Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Cognitive Concepts in a Barbie World

So a group of my family got together opening weekend of the Barbie Movie, and I had a great time. I was pretty surprised how much I loved this movie. (Sorry, didn’t see Oppenheimer, I’ll have to check it out next time!) 

It’s unusual for a movie to stay so quirky and yet introduce deep topics in a way that directs the action of the plot.

It’s also not lost on me that this is a controversial movie to many people. It may be this movie is just not for you. However, I do recommend finding a way to understand why this movie resonates with so many people. For me, there was a deep sense of empathy for people who feel stuck on the sidelines, as well as people in crisis, and offering hope that change and recovery are possible.

Here are a few of the topics in this movie that send mental health and healthy relationship dynamics to the front. 

Existential Crisis

Intrusive thoughts of death, and joy in normal activities being replaced with a sense of meaninglessness, overwhelming sense of dread or hopelessness. Stereotypical barbie begins her journey toward becoming “weird” Barbie because she begins having thoughts of death and sadness. Despite a strong urge to revert back to her old self, stereotypical Barbie instead finds herself reaching a new sense of self awareness through embracing her journey rather than clinging to the past.

One up one down psychology

In couples, the dynamic feels like a competition or battle rather than a collaboration. The one up position is superior either by having the final say, taking the moral high ground, or putting their partner down. The one down position is the inferior place, and may lead to resentment, or feelings of being taken advantage of. In the movie, the Kens of Barbie land take over for a time and make themselves into the leaders of the land, and convince the barbies to take care of them. By taking this one down position, the Barbie’s lose their positions in society and their sense of self, which flips the dynamic, as previously, Barbies held all the positions of power, and basically had no use for the Kens beyond as cheerleaders.

Tone Policing

At times, a person might be shut down, even though the content of what they are saying may be relevant, they get shut down because of the way they are saying it, or simply because the listener feels offended. America Ferreira’s character gives a monologue with numerous examples of how women are fed impossible and contradictory expectations. Because of how impossible these expectations are for anyone, the message that external validation and allowing the world to determine your values for you will not lead to happiness. Her monologue goes on and on, and we get the sense that her message has been brewing for quite some time, which makes sense because her discomfort and disenfranchisement is just the kind of unpleasant truth that people often brush aside. It’s not useful to label these ideas as over sensitivity, self-absorption, or moral weakness. It can make a huge difference to normalize and truly listen to a person in pain, regardless. Validating a person’s pain is possible no matter the stated cause or content.

Stigmatizing Emotions

If a person expresses negative emotions, too often the listener discredits what is said based on misconceptions that emotions exist on a moral scale, with some worse than others. We value a bit too much the capacity to hide emotions, and it is too easy to judge a person while they speak, instead of using emotions as useful content alongside the content of what a person says. Barbie’s existential crisis leads to a cascade of negative emotions, which she believes are all just problems she can fix by meeting someone in the real world, and cheering them up. However, it turns out to be both Barbie and her human change, as they learn to validate and accept their own emotions. The journey of the movie indicates that we are always going through an emotional cycle, regardless of how poorly or how well life is going. People in Barbie land and the real world prefer to able to freeze in a state of positive emotions. However, a more healthy perspective is to learn to tolerate all possible emotions and manage them in the sense of making good decisions regardless of how a situation may make us feel.

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