Barbie Meets the Bible: Understanding the Connection Between Identity and Play

Kristine Henriksen Garroway

July marks the one-year anniversary of the Barbie film. In that time, the film has grossed nearly $1.5B, and received eight nominations at the Academy Awards, winning one earlier this year. A list of ways Barbie continues to impact popular culture, drive conversation, and change minds would be too long for one news post.

Of course, Barbie is not Jewish, although her inventor Ruth Handler was. Nor is Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, Jewish–but she did attend many Shabbat dinners at a friend’s growing up and said before the film’s release:

“I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that. I remember feeling so safe in that and feeling so, like, enough,” she said. “I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner. … I want them to get blessed.”

None of this approaches the level of serious Jewish scholarship, until now. In the spring, Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA, presented a new conference titled “Barbie and the Bible: Conversations in Pop Culture, Gender, and Theology.” Both Fuller graduate students and scholars from around the world found interesting ways to refract their studies and experiences through the lens of the Barbie film and mythos.

In an enlightening interdisciplinary session, HUC-JIR Professor Kristine Garroway, Ph.D., Professor of Bible at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, presented Come Play With Me!: Barbie, Jewish Pillar Figurines (JPFs), and the Economics of Reuse.

Dr. Garroway focused on the small female clay figurines that date to the ancient Kingdom of Judah in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE. They were most commonly found in broken fragments in domestic contexts like houses, rather than in ritual contexts, suggesting that they had a second life as children’s toys. She speculates that playing with JPFs, even just looking at them, may have served to enculturate and socialize young girls into Judean society and religion, an overlooked aspect of their function and meaning.

Tying the history of Jewish pillar figurines to the story of Barbie, Dr. Garroway asked, “Who is to say that, like Barbie who goes on a journey of self-discovery to seek her identity in the world, that these little JPFs did not in some way play a small part in a little Israelite girl finding her own path and figuring out how to be an Israelite woman?”

The presentation was a natural extension of Dr. Garroway’s academic area of focus, which focuses on children using archaeology and texts of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia. In addition to publishing in various scholarly journals, her books include Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household (Eisenbrauns 2014) and Growing Up in Ancient Israel: Children in Material Culture and Biblical Texts (Society of Biblical Literature 2018).

Of her appearance at the first-ever conference to tie together the impact of a modern pop culture toy with the lessons and stories of ancient texts, Dr. Garroway said, “It was a joy to be a part of this conference and to engage with such thought-provoking scholarship around a movie and a toy. I’m glad that objects associated with a child’s life are finally being taken seriously! ”

So, as we reach the halfway point of summer, when families are starting to run out of ideas to keep their children occupied, both toys and TV offer tempting distractions. Dr. Garroway’s presentation shows that they can both be more–they can be Jewish entry points into expanding a child’s sense of self-identity and possibility.

Or you can just turn the kids loose using another example Dr. Garroway offered about the architectural concept of reuse: give them a wooden spoon, a pot, and let them bang around the backyard until they tire themselves out.

Dr. Garroway’s full presentation is here.