Choosing Imperfection: Lessons for the New Year from Barbie

Posted on October 10, 2023

By Rabbi Lisa Eiduson

“It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.”

Words from the block-buster summer movie Barbie –now Warner Brothers’ highest-grossing domestic film release in history. It is more than a rage. It is an entire movement called “Barbiecore.” Did you know that the color Barbie Pink has its own Pantone? It is hexadecimal color code #e0218a. Were you aware that Greta Gerwig began working on the sets for this film more than two years ago? And that they ordered so much paint that there was an “international paint shortage” of the Barbie pink fluorescent shade? Production designer Sarah Greenwood said: “The world ran out of pink.”[i] The writers stated: “Barbiecore is not just about wearing a certain shade of pink. It means channeling a confident attitude and exuding happiness into the world, infectiously.”[ii]

“It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.”

This may be a movie about pink and plastic and perfection, but these words reflect one of our most ancient narratives – the story of Creation. As we gather tonight to celebrate the Jewish New Year, so too, according to Jewish tradition, does Rosh Hashanah represent the birthday of the world. The entire world. All six days of work and the seventh day of rest. All of the plants and animals and creatures of the water – and the crown of God’s work – Adam and Eve. Humanity. Us.

I see the Barbie movie as a rhapsody on the story of Creation in Genesis – where human beings, born into perfection, go on to trade stasis for change, leave perfection behind, and move toward adventure. They sacrifice the sameness of Eden for the diversity of our world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, we look back at ourselves and our world and ask: Have we renewed our lives? Or have we been satisfied with the status quo? Have we pushed the boundaries of our identities as human beings and taken risks? Or have we chosen instead to blend in with the masses? Have we earned another year in a world that is rich with choices and opportunities? Did we truly live this past year?

The New Year and the birthday of the world call us to ponder the idyllic existence of the Garden of Eden. We contemplate a life of peace, tranquility, safety, and predictability. Each year we are tempted by a life in Eden, just as all of the Barbies are lured into life in Barbieland. And why not? The world as we know it today is complex and challenging. Over the past year, we have witnessed the warmest temperatures ever recorded on Earth. We have had front seat in a war between Russia and Ukraine with seemingly no end. There have been cataclysmic floods; we have seen seen and smelled wildfires burning hundreds of miles from the fires themselves. Refugees from the world over continue to seek better lives, and many migrants have perished on their way to freedom. As Yente put it in Fiddler on the Roof: “It has not exactly been the Garden of Eden.”

No wonder we quietly yearn for the pure, orderly, pristine, and abundant world of our dreams and fantasies. And, though we have not lived in the Garden of Eden since Adam and Eve – and they were pre-historic, mythical characters who likely did not even exist – we have been drawn to the paradise of Eden as an enclosed utopian world ever since. A world in which we never grow old, change, or dare to imagine what might be just beyond our sight and grasp. Eternal life is appealing; Barbieland calls. We all wish for a cessation of suffering; a place and a time in which all our needs are fulfilled. Perfection.

One of the few utopias left in our world belongs not to us but to our children and grandchildren. Summer camp. Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a fabulous article called “Campsickness is Real and a Sign of Something Special.” For this particular writer, Jewish summer camp – is a “kind of extended period of euphoria in which kids cultivate a series of climactic highs, with very few if any lows…Camp can create a transformative two-month bubble for children, like a trip to Neverland.” However, this too is finite. NYU Professor of American Jewish History Sandra Fox warns us: “This two-month escape inevitably ends, and as with Neverland, you have to grow up, or at least pack your sleeping back and go home.”[iii]

Isn’t this Barbie’s story in the movie, too? Born into an impossibly perfect body that never ages and living a life of eternal sameness, Barbie grows restless. Just like Adam and Eve, she challenges the norms of the Barbieland utopia. At a big party at the Dreamhouse, she momentarily wakes up from her slumber and, out of nowhere, asks: “Do you guys ever think about dying?” From that moment on, Barbie and her life are no longer perfect. She separates herself from the other Barbies; she becomes an individual. And then she is open to the challenge by Weird Barbie: “You have to go to the real world.” It is the treacherous world of life and death where human beings are flawed and things don’t always go well. Barbie is enticed to explore the ominous world of knowledge, pain and mortality. We know that world. It is OUR world.

One year at the High Holy Days, a rabbi warned the congregation about the fragility of life. “One day everyone in this congregation will die,” the rabbi thundered from the Bima. Seated in the front row, was an elderly woman, who laughed out loud when she heard this. A little irritated, the rabbi asked: “What’s so funny?” “Well,” she said, “It’s good I’m not a member of this congregation!”

But we can’t help ourselves. Our world calls out to us. Since Adam and Eve’s exit from The Garden of Eden, we live on the edge of the finite. We ask questions and feel sadness, we give up living forever to gain living with knowledge. As human beings, our DNA is not engineered for utopian perfection. Our nature is to grow bored of uniformity; monotony makes us restless, uneasy. We exchange Neverland, Eden, and summer camp for the reality of living and the inevitability of suffering. All for the reward of the gift of human agency, free-will and choice.

Adam and Eve made the same choice. So did Barbie. Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells the story beautifully:

Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. And they lived together east of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children, struggling to stay alive. After the years of struggle, when their children were grown, they decided to see the world.

They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other. Wandering from place to place, they discovered the entrace to the Garden of Eden, now guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. Frightened, they began to flee, when God suddenly spoke to them.

