The ‘Barbie’ Movie as Therapy

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Director Greta Gerwig poses for pictures during a photocall for the upcoming Warner Bros. movie “Barbie” in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 25, 2023.

When “Barbie,” the movie, was released, I was convinced that I did not need to watch a film about dolls.

It wasn’t until a colleague said that the film tackled the complexity of cognitive dissonance that I bought a ticket.

What is cognitive dissonance?

As a therapist, I’ve studied and helped patients discover the power of cognitive dissonance for decades. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that arises when we experience conflicting beliefs or attitudes.

For instance, someone who takes pride in being financially responsible but often makes impulsive purchases experiences cognitive dissonance. As does a person who usually gets good reviews at work and is told their projects are failing to meet expectations.

When our choices and actions conflict with our beliefs, they can be stressful and anxiety-provoking experiences. To alleviate cognitive dissonance, a person may try to rationalize their choices or lie to themselves about what is happening. These attempts can lead to guilt, low self-esteem and incessant internal conflict.

Recognizing cognitive dissonance, though, can serve as a motivator for positive change. Experiencing this discomfort can lead to self-reflection, openness to other ideas and beliefs, and a recommitment to healthier behaviors and personal growth.

To my surprise and delight, I discovered that Barbie’s journey from Barbieland to the real world and back shows how we can use the gift of cognitive dissonance to change our lives.

The perfection of Barbieland

In Barbieland, everything and everyone, including all the Barbies (and Kens), are perfect – pretty, intelligent, cool and never sad. The perfection of Barbieland allows Barbie to form beliefs such as “women are powerful, they can do anything, they run the world, they are perfect.”

Like many of us, she uses her belief system to predict the world. Barbie predicts, for instance, that everyone will like her. When they do, it confirms her beliefs, and her brain is happy that the world is as it should be. As Barbie exclaims early in the film, “It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.”

Dissonance hits, though, when Barbie thinks of death and her feet go flat. Her beliefs – “I am perfect” – no longer match her reality – “I have flat feet.”

To fix this dissonance and avoid reality, Barbie takes a trip to the Real World, believing that her problems will be solved if she can find the child who is playing with her and cheer them up.

The imperfection of the Real World

In the Real World, Barbie’s dissonance grows. Los Angeles isn’t what she predicted – it’s not perfect, and women aren’t in charge. Her belief that “the world is perfect, women rule, everyone loves me” doesn’t match reality.

People don’t love her for who she is. She feels unsafe. She discovers that construction workers are not women but rude men who comment on her appearance. A teenage girl calls her out on the damage the Barbie doll has done to people’s views of their own appearances. Barbie’s experience of cognitive dissonance leads to pain, which in the movie is illustrated by her first tears.

Cognitive dissonance and avoidance

After spending time in the real word, Barbie – becoming more humanlike as minutes pass – does what most of us do when we face the discomfort of cognitive dissonance: She engages in psychological avoidance and turns to a quick fix to feel better.

Many of us return to the comfort of our earlier beliefs, which for Barbie is a return to Barbieland, where she can validate her view that the world is perfect, that women run the world, and that there is no danger.

You can’t run from reality

Barbie arrives to an unrecognizable land run by Ken – a place more akin to the real world – ruled by patriarchy and no longer perfect. She faces dissonance again, but this time, the discomfort is so great that she avoids it by laying on the ground in misery.

The human Gloria, played by the actress America Ferrera, then delivers a monologue about the impossible and contradictory expectations for women. Her words illuminate the dissonance that we all live in and by doing so, incite change.

The “Barbie” movie shows the power of acknowledging and responding to cognitive dissonance. When faced with choosing between two contradictory beliefs or realities, we can pick a new way of being.

As Barbie says, “maybe it’s Barbie, and it’s Ken.”

Turning cognitive dissonance into positive change

You may find it hard to believe that the Barbie movie could serve as a form of therapy. (To my knowledge, even though Barbie has many professional careers, Mattel has not created a therapist Barbie.) Seeing cognitive dissonance play out in a fantasy movie such as “Barbie,” however, can help us understand difficult concepts and apply them to our own lives.

We can unlock the power of cognitive dissonance in our own lives by taking these steps:

Hit the pause button: Think of discomfort as a mental alarm bell. Instead of rushing to silence it, pause and get curious about it.

Lean into the discomfort: Visualize discomfort as a friend having a chat with you over coffee. What is it trying to tell you?

Redefine and rewire: Dissonance invites us to integrate new information and reshape our views. Talk to someone with different beliefs, read books of a different genre, or see the “Barbie” movie to enrich your understanding of reality and challenge your biases.

Barbie’s journey from a realm of perfection to the messiness of reality teaches us that confronting and staying with our dissonance – however uncomfortable – offers a path to evolving and reshaping our lives.