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She’s a Barbie Girl in a Barbie World

Horror Editor Angela closes out our annual Switcheroo Month with some thoughts on Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse.

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As regular readers may remember from my near-constant referencing of it, I am a mother. That’s right; I’m responsible for the care and feeding of a 4-year-old girl child. Where is your god now? But like many American children, my daughter — let’s call her the Varmint — exerts an outsize influence on the media diet in her home. I have so many thoughts about things I never expected to know or care about, like Disney Princesses that aren’t Leia. Why does no one call security on Blippi? What’s the deal with Branch going back to grey and black after the first Trolls movie? Once, I even had a sex dream about one of the Wiggles.* 

Which brings me to Barbie. I was well acquainted with Barbie pre-Varmint, of course, though we’d be on a break for a few decades. I should not be surprised, since the people making the toys and the shows are people who grew up with same toys and shows I grew up with, but a lot of the Varmint’s favorite stuff is just updated versions of my childhood stuff, and I had enough Barbie dolls for a month of Project Runways. The Barbie brand is, of course, far older, and some of my earliest memories are destroying my mom’s legacy Barbies from the 1960s by trying to give them a fresh new look with nail polish, markers, and a child’s artistic zeal. In my defense, 1960s Midge needed a little something. But my slapdash toddler makeover isn’t all that far from Mattel’s approach to Barbie in our current century, constantly retooling, reinventing, and relaunching the original fashion doll, presumably to better compete with her many, many daughters. Barbie’s Fashionistas line deserves special notice for its unmatched diversity in terms of body types, skin tones, and hairstyles, making sure that pretty much no matter who is playing Barbie, there’s a Barbie who reflects his or her world. With animated shows like Dreamtopia, Star Light Adventure, and Princess Power, Barbie also branched as far out as faerie realms, alien worlds, super heroing, spy capers, and so much more. My child’s Barbie is a better made, more inclusive, more ambitious, albeit sometimes less human Barbie, but that’s a great thing. The only problem is with so much diffusion, at times you want to ask, will the real Barbie Roberts (yep, that’s her name) please stand up?

Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse (2012-2015) is one of the overwhelming plethora of Barbie animated shows my child can stream pretty much at will, and it is at once the most Barbie Barbie show and the least. It’s the Most Barbie because it is a good-hearted, good-humored premise that depicts Barbie, her family, and her Malibu friends in a reality show setting where they are literally dolls. You cannot get more Barbie being a literal doll in the literal Dreamhouse, complete with the shower you operate by mashing on a little pink water squirter. It scores Least Barbie because its winsome meta humor, harmless as it is, points up the ways the Barbie brand has not always aged gracefully or been quite consistent, and its pisstake approach spends more time breaking down than building up. It’s very in the character of the Scooby-Doo series Mysteries, Inc. (2010-2013) or the 1990s Brady Bunch spoof movies, both of which manage to love and heavily reference their source material while making relentless fun of their source material. But Barbie, as a doll and a brand, aspires to inspire, and Life in the Dreamhouse stands alone as satire in an oeuvre that includes plenty of forgettable, anodyne fare, trust me, but firmly eschews anything approaching edginess or cynicism. Life in the Dreamhouse is as close as it gets.

Life in the Dreamhouse originally began as a series of 3 to 7-minute shorts, these subsequently compiled into longer episodes (i.e. Best of Sisters). It features not only Barbie, but her sisters Skipper, Stacie, and Chelsea, Barbie’s best friends Nikki and Teresa, and of course, Barbie’s one true love Ken. Second string besties Summer, Midge, and Grace feature occasionally, too. The Roberts sisters all exhibit versions of Barbie’s brilliance and panache in their own age-appropriate ways: Skipper, the tumultuous teen, is gifted with tech and social media, Stacie is a world-class jock, and little toddler Chelsea is a precocious megalomaniac, much like my own toddler. As for Ken, his depiction as a happy-go-lucky jack-of-all-trades whose devotion to Barbie approaches slavishness is both over the top and exactly right. Many plots hinge on Ken’s inventions going haywire, including the Dreamhouse itself. You have to ask yourself why Ken thought giving Barbie’s closet an Evil setting was a good idea.

But the unsung MVPs are the series villains, brunette twins Ryan and Raquelle, the pair of whom have given me lots of opportunity to help the Varmint understand how bad guys and conflict are valuable to a story. Ryan is the more disposable of the two, a vain, shallow guy who generally just tries to undercut Ken’s relationship with Barbie. He can be reliably sidelined by things like becoming infatuated with a standee of himself. Raquelle, who is always sure to roll the R in her name, wants to be Barbie, and this leads to no end of entertaining, ill-fated schemes aimed at beating Barbie at her own game or stealing Ken or both. In true Barbie spirit though, neither Raquelle nor Ryan is ever really hurt by their ridiculous self-owns, and Barbie’s wholesomeness prevents her from dwelling on anyone’s flaws. No one is bad enough to make Barbie any less than perfect.

