Margot Robbie as Barbie (Warner Bros.)

Millions of happy teenagers, dressed in pink, marched in and out of the megaplexes this summer. Millions of grownups did, too. Meanwhile, thousands of dudes wondered whether they should be angry at the movie those festive crowds dressed up to go see. Dozens of intellectuals debated whether the movie was feminist or anti-feminist. A roomful of business executives at Mattel sighed with relief. I saw the movie, too. As the credits rolled and the soccer moms rose from their seats, I wondered, “Do they know they took their kids to see a movie about death?” The Stranger by Camus. Nausea by Sartre. Barbie by Gerwig. It’s too soon to say whether this blockbuster hit will become a classic of Western philosophy. But future adjunct professors will definitely assign it in their Intro courses. The critics are focusing on many ideas, many -isms, except the crucial one, summed up in a single line of dialogue at the end of the film: “Being a human can be pretty uncomfortable.” In other words, existentialism.

“Do you guys ever think about dying?” With this dramatic line, Barbie brings to a halt the fluorescent bacchanal. Barbie is having fun, until she’s not. Like “Rosebud” and “We blew it,” Barbie’s utterance will live forever in movie history for being both quotable and mysterious. But the line would neither disturb nor surprise an existentialist. An existentialist believes, among other things, that thinking about death during parties is a good thing. In fact, they think that you can't live life to the full without remembering death all the time. Already four hundred years ago, Blaise Pascal noticed that we humans spend most of our time distracting ourselves from death and, as a consequence, waste much of our lives. “We run carelessly to the precipice, after we have put something before us to prevent us seeing it.” He calls this form of denial divertissement. Barbie calls it “a perfect day.”

Another existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that human beings spend most of their lives in a default state of “average everydayness,” going from one unthinking task to the next. A yummy breakfast, a warm shower, a sunny day, my customized convertible, the open road, let’s wave to friends, “Hi Ken!,” beach. In this dreamlike state, Barbie has lost her sense of selfhood, and forgotten that she is an “I.” She’s been swallowed up by a generic “We,” a big “Anyone.” She remembers she’s an “I” only once something shocking happens. As Albert Camus put it, “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any [Barbie or Ken] in the face.” When that happens, Barbie learns the main truth of her existence: she is “being-toward-death.” Specifically, she learns this from Gloria, the middle-aged woman who, picking up the doll, inflicts upon Barbie an awareness of mortality.

As the credits rolled and the soccer moms rose from their seats, I wondered, “Do they know they took their kids to see a movie about death?”

Don’t expect any plot devices to give Barbie’s life meaning, though. “Existence precedes essence,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre means that, unlike surfboards or handbags, human beings are not manufactured and designed. They do not have a fixed, hardwired purpose. Instead, human beings must create meaning for themselves. Unlike Lawyer Barbie, Dr. Barbie, Mermaid Barbie, or President Barbie, “Stereotypical Barbie,” the film’s protagonist, has no essence, no identity, no adjective that will give her a clue as to the meaning of her life. There is no meaning to her life. When Stereotypical Barbie realizes this, she gets anxious. “What is that anxiety?,” she asks when she leaves Barbieland for the first time. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” Søren Kierkegaard answers. Anxiety is what happens when we realize that we are free.

“She’s everything. He’s just Ken,” goes the movie’s tagline. But both Barbie and Ken face the same problem: their lives are meaningless. Stereotypical Barbie is everything, which is another way of saying that she is nothing. She must become something; she must choose one path. Time is of the essence, because death is on the horizon, however distant. Ken’s journey is different from Barbie’s. Instead of defining his own existence, he has allowed Barbie to do it for him. “Ken is only happy when Barbie looks at him,” the narrator says. But Barbie’s “look” is a prison. “By the mere appearance of the [Barbie], I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself [Ken] as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the [Barbie],” Sartre writes. Ken must break free of Barbie’s gaze.

They also must break free of God. “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made,” Stereotypical Barbie declares, in fear and trembling. She directs these words at Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie, co-founder of Mattel, and sometime defendant before the Securities and Exchange Commission. Once Barbie says these words, Ruth instantly disappears. Now Barbie is no longer a creature. Ruth is Barbie’s God, and God must die so that Barbie might be free to create the meaning of her own existence. “Where has God gone?,” asked Friedrich Nietzsche. “We are all his murderers!” Barbie is one of them.

But there’s a catch: in order to become a maker of meaning, Barbie must die as well. “You understand that humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever. Humans not so much,” Ruth explains, right before disappearing. Barbie accepts her fate pretty quickly, even though half of what Ruth said—“ideas live forever”—is obviously false (just ask Alan or Pregnant Midge, Barbie’s discontinued friends).

Only Stereotypical Barbie chooses the path of mortality and deicide, however. All the Kens and all the other Barbies stay in Barbieland, a warm and bright place of never-ending joy and love. They agree with Gabriel Marcel: “To consent to the death of a [Barbie] is in a sense to give [her] up to death.… [I]t is the spirit of truth which forbids us to make this surrender, this betrayal.” Instead, Marcel adds, “To love a [Barbie] is to say you, you in particular, will never die.” In Barbieland, all the Kens and all the Barbies love each other. In Barbieland, Barbie and Ken refuse to give each other up to death. In Barbie’s own words, they live in a place where it’s always “the best day ever…every day from now until forever!”

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Santiago Ramos is a regular contributor to Commonweal.

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