Barbie Incarnated: The Vagina as Signifier of the Human Condition

Barbie has been interpreted as many things: feminist manifesto, two-hour long Mattel commercial, Biblical retelling. The latter is not a niche reading circulating solely in my carefully crafted bubble; even mainstream platforms have noticed that the film can be seen as retelling of Genesis, with Barbie as a second Eve (or in some interpretations, Lilith). 1 Living blissfully in an eternal pink world, Barbie feels shame for the first time after thoughts of death have come up, just like Eve and Adam feel ashamed of their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit. Barbie leaves her Eden to find the truth about the universe. She learns about the complexities of the human condition: mortality, suffering, conflicting emotions, but also the beauty of loving an impermanent world. The viewer learns that she is, at this point, still very much not human: she does not have a vagina, as she proclaims to a group of construction workers. Only after leaving paradise for good to become a mortal being in the real world she obtains genitalia, echoing the start of Eve’s reproductive activity in her postlapsarian state.

At least some of the parallels between Barbie and Eve are intentional. 2 Greta Gerwig told Vogue that Ken being created as companion for Barbie inverts the creation myth of Genesis: ‘Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world.’ 3 Two scenes mimic Michelangelo’s famous fresco painting The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with Barbie creator Ruth Handler acting as God the Mother and Barbie taking Adam’s place as her most notable creation. 4

On Christian platforms, critics have already noted that many of the elements in the storyline that reference Eve leaving paradise can, perhaps unintentionally, also point to Christ, Incarnated into our world. 5 Barbie, the film tells us, is an Idea, manifested in different dolls (‘Barbie is all of these women, and all of these woman are Barbie’), reminiscent of divine manifestation. When Barbie becomes human at the end of the film and leaves her pink paradise for the real world, we can read this as a retelling of the Word becoming flesh to dwell on earth. In the following, I will offer a reading of Barbie as Incarnated based on her transformation from a doll without a vagina to a woman who visits her gynaecologist. The key to this reading is the depiction of Christ’s genitals in Renaissance art.

Fig 1. Hans Baldung, The Holy Family and St Anne, Germany, 1511, woodcut. The British Museum, inv. nr. 1895,0122.233 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

In his ground-breaking study The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, Leo Steinberg drew attention to a motif in Renaissance art that was, perhaps because of its uncomfortable or shocking nature, previously ignored or explained away as naturalistic element without any theological significance: the emphasis on Christ’s genitalia. 6 Christ’s privy parts, Steinberg argues, are an essential aspect of Incarnational theology, proving that God descended into a mortal body in order to lift up humanity. While God is eternal and sexless, mortal mankind needs sexuality to be able to continue its line. Thus, by taken on the human flesh, God became a mortal and sexual being. Theologians could allude to Christ’s penis without mentioning it explicitly. Augustine, for example, stated that Christ was ‘made up of all the members’. 7 But artists could not gloss over the groin so easily; they had to decide how to depict this part of the saviour’s body. Some chose to emphasize the penis as proof of Christ’s human nature. This trend started in the thirteenth century, which Steinberg connects to the Franciscan emphasis on Christ’s humanity, and reached its high point in the sixteenth century.

The emphasis on sexuality can, perhaps surprisingly, be found in numerous depictions of the Christ Child. His genitals are prominently displayed (ostentatio genitalium), sometimes playfully fondled by himself, Mary, or his grandmother Anne (Fig. 1), and in rarer cases even erect. This provides proof that this child is not only divine, but also truly human, Steinberg argues. In the depiction of the adult Christ of the Ministry nakedness is rare; his modesty points to his virginal life. In scenes of his Passion and death, the genitalia make their return. In images of the Entombment Christ’s dead hand can often been seen self-touching his penis, which Steinberg interprets as a reference to the circumcision. This first wound was a promise of salvation, and in the wounds suffered at the end of his life this promise is fulfilled. Steinberg also points to images of the suffering Christ that evoke the suggestion of an erection, signifying the resurrection of the flesh (the ‘erection-resurrection equation’; Fig. 2).

Fig. 2  Maarten van Heemskerck, Christ as Man of Sorrows, 1532, oil on canvas. MSK Gent, inv. nr. S-53. Photo: Hugo Maertens, www.artinflanders.be, public domain.

Steinberg mainly discusses prints and paintings, and some monumental sculptures. In the context of Barbie there is another type of object from this period that is of interest: the smaller-sized sculptures of the Christ Child that are often compared to dolls (Fig 3). They came in a variety of executions: from more expensive executions in ivory, metal, and wood, to mass-produced terracotta and pipe-clay products. Especially the latter were very small in size, fitting in the palm of the hand, while larger models in wood could be about 40 cm in height (still notably smaller than a real child, especially considering that they do not depict a newborn but rather a preschooler, to use the modern term). They could come with cradles, clothes, and other accessories, and were used in tactile and playful devotional practices by religious women and laypeople, both children and adults. 8 While Barbie dolls famously lack genitalia, they are prominently part of these Jesus dolls, displaying the Child’s humanity in all his members.

