I have always loved Barbie movies. They’ve been a staple of mine since I was little and I find myself returning to them more often now than ever. On a recent rewatch, I was struck by and got to thinking about the shift in Barbie’s role as a personality brought to life through all of the different media she’s appeared in since the movies started up in the early 2000s. I wanted to take the opportunity here to speculate a bit about Barbie’s media evolution, and hopefully figure out some narrative implications for her more integrated media strategy as of late. Let’s get to it!
What We Talk About When We Talk About Barbie
Maybe this is just a student thing, but every time I try to find written work on Barbie movies, it’s never just about the movies. To discuss Barbie is to discuss the toy line, and the most common thread that people pick up on is Barbie’s role in child development and gender identity through how it’s marketed, its narrow concept of femininity, etc. Since I’m not going to talk about Barbie as a toy at all in this post, I’m skipping right over that whole thread, but just know that there are decades of scholarship dedicated to Barbie and feminism, gender roles, and gender identity among children and marketing in the social sciences and beyond.
What I’m more interested in is how Barbie has gone from that toy that comes in pretty outfits to a seemingly real person with interests, friends and family, personality traits, quirks, and more generally a backstory that can be built up in a linear sense. This is something that we see in the Barbie movies that works completely separate from the toy line. There’s very little in the way of formal or informal discussions of just Barbie movies without them being listicles, breakdowns of Barbie movie values, or talk of the toys that came with the movies. Ultimately, there seems to be a lack of discussion surrounding the media franchise that the original toy brand grew into, and what it can tell us separate from the toys themselves. I want to look at the Barbie movies as the primary text, not the toys. What I noticed while looking at the movies in such a way was how Barbie’s role in her own media is starting to change! And so, let’s discuss my findings.
Barbie as Actress: Barbie Movies
The Barbie movies as I know them (and basically everyone else who is invested in Barbie media these days) started in 2001 with Barbie in the Nutcracker. There have been several waves of Barbie movies, starting with the fairy tale retellings starring Barbie as the titular princess character in movies like Barbie as Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pauper, Barbie in Swan Lake, etc. Plots then moved onto original fantasy stories such as the Fairytopia series, Barbie & the Diamond Castle, Barbie as the Island Princess, etc. Responding to critics and the changing expectations of audiences, Barbie’s more recent movies have been more action/adventure plotlines with Barbie: Video Game Hero, Barbie: Spy Squad, and Barbie and the Secret Door, to name a few.
As you have probably noticed, every single Barbie movie identifies Barbie as the main player. On one hand, this is a way of labeling a movie as part of the Barbie brand. On the other hand, the word choice hints at something more to do with Barbie besides her brand. Phrases like “Barbie as” or Barbie in the” paint her as not just a main character in a movie, but as an actress. I find this really unique because of the implications that arise from separating Barbie’s onscreen roles from her virtual star persona. In each movie, Barbie returns starring as the main character and within each new release we see her acting in a different role. There is one major implication that comes with this understanding of Barbie as an actress in her films; she has an identity outside of simply being in the film. Barbie is more of a person than any one Barbie movie will allow the audience to see, but this is not something sinister. Instead, it encourages Barbie’s positive and consistently addressed virtues and traits such as her charity, willingness to help others, and gracefulness.
Barbie’s off and onscreen differences are included through animated blooper reels, where the ‘cast’ of the movie is shown making small talk, tripping over props, messing up choreography, or laughing during a scene. While they are funny, there is something really unique about these animated bloopers: they confirm the idea that Barbie is an actress with a life off camera, and give us a glimpse of her real personality. Through watching the bloopers, the audience gets a better sense of Barbie’s traits that exist beyond her role in any Barbie movie. Seeing these traits in the bloopers starts Barbie’s path to becoming something more of an actual person rather than an embodiment of vague ideas of femininity. The bloopers also prove that Barbie isn’t simply a character model that is given a different outfit for each new movie. Instead, she is put across as a living and fallible human with a sense of humour. The Barbie movies therefore do an excellent job of turning Barbie away from her origins as a toy, and turning her into more of an actress and celebrity, solidifying her character as they go.
Barbie as Cultural Referent: Life in the Dreamhouse
I’ll start this part off by saying: please watch the first episode of Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. I never hear people talking about it and it needs more love. Life in the Dreamhouse was originally a web series that was put on Netflix in a compilation format and focuses on the daily extravagant life of Barbie and her friends. What got me hooked on Life in the Dreamhouse is the seemingly needless pop culture references that both confused and delighted me. This show will reference Alien, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Indiana Jones -all of those and more are in Life in the Dreamhouse. It’s a show that loves to love the culture in which it exists, and that makes it thought-provoking for me. Especially since I’m not really sure who this show was made for.
