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The Not-So-Surprise Success of Barbie: Why She’s Still Resonating with Women Decades Later

Dr Jessica Yu

Written by Jessica Yu, Ph.D.

Updated 08/01/2023

On the night of July 21, 2023, I logged into my Instagram account and was greeted by a lot of hot pink. Female family, friends, coworkers, and social media celebrities were donning hot pink outfits—and linking arms with their own female acquaintances—on their way to the Barbie movie premiere.

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Since then, Barbie seems to be everywhere. “Have you seen Barbie?” is a question I get asked almost daily. I Googled the word “Barbie” and I was surprised to see Google turn pink. My mother called the other day to ask whether I wanted to take a trip down memory lane and be reunited with my decades-old Barbie collection. 

And just the other day, I came across an opinion piece published by The New York Times that refers to Barbie as one of the summer’s biggest entertainment phenomena. It sought to answer a question brewing in my mind ever since my IG feed was taken over by hot pink. Why do adult women love Barbie? 

As a clinical psychologist, I find it fascinating. Barbie is a doll whose target audience is elementary school-aged girls—and yet Barbie is a movie that is rated PG-13, that follows the famed character as she navigates an existential crisis, and has women of all ages heading to the theater. What about this character whom we haven’t thought much about in years—decades, even—resonates with us right now?

I believe the answer is two-fold. For many of us, Barbie taps into a desire to travel back to a much simpler time. The past few years have been marked by a snowball of traumatic events: COVID-19, the death of George Floyd, #MeToo, the war in Ukraine, the end of Roe v. Wade, the inescapable march of climate change… just to name a few.

As we’ve weathered each event, our mental health has taken a toll. The worldwide prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased by 25% since the beginning of the pandemic, and I’m seeing more and more patients in my practice describe feelings of burnout, stress, and mental fatigue. 

Women have been hit particularly hard, with a Kaiser Family Foundation report finding that half of adult women now report a need for mental health services. For some of these women, Barbie may serve as a much needed escape, an opportunity to ignore—for just a moment—the harsh realities of today and recall a time when all that mattered was the imaginative play we engaged in with our little blonde friend.

For others, however, the current fascination with Barbie may be less about the need to escape and more about a deep resonance with the spotlight Barbie the movie puts on the complexities of femalehood. Even if you haven’t yet seen the movie, you’ve probably come across the monologue America Ferrera’s character delivers. As she notes, “It is literally impossible to be a woman.” You have to be everything, to everyone, in just the right way. Yes. YES. YES! 

There isn’t a single woman I know who hasn’t at some point pondered what it means to be a great, successful, beautiful, kind, loving, insert-positive-adjective-here woman. And what Barbie the movie does so well is to lay it all to bare—to use our beloved childhood companion as a voice for the angst, the anxiety, the questions, the search for self-identity we all endure.

And so, why do adult women love Barbie? Maybe it’s that we are seeing her grow at the same time that we are maturing as individuals and undergoing change as a society. She was there as a playmate when we were young and innocent. And she is back in our lives as a symbol of the power and vastness of femalehood at a time when we need her most.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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