None of these images would have been seen as shameful, Steinberg argues, because Christ, without original sin, has returned to the prelapsarian state in which Eve and Adam were unashamed of their nakedness. Not everyone agreed on this, however. The Counter Reformation turned against such explicit displays of nakedness. The sixteenth-century Johannes Molanus, Catholic theologian at the university of Louvain, warned against the dangers of representing the naked Christ Child:

Fig. 3. Seated Christ Child as Salvator Mundi, Mechelen(?), ca. 1505, wood. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. Photo: Ruben de Heer, public domain.

It is well known that artists often paint or sculpt the infant Jesus naked; but for this they are widely criticized by men of no little piety and wisdom. For what sort of edification can there be in this nakedness? All one can hope is that children are not endangered by this or little ones brought to harm. 9

Molanus’ reaction rings close to home. Many would now consider dolls with genitals to be pornographic, and even in art nakedness is not always deemed suitable – think, for example, of the Florida principal who was asked to resign after showing a picture of Michelangelo’s David to sixth-graders. 10 Yet, in Renaissance art edification was exactly the goal of Christ’s nakedness, as Steinberg shows. It teaches one of the most central doctrines of Christianity: the Incarnation.

Thus, in Renaissance art, Christ’s genitalia have little to do with his virility, but all the more so with his humanity. His penis is used as universal sign of the human condition. Reading Barbie as an Incarnation narrative, Barbie’s vagina communicates to the viewer that she has fully adopted the human condition. Not because she is a woman, but because she is human. Her vagina functions as universal signifier of humanity.

Barbie Incarnated is a more positive story than Barbie Expelled. Paradise is not lost, but Eden is regained – at least it would be if Barbie took on her human form to suffer for our sins. But that is not the case. She just wants to experience the human condition because she has come to learn its value. When she dies, she will not be resurrected (although the Idea Barbie retains her immortality). Barbie’s Incarnation may not lift up mankind, but it does offer the viewer a reflection on the human condition.

Author

  • Lieke Smits is a medievalist and art historian, interested in the late medieval religious imagination and devotional practices in the Low Countries. In 2020 she obtained her doctorate from Leiden University. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders, conducting her research at the Ruusbroec Institute of the University of Antwerp.

1. See, for example, ‘Is This What the Barbie Movie Is About Or Am I Crazy?’ Vulture, 11 July 2023, https://www.vulture.com/2023/07/what-is-barbie-about-religion-girlhood-theories.html (accessed 23 August 2023); Alissa Wilkinson, ‘In the Beginning, There Was Barbie,’ Vox, 20 July 2023, https://www.vox.com/culture/23800753/barbie-review-bible-eden (23 August 2023); Olivia Bardo, ‘“Barbie” is Greta Gerwig’s Genesis Story,’ Sojourners, 26 July 2023, https://sojo.net/articles/barbie-greta-gerwig-s-genesis-story (accessed 23 August 2023).
2. ‘Greta Gerwig on What It Was Like to Direct “Barbie”’, Associated Press, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIlf1oDQBQY (accessed 23 August 2023).
3. Abby Aguirre, ‘Barbiemania! Margot Robbie Opens Up About the Movie Everyone’s Waiting For,’ Vogue, 24 May 2023, https://www.vogue.com/article/margot-robbie-barbie-summer-cover-2023-interview (accessed 23 August 2023).
4. Eliana Dockterman, ‘An Exhaustive List of (Almost) Every Single Reference in the Barbie Movie,’ 21 July 2023, https://time.com/6295889/barbie-movie-the-matrix-the-godfather-references (accessed 23 August 2023).
5. Hannah, Anderson, ‘Barbie and Ken Go East of Eden,’ Christianity Today, 27 July 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/july-web-only/barbie-movie-sexism-feminism-patriarchy-east-of-eden.html (accessed 23 August 2023); Amy Peeler, ‘Neither Barbie Nor Ken - A Barbie Movie Review,’ Holy Post, 2 August 2023, https://www.holypost.com/post/neither-barbie-nor-ken (accessed 23 August 2023); Jeannie Whitlock, ‘Barbie, Peter, and a Fragile Messiah,’ Christ and Pop Culture, 14 August 2023, https://christandpopculture.com/barbie-peter-and-a-fragile-messiah (accessed 23 August 2023).
6. Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
7. Augustine, City of God, XXII, 18.
8. See Lieke Smits, ‘Small Pipe-Clay Devotional Figures: Touch, Play and Animation,’ Das Mittelalter, 25.2 (2020) 397-423. https://doi.org/10.1515/mial-2020-0044
9. ‘Notum est pictores saepe infantem iesum nudum sculpere aut pingere: sed ob hoc male audiunt a multis non exiguae pietatis & prudentiae viris. Quid enim in hac nuditate esse potest aedificationis?’ Ed. and trans. David Freedberg, ‘Johannes Molanus on Provocative Paintings. De Historia Sanctarum Imaginum et Picturarum, Book II, Chapter 42,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 34 (1971), 238-239.
10. Torey Akers, ‘Florida School Principal Fired for Showing Students Michelangelo’s “Pornographic” David Sculpture,’ The Art Newspaper, 23 March 2023, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/03/23/florida-principal-fired-michelangelo-david-pornographic (accessed 23 August 2023).
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