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I <3 Barbie

Models, Morals, and Role Models

I really loved Barbie as a kid, and I’m not sure if that’s surprising. She’s beautiful, kind, and always taught that you can be anything. While I don’t think that’s a universal statement, I think it’s true a lot of the time and is a healthy message to send to young girls. You want it? You get it. Just do it. Get good! It’s a remarkably powerful but simple message, especially coming from an image of peak femininity. Even if you yourself don’t have an interest in dolls, consider that these are the toys our daughters are statistically likely to be playing with.

I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, just because I didn’t really enjoy the company of my peers, I guess. I’d play with my Barbies and whatever playsets I had at the time, creating little stories filled with drama and mystery. I watched a lot of television and read lots of books; my own little stories were inspired by them, especially when there was nothing playing on satellite TV and I didn’t feel like reading. (Maybe this is why I like to write so much.) I think I still have the dolls somewhere around, I think. If I didn’t have anybody to play with, I might as well pretend I did.

The girl was gorgeous and had a seemingly infinite closet. Well, mine didn’t, but there isn’t much that a bit of scrap fabric, needle, and thread can’t do– along with a bit of imagination and hope, admittedly. I remember looking in the mirror and hoping that maybe someday I could be gorgeous like her: not in a ridiculous, unrealistic way, because she was clearly unreal, but just enough so that somebody could think of her when they looked at me. Nobody looked at Betty Spaghetty and complained of unrealistic beauty standards. And now, certainly stimulated by my childhood affection for dolls, I’ve grown up to be a fine young woman with a passion for fashion, curating my aesthetic with detail and taste. Barbie was the first doll that looked like an adult female on the commercial market, actually, and that’s what made her so popular as a product, believe it or not. Amusingly enough, she was based off a German adult gag-gift escort doll named Lilli, who actually seems pretty cool based off her character in her comic— I’m always here for sexual liberation and the dismissal of the Puritan mentality.

But regardless of how pretty or sexual Barbie may be, beauty is only temporary, and the luxuries that my beauty provides me with are only temporary as well. From 1984, Barbie told her audience that, “We girls can do anything!” and this premise, tied with the visual beauty and moral messaging of the Barbie movies, reminded my toddler self to cultivate the mind and soul as well. Well, not exactly in those words, but I got the message. Even by sheer nature of having been around for so long, Barbie’s got a fascinating history, having had over 200 different careers.

The Barbie films were introduced in 2001 with Barbie in the Nutcracker, focused on presenting a Barbie spin on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Meant to combat the rise of the Bratz doll line by targeting visual media merchandising, the films were carefully created using CGI and featuring performances from the London Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, to the New York City Ballet. I really liked the Barbie films that would typically fall in the high fantasy genre. By 2007, the film series grossed over $700 million dollars, but of course, they sold a separate doll with each film. That’s really where the money was. But because of the films’ features and beautiful visuals, the music and stories always stuck with me, even as I grew older. I still like to binge them every once in a while, just to get a happy, optimistic influence on my life. Mattel always made sure the was a positive message at the end of a Barbie-branded piece of media.

