Friday, July 5, 2013

It's a Barbie World

In a lot of ways, we all live in a Barbie world.

Barbie has been the society-enforced role model of girls for generations: pretty, sweet, polite. An unrealistic size whatever-that-is. Her actual body is pre-molded to conform to beauty standards - her feet are designed for heels.

And lest you might think we've moved away from that, there was the recent bulletin of SFWA that said women should emulate Barbie "because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should".

Oh. Right.

Anyway, in spite of all this, I'm actually feeling a bit better about Barbie these days. I never cared for her much as a kid, because she always seemed very... bland. Also she was a doll and I liked playing with dinosaurs.

The big platform for this change comes mostly from the new Barbie show, which is clever and forwards-thinking both in content and format. The seasons are uploaded to Youtube and the Barbie website, and each one is less than five minutes. It's really, really good. Seriously, check it out:

Here's a show you can feel good about kids watching - and enjoy yourself! The show rewards older viewers, but not with cheap innuendos. There's references like this Jaws one: "We're gonna need a bigger plunger."

Other adult-oriented jokes include "The energy generated by the sheer fabulosity of these clothes could tear a hole in the space-time continuum! Let me crunch the numbers." and visual jokes about instruction manuals.

A portrait of the instruction booklet for my last Ikea chair.
The difference between these jokes and "haha we referenced sex/drugs in a kiddie movie BE AMUSED" jokes is that these elevate the material rather than diminish it. If kids ask you to explain these jokes, you could actually get a decent conversation going about what exactly the "space-time continuum" is.

Barbie's two BFFs are POCs, and on the main page of the site.
Beyond that, the characters it portrays are, well, actual characters. There's some diversity, and I appreciate the fact that those black and hispanic friends are allowed to act like idiots and not just be perfect paragon examples (because that's boring, and also a way of excluding people).

"I'm the Queen of the Negros, the perfect African-American
teen, the role model for all the other African-American
teens at Lawndale."
Every single character in the show is actually characterized by their flaws more so than their strengths. It allows all of them to be fun, nice (mostly...), and interesting. Even Barbie's perfection works against her and is poked fun at.

After showing up to a party in the wrong outfit...
"But I read the invitation a hundred times! And then I laminated it!"
There's even variation in the male roles. Ken, the forever beau of Barbie, is actually far less competent than her and displays a lot of traits that society usually deems feminine, such as a lack of mechanical skills and a propensity for high-pitched squeals. But Barbie seems to love him just the way he is anyway, and he admires Barbie for her strengths. Now that is something I want young kids exposed to. Look at this, from the main character page of the site:

I feel like this is what My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic tried to be, and never quite achieved. That show was cute and fun, but there was never any real depth to it. This show isn't afraid to go above its audience's head. And how can we expect kids to grow without giving them something to reach for?

Plus, there's a huge focus on female friendship, as well as literal sisterhood. The ineffective "villain" is also a girl, but Barbie never descends to her level. Raquelle always manages to screw herself over. Is that something you can really live by? Maybe not, but I don't think it's a bad message to give children.

And yes, there is some fun reversal of girl stereotypes. In one episode, a guy plots to scare Barbie because "everyone knows that when they're scared girls leap into the nearest guy's arms." Then this happens:

And then one guy leaps into the other's arms.
The Barbie website is also not terrible. On the "I can be..." page, the first two careers for girls to explore are Engineer and Architect. I like that.

Sometimes what you say isn't as important as how you say it. The old TV shows aimed at girls tended to be poorly animated, barely scripted messes that said "We think girls are stupid and will sit through anything if you color it pink." Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse expects your little girl to be interested in the space-time continuum.

Barbie definitely isn't a perfect brand; there's still a lot it could change, starting with some variation in character build please LORD. But it has improved since I was a kid, and I appreciate forward motion. I hope it continues.


  1. Cute. That clip was funny. Lol!
    I can't remember the last time I've seen anything Barbie related. And I've never seen a Barbie "show" before. It certainly seems like it's more well-rounded that what I remember.

    I freaking love Daria, by the way. ^_^

    1. Daria is like the animated My So-Called Life: it really captured the voice of a generation. Really well done!

  2. I like the idea of re-inventing (expanding) Barbie in today's culture. It makes sense to integrate a long lasting, traditional doll brand with today's changing roles for women. Love it.