Barbie Doll Churches and the Disney Princess-ification of Christianity


The Princess Backlash

Have you ever had occasion to hear a parent hold forth on the subject of Disney princess culture? You know what I’m talking about, how Disney princesses are all about beauty and helplessness.[1]

Strong opinions on the subject abound, to be sure. Peggy Orenstein wrote a scathing critique of the princess industry for the New York Times in 2006, about how disgusting it is that young girls should, in virtue of their socialization, live with paternalistic expectations about what it means to be feminine. Ugh! The whole princess thing.

Barbie’s another culprit that certain concerned parents and cultural critics have in their sights. Barbie, it is argued, distorts the body image of young girls.

Marge Piercy has written an important piece of critical poetry, entitled, Barbie Doll. The poem is about a girl, socialized in the heart of doll culture, who’s told early on she has a big nose and fat legs. After trying for so long to fit the picture of what a girl should look like, “her good nature wore out like a fan belt,” and she cut off her nose and legs.

The tragic irony of the poem, of course, is that she finally achieves the elusive beauty she’s sought in life when the undertaker reconstructs her body for viewing in the casket.

Barbie’s measurements, were she to be human-sized, would be a totally unrealistic 38–18–34. Only one in every 100,000 women will ever have this body type. And so, the thinking goes, offering this to young girls as a normative guide to cultural expectations about appearance borders on the criminal.

The upshot of all this disgust with Disney princesses and Barbies is that many parents believe growing up is tough enough without imposing irrational standards of beauty and dependency on young girls. Insecurity is easy enough to come by during adolescence, without heaping dump truck loads of false femininity and body image guilt on top of it.[2]

If you happen to be the parent of a young girl who approaches you with questions about whether she should go on a “diet,” it can make cold chills run down your spine. If you hear your young daughter worry out loud about whether she’s fat, it can inspire a violent reaction.

“I’m fat.”

“No, sweetie. You’re beautiful!”

“How come I don’t look like that?” she says, pointing to an image on the TV.

What do parents say?

“Well, honey, now that you mention it, I have noticed you’ve been packing it away at meal time. Maybe if you’d just ease up a bit on the Oreos.”

Or

“You know, punkin, maybe if you spent a little more time in the gym you wouldn’t have to worry about that unsightly cellulite.”

No! Good parents (yes, that is an explicit value judgment) say something like:

“Honey, you are beautiful! We couldn’t love you anymore than we do right now–just the way you are.”

And you mean it, don’t you? Your daughter doesn’t have to look like Princess Jasmine or Barbie to gain your love–or even to be successful in everything she does.

But, as a parent it’s infuriating to think that the culture has built up such unachievable expectations in young girls that they go through life furiously trying to be something not only that they’re not, but something that they’re not even genetically capable of realizing–no matter how many hours they spend on the elliptical machine.

So, when we hear young girls walking around complaining about how fat they are, responsible adults, one hopes, tell them to stop talking that way.

Why?

Because if you say something long enough, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to start believing it.

The Plague of the Barbie Doll Church

I would like to suggest that many congregations are laboring under the same kind of unrealistic expectations about what it is they have the potential to be. Held up as models, congregations see portraits of “beautiful” churches–where the sanctuary is filled every Sunday, the youth are constantly in search of overflow space, and there are 115 different small groups from which to choose.

These churches are doing “exciting” things, “cutting-edge” ministry! The clergy are appropriately good-looking; the parishioners all have movie-star smiles and poofy hair; and the parking lots need shuttle buses and special signs to help you remember if you parked in “Dopey” or “Sneezy.”

When there’s some breaking news that involves religion, CNN doesn’t call Brother So-and-so from down at First Church of the Perpetually Underwhelmed for comment. They call “real” ministers, the clerical equivalents of Snow White or Belle.

