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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

Heroine's Journey: Barbie & Poor Things

Updated: Mar 19

"The feminine journey is about going down deep into soul, healing, and reclaiming, while the masculine journey is up and out, to spirit." - Maureen Murdock


custom image of poor things poster, barbie poster, and heroine's journey chart

In an interview with The New York Times, Margot Robbie likened her role as Barbie to “the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.” This journey inward towards the self, alongside an overarching, world-saving adventure defines the Heroine’s Journey; an archetype that can be found in both the bubblegum pink box office hit - and another, less colorful but just as whimsical 2023 film - Poor Things


 

Not too long ago in the 1990s, psychoanalyst Maureen Murdock challenged the classic Hero’s Journey and created a new narrative: the Heroine’s Journey. Years and decades later, the concept has finally trickled into pop culture, often depicted in films relating to a female protagonist's self-discovery. 

heroine's journey chart

Its predecessor, the Hero’s Journey is an archetype first defined in 1949 by psychology professor, Joseph Campbell, for stories where a character ventures into a world unlike their own; the hero goes through trials and tribulations and returns with answers and boons, thus, becoming a man and saving himself and others in the process. We see this archetype in texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh and even the biblical tellings of Jesus. Today, films like Star Wars, Interstellar, The Lion King, and Harry Potter all follow this same archetype


But what about the women? Their journeys? Murdock was a student of Campbell, and in 1983, challenged her then-professor on this very point. Supposedly, he 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 that people are trying to get to.” This was less than fifty years ago. 


Thankfully, these stories are becoming more prominent; Mulan, The Hunger Games, and Rogue One, to name a few. These movies follow strong female characters who challenge a male-dominated society and, regardless of being women (or because of), they discover themselves while achieving their goals.


 

Barbie
"Humans only have one ending. Ideas live forever."


While watching Barbie, I was reminded of classic tales of The Hero’s Journey; leaving the ordinary world to fix something wrong, inspired and guided by a mentor; facing trials, and meeting allies and foes. And then she achieves her goal and returns home to Barbieland - but it’s not over there. This, ultimately, is what separates The Hero’s Journey from the Heroine’s: that final step of the former is where all is fixed; in the former, this is deemed “The Boon of Success,” or, where the real story begins. It’s at this point that Barbie can’t seem to escape the patriarchy or her imperfections. From there, she must adapt, introspect, and grow. 


Poor Things
“You are in the dark part before light and wisdom” 


I was once again reminded of the Hero’s Journey months later watching Poor Things. While not marketed as a feminist story or even appearing as one, Bella Baxter goes through similar trials and introspection as the doll made of plastic. Of course, her story is much darker, and bleaker. A notable difference is the use of sensuality in furthering one’s understanding of the world - sex and love were nearly absent from Barbie! Not in Poor Things though; Bella’s exploration beyond her “god” relies on sex, prostitution, unfathomably awful men, and taking control of her body. But it’s not just her body - it’s her mind; from an infant's brain to a young woman capable of making money, discussing philosophy and art and travels, Bella is liberated from an existence dictated by the men around her. 


Heroine's Journey: Barbie and Poor Things

Stage

Barbie - Barbie 

Bella Baxter - Poor Things 

HEROINE SEPARATES FROM THE FEMININE. The “feminine” is often a mother/mentor figure or a societally prescribed feminine/marginalized/outsider role.

Barbie no longer serves as the ideal form of femininity for young girls, as prescribed for centuries and passed down from mother to daughter; flat feet, thoughts of death, and malfunctions. 

Under the guise and experimentation of her creator, Godwin, Bella develops from the brain of a child into a young woman;  

IDENTIFICATION WITH THE MASCULINE & GATHERING OF ALLIES. The heroine embraces a new way of life. This often involves choosing a path that is different from the heroine’s prescribed societal role, gearing up to “fight” an organization/role/group that is limiting the heroine’s life options, or entering some masculine/dominant-identity defined sphere.

Barbie meets with Weird Barbie, also ostracized by others, and is guided on her journey to the real weird; forced to choose Birkenstocks rather than heels, she has drifted from her traditional role - the shoes itself a symbol of functionality, rather than attracting the male gaze. 

Bella comes into herself and her sexuality while surrounded by men who wish to study her progress. She develops rapidly and begins to fall in love with Max - though she doesn’t quite know what that means - her life until now is a product of experimentation and testing, she is merely a science project rather than a woman. While these men are not bad, they are limiting her growth. 

ROAD/TRIALS AND MEETING OGRES & DRAGONS. The heroine encounters trials and meets people who try to dissuade the heroine from pursuing their chosen path, or who try to destroy the heroine.

Barbie faces the patriarchy in its many forms; Sasha dismisses Barbie as a feminist icon, she is put into a box at Mattel and must escape, Gloria’s own existentialist thoughts reflect unto Barbie; Barbie meets Ruth, a mother figure she never had. 