Life in the Dreamhouse’s appeal lies in its meta references not only to pop culture, but to the Barbie brand itself. Countless gags throughout the show are devoted to pointing out how the characters are made of plastic, that their house is unbelievably decked out in gadgets like you would see in a play set, and the logic that comes up when playing with Barbies (for example, Barbie gets her drivers license before ever having driven a car). Barbie herself becomes an object of parody through how the show handles her legacy as a popular toy and role model. Barbie has no confirmed age, although characters will try to do the math. She has an endless list of jobs that keep her busy, from pilot to fashion designer. Her boyfriend Ken literally has no life aside from waiting on her. In many ways, Life in the Dreamhouse is poking at Barbie’s character as it was and trying to fit it into the media of today.
As a result, the show creates a whole other lens of looking at Barbie; she develops more of a personality, as if a vibrant character is busting out of her plastic shell. While Life in the Dreamhouse does not strictly follow the character creation that other Barbie media out there points to, it still marks an important transformation in how Barbie is seen in pop culture and what steps might be taken to change that. In this way, Life in the Dreamhouse becomes an important transition series for the Barbie brand because of its shifting goals. It no longer wants to show Barbie starring as an actress in other things. Instead, it wants to explicitly address Barbie’s ridiculously vague identity as a woman who’s literally done everything over the course of her time as a popular toy.
Barbie as Online Personality: Barbie Vlogs
Barbie Vlogs began on the Barbie YouTube channel in 2015 and feature a CGI animated Barbie talking to the camera the way a vlogger would, covering tag videos, challenges, Q+As, featuring friends as guest stars, DIY and tutorial videos…the list goes on. In a time when virtual YouTubers have become much more widespread (such as the wildly popular Kizuna AI among MANY others), plenty has been written about what a virtual and attentive Barbie vlogger indicates about role models and the influence of technology. But, like I said, that isn’t really why I’m bringing up the Barbie Vlogs. This series connects really well to the concept of Barbie as an actress where she has an onscreen and an offscreen persona, but takes it to another level. Here, Barbie’s home life is her content. She shares deeply personal thoughts and information with viewers, and establishes a sort of canon within the world of the vlogs that tell us what she likes, what her goals in life are, how she invests in others, what her values are, etc. It’s actually mind-boggling to think about this!!
What makes Barbie vlogs so unique in the virtual YouTuber phenomenon is her already extensive history in entertainment. Unlike other vloggers, Barbie was already a thing before her channel, and had a reputation and demographic before even going ‘viral.’ Viewers will know what to expect when they see Barbie in any thumbnail: pink, poised, and practically perfect. However, the Barbie Vlogs invite viewers to explore a much more intimate side of Barbie’s thoughts where she discusses negative feelings or fears. Through this very simple ‘realism’, the Barbie Vlogs actually do much more by building Barbie a whole new narrative, one where she has much more grounded responses to events happening in real time (some great examples would be her Mother’s Day videos, or discussing important women in STEM, as examples of real world stimulus from within the world of the vlogs). With Barbie becoming more of a grounded, realistic and relatable character with a consistent media format, efforts start popping up to try and consolidate Barbie’s disparate media presence into one big thing, therefore create a great starting point for a BCU- a Barbie Cinematic Universe.
A Barbie Cinematic Universe: Dreamhouse Adventures and its Contemporaries
The creation of a Barbie Cinematic Universe implies that Barbie’s narrative must be consistent and connected across multiple forms of media. The BCU was first set up with the 2017 Barbie movie, Dolphin Magic. Barbie and her sisters Stacey, Chelsea, and Skipper travel to a tropical resort to visit Ken while he interns at a marine life institute on the resort. Outside of this, the plot of the film doesn’t have too much weight. However, when paired with other pieces of Barbie media, this movie becomes suddenly important. The 2018 TV show, Dreamhouse Adventures is what really causes the BCU to come together after all of the pieces have been set in place. Right off the bat, the title gives away similarities to Life in the Dreamhouse, and yes, I always get the titles mixed up.
Dreamhouse Adventures did one thing that I never saw coming: it gave Barbie PARENTS. Seriously, because of how vaguely idealistic Barbie has been in the past, Dreamhouse Adventures’ decision to place Barbie at a specific age and place in time has brought the character to a whole other level. In this TV show, Barbie has a distinct friend group, family, and a few pets to boot. She has villainous neighbours on one side, and Ken, now the bashful guy-next-door instead of crazed boyfriend, on the other. Her life consists of hanging out with friends, playing with her sisters, trying her best at her science projects, and appeasing any feuds. The actual content of Dreamhouse Adventures is pretty uninteresting and I found it really hard to watch at first, but it’s the missing link in this whole post, and I must give it credit for what it does for the character of Barbie.