When denominations get ready to hold their conventions and parachurch organizations look for people to help make decisions about weighty matters, they usually don’t go recruiting at the hispanic congregation renting space at the downtown YMCA. They troll the deep waters at St. Behemoth’s in the suburbs.

Look, those enormous Barbie churches–God bless ’em. Don’t get me wrong. God loves really beautiful, successful people, too. But why should every other church have to live with the burden of trying to duplicate a kind of success that only one in a 100,000 is ever going to achieve?

If you spend any time around congregations, and if you listen really closely you’ll hear the institutional insecurities of tweenage girls who compare themselves to Barbie: “We do the best we can, but it’s not much. We don’t have many resources. We’re just a small congregation.”

Why aren’t there more grownups wandering about telling these congregations, “No, honey, you’re beautiful just the way you are! Quit talking like that, or pretty soon you’re going to start believing it?”

And before you jump all over me for buying into the whole “participation trophy” culture, where the most important thing to concentrate on is self-esteem, I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t aspire to healthy transformation–any more than I would tell my daughter that adopting healthy habits is a bad thing. I’m not questioning improvement–just the models toward which we point as appropriate for emulation.

If you allow little girls or congregations to absorb the message that they should look like Cinderella or Big Steeple Christian Church, you shouldn’t be surprised when, after trying everything they know to try and foundering on the shoals of unrealistic expectations, all they can manage is an endless rehearsal of what utter failures they are.

So, here’s my modest proposal:

I hereby call for a moratorium on any self-referential utterance by a congregation that includes the words “small church.”

Just stop. Don’t say it anymore. It sounds too much like a pre-pubescent girl gazing into the pages of Seventeen magazine and endlessly repeating, “I’m too fat.”

Quit talking like that, or pretty soon you’re going to start believing it. And that’s an infinitely greater tragedy than failing to fit into a glass slipper, or not being able to build a parking lot big enough to need a shuttle bus.


  1. Seriously, it’s enough to want to make you throw up in your mouth a little. Hint: Let the cursor hover over one of the characters, and let the nausea begin.  ↩
  2. I’m aware that boys also increasingly have to combat body image issues themselves.  ↩
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This entry was posted in Christianity, Congregational Transformation and tagged , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

11 thoughts on “Barbie Doll Churches and the Disney Princess-ification of Christianity

  1. I hope your observations find a way into those who schedule and plan for such conferences as ‘Wee Kirk’ – – which seem largely staffed by tall steeple personalities filling searching minds and hearts of populationally challenged congregations with aspirations of they can be when they get serious about being church and grow up.
    but more than that – I hope your observations find a home as an earworm in the mind and heart of anybody who would say or think, “the church isn’t church unless it is XYZ.” Laying these expectations of what the Body of Christ serves only to prevents us from living into what it is. Just a thought. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks, Mike. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. It saddens me to hear congregations bemoan their inability to be “church unless it is XYZ.” A cursory reading of the scripture suggests that God doesn’t need much.

  2. “I would like to suggest that many congregations are laboring under the same kind of unrealistic expectations about what it is they have the potential to be. ”

    An infortunate phraseology. An empty pew is not a pound to shed, and a loving church does have the ability to give it away. Likewise the consolation, “Honey, you’re beautiful to me just like you are.” I tell my daughter and fem congregants that Barbie isn’t something good that they cannot achieve, but rather s false sense of beauty that fails to see the beauty of diversity and variety.

    I don’t judge church success by the number of people, but I do consider the number of empty pews. A small sanctuary full of people is a success; full of empty pews, not reaching its potential and squandering a valuable resource. All hail the correction of big steeple mentality — but a pox on the sanctification of church demise!

    You don’t have to build a bigger church. All I’m saying is serve as many people as possible with the church you have! We pretend to reject the big steeple tradition, when in reality we’re rationalizing the trend of slow church death and escalating irrelevance.

    • Thanks, Joel. I’m going to stand behind the phrase you call into question. Your critique seems to imply that I’m discounting what God is capable of doing with even a small church or that I’m making excuses for churches who’re just lazy.

