“Barbie”: When Hollywood Gets Psychology Right

Hollywood movies often draw on psychological research and theories to support character and plot development. Frequently, however, their storylines veer far from the original theoretical frameworks and research. I would argue that the recent film Barbie is an exception.

At the outset, it was easy to be skeptical about the messages that would be conveyed by the film. In many ways, the main character, “Stereotypical Barbie,” could be seen, in Billie Eilish’s words, as “something you paid for,” without her own identity. Yet the movie goes on to demonstrate how Stereotypical Barbie, along with others, only find their true identity through indecision and struggles.

Identity development, in particular, is a topic brilliantly explored in the movie. In the first minute, it addresses the tension between motherhood and identity as represented by the typical baby doll with which girls once almost exclusively played. It goes on to address issues of identity, feminism, and gender in pointed ways as the Barbies—along with other characters like Gloria, Sasha, and Ken—all struggle with their roles.

I believe that each character’s development accurately represents various psychological theories and research. In particular, multiple characters are in Erickson’s stage of identity vs. role confusion and James Marcia’s identity statuses of identity diffusion and a sense of identity, as they struggle to determine what they see as their purposes.

Barbie struggles with being Stereotypical Barbie vs. being a real woman living in a largely misogynist real world, while Gloria wonders what her role is as a mother as her daughter, Sasha, grows older and stops seeking her out for support. At the same time, Sasha struggles with building her own identity while psychologically separating from her mother, a theme represented in not only Erickson’s work but Lisa Damour’s more recent research on adolescent development. Meanwhile, Ken struggles to find his identity in a new Barbie Land in which men, and not just women, hold positions of power.

Barbie also eloquently demonstrates Kurt Fisher’s dynamic theory of development. At many moments, each character demonstrates a cycling back to other stages of development to move forward. For instance, Ken briefly loses his ability to self-regulate just before he finds himself as Ken—just Ken, not the Ken of “Barbie and Ken.”

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The social nature of development outlined in theories of social constructivism is also beautifully outlined in Barbie. For example, Stereotypical Barbie’s identity is shaped by the expectations of others. She is told that she is a princess and that she is supposed to be perfect. However, as she meets other people and experiences the real world, she begins to question these expectations and construct her own identity.

At the movie’s conclusion, each of these characters has found their identity. Barbie has decided to become fully human while Gloria and Sasha recognize that their respective roles of mother and daughter remain, in spite of changes in how those identities are enacted. And Ken is just Ken.

In a charming way, Barbie speaks to the importance of communication and respect across genders, races, and abilities in order for each of us to realize our identity. It should not be everyone’s night forever and ever, and no stereotype should define someone. Sometimes we need to “malfunction” to find ourselves and a place of acceptance for others—and psychological theories of development speak to the importance of allowing for such times of exploration.

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