Dreamhouse Adventures changed everything, starting with the Barbie Vlogs. As soon as Dreamhouse Adventures was announced and released, the content and look of the vlogs on the Barbie YouTube channel started to change. The animation style changed to be consistent with the style of Dolphin Magic and Dreamhouse Adventures. Barbie introduced friends from the show, and they now serve as the new canon secondary characters, replacing others that had appeared earlier (such as Harper and Ryan). The background of her videos changed to reflect her family’s move into the Dreamhouse which happened in Episode 1 of the TV show, and she even did an in-depth room tour later on. Characters started wearing the rotation of outfits that appear in the show. Not only that, but the vlogs also feature a reference to Barbie, Stacey, Chelsea, and Skipper’s trip to visit Ken, which takes place in Dolphin Magic. There are several more narrative threads here that the three pieces of media cross-reference as established canon, but for the sake of length I’ll keep it short.
Essentially, Dreamhouse Adventures filled in the gaps between Barbie’s successful vlog career and the more linear entertainment that Mattel had been making. Barbie’s vlogs even become necessary to understanding the structure of each Dreamhouse Adventures episode, since they all start off with Barbie recounting her crazy day to her webcam and proceeding to pull up footage of the event, which then becomes the content of the episode. This is particularly important for my argument for a BCU, since it isn’t just a question of Barbie having plot points that intersect with the plots of other pieces of the Barbie franchise. Now, it becomes a question of Barbie using similar media across narratives. Her vlogs exist on their own on YouTube, but vlogs are imitated in her storytelling in Dreamhouse Adventures at the same time. All of the similarities in narrative style mean that Barbie’s personality begins to solidify, and the audience is able to interact more concretely with (literal) episodes in her life. Unlike before, Barbie is developing as a character through deep structure storytelling; where she and those around her all have their own histories and interests that when combined, create infinite storytelling possibilities.
Omake: Ken and the BCU
As the token boy in Barbie’s media empire, Ken undergoes a lot of changes throughout the forming of the BCU that I wanted to address in its own section. While I have pointed more generally to the roles that Ken has taken on in the past (eg. Life in the Dreamhouse paints Ken as an obsessive boyfriend while Dreamhouse Adventures portrays him more like a bashful guy-next-door), Ken’s role deserves a bit more discussion for how it shapes the BCU narrative. Up until the vlogs, Barbie and Ken were unquestionably in a relationship. In fact, they tended to embody all forms of heterosexual norms in relationships, and you can find similar discussions of the Ken doll and masculinity (or female perceptions of masculinity) in contrast to Barbie’s impact on defining femininity. The Barbie vlogs, on the other hand, give Ken a backstory in tandem with Barbie.
Suddenly, he isn’t a vague ideal of boyfriend material, nor is he only there to service Barbie. Ken too now has individual traits, desires, and a purpose. While he is still implied to be the token boyfriend, the BCU does something very simple and effective with Ken: they give him a slow burn romance with Barbie. No longer is Barbie x Ken a given, but the audience gets to see hints drop and body language come into play as the two characters slowly come to terms with their feelings. They both develop as individuals through navigating their emotions. This is a brilliant move for long form storytelling! Ken’s new characterization now requires a serial narrative in order to go anywhere, something which opens the door for many more seasons of Dreamhouse Adventures, if not other spinoffs and add-ons to the BCU such as the movies and vlogs.
You Can Be Anything!/ Can You Be Anything?
The BCU is only now just coming to fruition, but I can’t believe how long it has been building up for. Between 2017 and 2018, Barbie’s media presence started to change to accommodate more transmedia storytelling routes, and in turn, gave Barbie a way to be at once more ubiquitous but more personal at the same time. Barbie is now a person with hopes and fears, complex relationships with friends and family, recurring events, and an audience watching her on varying levels of interactivity. Audiences can interact with her on YouTube, but they can also watch her as an actress in a movie. The key difference here with the BCU now in place is that now Barbie’s narrative is consistent, and her adventures all tie together, making a network of media that the viewer can explore in continuity.
By personalizing Barbie, the BCU creates a smart way to expand its material and increase its marketing potential, but it also does so through a shift to long form narrative that up until this point wasn’t very common in Barbie movies at a narrative level. Beforehand, Barbie’s consistency lay in her vague imaginative femininity, however now Barbie’s consistency lies in the text itself. It’s a bit surreal to see that Barbie has a canon storyline now, when she has been the face of open-ended fantasy for so long. Narrativizing Barbie grounds her in a way that now confirms any of her princess roles as acting, and any of her experiences as narrative threads that will lead her to other exciting adventures with more possibility for weaving the BCU together as it grows.