What I really enjoy about Life in the Dreamhouse is also what I like about another faux-reality show starring a relentlessly upbeat blonde role model lady with a perfect, nerdy boyfriend and a clutch of lovable, flawed buddies looking to her for leadership in a madcap world: Parks and Recreation (2009-2015). When Parks and Rec began, it hewed jealously to the deadpan desperation of NBC’s The Office, seemingly unsure what to do with its energetic do-gooder heroine Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) since she wasn’t, like The Office’s Michael Scott, objectively awful. Eventually, the show found its feet when it stopped trying to undermine Leslie to make her a figure of fun and started getting with her program; the tonal shift was refreshing and offered something new and different: hope in the shape of a capable woman. It was always easier (and more fun!) to laugh with Leslie than to cringe laugh at her. This is the case with Barbie, too. Life in the Dreamhouse wants to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Barbie — her meticulous perfectionism, her hundreds of careers, her history stretching back into less enlightened decades, her unrealistic example — and it has a lot of fun doing so. The episode where Barbie’s friends try to figure out her age — “How old is Barbie? Well, she ran for president and you gotta be at least 35 so that means she’s, wait, let me see, plus 4, carry the 2–”  — is a good example. But it can’t bring itself to insinuate that Barbie herself is anything less than genuine, and that makes all the difference. 

Barbie is and has been a test case for being a public-facing lady. Through decades of popularity, she has always been a little bit controversial, and she has always meant a little bit more politically and socially than most of the other packages in the toy aisle. No one wonders if Optimus Prime is making little boys have unrealistic expectations. Her cultural weight and expectation doesn’t necessarily transfer to competing fashion dolls either; I am unfamiliar with My Little Pony Equestria Girls or Monster High dolls being concern trolled about thigh thickness or messaging. And like many public-facing women, Barbie faces perennial implications of unseriousness. I mean, look at all that pink. Clearly she’s holding little girls back, right? She is by her very nature fencing things off as being for girls, so even with every well-intentioned, socially-conscientious advancement — here’s an astronomer Barbie cross-merchandised with National Geographic, or here’s a line based on famous women of every race, creed, and era — she degrades with her difference, simply by slapping a big pink B on it.

Except dismissing Barbie because of what she represents — as if you could really hone in on one thing — is one of those insidious sexism-enabling traps nested throughout society. If you think that Barbie holds girls back because she’s slim, blonde, beautiful, fond of pink, and/or relentlessly upbeat, guess what? That’s internalized misogyny and/or sexism. There is nothing natively unserious about pink. Pink used to be a masculine color. And as it happens, it really complements Barbie’s complexion. There’s nothing less than about being kind or nurturing or liking make-up. She might be a physical ideal of a certain kind, but if you judge Barbie only on her looks, even in her satirized Life in the Dreamhouse presentation, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Across the many multiverses of Barbie, it’s true that she’s always blonde and beautiful, but she’s also always kind and smart.** Barbie is simply, in every facet, an image of a successful woman, whether she’s presented as an art teacher, a doctor, or a mermaid, and the degree to which she is picked apart for that has always been consistent with society’s opinions about successful women. Life in the Dreamhouse may be the only Barbie show that approaches her as satire, but it’s also the only one that acknowledges her as an icon.

And that brings me back to why I prefer — and possibly why the Varmint prefers — Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse to most of the other attempts Mattel has made to give Barbie an onscreen story. It’s pure. It’s satire, sure. But it’s pure Barbie. Catwalks, charities, quality time with sisters, an endless pink closet. You probably can’t have pure Barbie any other way honestly. As if in an attempt to prove this, Mattel replaced Life in the Dreamhouse with the more conventional, Hallmark-grade Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures on Netflix, in which Barbie and her sisters (and their mom and dad!) relocate to small town Wisconsin. Dreamhouse Adventures is innocuous, but it’s not much else. On the other hand, more extravagant stories like Rock ‘N Royals and Star Light Adventure have the feeling of alternate universe fanfiction, forfeiting some quintessential Barbieness in the process. It could be any cosmetically perfect, upbeat blonde heroine. Whereas Life in the Dreamhouse may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a constant celebration of Barbieness, and particularly how Barbie is actually played with, that a 4-year-old or a 40-year-old can still identify with. 

*I’m not saying who but I’ll give you a hint: papadums.

** You may remember the blowback from Teen Talk Barbie’s programmed phrase “Math class is hard!” That was 1992. And math class IS hard. 

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Angela didn’t mean this to be a low-key commercial for Mattel, but seriously, the Fashionistas line is amaze.

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