‘Adam and Eve, you have lived in exile these many years. You have served your punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. You may now return to the Garden of Eden.’

As the words were spoken, the angel with his flaming sword disappeared, and the gate to the Garden opened. ‘Come in, Adam and Eve.’

‘Wait,’ Adam replied. You know, it has been so many years. Remind me what it is like in the Garden of Eden.’

‘The Garden is paradise!’ God responded. ‘There is no work. Neither of you need to ever struggle or toil again. There is no pain, no suffering. No death. Life goes on forever, day after day. Come and return to the Garden of Eden.’

Adam and Eve listened to God’s words – no work, no struggle, no pain, no death. An endless life of perpetual ease. And then Adam turned to Eve. He looked at the person with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. They thought of the tragedies they had overcome, and the joys that they celebrated.

And Adam and Eve shook their heads. ‘No thank you, Eden is not for us.’

And Adam and Eve turned their backs on Paradise, and hand in hand, they walked home.”[iv]

This story teaches us that we cannot be human and perfect at the same time. Being human means taking risks, making mistakes, and being OK with things not always being just right.

Lesley Maclean is a graphic designer for a publication called Unpsychology Magazine. For nearly 10 years Unpsychology Magazine has published a collection of writings, music, and art in which the other authors explore mind, culture, ecology, psychology, and soul. Lesley Maclean tells the following story about the publication of the Summer 2023 edition:

“Whenever I do graphic design, no matter how hard I try to get everything in place, there is always something I have missed, some unexpected result — a mistake. Just one, if I am lucky, but who knows how many more are out there lurking in the shadows? Of course, that is undoubtedly true of everything: pay attention to one thing, and things will get missed in other directions, on other layers. But later on, those misses actually shine like beacons of light.

I am usually afraid of making mistakes…However, I have to say that I also love mistakes. Mistakes are creatures that refuse to align with a straight ruler as to how things should be. The more time I spend with imperfections, the more friendly they seem to get, inviting me into new creative territory, blending their shapes with how things are. So, this summer, I cleared the grammar and spell-checks off of my software because they had been overwhelming me with their constant streams of (mostly) unnecessary suggestions and warnings. I did find mistakes, but I also realized that I received an unexpected gift: Once I edited out my mistakes and took out excess words and designs, I discovered that I was left with two new empty pages for me to play with however I wanted.”[v]

These kinds of mistakes and the rewards that sometimes emerge cannot live in Eden, in Barbieland, in the utopias of summer camp. While Barbie laments: “The real world is forever and irrevocably messed up,” it is the world we know; our world. Ours is the world of sickness and errors, of poor judgment and mortality. But at the same time, it is the world of ideas – and ideas, by definition, are not perfect. Ruth Handler, the Jewish creator of Barbie who fashioned this doll in 1959 and named it after her daughter, Barbara, spoke of our world in the movie: “Humans only have one end. [But] ideas live forever.” It is an even trade: instead of living forever, we create brilliant ideas and precious memories that live on long after we die. In the words of John Steinbeck in his classic book East of Eden: “And now that you do not have to be perfect, you can be good.”[vi]

In Judaism, the opposite of perfect is not imperfect; it is good. In Genesis, God refers to the world’s creation as good and humans as very good. But never perfect. We enact goodness within the bounded framework of our mortality. Humans create and enhance the world around us; and on Rosh Hashanah, we recreate ourselves. In what is perhaps the most profoundly human line in the movie, Barbie confesses: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.” And meaning-making is the foundation of Jewish thought, belief, and practice. We have only a lifetime to be meaning-makers, and Rosh Hashanah is our time to recommit to a new year of meaning and goodness, of service to our community.

Our world is messy, plagued with wars and famine, with good people who suffer. People can be dishonest and unkind. Sometimes, it is all we can do to stay afloat. However, it is precisely in the tangles of our world that we discover truth and find one another. In her review of the Barbie movie, Alissa Wilkenson comments: It was in “gaining knowledge of the outside world that made Barbie aware of her free will and that helped her and those around her to live better, more fulfilled lives.”

Is today going to be your best day ever? The host on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me said: “Any of [us] could have had the best summer of our lives and still not come close to a low-key, retired Boston University professor living in Newton. Why? Her name is Barbie Oppenheimer – and she is for real. And this summer, Barbie Oppenheimer, a regular person, a grandma who wears cardigans and taught speech pathology at BU, got to live the American dream — being a celebrity for a completely random reason.”[vii]

Perfection sounds nice. But I’ll take our world any day. As drivers of our own destinies, may we have what it takes to make the year 5784 the best year ever.

[i] Wood, B. (2023, June 4). ‘Barbie’ production designer says film’s use of fluorescent pink caused a shortage: ‘World ran out of pink.’ Today.

[ii] Merinuk, M. et al. (2023, June 8). ‘Barbiecore,’ explained: How Barbie’s signature bright pink took over fashion. Today.

[iii] Fox, S. (2023, August 20.) Campsickness is real and something special. New York Times.

[iv] Feinstein, E. (2008). Paradise. In Capturing the moon. (pp. 7-8). Behrman House.

[v] Macintosh, J. & Maclean, L. (2023, August 24). Perfect imperfection: On the making of mistakes. Unpsychology.

[vi] Steinbeck, J. (2016). East of Eden. Penguin Classics. Original work published in 1952.

[vii] Estrin, D. (Host). (2023, September 4). ‘Barbenheimer’ has been fun for a retired professor from Massachusetts [Audio podcast episode]. In Morning Edition.