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As Christians, we can learn something from 'Barbie'

Warning:  Spoiler alert, and mature content will be discussed

Australian actress Margot Robbie as she poses on the pink carpet during the European premiere of 'Barbie' in central London on July 12, 2023.
Australian actress Margot Robbie as she poses on the pink carpet during the European premiere of "Barbie" in central London on July 12, 2023. | AFP via Getty Images/Justin Tallis, Henry Nicholls

Some critics are saying, “Don’t watch ‘Barbie’, go see 'Sound of Freedom' instead.”  I’ve actually seen both movies and I believe they share a similar underlying message.

In “Barbie,” the main character lives in a seemingly perfect Barbie World — a female-driven society in which the Barbies are all intelligent, strong, and celebrated super-achievers. The Kens in Barbie World are little more than complementary accessories, whose main purpose is to look good and cheer on the Barbies.  

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One day Barbie wakes up to find she is less than perfect, which is devastating to her. Barbie goes to the real world, in which she discovers that everything is upside down — she finds a patriarchy, where she is objectified and even hated. Ken, on the other hand, starts believing that patriarchy is where he can finally be valued. He takes this idea back to Barbie World and establishes a machismo hierarchy where the Kens are in charge and the Barbies cater to their egos.

The movie is a hilarious satire built on a reversed world of extreme gender stereotypes, but the writing is incredibly deep and full of beautiful moments if you’re willing to peer beneath the surface. Both Barbie and Ken ultimately discover that each of them has equal worth, that nobody should be reduced to stereotypes or objectified, and that gendered power imbalances might feel good to those in power, but they actually exploit and harm everyone.

“Sound of Freedom,” by contrast, is a dark, gut-punch of a film. Two children are kidnapped in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and sold to sex traffickers in Mexico and Colombia. The main character, Tim Ballard, embarks on a journey to find them and it yields the liberation of many more child sex slaves and the start of his nonprofit organization, Operation Underground Railroad.

Critics have pointed out that some of the rescue tactics depicted in the movie and the way in which child trafficking was portrayed, can wind up doing more harm than good. Those are valid points worth considering. Even so, this powerfully told story brings to light the horrific reality of human trafficking, calling on moviegoers to end this form of modern-day slavery. It also makes two crucial points — that sex trafficking is fueled by the supply and demand of pornography, and that “the United States is one of the top destinations for human trafficking and one of the top consumers for child sex.”

What connects the two films is that both showcase the ramifications of a world in which we dehumanize and objectify our fellow human beings.

“Barbie” uses humor and over-the-top satire to illustrate how harmful and demeaning it is for one sex to rule over another. The movie calls out patriarchy and abusive men specifically, and for good reason. When Will Ferrell’s character commands Barbie to “Get back in the box, Jezebel,” many women know exactly how that felt. Likewise, when America Ferrera’s character pours out her powerful speech at the end, many women felt every single syllable. “Sound of Freedom” employs blunt, heart-breaking imagery to illustrate the horrific abuse that happens when someone decides that another person is theirs to use. When the hero of the story resolutely declares, “God’s children are not for sale,” we felt it in the depths of our souls. Humans weren’t created to be owned, used, and dominated by other humans. We were made for freedom.

Another common thread is that pornography, sex trafficking, and what we know today as patriarchy all share the same core belief — that one person is entitled to exercise power over another person through control and domination and that one person is less human than another.

The loudest critics mocking “Barbie” insist that American women have nothing to whine about, that women are already regarded as equals, and that they should stop living with a “victim mentality.”

If true, why do varying studies reveal that 57% up to 91% of American men admit to regular pornography use? Why is the U.S. a top consumer of child sex and the top producer of pornography? Is that because American men view women and children as equals?

More troublingly, Barna research indicates that 68% of churchgoing men and over 50% of pastors consume porn regularly. Is that because they view women as equals?

Let’s be honest. When we say that “68% of church-going men struggle with porn” what we are really saying is that 68% of churchgoing men struggle to see women as fully human.

Can it be said that churchgoing women today are viewed as equals by churchgoing men when they are repeatedly dehumanized and objectified by their Christian brothers on a regular basis?

While there are many good men and many good churches, the statistics reveal a staggering reality: More men in the Church view women as sex objects than men who do not. Yes, good men and good churches find this appalling, but few seem to realize that a major driver of this objectification is a deeply rooted belief that God himself instituted a hierarchical power structure of men over women.

If you think I’m exaggerating, are you aware that popular social media influencers now encourage Christian wives to take pole-dancing classes?

Or consider these words from pastor Doug Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho: “All Christian wives, in all Christian marriages, occupy a subordinate rank, and it is always bad for a subordinate to be insubordinate.” 

How about this from Jack Hyles, who once preached: “For every single man in prison for rape, there ought to be right beside him a half-naked girl in the next cell.” 

Michael and Debi Pearl’s blog and books, Created to Be His Helpmeet, and The Bible on Divorce & Remarriage, instruct wives to “stop defrauding your husband and start pumping him dry about every day or so. If he is younger than 25, make that every day and twice on Sunday … If you do not cheerfully, joyously make yourself a willing participant, you are the tool of Satan to bring your husband down.” 

Not to belabor this, but none other than pastor John MacArthur has said:

“Man is the sun and woman is the moon. She shines not so much with the direct light of God, but that derived from man … woman was made to manifest man’s authority and man’s will as man was made to manifest God’s authority. The woman is the vice regent who carries out man’s wish … She demonstrates her significance in the world in response to the direction of men who are given divine dominion.” 

Perhaps these critics have never been girls who had to change their clothes to protect grown men’s minds, had to kneel down to have their skirt lengths measured, or had to endure a teen girl’s youth group session where they were compared to a chewed-up piece of gum, un-sticky tape, or a wilted rose [if they lost their virginity].

I laughed and cried through “Barbie.” I cried through “Sound of Freedom.” The latter calls attention to the horrors of a world in which people are dehumanized and objectified in the worst possible way. The former seeks to open our eyes to the entitled, power-hungry belief systems that can build such a world.

As long as there are churches in this country teaching women that they are more easily deceived than men, that men are entitled to unconditional respect, that husbands will be unfaithful if they aren’t given sex on demand, that marital rape does not exist, that wives dishonor God when they leave abusive marriages, then we cannot claim to say women and children are equal to men.

As long as there are churches in this country teaching women that female bodies of all ages are threats to men’s fragile sexual integrity, that God calls women to martyr themselves to abusive husbands, and that women and children can provoke rape or assault with their clothing, that blames teenage victims of clergy sexual abuse, we cannot claim to believe that women and children have equal worth with men.

We cannot use, abuse, consume, or dominate another person without first lowering their humanity.

Followers of Christ are called to love as Christ loves. Christ-like love challenges and levels ungodly hierarchies, empowers the weak and vulnerable, protects children, and sets captives free. It is for freedom, after all, that He came.

What does that freedom sound like? It sounds like voices raised that were once silenced. Some may mock or belittle those voices, but the Church is called to a love that listens, honors, and spreads the Word. The shared messages in “Barbie” and “Sound of Freedom” call us to this if we’ll listen.

Lead the way, dear Church.

Aleassa Jarvis is a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues and trauma-informed ministry in the church. She and her husband have spent most of their married life in local church ministry and international mission work in Central America and the Caribbean. Her years working alongside vulnerable women and children inspire much of her writing. She enjoys weaving neuroscience, theology, spiritual formation, and social issues into perspectives that challenge the status quo. She and her family currently live in Minnesota. 

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