Click here for a list of my five favorite Barbie movies, if you're interested. Don't knock it 'till you try it.
  • Barbie in Swan Lake The artistic value is key here: the presentation of Tchaikovsky’s compositions from Swan Lake with the CGI renditions of the New York Ballet Company’s dances through the eyes of Barbie’s aesthetic is pure gold for the eyes. From the dances to the outfits to the choice in palette, the film creates a beautiful, timeless image that was lasting for my child self. It’s educational in its form and entertaining in its story. It’s certainly my favorite, especially because it’s one of the first I ever watched. Sentimental value, you know?
  • Barbie and the Three Musketeers Barbie and her friends are total badasses in this one. Here, Barbie and her friends become the first female musketeers. While this was impossible at the time, the 17th century lens feels believable and natural, regardless. The film focuses on the power of friendship and collaboration: two (or do I mean three or four in this specific case?) heads are not one, and there is strength in numbers. I often preach to my female friends that queens fix each others crowns, because toxic femininity can be so tempting.
  • Barbie as the Island Princess Being alone on an island with a bunch of talking animals sounds slightly disconcerting, but I certainly see the appeal. This one presents Barbie as Ro, a girl who is found on the island years after being washed ashore, and then returned back to civilization, being forced to learn to tolerate people along the way. The supporting characters are unique and filled with personality, from Barbie’s animal friends to the supporting love interest. The colors in the film are bright, tropical, and saturated, making me think of summer in the best way. I think this one is a particular favorite for me in terms of the adventurous soundtrack and Barbie’s songs themselves. Barbie’s a little shy in this one, but grows into her destined position with comfort during the duration of the film; as a girl that took quite a bit of time to grow comfortable in her own skin myself, I really like that.
  • Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses The soundtrack is a beautiful one here, ethereal and dainty. I'll always think the development of the dance-focused Barbie films is quite cool. Barbie in this film plays Genevive, who's smart, confident, and independent, like her 11 other sisters. Imagine being able to escape home and get a nearly infinite number of wishes and having 11 other sisters to constantly hang out with. Now that's escapism, LOL.
  • Barbie: A Fashion Fairytale Honestly, I just rewatched this one and ended up tearing up at the end. Maybe I'm overemotional, but can you blame me? I'm fragile! Anyway, for the first time in this list, Barbie isn't playing another character. Instead, Barbie is playing Barbie, after she's dumped by Ken over a voicemail. She flies to Paris and helps her auntie earn the money to keep her fashion business. While a seemingly normal (well, as normal as a Barbie can get) story on the surface, faires and magic are introduced as a means of helping the business survive. What really sells me on this one is the humor and adorable characters. Like, there's this whole subplot about Ken trying to get to Paris in a single day, with obstacles constantly getting in his way, so that he could win Barbie back. It's pretty entertaining. Also, Barbie and the Three Musketeers is referenced multiple times in the film as a movie that Barbie has performed in, and I just think that's cool.

Audiences loved the Bratz line because of the racial/ethnic(?) diversity of the dolls, the individual personalities associated with each, and the brand’s focus on fashion trends. While I had one or two myself, I think they were harder to come across at tag sales on the street or at second-hand stores, probably because they were so new and trendy. Retrospectively, while I certainly see the appeal of having a diverse cast of dolls, the Bratz dolls weren’t unique in the creation of representative, diverse dolls, employing different beauty ideals and standards. The Bratz dolls were also accused of being even more sexualized than Barbie, with which I honestly agree; I did have more than one Barbie myScene doll, though, which was essentially a knock-off Bratz doll with a slightly smaller head and an intention to show Barbie as a trendy teen, rather than just a good role model… I liked her quite a bit, honestly. She was just so cool, and who doesn’t want to be cool? Anyway, is it just me, or do a lot of contemporary celebrities nowadays have a striking resemblance to the Bratz image with the huge lips and heavy makeup? I dunno, I’m unfocused.

I always thought the long history and versatility of Barbie and her interests was a major strong point for the doll: in terms of activities and hobbies, she could be anybody, truly, without being a Type and fixating on more than just going out and being stylish (even though some are starting to believe that Barbie’s values are changing; personally, I think her past will always stay with her, and that’s what keeps her close to my heart). While going out and being stylish are admittedly very fun activities, I’d like to think we should raise our girls with role models that are interested in more than just that. Also, honestly, the Bratz movies just aren’t as well produced as the Barbie ones, considering the poorer CGI and my affection for fantasy and escapism. But that’s just me. Maybe the oversized heads are just off-putting to me now. But also, then again, I recently binged two Bratz movies in a row: I can’t help but cave sometimes! And honestly, I did like the movies as a kid, I can’t lie. (Bratz The Video: Starrin’ & Stylin’ is my favorite, by the way.)

But then again, these are just things being sold to us... Tread carefully and carry a big stick, always.