Barbie’s Philosophical World: Exploring Philosophical Themes in Gerwig’s Movie

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is jam-packed with philosophical allusions that you can learn to navigate in a discussion hosted by philosopher Ryan Miller.

Barbie was often slighted as the more superficial half of the Barbenheimer summer double-feature sensation. Nuclear bombs are for grown men, after all, and Barbies are for little girls. Gerwig’s characteristically smart writing and directing comedically subvert this expectation, however, in a work whose dialogue filled with philosophical discussions. This seminar series treats Barbie as the jumping-off point for its own double feature, first introducing the philosophical background necessary for a critical appreciation of the movie’s screenplay and second allowing that screenplay to suggest texts for an introduction to Western philosophy.

If you want to better appreciate Gerwig’s highbrow screenwriting, or you’ve been wanting to read some philosophy but need a bubblegum pink excuse, join us for eleven weeks as we read and discuss classic philosophical texts in conjunction with brief scenes from Barbie. You may find it helpful to get a copy of the movie, or at least download the screenplay or transcript (the former has Gerwig’s helpful asides and stage directions, while the latter includes the audible song lyrics, which play a major role in advancing the themes of the movie).

Meets each Sunday between Labor Day and Thanksgiving at 2:30-4 PM ET

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DateEpisode
September 8, 2024Representation

“Barbie changed everything! Then she changed it all again! All of these women are Barbie, and Barbie is all of these women…Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything. And this has been reflected back onto the little girls of today in the Real World.”

Dolls represent. Play imitates. Are these one-way relations, or do they somehow affect what is imitated or represented? We investigate these questions through the lens of Plato’s short dialogue Ion and its powerful metaphor of magnetized iron rings.
September 15, 2024Death

“I’m definitely not thinking about death anymore.”

The movie opens with the instrumental theme of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and soon enough Barbie is thinking about death—an important theme of Nietzsche’s book of the same name. While the work contains many discussions picked up in Barbie—metamorphosis, despising the body, joy and passion, ugliness, a flight to the land of culture, redemption, return, drunkenness, and lots of dancing—we will focus on chapter XXI which encourages (spoiler alert!) voluntary death.
September 22, 2024Rational Animals

“You’re supposed to want to know.”

Weird Barbie’s insistent demand echoes the famous beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But why did Aristotle think that human beings all wanted to know, and did he even think women were fully human? What implications do his views have for how we should live? We will read and discuss selections from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Generation of Animals to investigate these questions.
September 29, 2024Playing a Part

“We’re all being played with, babe! But usually there’s some kind of separation: there’s the Girl and the Doll. And never the twain shall cross.”

Weird Barbie was not the first to worry about actors being over-identified with their parts, whether due to their own failing or that of the audience. Aristotle gives voice to this concern in his short work on Poetics, which also interrogates whether Plato was correct about imitation and representation.
October 6, 2024Sex and Gender

“Is that a mirror in your pocket?”

Does gender reflect biological sex, or stand on its own? If gender is a performance, is it one we can choose? When Barbie and Ken enter the Real World, they must confront these urgent social questions. We will do so by reading and discussing chapter 3 of Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter, the sequel to their famed Gender Trouble.
October 13, 2024The Power of Ideas

“How are you here? You’re like an idea. A great idea.”

Sasha assumes, like most of us, that ideas are impoverished abstractions of material reality. Plato, however, held the opposite view—called idealism—in which ideas are more real than their mere material instantiations. In his dialogue Phaedo, set as a last discussion with Socrates before his execution, Plato uses this view as an argument for the immortality of the soul and the temporary material body as a mere prison. We will discuss how Plato’s view of death differs from that of Nietzsche (found in week 2) and his metaphysics contrasts with that of Aristotle (from week 3).
October 20, 2024Fascism and Patriarchy

“She thinks I’m a fascist? I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce.”
“We just explained to them the immaculate, impeccable seamless garment of logic that is patriarchy.”

Barbie is taken aback when Sasha calls her a fascist for her role in perpetuating patriarchy. According to her director’s commentary, Gerwig actually had to fight to keep this line in the movie, as a highbrow joke without an obvious connection to the main plot. When we read chapters 1 & 6 of Yale professor Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, however, we will see that it has a long connection with patriarchy.
October 27, 2024Engineering Concepts

“I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?”

This line from an anonymous Mattel employee might seem like a cheap joke, but MIT professor Sally Haslanger took it very seriously in her article “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?” where she proposes that we redefine the term “woman” to explicitly reflect the role of patriarchy in the construction of gender.
November 3, 2024Feminism and Citizenship

“All the Kens will head to the polls and vote to change the Constitution to a government for the Kens, of the Kens, and by the Kens!”

As the Kens move to legally legitimate their institution of patriarchy, we might wonder just how a government by and for Kens might differ from one by and for Barbies—and why the Kens also leave out Allan. In her article “Context Is All: Feminism and Theories of Citizenship,” Northwestern professor Mary Dietz interrogates the ways in which our society has treated citizens as normatively masculine, and how feminism can offer a more inclusive vision.
November 10,
2024
Decolonization

“By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you robbed it of its power. Hell, yes, White Savior Barbie!”

Here Gerwig both channels current visions of the power of speech to achieve decolonial aims by forcing open the internal contradictions of oppressor narratives and indicates meta-awareness of casting all-white leads in a movie about privilege. Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak offers a nuanced account of these tensions in efforts by people with privilege to overturn structures of colonial oppression in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
November 17, 2024Existentialism

“But you’re the creator. Don’t you control me?”

At the end of the movie, Barbie decides to take Nietsche’s advice and live toward death, rather than embracing the characteristics her creator Ruth Handler saw as essential. Feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir traces out this approach to life in the first chapter of her book “The Ethics of Ambiguity.”

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