Barbie is the tale of two competing journeys: the hero and the heroine. The movie moves beyond a cliché “battle of the sexe”’ and examines if these two journeys can coexist in society. 

The Heroine’s Journey

The idea of the hero’s journey comes from Joseph Campbell, the twentieth-century author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell uses Carl Jung’s research on archetypes and creates a masculine monomyth that both reflects and guides the creation of the “hero” in every major character arc. (The most famous example is its influence on the Star Wars Saga.) 

But this hero’s journey is exclusively masculine. A student of his, Maureen Murdock, approached him with an obvious question: “What about the women? Where do they fit?” To this Campbell replied, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.” 

For Murdock, this reduced women to a stagnant role. In an attempt to answer her own question, she later wrote “The Heroine’s Journey.” Unlike Campbell, whose heroes’ journey reflects the observed archetypal journey of a masculine hero, her heroine’s journey imposes a feminine arc into recent literature and cinema. Indeed, the heroine’s journey looks more like a stereotypical depiction of “female empowerment” from the sexual revolution than a timeless reflection on the nature of women. 

The first step in Murdock’s journey is the rejection of the feminine. In its place, her archetypal woman embraces masculine spaces or strengths before embarking on her own “heroines’ journey.” The woman faces trials, feelings of death, and eventually wants to return to her original state. For Murdock, this feminine state was a “limited” way of living. Instead, her heroine’s journey concludes with her healing the mother/daughter split, reconciling with the wounded masculine within her, and finally, integrating the masculine and feminine into a single person.

Murdock’s journey begins with a woman and ends with an asexual character that merges an attenuated masculinity with an underdeveloped woman. Notably, apart from the mother/daughter relationship, Murdock’s archetypal woman has no husband nor the ability to produce children. 

Barbie’s Journey

For most of the movie, Barbie follows Murdock’s heroine’s journey each step of the way. 

The movie begins with the rejection of a substantive femininity when little girls smash their baby dolls and figuratively throw off the demands of motherhood. In its place, they embrace a fun, but superficial, understanding of what it means to be a woman: Barbie! Pink! Beach! Dreamhouse! 

The movie pokes fun at this “perfect” state of being. The characters even joke that underneath their clothes they only have plastic mounds. Barbie and Ken can’t procreate or mature. 

Barbie is instrumental in healing the mother/daughter relationship of her owners in the real world, she leads the charge in dismantling Ken’s “patriarchy,” and at the end, she chooses to become a human after watching flashbacks of mothers and their daughters playing. 

The movie concludes (hilariously, I might add) with Barbie’s first act as a human: a visit to her gynecologist. 

At the very end of Murdock’s journey, the feminist arc, Barbie pivots—hard. At face value, it looks like Barbie fulfills Murdock’s heroine’s journey in her abandonment of Ken and rejection of motherhood. But this isn’t quite right. 

Barbie’s womanhood is inseparable from her biology. Even if the movie meant to suggest that her womanhood begins when she “takes control” of her reproductive ability, this proves the point that there is no such thing as a woman apart from one’s biology. Yes, a woman is much more than her biology, but she is certainly not less. 

Barbieland was always fruitless, a rejection of human nature. (Notably, the “transgender Barbie” only exists in Barbieland, not the real world.) By leaving, Barbie signals her own embrace of womanhood and the potential for childbearing. 

What about Ken’s Journey?

Ken’s journey reflects the masculinist conversations today; the angst and “lostness” felt by so many boys is a feature, not a bug, of Barbie’s feminism. Let me explain. 

Throughout the movie, Barbie is dismissive of Ken. She treats his attempts to impress and court her as unwanted, even pitiable, advances. It wasn’t until a woman in the real world asks Ken for the time that he realizes he matters and that he’s worthy of respect. Equipped with this newfound perspective Ken later shouts, “Barbie, you failed me!” 

This is the key distinction between Campbell’s monomyth and Murdock’s heroines’ journey. For Campbell, the woman is the guide, inspiration, and meaning of the journey itself. The woman is not the accessory to a man’s heroic tale. It’s quite the opposite: she is the journey. 

Still, Barbie insists that Ken must find himself apart from her. In this, Barbie rejects the idea that men and women discover who they are in relationship, not isolation, from each other. The fulfillment of Ken’s own hero’s journey is ultimately thwarted by Barbie’s insufficient journey. Misogynistic expressions of masculinity don’t satisfy Ken, yet he’s deprived of the very thing that would orient and guide him toward wisdom and truth. 

Whereas Murdock’s heroines’ journey is marked by the absence of a man, Campbell’s hero’s journey relies upon the presence of the woman to succeed. 

The Need for a Restored Feminine Heroic Archetype

Barbie points to the emptiness of Murdock’s heroine’s journey, and the need for a renewed one. This leaves the final question: what is the feminine heroic archetype and where do we find it?