Barbie and the Heroine’s Journey – Storytelling for Everyone

By Kate Farrell

Wonder why the movie Barbie is a “particular ripple in the universe” as Greta Gerwig, its director, describes it? How did the movie hit deeper than the average chick flick and become a runaway box office success, breaking records worldwide?

Neither its political message of feminism nor its massive brand marketing are adequate explanations for the film’s widespread appeal.

To my discerning eye, Barbie, in its plot, characters, and tropes is the universal story of the heroine’s journey based on ancient folk and fairy tales. Beyond the plastic and tinsel pink, this layer of cultural bedrock persists in the film’s compelling understory.

I’m not alone in finding a mythical layer to this über commercial movie: Others have compared it to the Sumerian myth of Inanna or to the 17th century Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost (a retelling of Genesis). And in a BBC interview, Gerwig revealed that the sources of Barbie include medieval and Renaissance poetry.

Fragments of metaphor and archetypes, cinematic images of pop culture, all create a compelling mosaic that reassembles the shape of the feminine quest. What are those essential elements that draw us in?

To break it down to its most basic element: The feminine quest is all about mothers.

Most of the foundational folk and fairy tales begin with mothers: loving mothers, evil stepmothers, godmothers, magical mother figures, mothers-in-law.

When Barbie stops the dance in the nightly disco and says, “…ever think about dying?” she’s asking what the human mother, Gloria, is feeling. It’s a bleed over from the human world to Barbie Land as the human mother mourns her death or her loss of influence over her teenage daughter, Sasha. Barbie “feels” the mother’s grieving and must find the mother/daughter characters on the human side to resolve it.

It’s almost incredible that the movie begins with the first motif of the heroine’s journey found in most fairy tales: that the “good mother” dies. If you recall “Snow White” or “Cinderella” or “Vasilisa the Brave,” you’ll recognize that losing the loving, birth mother is the first challenge in these stories. And it is the rite of passage for all modern daughters, to separate from their mothers in order to discover their independence.

In the ancient tales of the feminine quest, you’ll also recall the “fairy godmother,” the older, magical mother, or the spiritual mother who appears to assist, mentor, or challenge the heroine. When Barbie meets the real Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll, on the park bench, she sees her inner beauty and her mother/daughter love—Ruth named Barbie for her daughter. Later, when Barbie meets the “ghost” of Ruth in another dimension, we see the magic of transformation, from doll to living woman, given by the old, ghost mother.

These are but a few parallels of the heroine’s journey found in this blockbuster movie!

Bay Area Writers: To learn how you can incorporate motifs and tropes, characters and plot lines of the heroine’s journey in your creative work, register for my upcoming 2-session workshop!

Mechanics Institute: Writing the Heroine’s Journey with Kate Farrell
Location: Meeting Room, 4th floor, Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post St., San Francisco

TWO-Session Workshop, On-site
September 23, 2023, Saturday 11:00 – 2:00 pm 
October 7, 2023, Saturday 11:00 am– 1:00 pm
Cost: $40 Member, $50 Non-member, Limited Enrollment
Registration NOW Open! CLICK HERE!

You’ll learn how to use elements of the feminine quest in your journaling or creative writing for any genre—fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry and more!

Deconstructing the foundational Greek myth of “Psyche and Eros” as the basis for our discussion and writing, we’ll translate its archaic challenges into those facing modern women.

Hope to see you there, so sign up soon!


Learn more about Kate Farrell and STORY POWER: