Barbie on the couch

I enjoyed the Barbie film because I recognised (and this genuinely delighted me) profound philosophical and psychoanalytic ideas in the film.


The pivotal monologue by the character Gloria concludes with the following statement:

“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that other people will like them.”

I may not be a woman, but I empathised with the women in the film when I heard this line. Why? The experience of women in patriarch resonates with me - not because I’m a woman, but because I’m tied in knots.

And it’s not just me – I listen to this dilemma being articulated by my patients, each in their own unique personal narrative. Each of us needs to find an identity that works for us as a member of a society that is imposed on us. We must find a way to abide by the rules, requests, and expectations of our family, school, workplace, etc to get what we need. All of us need and want to be liked or loved. We want to be wanted.

With this aim in mind, we each ask ourselves, "What do other people want from or of us?" and we each come up with an answer and internalise an imperative to ‘be like this’, ‘look like that’, and we try to oblige.

The rub is that it’s an impossible task. We don’t have the information that we need. We can never satisfy what others want because neither we nor they fully know what they want. Even to the extent that other people make requests or demands of us, we wonder why they are making these demands of us. It’s an unanswerable question. People want different things at the same time, desire change, and are looking somewhere else over the horizon - away from the present moment.

Human desire, and the attempt to become what we think others want, is like chasing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s an impossible task and the harder we try, the more we tie ourselves in knots - just like Gloria.

If you believe, as I do, that this relational dilemma is an unavoidable fact of human life, then the next logical question is, "What isn’t this a common human experience?" or in the context of the film script, "Why is it only Gloria-Barbie who feels tied in knots at the start of the film?"

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought that there were three possible responses to what can’t be known, solved, or made good.

  • To avoid, deny and repress this experience by identifying as an exception to the rule (as attempted by the Mattel CEO and the Patriarchal Kens), and from that position of power, pursue something or someone that holds the promise of a solution.
  • To avoid the experience of desiring the figure above (like the Barbies who were enamoured by the Patriarchal Kens for a while) and from that position of powerlessness, pinning all their hopes on the powerful other.
  • Or to reconcile ourselves to the limitations and impossibilities of the system we live in. In the film, Gloria, Barbie and some of the other characters go on a journey to such a reconciliation.

This is also the central message of the Barbie film. We each face a choice: to retreat into a shared and socially validated avoidance fantasy (Perfect Barbie Land and Patriarch being the two examples of this strategy) or take a journey to a more mature version of what it means to be human.

The film also advocates “giving a voice to the cognitive dissonance required to being a woman under the patriarchy robbed of its power.”

Again, I agree. Psychotherapy is about giving voice to what doesn’t work within us. We need to give a voice to the truth of our lives that hasn’t yet spoken up. We need to find a way to be someone who can exist in relationship to this impossibility. It’s not straightforward. It’s a path that starts with the experience of anxiety and alienation. We often need some support and/or an experience of solidarity in this unsettling but potentially liberating experience, and in the same process, we rob the system of the power we previously gave it (in our minds).

The price Barbie has to pay to leave Barbie World is to accept and reconcile herself to the highs and lows of human life, to love and loss, to old age and death, to joy and pain. Barbie’s transformation from a doll into a person seems to me to be a metaphor for therapeutic development. Therapy is about building the capacity to subjectively experience incompleteness and limitation; experiences don’t add up and can’t be fixed - we, as therapists, support our clients to do this by talking about these very experiences.

We all tie ourselves in knots, looking for love by trying to be what we think others want us to be. The strategy never works. There is an alternative - an experience of self-love and love towards and from others, that allows for our own and others' imperfections, ordinariness, and human frailties. That message, already articulated in philosophy and the psychoanalytic tradition, re-articulated in the film Barbie, is in my opinion worth underlining and celebrating.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Stuart Nevill, UKCP, MBACP, MSc
London N1 & Richmond upon Thames TW9

Stuart Nevill is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist in private practice, working in London and online. Prior to training as a therapist 20 years ago, he was a Buddhist monk for 6 years. Stuart has also worked in the voluntary sector for over 20 years, mostly in homeless charities.

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