play.

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.