Barbie (2023) was without a doubt the most excited I'd been about a movie in years.
As someone who named her pet mice after the protagonists of The Princess and the Pauper and for one Christmas was given not one, not two, but a total of SIX duplicate lavender pegasus figures from various relatives (that were subsequently exchanged for other toys in the Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus line), I was eager to see the nostalgia taken in a mature direction. Barbie for grown-ups, helmed by a female-led team. What's not to love about that?
Not to mention the opportunity to cosplay! I'm glad we as a society collectively agreed that we needed to doll ourselves up in our pinkest finery for the occasion.
As I left the cinema feeling emboldened by the film's messaging about being a woman in this thing we call life—and feeling personally called out by Depression Barbie's love of gummy candy and the BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries—there was something else about the film that stood out to me.
Barbie is an excellent example of The Hero's Journey in action.
Were I to teach a course on writing or film, Barbie would be my reference for discussing The Hero's Journey (among other elements of fiction). It hits virtually every beat of the structure perfectly while telling an engaging and empowering story.
The Hero's Journey is a popular arc often associated with fantasy works, but it can fit into most genres. It's a story of growth, with its central character undergoing a transformation or self-discovery over the course of their adventure.
Stories told through the lens of The Hero's Journey typically follow a pattern (though it may not always be in the following order or including every step).
The Call to Adventure: The hero character is often introduced as an average guy or gal within their world. The first scene usually involves them going about their day-to-day affairs so readers can get an understanding of what is normal for them. That way, when the inciting incident comes along to shake things up, the audience knows something is amiss.
The Call itself can take many forms. It might be a bad guy posing a threat, a sudden change in their everyday, or a problem that must be resolved.
E.g. Harry Potter receives his acceptance letter to Hogwarts.
Refusal of the Call: Not all heroes are keen to embark on a quest. In fact, many hesitate in what's known as the Refusal of the Call. Here, the hero character may be reluctant to venture out of their comfort zone, even though doing so might restore that comfort zone they have saved the day, out of self-doubt or fear of the unknown.
E.g. Frozen II - Elsa ignores the voice calling to her because she doesn't want to leave her safety and newly restored comfort of Arrendelle.
As pressure continues to build, the hero at last accepts the call. There may also be persuasion from an external force such as the mentor archetype.
Meeting the Mentor: The hero character is bound to meet friends and foes in their journey. One of significant importance is the mentor, who offers guidance and bolsters the hero's confidence and skills needed to face what lies ahead.
E.g. Luke Skywalker trains with Yoda.
Crossing the Threshold: This is the moment the hero sets off on their adventure, leaving behind the familiar and stepping into the unknown. The journey truly begins.
E.g. Divergent - Tris leaves her home of Abnegation to join Dauntless.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces a string of trials and tribulations that test their will to endure. They might also make new allies who want to support their mission and enemies out to thwart them; both contribute to the hero's inner journey. The Hero's Journey is not an easy one to make!
E.g. The Hunger Games - Katniss aligns herself with Rue while simultaneously making enemies out of the Career Tributes.
The Inmost Cave: The "Inmost Cave" refers to the hero character's personal, internal journey. Because it's not about saving the day to protect others. They themselves have personal, internal struggles to overcome. At this stage, the hero is made to confront their own vulnerabilities and comes away with a new self-awareness, stronger and ready to face what lies ahead.
E.g. Brother Bear - Kenai realizes that he was the hunter who killed Koda's mother.
The Ordeal: This is the hero's greatest challenge. One last showdown that pushes the hero to their limits. The biggest test of everything they have learned throughout the journey. Their newfound courage, skills, and perseverance are on full display here.
E.g. The Wizard of Oz - Dorothy faces the Wicked Witch of the West.
Reward and Revelation: Having come out on top after the Ordeal, the hero often faces a revelation. Here, we see a deeper understanding of themselves and how they have changed over the course of their journey. They recognize they are no longer who they once were and must now figure out what's next for them (which can be a formidable task in its own right).
