Barbie: How The Film Series Burst Out Of The Frilly Box

Corinne, Renee, Viveca, and Araminta in Barbie and the Three Musketeers, 2009
Universal Studios Home Entertainment

In 1959, a new fashion doll came onto the scene, created by American businesswoman Ruth Handler. Her name was Barbie. Over the decades since, Barbie has been praised and criticized in equal measure. She gave young girls a doll to play with that looked more like a teenager—as they would one day; the days of just playing with baby dolls were over. On the other hand, she landed so heavily on the overly-feminine side of being a girl that a minor scandal erupted in 1992 when a talking Barbie doll was created with lines like “Math class is tough!” (via The Culture Trip). More recently, Barbie dolls have been created that continue to emphasize diversity and intelligence. After all, astronaut Barbie dolls first came onto the market in 1965, two years after cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova went into space for the first time, according to Space. Despite the backlash, Mattel has been forward-thinking in what they’ve released over the decades.

The Barbie franchise has led to playsets, outfits, books, backstory, and anything else you can think of. Since dolls are meant for imaginative play, full narratives based around Barbie were minor until the film series of the 2000s. The series began with adaptations of known stories and fairy tales, like Rapunzel and The Nutcracker, with Barbie “playing” another character such as Clara (voiced over the years by Kelly Sheridan, Diana Kaarina, Erica Lindbeck, and America Young), before moving onto original stories. Subsequent films cover everything from mermaids to fairies to butterfly fairies, though also skip back and forth for a contemporary or historical adventure as needed, such as the loose 2009 adaptation of The Three Musketeers. This film series wants more for its audience than most people might think and teaches young girls to have a higher standard for themselves through messages of female power, determination, and friendship. 

A still from 'Barbie: Princess Charm School'. Blair presents a dress on a mannequin.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Barbie’s characters are usually in their late teenage years in the film series. She is emphatically not a child, though she isn’t yet an adult either. In a way, most films serve as something of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Barbie and her friends go through an adventure that changes their world completely, and nothing is the same at the end of it. Barbie: Princess Charm School features a rags-to-riches story, when the main character, Blair Willows, is first accepted to a finishing school via lottery and later learns she is the princess of the country she resides in. The film features a good deal of female power, considering all the major players are women, including the late Queen Isabella, who seems to have ruled in her own right despite her marriage. Blair and her friends rebel against a female villain who is intent on usurping the throne. Though the film relies heavily on cliches in the princess aspect of its story, it shows girls that women in power can be compassionate and confident, without resorting to unsavoury behaviour. Confidence does wonders for Blair’s leadership skills, and that’s true for girls around the world too.

The Barbie films feature strong female friendships, as well as the determination to do what’s right no matter the costs. The Barbie adaptation of A Christmas Carol features a positive female friendship that is protagonist Eden Starling’s sole redeeming quality due to her Scrooge-like sour attitude towards everything else. Eden’s bad future, shown to her by the Spirit of Christmas Future, is arguably even worse than the future of dying alone shown to Scrooge in the original story: Eden is penniless, but also passed her own hateful attitude onto her only friend, Catherine, who rejects her, leaving her with no one. Her whole life, Catherine has been Eden’s only friend, and the thought of losing that friendship is part of the reason she ultimately changes her ways. Eden rescues herself when it matters, and shares a positive, happy Christmas with Catherine, their friendship renewed due to Eden’s new outlook on life. 

In Fusion Journal, gender studies professor Emma Jane notes that the Barbie film series takes a new approach to the franchise in part by orienting itself almost solely around women. Many of the films feature societies where women rule, and Barbie and her female friends are often in charge of saving the day—and occasionally the man in distress as well. In Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses, Genevieve (played by Barbie) is the seventh princess in a group of sisters who are unintentionally running their royal father ragged. After the relative he brings in to help them turns out to be the villain, the sisters must team up to save the day—not to mention their father’s life. Though Genevieve’s romantic interest does help out, the girls’ father is completely helpless and dependent on them capturing Rowena, who happens to be poisoning him. Though many methods of combat are girlish—fans and ballet, among others—the girls do succeed in rescuing their father by working together as a team. Later films, like Barbie and The Three Musketeers, would make this angle even more obvious by cutting out the romance completely because there are other battles to be fought. 

A still from 'Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus'. Annika and her pet polar bear ride a pegasus.

While Disney and Pixar are probably the biggest names in children’s animation today, those studios tend to create more family-oriented fare in films that can be enjoyed by a broader aged audience. The Barbie film series tends to target girls ages four to eight, and doesn’t interest anyone much older. So, how do their themes overlap? Though Barbie began with adapting fairy tales, they chose different films than Disney had adapted previously. Ultimately, both properties have covered the story of “Rapunzel”, in subtly different ways. On the other hand, many of the themes across their films are similar. For example, Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, despite being released in 2005, feels like a proto-Frozen, due to its similar plot of sisters who save each other from magic that has gone wrong; ultimately, the final key is love. Though all three properties focus on children’s media, the Barbie films are for a very specific audience and land the presentation.

The Barbie film series has raised the bar for entertainment for its target audience of young girls. It has taught them to be determined, to be brave, smart, loyal, and to know that they can do anything they set out to do. Girls can save the people around them, girls can run countries, and girls can do it all while still wearing bright pink and looking fabulous.

by Noemi Arellano-Summer

Noemi Arellano-Summer is an arts and culture journalist currently working in the Los Angeles area. She has experience as a writer, editor, copy-editor, photojournalist, essayist, and arts critic. She is passionate about arts, history, culture, entertainment, film, and literature. You can often find her roaming through a bookstore or working on her novel at a cafe. Follow her on Twitter @noemi_anais.

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