As we still slightly ride the wave of the ’90s and 00’s nostalgia in pop culture with our larger future nostalgia tendencies being in a sort of limbo – it has brought back a lot of media that my generation personally connects with on a deep level. One such collection of cultural artefacts is the Barbie (straight to DVD) films of the 2000s that have regained relevance due to the wider nostalgia towards the 2000s. However, this Barbie film renaissance is no coincidence, and I suggest that it may have a lot to do with female narratives and a growing appreciation for the (few) positive depictions we have of women.
Barbie in the Nutcracker (2001) is really what kicked everything off – being the first CGI Barbie film released in the 2000s. This was followed by many, many, many… more Barbie films. This was no coincidence, these films were a strategic tactic to pull a new generation of young girls away from their new toy competitor Bratz. It worked because I ate every breadcrumb from Mattel’s bakery (something like that). Mattel’s cinematic reimagining of Barbie was also an effort to try and course-correct some of the frankly controversial connotations that the doll has (and still has) and simultaneously appeal to a new digitally-oriented generation.
There’s something so fascinating about the appeal of a princess to a young girl. Perhaps the idea of a princess suggests a sense of power while still living in a particularly patriarchal society. However, this wasn’t just any princess; it was a cool princess. Princess or not, Barbie in these films is just vacant enough as a character for the viewer to essentially insert their own personality in hers – and imagine that they could also go on these adventures too. The different stories and settings also test out Barbie in different roles aligning with what is now central to Mattel’s Barbie branding of “You can be anything”.
In fact, while a majority of Barbie films from that era end with a wedding with the male character, it often feels supplemental rather than integral to the plot. Many times in Barbie films, especially the Fairytopia series, Barbie does not canonically end up with a male character, it is often just hinted at. The male love interest character is usually just there as an ally to Barbie in her adventures, and is portrayed in a way that almost feels akin to the female gaze – they are the object of the female character’s affection but do not serve as a large part of the plot the way the other female characters do. In Barbie & the Diamond Castle (2008), the focus of the film is on the female friendship between the two main characters. Both Barbie and the Magic of the Pegasus (2005) as well as Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses (2006) focus on Barbie saving members of her family from peril primarily. The wedding ending in a majority of the films is merely ornamental – although sometimes unnecessary.
In fact, the representation of female relationships is often positive and quite nuanced in films in a surprising way. In Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (2004), the strong relationship between the mother and Princess Anneliese is established clearly, and represented consistently, and it’s never quite suggested that Princess Anneliese’s planned marriage to King Julian is her mother’s fault – rather a by-product of their royal circumstances. Barbie & the Diamond Castle (2008) represents a female friendship that persists through hardship, without any nefarious back-stabbing (as is custom with 2000s representations of female friendships). Barbie and the Three Musketeers (2009) focuses on the friendship and teamwork between the three female musketeers and Barbie (they save the prince in this one as well).
However, in a way, Barbie exists in this universe where it is indeed very much about Euro-centrism. In places where they could’ve diversified Barbie (like Barbie: Mariposa), they did not. The addition of supplemental characters that were not the titular Barbie was either ethnically ambiguous or porcelain white. When it comes to shapes and sizes, Barbie has pretty much maintained her unattainable waist and beauty standards. Many of the Barbie characters were teenagers and this was not visually represented – similar to other children’s animated media. As with many other animated media of the era, there were quite some unsavoury representations of Jewish-coded characters or purely characters who were not aligning with Western beauty standards. However, in later films, this gets better (as early as Barbie: Mariposa).
Personally, I found that the Barbie films aided me as a girl growing up. They most likely even introduced me to different paths I can go down as a woman (yes I had a ballet phase, thank you 12 Dancing Princesses) and even empowered me to be an agent in my own life. However, maybe in that way, I was losing sight of the bigger picture – Barbie operates in a bubble where the system is not the problem and where she can live in a world devoid of real diversity. Systematic change is a difficult and disappointing topic for young girls to face, but I would have really liked to see some characters with different sizes and backgrounds to really hone in on the idea that “you can be anything” no matter what you look like. I guess you gotta keep that brand consistency and nostalgia, but nostalgia is indeed a double-edged sword. Barbie (and Mattel) continues to develop as a brand and take in the criticism, and hopefully develop a Barbie that not only can be anything but can also come from anywhere and look like anything. When we look to the past, we must never lose sight of the flaws of these films no matter how nostalgic we feel!
Written by: Mayra Nassef
Editor: Nimrat Kaur
Visuals: Grace Nguyen