E.g. The Emperor's New Groove - Kuzco realizes he was not the kindest of emperors and intends to do better now that he is human again.
The Road Back: The hero returns to the ordinary world, shouldering their new knowledge and insight. This path isn't straightforward and may involve the hero being made to face the consequences of their actions.
E.g. Mulan returns to her family after saving China, worried about what her family will think after she disobeyed them and took her father's place in the army.
The Return: Now a changed person, the hero's transformation is complete. The hero makes their return to their ordinary world—which might result in their realizing they no longer belong there as they once did.
E.g. The Last of Us Part II - Ellie returns to the farm after her confrontation with Abby, finding Dina and J.J. gone. She is no longer able to play the guitar (one of her last remaining connections to Joel) due to losing two fingers. Her future is left unknown as she walks towards the horizon.
The Hero's Journey is so loved in fiction because of how it deeply resonates with its audience. Characters embark on this journey of growth and self-discovery we may very well see ourselves in. We want these heroes to succeed because we ourselves want to take inspiration from them and overcome challenges in our own lives.
That's always been the magic of Barbie. She can be anything we want. A doctor, a princess, a reporter, a chef, a ballerina, a racecar driver, an Olympic gymnast, a dolphin trainer—anything we can imagine!
It's easy to see ourselves in her. But we can also see who we want to become through the stories we would tell through her.
And that's what made Barbie such a perfect candidate for the Hero's Journey!
From here on out, it's impossible to proceed without spoilers, so if you haven't seen Barbie yet, bookmark this post and come back after you have.
Everyone else, well, come on, Barbies, let's go party!
Directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie follows Stereotypical Barbie, who lives in Barbieland with all of the other Barbies and Kens. Everything in her life is flawless and every day is the same.
That is, until it's not.
During a typical choreographed dance party, Barbie casually blurts out, "Do you guys ever think about dying?"
This unexpected blip sets off a chain of events that are far from Barbie-perfect. In order to get her life back on track, Barbie must venture into the real world (our world).
And Ken's tagging along for the ride.
So what makes Barbie a Hero's Journey story?
Or a She-ro's Journey in this instance?
Let's break down the film in its relation to the arc's framework!
The Call to Adventure: "Do you guys ever think about dying?" is only the first unsettling occurrence in Barbie's life.
The following morning, nothing is going right for the titular doll. She wakes up groggy. Her shower is cold. Her toast is burnt. She falls off the roof as opposed to gracefully floating down from it.
And her feet are—brace yourself—FLAT!
After confiding in her fellow Barbies, Barbie pays a visit to Weird Barbie.
Meeting the Mentor: Weird Barbie is a doll that suffered greatly at the hands of a child who played a little too hard with her. She's regarded as an outcast within Barbieland because of her condition but also as a wise-sage-on-the-mountaintop figure.
Weird Barbie tells Stereotypical Barbie that in order to go back to how things were, she must venture out into the real world (our world) and find the child who is playing with her.
Refusal of the Call: Barbie is quick to dismiss Weird Barbie's assessment and her advice, choosing the metaphorical high heel over the Birkenstock several times out of a desire to stay in Barbieland because that's her comfort zone even with everything going awry in a very uncomforting way.
However, at the thought of her feet being flat forever and continuing to develop cellulite, she agrees to embark on the journey, accepting the call.
Crossing the Threshold: Barbie, though still hesitant, travels to the real world (with Ken in tow). It doesn't take long for Barbie's reality to be completely shattered as she discovers that despite Beyonce's proclamation, girls do not run the world here.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Barbie and Ken's misguided antics land them in hot water in no time flat, soon garnering the attention of Mattel's CEO who wants her back in a box for remanufacturing.
Barbie tracks down her owner Sasha before learning her maladies were not Sasha's doing but the result of her mother, Gloria, playing with Barbie while going through an identity crisis of her own; these thoughts carried over into Barbie's.
