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.