How the 2000s Barbie Cinematic Universe Raised a Generation of Empowered Girls
MANILA, Philippines – It’s 2005 – you’re huddled next to the TV, giddy watching your mother plug the Barbie VCDs into the DVD player. The title sequence begins and you are transported to a magical world. You are mesmerized by Barbie’s change of outfit, sing “I Am A Girl Like You” and battle your friends to see who becomes which character in your role play. Life was simple. Life was pink.
These are the main memories of my childhood that were buried by the different phases I went through growing up. Little did I know a Barbie revival would happen in 2022. It was catalyzed by the classic collection’s debut on Netflix and the hype around Greta Gerwig’s next movie starring Margot Robbie and the bleached-haired variant of Ryan. Gosling. In a way, it was a sign from the universe to reawaken my Barbie phase in her twenties, over a decade since her prime.
Before that, we have to admit that Barbie hasn’t gotten all the love coming into the 21st century. With a social climate that values body positivity, diversity and representation, the slim, blonde American doll has come under fire for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. Nearly obsolete, Mattel held on and eventually had to rebrand Barbie to stay relevant in modern society. Since then they have introduced more body types for the doll and released Inspirational women collections as their “wake-up call” for the brand.
Yet despite all this criticism, many concerned parents have still revoked Barbie, her title as a feminist icon. In Barbie’s defense, however, she shouldn’t be reduced to just her physical appearance either. Quoting an argument from the Science Survey, “Barbie can’t take all the blame for society’s ills.” Instead, we should recognize the character for what she truly means to young girls.
I believe I speak for the girls of the 2000s when I say that the Barbie Cinematic Universe (BCU), through the iconic voice of Kelly Sheridan, lifted us up as empowered women. In a world before the new Wonder Woman, Black Widow, or Captain Marvel, Barbie movies were among the few heroine-led kids movies. Since releasing their first feature in 2001, BCU has single-handedly made girl power movies for more than two decades — and they haven’t disappointed. With that, here are some of the timeless lessons the BCU has taught us:
Girls are unlimited
“You can be anything” is Barbie’s famous slogan. Despite all its controversies over the years, we can be sure that this motto is something Mattel has done exceptionally well. Since 1959, Barbie has shown young girls that the sky’s the limit when it comes to their self-expression and their passions. Barbie has played various roles ranging from popstar to spy, musketeer, superhero, surfer and even space princess throughout the BCU filmography.
The films also taught us to embrace our individuality, showing how different girls can be based on their interests. Who could ever forget the 12 dancing princesses which had its own unique quirks? There were the acrobatic twins, the equestrian Blair, the bibliophile Courtney and the bug-loving Janessa. Perfectly indicated in Fairytopia“What makes you different makes you special.”
It’s good to be like the other girls
Unlike the take me girl belief, having a distinct personality does not mean that one girl is better than the others. In reality, The Princess and the Pauper celebrates the “I’m like you, you’re like me” mentality. Despite living opposite lives, princess-slash-science geek Anneliese and singer Erika have formed a bond around their mutual desire for freedom.
When breadwinner Blair Willows was chosen to enter the Princess Charm School, she hesitated that a waitress like her would not fit into the prestigious institution. Instead of saying no, she embraced the life of dresses and tiaras with the help of her kind-hearted housemates. The films emphasize that we can always find common ground in our values and matters of the heart.
Always say what you think
One thing I’ve noticed about Barbie in her movies is that she’s very outspoken when she needs to be. She’s not afraid to call out the bad guys and isn’t shy about standing up for what’s right. Unlike the traditional “Maria Clara” upbringing of the Philippines, Barbie shows us that we can use our voices to be heard in a patriarchal society – even when it’s not easy sometimes.
Women are complex and nuanced
Another thing to admire about the BCU is that it doesn’t put the ladies in the perfect “goody-two-shoes” trope. The movies have shown that even women can have complex feelings, motivations, and character flaws.
Some go so far as to become a villain, while others are in between. Help Princess Charm School and Eden of A Christmas Carol both had redemption arcs, going from anti-heroines to misunderstood characters who actually have hearts of gold. The movies acknowledge that people can be led down wrong paths by negative influences, but it’s never too late to change.
Being single doesn’t make you single.
Single women are visible in Barbie – and often they are the coolest characters in movies. The president of the single women’s club must be Aunt Elizabeth from Nutcracker. From the start, she encourages Clara to explore the wonders of the world by telling her about her hike on the Great Wall of China. Even though her grandfather criticized her for “traveling around the world rather than remaining like a sensible person”, Aunt Elizabeth is #travelgoals, everything a 20th century girl dreams of being.
Friendship and brotherhood are forever!
The theme of brotherhood is very underrated in Hollywood. But at BCU, Barbie sees her friendships and sibling relationships as even bigger than romance. They show little girls what healthy friendships should be like. Barbie even addresses jealousy and controlling friends in the princess of the islands“If we’re making room for someone new, it doesn’t mean there’s less for you, it just means our circle has grown.”
Liana and Alexa in diamond castle portray the most intimate best friend bond in the movies. They don’t have much, but they share their love of music. Even when their relationship has been tested, they remind us that “friendship is the real treasure”. Who doesn’t dream of living in a garden chalet with their best friend?
Life doesn’t revolve around Prince Charming
Another thing that BCU does well is that it still focuses on the female heroine (as it should!). We all know Barbie isn’t a damsel in distress, but even princes and “Kens” can’t take away her screen time and character development. Unlike most 2000s superhero movies, the men take the back seat while the women save the day.
The movies highlight how Barbie defeats bad guys in her own way. In Rapunzel, she single-handedly trapped Gothel in her own enchantment using her wits and intelligence. In Mermaid, Elina bravely saved Prince Nalu and the Ocean Kingdom, even if it meant sacrificing her fairy life forever. These examples show how girls can manage on their own. More importantly, it tells us that our adventures in life continue, with or without a man.
…But that doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love
Just because we’ll be fine without a loved one doesn’t mean we can’t have one. When the swoon-worthy King Dominick proposes marriage to Erika in the The Princess and the Pauper, she sincerely refuses it to realize her dreams with her newfound freedom. Perhaps the most romantic scene in BCU history is when Erika decides to return to her beau after months of traveling, realizing that it is with him that her heart belongs.
This film gave us the most iconic quote of all: “Sometimes being free means choosing not to go, but to stay.” The key word is that we all have a choice when it comes to love and personal aspirations. Choosing one over the other won’t make you less of a woman.
True strength is rooted in love and compassion
Finally, the BCU taught young girls a different definition of strength. When society tells us to be strong, it often means holding back our emotions, leading with an iron fist, and showing no mercy. These are the qualities that have not been attributed to women because we are instead seen as soft, emotional and naive.
Instead of fitting into the man’s definition of strength, Barbie transcends these “feminine” qualities and uses them as her greatest strengths. In Pegasus Magic, Annika takes a liking to the evil Wenlock and asks the wand of light to destroy him. In the end, she realizes that magic only works when she uses her power in the name of love, and never in anger. The gentle strength of Barbie characters allows them to show compassion even to their worst enemies. This tells us that leading with love and kindness does not make you weak, but rather stronger.
Over the years, Barbie has consistently been at the forefront of feminism that empowers young girls to be and do anything in their imaginations. Barbie should be a part of every girl’s childhood not just because of the stunning visuals or musical bops, but because of the timeless lessons that hit even harder into adulthood. The Barbie franchise thought about raising little princesses. But in reality, they raised a generation of self-sufficient queens. – Rappler.com
Sydney Cañamo is a Rappler trainee.