What ‘Barbie’ has to say about LDS teachings on paradise, priesthood, patriarchy and perfectionism

Noting the film’s allusions to the biblical Eden, author says “it would have been a total tragedy for Eve to have stayed in the Garden or for Barbie to stay in Barbieland.”

(Warner Bros. Pictures) Barbie (Margot Robbie, front) drives her pink Corvette out of BarbieLand, with Ken (Ryan Gosling) as a stowaway, in director Greta Gerwig's "Barbie." The movie has messages for Latter-day Saints and others about patriarchy and perfectionism.

In the opening scenes of the blockbuster film “Barbie,” there is no work, no sex, no aging (not even cellulite) and no death in “Barbieland” — where the Barbies rule (including Astronaut Barbie, Nobel Prize winner Barbie, President Barbie), and the Kens are mere accessories with nothing to do.

Indeed, some, including an author at the National Catholic Reporter, see the movie as a retelling of the “the fall from paradise” in the Garden of Eden story — “but unlike the biblical story, it is told as a woman’s fall from paradise into patriarchy.”

In Mormon theology, Eve is confronted with God’s contradictory commands not to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil but also to “be fruitful and multiply.” She courageously eats the fruit and persuades Adam to follow her. “In addition to introducing physical and spiritual death,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains, “[the fall] gave us the opportunity to be born on the earth and to learn and progress.”

So what does the film, which has attracted millions and millions of other theatergoers, have to say about women and men, the need for choices, the all-male Latter-day Saint priesthood, patriarchy and perfectionism?

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, with Rachel Rueckert. The award-winning author and editor-in-chief of Exponent II, a magazine for and about Latter-day Saint women, discusses those questions and more.

(Courtesy) Rachel Rueckert, editor-in-chief of Exponent II, says playing with Barbies as a youngster allowed her to "explore boundaries, relationships and wild imagination."

Did you play with Barbies as a kid?

I sure did. My most memorable Christmas present was coming into the living room to find a pink Barbie Dreamhouse with a real battery-operated elevator. … I delighted in my Barbies, and I think, looking back, I can also see that I played with them very differently than how I played with other toys. Barbies gave me a chance to explore boundaries, relationships and wild imagination as my mind was growing and maturing — everything from how does kissing work to where is this Barbie riding off to in a plastic horse?

What were some aspects of the “Barbie” movie that stood out to you?

Off the bat, one thing that really stood out to me was just the poignancy of “Depression Barbie,” and it felt very real to me. I was also very fascinated in the role of Allan, and how problematic gender roles can feel for certain folks in this kind of binary world that we have. There’s a moment in the movie where Barbie is reflecting on something that she has to do or say to Ken, after he’s acted horribly, and another Barbie says, just don’t hurt anyone. I’m personally trying to recover from people-pleasing, so, on a personal level, those are some things that stood out.

All is well until “Stereotypical Barbie,” played by Margot Robbie, asked if anybody else has thoughts about death, which could be the first allusion to the Garden of Eden. Does the Garden of Eden allegory seem plausible to you?

Absolutely…In fact, [director] Greta Gerwig herself mentioned this even before the movie came out in an interview with Vogue. She said Barbie was invented first, then Ken was invented after Barbie to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.

(Salt Lake Tribune archives) Artwork portrays Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. Some see allusions to the biblical Fall in the "Barbie" movie.

Some Latter-day Saints compare Barbie’s story to the faith’s plan of salvation laid out in their temples. What do you think?

Yes, this message of leaving innocence, of going through the wilderness of human experience and maturing all along the way, it’s all there. One friend of mine mentioned that as soon as she got out of it, she was moved to tears and said, “This is the temple movie I wish I would have had.” This is where the Latter-day Saints’ take on Eve specifically is… It would have been a total tragedy for Eve to have stayed in the Garden [of Eden] or for Barbie to stay in Barbieland.

[Spoiler] In the end, Ken says there is no Ken, there’s only “Ken AND Barbie.” What did you think when Barbie says he needs to discover his true self apart from her?

(Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie."

The question really resonates for me personally, like very strongly. My first book was a memoir called “East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage.” It basically was a big wrestle with my deep ambivalence and fear about marriage because I didn’t want to be an “and.” So I was so ruled by fear and haunted by my relationship status, and in so many ways so was Ken. Barbie, in contrast, is not weighed down worrying about it at all. She’s just going about her little Barbie life.

When Ken arrives in the real world, he is just surprised and struck by all the things men can do. He thinks he can do anything just by being male — like doing surgery.

Ryan Gosling does such a fantastic job portraying Kevin (let’s also not forget that he grew up Mormon). Because his acting is so over the top, it’s easier to spot and laugh at. Of course, a man with no medical experience shouldn’t be able to walk into a hospital and perform surgery. This parallel to the LDS Church, definitely doesn’t feel completely comedic to me when I actually sit down to think about it. I’ve definitely been in situations at church where I haven’t felt less than my male counterparts. …I’ve also … recently had an incident that was so deeply painful, and I assume other LDS women are so deeply wounded by men acting out the hierarchy.

The movie’s patriarchy is taken to the extreme, but the reality in the church is that a 12-year-old boy with the priesthood has more power to act in God’s name than adult women — just by being male.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Only Latter-day Saint men and boys are permitted to administer the sacrament, or Communion.

If this happened at a hospital or if this happened at school, you know, I would be outraged. … but I think we have some special blinders that come into play when we’re talking about our religious experience.

What message should members — especially women — take from the movie about perfectionism?

Part of Barbie leaving Barbieland is she’s being exiled not just from innocence, but from perfectionism. We have a tendency to fetishize both as if those are somehow good. There was no way that Barbie could ever get past “the best day” forever and ever without doing something different, without becoming imperfect. [We should see being perfect] not as an ideal, but something deeply plastic, something we actually don’t really want to be. Let’s just be human.

No adult woman wants to live either in Barbieland or in patriarchy. Even Barbie wants to be a “creator” and live in the real world. How does that jibe with Latter-day Saint teachings?

We need to acknowledge that the “real world” can be really, really terrible. Near the end, when Barbie sees a montage of a lot of real women, they are smiling, they’re laughing, they’re living their best moments. and, by embracing the human experience, Barbie will know the good like in the case of Eve. But, wow, will she also know the bad — like realities of war, school shootings, sexual assaults, climate crises, cancer, grief upon grief upon grief. Maybe as a collective culture, we actually take solace in the innocence of Eden. There’s a reason why even Barbie wanted to pick the pink high heel over the Birkenstock sandal. Knowledge is really painful….I guess the question that this movie speaks to is why this longing to go back, rather than grappling with the difficult here and now? Can we move away from innocence? Can we move away from perfectionism to something better, something deeper and richer?

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To receive full “Mormon Land” transcripts, along with our complete newsletter and exclusive access to Tribune subscriber-only religion content, support us at Patreon.com/mormonland.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.