Pop culture

Reflections on the ‘Barbie’ movie and its impact on women in medicine

I went to see the movie because I thought it would be fun and it got good reviews. But wow, did it strike a chord with me.


I had the great pleasure to see “Barbie” for the first time on a big screen in Cape Town, South Africa.  I was traveling with my sister, and we thought it would be fun and interesting to see a movie about a quintessentially American toy in an international theater. While waiting in line to take my sister’s picture in the classic pink Mattel box, we enjoyed observing the variety of people who were there. Many people were in costumes or wore bright pink, and the crowd included people of all ethnicities and ages.

One group that caught my eye wore colorful Pride-themed clothing and included people with varying physical abilities and gender appearances. I also noted my own bias that Barbie would likely appeal to only women, and maybe even just grandparents and little kids. I could not have been more wrong!

Growing up with Barbie ideals

I was never a girl who played with Barbies or any dolls at all. (Slight spoiler alert). I was one of the only people in the theater chuckling during the opening scene of toys being destroyed. I went to see the movie because I thought it would be fun and it got good reviews. But wow, did it strike a chord with me. Sure, it’s clever and fun and creative, and has some great performances—I just never thought a movie about Barbie would make me feel so seen as well.

We have all grown up in a society that puts certain ideas into our heads. When I was in high school in the late 1970s and demonstrated academic talent, a science teacher tried to get me interested in medicine as a career. I told him that I loved science but didn’t believe as a girl that medicine would be a good choice for me (yes, I believed that at the time). However, I eventually decided to pursue medical school when I was 30 years old. Still, at that time I had people trying to talk me out of the long commitment.

One notable exception was my women’s book group. They all said, “Don’t give up on your dream the way I did.” That story may seem outdated now that so many women enroll in medical school, however, pay and leadership disparities still exist between female and male physicians today.

To paraphrase America Ferrara’s “Barbie” character Gloria in her fabulous speech, as a woman in medicine, I am so tired of watching myself and every other woman in medicine—physician, nurse, lab tech, administrator, etc.—tie ourselves into knots so that patients and colleagues will like us. I am tired of waiting for the pay to equalize, for men to stop talking over us in meetings, for our ideas about how to make things better to be listened to instead of dismissed.

As someone who works with students on clinical rotations, I am really, really tired of having to explain to them that people will treat them poorly at times just because they are women, nonbinary, from another country or religion or just the person standing in front of them on a bad day. I would love to be able to tell students that they can expect to be treated as well as we are asking them to treat others, but that won’t always happen.

Straying from negative attitudes

I hate having to teach medical students that they must learn to put up with unpleasant behaviors. I long to be able to say, yes, it’s wrong and I can fix it. I do advocate for holding organizations and individuals accountable, but often not much changes. I had a job within the past decade where people had physically hit me when they learned I was leaving. When I mentioned it to a leader colleague, they said, “Oh, they were just kidding around.” Talk about reinforcement of a decision!

To my students, I am tempted to quote this line from Barbie: “The real world is forever and irrevocably messed up.”

Except it’s not. 

Here’s why, and it’s found in Barbie as well. I (and all the other women who have persisted in medicine as a career) have made it this far because of the ways we support and help each other. The same goes for any people whose identities are used to exclude them. We are in the rooms that were closed in the past, we have a voice and we can keep working together to make our voices heard. It is far from ideal, but it is definitely better than it was.

Be your own role model

That happy group of moviegoers in Cape Town did not exist as freely and openly 30 years ago, but it does now. Many people known and unknown worked to make it possible. Making the effort continuously does yield results and it’s worth it. 

Our osteopathic profession has some great role models for us. I attended OMED 2023 in Orlando and was thrilled to see so many students there. I encourage all to stay engaged in our mutual efforts for changing health care and making our world more accepting. It’s our DO legacy! Don’t give up on your dreams. Work with others to shape and manifest them.

One day we can be in a position to change the way things are done. We will proudly say, as Nobel Prize Barbie does: “I worked very hard, so I deserve it.”

(All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent my employer.)

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

My journey to finding the right fit: What I learned when I searched for a physician and found my dream OB-GYN

Vulnerability: The path least taken


  1. Emily Kathleen Hurst

    I love your article – Thank you for sharing your well written thoughts and how you highlighted the positivity of change and the importance of our personal investment in this process.

  2. Stephen Slattery

    I decided to be a good sport and see “Barbie” with my spouse. As expected, us x chromosome challenged individuals took it on the chin in the age-old battle of the sexes. Yes, at least some of this not so good-natured ribbing was well deserved. I’m not sure how the movie is relevant to medicine other than I assume there is a doctor Barbie doll.

  3. Richard Toler, DO

    Interesting perspective on Barbie! I actually believe “Grey’s Anatomy” has had the most impact on bringing women into medicine.
    I also agree, we can not always expect our patients to treat us as well as we treat them.
    I have had requests for patients to see a female physician instead of me on multiple occasions
    I do not take it personally, I assume there is an issue in the past that may contribute to her request.
    I would advise our younger students to remember this as well; it is often not about “them” when patients do not want to see them, or question their judgement.

    1. Stephen Slattery, DO

      As a an FP, I too do not take it personally if a woman prefers a female physician( especially for a well woman exam). However. I don’t assume this choice is due to a bad experience with a man, just their preference. I could be wrong, but I believe that more than half of medical student graduates are female. Fortunately, women who prefer a female physician have choices.

  4. Cindi Larimer, MD

    Love this piece. True and excellent. I made it into medical school at age 33, and I found residency to be H__L as an older woman. Life is good, I am in my own practice, and I Loved the Barbie movie, especially America Ferrara’s amazing monologue!

  5. Dr. Karen Horton

    Great article. I am a proud woman Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon who worked very hard to get where I am, despite being told “don’t get pregnant during Residency” (I didn’t), “stop complaining about the call schedule” (I never did), and who actually LOOKS like Barbie! I strive to act as a role model for other women who are interested in a surgical career, and am so proud I have been able to do that. And I personally loved the Barbie movie, as I have always related to her! I brought my twin girls, who liked it – but not as much as me. :)
    – @drkarenhorton on IG

  6. Stephen Slattery, DO

    I started medical school at 48 years old and residency at 52 years old. I’m not sure if medical school/ residency was any easier for my younger counterparts. However, the physical demands in general are tougher on the typical middle- aged individual. I found that regular exercise helped me immensely get through the ordeal.

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