5 min read

The good, the bad and the Barbie

Lauren Windle is a author, journalist, presenter and public speaker.

At the Barbie movie, Lauren Windle fraternises with her childhood enemy, and leaves pondering change and imperfection.
Barbie stands between Ken and a rival with her hands raised.
Peacekeeper Barbie.
Warner Bros.

Barbie and I always had an unspoken understanding that our relationship would be mutually destructive. She made me feel inadequate; I was too short without a synched-in waist and pneumatic boobs. And I chewed her off her toes. One all. 

I have spent the better part of two decades not thinking about my adversary, until once again she reared her (not at all) ugly head. I always celebrate on July 21. It is, after all, my birthday. But this year, the date was eagerly anticipated by millions and not because they share my love of Colin the Caterpillar cake. Last Friday was ‘Barbie Day' and it was all anyone could talk about. 2 – 1 to Barbie. 

If you missed the news that there’s a Barbie movie now in the cinemas, clamber out from underneath that rock and let me tell you about it. The film, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, caused quite a stir with, what I can only assume is, the biggest marketing budget since Nike release Air Jordans. Both Warner Bros and Barbie’s parent company Mattel have thrown money at making sure we all know about their candy-coated flick. The campaign has been so effective that production sparked a global shortage of fluorescent pink paint. 

The box office is now raking in cash as people flock to see the fuchsia film. When I attended a morning viewing this weekend, I was one of the few people who hadn’t come dressed head to toe in pink. Not a chance Barbie. 

On taking my end-of-row seat (to facilitate a quick getaway) I settled in for one hour and 54 minutes of fraternising with the enemy. I’ll level with you, Barbie had made some effort to change. The vibrant colours (mainly in a rosy hue) were still in place, along with the glossy hair and impossibly smooth legs. But there was a new self-awareness and self-deprecation that hadn’t featured in our childhood tea parties.  

Finally, my arch nemesis is on the right side of history, right? I’m not sure that’s the case. 

I had expected a vapid tale with fun flourishes. The story certainly delivered on both of those but with a lot more I hadn’t anticipated. From where I was sitting (popcorn in hand, legs stretched out into the aisle), it was a satirical story of feminism, patriarchy and the joy and anguish of fully embracing life on life’s terms. If you saw that coming, you probably have the gift of the prophetic, because it was certainly not on my radar.  

If you don’t think too much about the plot, the film is easy to enjoy. Helen Mirren offers a witty commentary which is like someone handing you a cup of tea with two sugars when you usually just take milk. It was a welcome surprise that you wouldn’t have asked for but were delighted to discover. It was a visual feast for the eyes with everything – especially the inhabitants of Barbieland – looking perfectly polished. There are also a number of very funny jokes – albeit with adult undertones.  

All good so far, but now let’s suppose that you, like me, will think about the plot. When the word is defined correctly, I am delighted to identify as a feminist. That does not mean that I support every feminism-associated declaration of the last 100 years, but it does mean that I passionately champion women and the correcting of previous (and some current) oppressions. This would make me a prime candidate for loving the Barbie movie. Finally, my arch nemesis is on the right side of history, right? I’m not sure that’s the case. Sometimes, in an attempt to show willing, we can allow the pendulum to swing a little too far in the wrong direction. 

Mattel’s campaign to rebrand Barbie from a ditsy blonde to an empowered achiever has been well documented. People didn’t want the lack of ambition that came with “shopping mall Barbie” or “beach Barbie” and they certainly didn’t want to have to live up to her unrealistic beauty standards. Apparently if a Barbie doll was to scale, she’d be 5ft 9 with size three feet, and only enough space in her waist for half a liver. 

Rather than continuing along these lines, portraying the company as inspiring for girls and women, they take the mick out of it. They highlight that Barbie has been a part of the problem. But in making their point, they outrageously infantilise men. Of course, this is satire, and comedy allows space for exaggeration, but it still didn’t quite sit right for me. Not one man offered a positive portrayal of masculinity (although Michael Cera’s Allan is a joy to watch). On the whole, men were either oblivious, obsessed with their own success, or childish and sometimes sit in board meetings wishing they could just tickle each other. 

The very brief summary – without revealing too much of the plot – is that Barbie is very happy in Barbieland, a perfect paradise where women do the lion share of the work and take all the leadership roles. But something starts to change, and the real world begins to seep in. After “causing a rupture” between the real world and Barbieland, “the patriarchy” is introduced into this female-led eutopia and the Barbies must banish it in order to restore the sorority-dominated lifestyle they previously enjoyed. Not a problem – when Ken found out patriarchy wasn’t about horses he lost interest anyway.  

In ten years, I think many of the critics who have lauded this film as a classic will cringe at their enthusiasm. 

In a world where even Caitlin Moran is writing a book posing the question “What About Men?” I fear this film will age badly. The vast majority of people, including women, don’t want to propel women by doing men down. In ten years, I think many of the critics who have lauded this film as a classic will cringe at their enthusiasm. 

Finally, let’s frame this with the ways the Bible has influenced the film. Oh yes, the biblical message hasn’t just underpinned Harry Potter and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it’s apparent in the Barbie movie too. If we replace Barbieland with Eden we can see a stark comparison between the film and the creation story. In this utopia, Barbie is given authority over the land. She is given a helper in Ken. But their paradise is threatened by human fragility and quest for more knowledge. After it comes crashing down the inhabitants just want to get back to their previous state. 

The film demonstrates the desperation to 'return to Eden', in the face of an imperfect and broken world. But it also highlights the beauty that can be found in allowing yourself to experience life on life’s terms; to cry, feel pain and embrace the ache associated with change. For that, I respect its efforts. Although I think Disney’s Inside Out manages to achieve the same without belittling men. 


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Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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