Barbie in Her Own Tale: the struggle between autonomy and stakes

By Olivia Bono

I have a lot of opinions on Barbie movies, having collected them as a child since Barbie in The Nutcracker back in 2001. But more recently, Barbie movies having been popping up on Netflix—not the original movies of my childhood, but newer installments with entirely different creative teams. The changes are startling: for instance, the animation no longer has its charming early-00s jankiness, but has instead morphed into some uncanny valley designs straight out of Alita: Battle Angel.

The changes go deeper than just aesthetics and the persistence of generic electronic pop anthems. I’ve noticed, aside from my rose-colored nostalgia for early CGI, that there’s a fundamental difference in the types of stories that Barbie is telling now. At some point around 2010, the movies’ focus shifted so that Barbie’s character chooses to go on an adventure rather than being forced into it, like she was in the older movies.

In modern Barbie movies, the heroines are all more or less “normal teenage girls”—they might live in a world that has princesses and aliens and mermaid magic, but they start off living a conventional life with their loving family. Barbie then gets a call to adventure and chooses to leave her Surfer Grandpa or Science Dad in the name of a more exciting life. After Barbie goes on her adventure, she returns home and lives happily ever after, having combined her mundane life with her new one as a princess/hero. This usually follows the traditional voyage-return narrative structure, where the protagonist ends up exactly where they began, albeit with new friends and life lessons. Movies in this vein include A Mermaid Tale (2010) and Star Light Adventure (2016), among others.

Barbie: Star Light Adventure (2016)

These stories put the choice in the hands of Barbie’s character. She may be reluctant to leave her home, and has to be convinced by a friend or family member, but ultimately she makes the decision to go off and become a hero. In the classic Barbie movies, the situation is a little different.

In the classic Barbie movies, the conflict is part of Barbie’s reality—she’s not going on an adventure to save others, but to save herself. She doesn’t have a choice whether to go on an adventure, because instead of being a story heralded to her by a talking dolphin, it’s already part of her life. Classic Barbie starts out as an indentured servant in Princess and the Pauper (2004), or literally locked in a tower in Rapunzel (2002). She has to further the plot in order to save herself or improve her life, with no option to remain a normal girl. 

Princess and the Pauper is an interesting case, because it was remade in 2012 as The Princess & the Pop Star and again in 2015 as Rock ’N Royals. (And, arguably, in 2018 as the unrelated Netflix original The Princess Switch, which could have been improved 500% by Barbie’s Martin Short villain-monologue via song, but I digress.) In the classic Pauper, the protagonists Erika and Anneliese are miserable in their lives, but carry out their responsibilities out of loyalty to their family, even if it means being treated like less than a person. They enact their switch as their last taste of freedom before Anneliese gets married to a king she’s never met, and Erika has to return to her life as an indentured servant. 

Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (2004)

In the modern Pop Star, the two main characters aren’t struggling to keep up with their responsibilities, but instead take their lives for granted and act really bratty. The princess, Tori, is childish and cares more about pranking her aunt than helping the starving people of her kingdom. The pop star, Keira, is bossy and yells at her staff about the smallest things. They switch places not to escape indentured servitude or arranged marriage like in the original, but because, as the opening song suggests, “Princesses Just Wanna Have Fun.” It’s just a prank. There are big picture stakes: for about five minutes towards the end of the movie it seems like every plant in the kingdom might die, but the protagonists caused this problem themselves. There’s really nothing wrong with either of their lives in the beginning of the movie other than their attitudes. They return to their normal lives having kind of changed their outlooks—Princess Tori starts a social services program, but I don’t think Keira actually learns to be nicer to her staff.

The Barbie franchise in general gets a lot of criticism for the way it portrays women—as obsessed with clothes or ditzy and airheaded, or having proportionally implausible bodies. Maybe because of this, Mattel redirected its focus towards feminist topics, as seen in Barbie’s vlogs on her very own YouTube channel. So it makes sense that the Barbie movies would, in turn, try to empower Barbie’s character, giving her a choice in her destiny rather than keeping her constantly captured or imprisoned or cursed.

Abby Eskinder Hailu2
Art by Abby Eskinder Hailu

But does this make for better storytelling? The earlier Barbie movies worked because they showed Barbie’s character overcoming great odds to save herself and her friends/family, and because the stakes were high. Now, Barbie is almost always saving strangers, and sometimes with very low stakes, or stakes that feel so far removed from Barbie’s daily life that they don’t feel real. Her character is often more spoiled than empowered, as seen in The Princess & the Pop Star. You get the feeling that Barbie cares more about her hair than the independence of a foreign nation, as it took the promise of removing magical pink highlights from her hair for Barbie to agree to save a mermaid kingdom and the life of her long-lost mom in Mermaid Tale

Ultimately, these new movies do tend to give Barbie more agency, rather than make her someone who does whatever those around her tell her she has to do. She’s less of a victim. But somewhere in this transformation, the Barbie movies have lost their stakes. Barbie isn’t dealing with imprisonment or arranged marriage—she just wants to have fun. 

Interestingly enough, even though the Barbie animated franchise traditionally produces two films a year, there hasn’t been a new title since fall 2017. This might be so that the brand can focus on the more grounded-in-reality series Dreamhouse Adventures that launched in 2018, but it makes me wonder: when the fantasy franchise makes a return, will it follow in the footsteps of Old Barbie? New Barbie? Or something else entirely?

Chiara Benitez Barbie SCAN
Art by Chiara Benitez

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