      First, I’m not suggesting that God isn’t capable of working miracles with small churches out in the middle of nowhere. What I’m arguing is that it is as destructive for those congregations to believe that they have some responsibility in their failure to build a 5,000 member church in a town of 200 as making people feel badly for not winning the lottery. Miracles happen. But miracles are the product of God’s effort and not our own.

      Second, I’m explicitly not making excuses for congregational lethargy. Neither am I sanctifying “church demise.” I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that congregations need to work; only that they need not judge their success or failure by standards imposed by folks who have a stake in reminding everyone how important big steeple churches are. I think that’s what I said when I wrote:

      “And before you jump all over me for buying into the whole “participation trophy” culture, where the most important thing to concentrate on is self-esteem, I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t aspire to healthy transformation–any more than I would tell my daughter that adopting healthy habits is a bad thing. I’m not questioning improvement–just the models toward which we point as appropriate for emulation.”

      I’m not sure who the “we” refers to in the comment “rationalizing the trend of slow church death and escalating irrelevance,” since the bulk of my writing in this space over past 5 or 6 months has focused on trying to help congregations take responsibility for their own “slow church deaths.”

  3. I was with you right to your final conclusive moratorium. Having been a pastor in a megachurch for nearly a decade, then discarding “church” pretty much completely for a couple years, and then finding refuge and healing in a really tiny denominational church in my neighborhood, I am finding more and more people who think “small church” is actually a positive thing. In fact, just this past Sunday we had a new family show up to our service. When I asked them how they ended up at our place, they said they were looking for a small church…because they big box churches were so hard to connect with, be known in, etc. So maybe small isn’t such a bad descriptor if it’s not an apology or excuse. Maybe it’s a great selling point if it’s considered a value. It sure is in my own little church.

    • “We” aren’t you or those who agree with you. “We”, rather, are the many (some say MOST) DOC churches who are contentedly coasting to nothing because it’s easier than loving enough to bring in new people. Those churches might also find comfort here. I would not denegrate your approach or intent, but I’m happy to deny refuge to those churches who are now “small” not because of the demographics of the community, but because they narrowly define themselves and are content to ignore the troublesome sinners who now populate their neighborhoods. Of the many small churches, there is at least some number who truly do fail to live up to their potential. While some may have the “misfortune” of serving a small community, many more have the misfortune of being a small community avoiding interraction wirh the larger community that surrounds their building.

      I dare say few small churches are kicking themselves for failing to outgrow their community, while many are kicking themselves for not buying land in a less populous location.

      It’s not a putdown or an argument; just a cautionary caveat to another great article.

  4. First, the images we see in magazines and ads and movies depict people that do not exist. Women of all ages have got to understand this. The response of a parent to child who points at the tv screen (or a photo in a magazine) should be, “That person does not exist. The image is fake, a visual fiction.”

    Second, a congregation, like an individual, has to find a healthy self-comfort level. For a congregation, it must include a healthy regard for each person as an individual and not as a commodity. Also, for a congregation, it must include a healthy awareness of their talents and capacity. Envy, at any level, is a lousy diagnostic tool. A church of any size should always be about the Good News and the Kingdom of God and not about industrial metrics or meeting societal expectations.

  5. We have an awesome small church, and in many ways we should have great self-esteem. We’re very missional-minded, and have an amazing presence in the community for our numbers. But we have a 16,000 square foot facility which costs six figures to keep open. And we have a 300 seat sanctuary seating about 50. This leaves us constantly stressed, constantly feeling like we’re not doing enough. Sometimes the pressure to think big is pragmatic, rather than because we compare ourselves to the mega-churches. We like what we’re doing, we like who we are, and we are growing. But it seems like it’s never enough.

  6. Pingback: If You Were Successful, Would You Even Know It? | [D]mergent

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