Barbie also meets the spirit of her creator, Ruth Handler, who we'll talk more about soon.
Upon returning to Barbieland with Gloria and Sasha, Barbie is appalled and devastated to learn Ken's discovery of patriarchy has resulted in a total upheaval of her home. All of her empowered friends have been indoctrinated into more submissive roles while the Kens are in charge.
I guess you might say Barbieland was ta-KEN over!
No? Okay, moving on...
The Inmost Cave: After her efforts to restore Barbieland are rebuked, Barbie falls into a state of depression and is no longer sure of who she is. For the first time since her journey began, she really doesn't know if she can go back to how things were. Not with her friends bending over backwards to serve the Kens' every whim.
Our Barbie grapples with the fact that while President Barbie, Diplomat Barbie, Dr. Barbie, and the others were running Barbieland, she was more or less off to the side watching the action and not actively taking a part in making Barbieland a fabulous place.
Even all of the Kens had a purpose before the rise of their Kendom. Her Ken's job was Beach (of which he was very proud)!
She was just Barbie. Stereotypical Barbie without a raison d'être or aspirations.
It's not until an impassioned speech from Gloria about a woman's expected place in society and how those standards are impossible to achieve that Barbie realizes she cannot let the Kens' takeover continue.
The Ordeal: Realizing Gloria's remarks about the real womanhood experience were what snapped Barbie out of her funk, they along with Sasha, Weird Barbie,
Allan, and a select number of discontinued dolls, set out to undo the Kens' brainwashing and restore Barbieland by using turning the Kens against one another while the ladies (and Allan) take advantage of the vote to change the constitution. In doing so, the Barbies regain their influence.
They also come to terms with the flaws in their past matriarchy and vow to do better by the outcast dolls and the Kens.
The Road Back: Just as the Barbies are putting forth their intentions to make things in Barbieland more equal for all, Barbie apologizes to Ken, admitting she was unkind to him and recognizing she took him for granted.
She also encourages him to figure out who he is without her.
You know, beyond Beach.
Reward and Revelation: Stereotypical Barbie, however, is still standing at a precipice. Although she has accomplished everything she set out to do and not only saved Barbieland but made it a better place for all of its inhabitants, something still isn't right.
She isn't back to her old self as she expected.
Because the truth is, as is the case for most characters on the Hero's Journey, she cannot go back to who she was before. She's grown, developing a new understanding of her world.
She is no longer Stereotypical Barbie.
The Return: Barbie has a chance to speak with the spirit of Ruth Handler, her creator and confesses she is unsure of her path. She no longer knows what she is supposed to be or what she was made for.
But as Ruth tells her, it's not about who she is, but who she can be. Because Barbie doesn't have a finite ending or purpose. She is always evolving. That sort of change is intimidating, but it's okay (and it's okay to be afraid of it).
After ruminating for some time, Barbie realizes she no longer feels like she is just a doll. She's become a person, and she chooses to leave Barbieland behind to become human.
The film concludes with Barbie, now sporting pink Birkenstocks and going by the name Barbara "Barbie" Handler, ending her journey with a new beginning: going to see a gynecologist for the first time.
A true mark of human womanhood if ever there were one!
Going into Barbie, I had high hopes and abundant excitement with little idea of what to expect because I (somehow?) successfully avoided spoilers. The movie hit me in all the right ways. I laughed, I cried—and I saw myself in Barbie.
Not knowing what your path looks like or what your true purpose is is such a raw feeling we all experience at one time or another. It's part of what makes us human. It's a journey we must all embark on.
And that thought is as comforting as the nostalgia driving the film.
The Hero's Journey is an arc that appears in so many of the stories we grew up with and continue to see in media. They're stories of resilience and finding yourself, even if your direction is unclear and there are obstacles in the way. They're about the human spirit, not just about who we are but who we can become.
And, like Barbie, we can be anything—even if we don't know who we are meant to be just yet.