Yearning to explore the world outside the home, Bella leaves for Portugal with Duncan; the world grows more colorful and whimsical. The two dance and meet new people, cruise on a ship where she is introduced to philosophy and old age, each person enlightening her while also dragging her down with their views of the world; she craves agency; to get away from Duncan. 

EXPERIENCING THE BOON OF SUCCESS. The heroine overcomes the obstacles in their way. (This is typically where the hero’s journey ends.)

Gloria and Sasha come to save Barbie from Mattel in a car chase; they get away and the rift between Gloria and Sasha is healed - Barbie achieved her goal! They return to Barbieland as a reward. 

Thrown off the cruise ship, Bella and Duncan are homeless in Paris; he does not have the same control over her and she seeks to gain financial freedom. She joins a brothel, where she can make money for herself and gain more sexual experiences and partners - and conversation. 

HEROINE AWAKENS TO FEELINGS OF SPIRITUAL ARIDITY/DEATH. The heroine’s new way of life (attempting the masculine/dominant identity) is too limited. Their success in this new way of life is either temporary, illusory, shallow, or requires a betrayal of self over time.


While Barbie’s goal of fixing Gloria’s relationship with her daughter is achieved, the three return to Barbieland, now ruled over by the Kens and patriarchy. In this new world, the once-powerful Barbies are subservient and reverted back to stereotypical “female” roles. 

She visits an anatomy lab to look at cadavers, missing her father and previous life. She has gained freedom of self, somewhat, but has strayed too far in her explorations. 

INITIATION & DESCENT TO THE GODDESS. The heroine faces a crisis of some sort in which the new way of life is insufficient, and the heroine falls into despair. All of the masculine/dominant-group strategies have failed them.

Ken now holds power over Barbie, who has dismissed him all this time; she is “literally at her lowest” and sees no way forward; she is no longer perfect, nor in control, and her fellow Barbies do not care. 

Bella is growing tired/disillusioned with Paris and prostitution; feeling empty. She speaks with the 

Owner of the brothel about making choices over her body, mind, and livelihood as it relates to being a woman.

HEROINE URGENTLY YEARNS TO RECONNECT WITH THE FEMININE. The heroine wants to, but is unable to return to their initial limited state/position.

Barbie joins the other misfits/malfunctioned dolls at Weird Barbie’s house; she breaks down both over her appearance and, in learning of the real world, lack of status as a woman and Barbie itself. 

When Godwin falls ill, Max asks Bella to return home. They are shocked to see her development and liberation. 

HEROINE HEALS THE MOTHER/DAUGHTER SPLIT. The heroine reclaims some of their initial values, skills, or attributes (or those of others like them) but now views these traits from a new perspective.

Gloria presents a powerful monologue on what it means to be a woman - it’s literally impossible and filled with hypocrisy and contradictions formed by men and women themselves. 

Bella is prepared to marry Max until her husband, The General, arrives. She returns to what was her previous life and understands now why her former self committed suicide. Now Bella, she understands her value and worth and understands why she left the General in the first place. 

HEROINE HEALS THE WOUNDED MASCULINE WITHIN. The heroine makes peace with the “masculine” approach to the world as it applies to them.

Rather than accept Kendom and the patriarchy, Barbie and the other misfits concoct a plan to work against it; they appeal to the Kens’ masculine traits and use this against them, “awakening '' the Barbie’s from their subservient states. The Barbie’s are in control again. 

In a simple but major scene, Bella proposes to Max, getting down on one knee and then coming face to face with him. Not only has she learned the value of love and sex 

HEROINE INTEGRATES THE MASCULINE & FEMININE. In order to face the world/future with a new understanding of themselves and the world/life, the heroine integrates the 

It’s not “Barbie and Ken,” it’s “Barbie and it’s Ken.” The two ideal forms of femininity and masculinity can coexist, and even learn from one another; in her time with Ruth, Barbie asserts the desire to become human - it’s not as simple, but that’s the joy of it all. This goes beyond herself, it’s part of being human (as Ruth tells her). As a result, she chose to experience living as a human (and a woman). 

Bella enjoys the fruits of her labor; is married to Max, Toinette escapes the brothel and lives at the house, Felicity grows with the help of the maid; The General possesses’ the brain of a goat. Bella is studying anatomy, like her father - in a typically male-dominant field. 


 
So What?

This isn’t a post about representation - the two examples given are about white, conventionally attractive women who are oppressed by hegemony rather than everyday life struggles. It’s difficult to relate to a character based on a literal depiction of perfection, or one who grows from a child to a woman over the course of months. 


These movies only have meaning if we make something of them; a confrontation of societal standards and a woman’s place in them. I’m 25 years old and feel like time is running out. To grow and fall in love or find a good job and travel the world. But it takes small steps and self-agency, as both Barbie and Bella show. Breaking out of what is expected of myself and other women can lead to liberation otherwise unthought of. Rather than finding purpose as a woman, I can simply be a woman and find purpose all the same. 


Happy Women’s History Month!

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