Life has a way of forcing us to reckon with our bodies’ vulnerability and frailty. Consider two seemingly disparate moments. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus prophesies that he will suffer and die, Peter interrupts him with outraged denial. And in a utopia where not even gravity can get her down, Barbie steps off her Dream House—and falls.
In such moments, both Peter and Barbie wonder: Why can’t we choose only the good parts of embodied living? What are we supposed to do with the hard parts?
Splashy, clever, and ridiculously funny, Gerwig’s Barbie is about a lot—too much, probably. I loved watching it, nevertheless. I mean, Ryan Gosling, Michael Cera, and Simu Liu, under disco lights, dancing the night away? Delicious. But just like its human protagonist Gloria, the movie pushes itself too hard to be all things. Assorted themes include, but are not limited to, patriarchy, parenting, perfectionism, nostalgia, and gender inequality (now in both directions, neat!).
In such a crowded list of themes, though, incarnation is the most surprising one.
That Gerwig takes us there should not be surprising. For a hot-pink fever dream of a rollicking good time, Barbie also goes meta, as we all expected. Gerwig’s modus operandi is to have fun and dive deep simultaneously, and her earlier movies—2017’s Ladybird and 2019’s Little Women—explore complex layers of art, feminism, adulthood, money, and love. Gerwig is always asking good questions in her movies, and with Barbie, she interrogates the challenges of living a real human life. What does embodiment—from bad breath to an unrequited crush, from slumber parties to social change—require of us?
Much of the movie revolves around agency. Ken has always experienced powerlessness in Barbieland; all Kens are second-class citizens there. Thus it’s startling when Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) life skips a beat for the first time. Without warning, life gets uncomfortable. Her shower’s cold. Gravity matters. Her feet go—gasp!—flat. Something is rotten in the state of Barbieland. As per the classic Hero’s Journey, Barbie’s mission is to travel to the Real World, find the problem, and fix it. She’s a regular Messiah in pink.
A Vulnerable God
Yet what if the Messiah isn’t what we expected? What if Barbie can’t fix it all? She’s not as powerful as she wishes. Mostly, things just happen to her. She is, as author Kate Bowler puts it, “exiled from the life of her choosing.”
Millions of us experience similar disillusionment. The tumor is malignant. The migraines persist. The soulmate finds someone else, or never shows up in the first place. Life happens hard. The seemingly empowering mantra of “I can be whatever I choose!” turns out to burden us with untenable responsibility. Be it culture, genetics, resources, natural abilities, or past experiences, we determine so little of what actually shapes us.
Jesus, it appears, submitted graciously to this loss of agency. Even before his sacrificial death, Christ offered his kenosis, the intentional emptying out of his power. The Bread of Heaven went hungry in the desert. The son of the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps was so desperate for a nap that he conked out in a storm. Capable of eradicating all disease with a thought, Jesus instead walked from town to town and healed individual sufferers with his touch. With authority to summon Heaven’s fiercest hosts, the Prince of Peace offered his cheek up to a Roman soldier’s spittle.
Jesus’s first act of kenosis was, as John puts it, to become flesh. The word for “flesh” here—sarx—implies literal muscle, and can carry connotations of meat and animals. Any first-century Jewish listener would have been startled, if not scandalized, by John’s linking of God to sarx. They would have understood that John was referencing the Creation account wherein God’s Word makes worlds. But then God’s Word puts on skin. God’s Word knows what is to crave, tire, ache, and die.
His Hero’s Journey demands it, however. Long before Barbie left her paradise for the Real World, Christ left his throne to take on our muscle, bone, affliction, and sin. And both Christ and Barbie’s journeys evoke mankind’s first exile from the Garden, an intentional parallel on Gerwig’s part:
I started from this idea of Barbieland, this place with no death, no aging, no pain, no shame. We know this story… It’s in a lot of religious literature. What happens to that person? They have to leave. And they have to confront all the things that were shielded from them in this place.
At one point, for example, Barbie is horrified to find her flawless thigh rippled with streaks. “What is it?” she asks her mentor, Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon with the perfect ratio of pathos to punk.)
“That’s cellulite,” Weird Barbie replies, grinning wryly. “It’s gonna spread everywhere. You’re gonna get sad and mushy and complicated.”
Barbie takes this news about as well as Peter takes the news of Jesus’ upcoming death. Given the choice between blissful ignorance and harsh reality, Barbie opts for the former. Fear, sadness, and death don’t just feel bad to Barbie. They feel wrong. They don’t belong in her vision of a good future.
Tough Guy vs. the Lamb
The Apostle Peter knows exactly how Barbie feels. (What a fun sentence to type.) Fear, sadness, and death don’t belong in his vision of a good future, either. We see this in his interaction with Jesus in Mark’s gospel:
And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Just before this tense exchange, Peter had confessed Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish people were expecting a revolutionary Messiah who could yank them out from under Rome’s thumb. They imagined—rather like Ken does near the end of Barbie—a real tough-guy, winner type. From Isaiah’s prophecies and David’s songs, they envisioned a Messiah who would smash oppression and lead God’s people to power.
Peter knows the Christ has finally arrived. He has seen Jesus restore leprous limbs, free demon-oppressed souls, feed hungry thousands, and raise unbreathing corpses. In the rabbi from Nazareth, Peter sees the anointed one who has come at last. He is right: Jesus was and is the Messiah. Just not the kind of Messiah that Peter wants.
Clutching his sword, Peter seems to ignore the other messianic prophecies. Isaiah doesn’t only write of the victorious prince stomping out injustice. He also tells of a lamb led silently to slaughter. He shows a suffering servant. David, too, sings an eerie lament about a son surrounded by murderers.
And now here’s Jesus, prophesying his own death.
Death prophecies are about as welcome to Peter as Weird Barbie, with her atrocious haircut and crayon-scarred face, is to Barbieland. A beaten Messiah? A dying Messiah? No, thank you. Gross. Why look at a meek lamb being butchered when you can follow a mighty king being crowned? No, Lord, you’ve got it all wrong. Pain does not belong in this story.
Yet how would our Savior understand us if he hadn’t allowed hardship into his own story? His incarnation in our Real World had to be authentic. He had to experience what we do. In life on this side of Eden, no pain means no humanity. No death means no resurrection.
Pros and Cons of Embodiment
Christ’s suffering declares that being human—particularly in his trademark holy-sacrifice, all-of-me-offered-to-God kind of way—is both uncomfortable and incredibly significant. His resurrection gives us hope for these frail bodies of ours. Our bodies do not only hurt or die, as Christ’s body did. They also heal and love as his did.
Look at how Jesus used his incarnation. Look at him laying his hands on the heads of little children in blessing. We could bless each other. See how he stands tall in a raging storm to bring peace, comfort, and safety to the terrified. We could shelter each other. Watch him defend Mary for sitting at his feet instead of doing something “useful,” because he loves being with her. We could sit and rest a while, just enjoying God’s company.
An embodied God shows us how good bodies can be. Through baptism, communion, delight, and every loving act, our bodies thrust the goodness of God out into experiential reality.
But sometimes, our bodies feel like a liability. Troubles arise beyond cold showers and spoiled milk. A friend who was sober for years relapses. A friend who was born a man now aches to be a woman, and doesn’t know why, and is scared to say anything to the church. A friend who watched her husband die before her eyes is left with four little kids to raise.
We step off the Dream House, and gravity takes over, and we fall, and we fall.
Jesus knows about bodies breaking. He knows how we hate it. It is apparently a uniquely human mindset to wish misery away; when Peter scolds him for vulnerability, Jesus shoots back, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
The Lord knows we try hard to erase the ache. We’ve invented a thousand ways to numb or deny it. He knows that, worse, we’ve invented a thousand ways to inflict hurt, from the intimate cruelty of a slap to the global tragedy of an atomic bomb. And when we can deny our frailty no longer—when disease, addiction, depression, or aging force us to face the truth of our bodies’ frailties—God knows how we rage, weep, and beg for the cup to pass. He also wept. He also begged for suffering to pass.
But then he submitted. Christ prayed before his arrest, “not my will, but yours.” Offering his head to thorns, his hands and feet to nails, his side to a spear, and his spirit up to the Father, Jesus transformed his physical death into our eternal salvation. In a stunningly creative move, God-in-a-body used that body to redeem us.
I would never spoil Barbie by telling you how she deals with her Real World incarnation. Trust that there are sparkles as well as tears. For us, the adventure lies in our Real World. Here, we are called to embrace our physicality, offering to God the sorrows and the sweetness of physicality. We let the Spirit of Jesus do the Father’s miracles through our hands, and even our—gasp!—flat feet.
The miracles are the work of God and we are not him. It does not lie with us to make meaning of our bodies, perform our own healing, or redeem others with our flesh. All the sovereignty and glory is God’s. Our invitation is simply to say “Yes.”
Yes, embodiment is a blessing. We can trust that God delights in our creaturely forms.
Yes, our bodies matter to God, limits and all. We honor His design by holding space to sleep, eat, weep, walk in forests, and hold each other.
And yes, the bodies of our fellow humans matter to God. We house people who need refuge. We wash our roommates’ dishes. We feed hungry neighborhood kids. We honor bodies that look or work differently than ours. We dig wells and fold Everests of laundry. We tidy hospice rooms.
And then, in the end, we dance the night away.