Let me first lay one thing on the table and that is my opinion that Barbie is awesome. Now it’s true that she posesses impossible beauty standards. It’s also true that the color pink is a tad jejune on a fifty four year old and that often her wardrobe has left less than needed to the imagination. But it’s also true that Barbie has had one hundred and thirty six careers. Barbie has also graciously accepted child-free living, a smattering of alternative lifestyles (Rappin’ Rockin, Sun Sensation and Jewel Hair Mermaid are hardly mainstream occupations) and has been with a man she isn’t married to for decades. Who among us cannot say she is a quintessentially liberated woman?
But I digress to discuss something far more novel than Barbie the persona: Barbie the mock reality show. That’s right. Barbie has an animated web series that serves as both a gentle skewering of reality television and whole hearted valentine to all things Barbara. On Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse, the ersatz goddess inhabits a universe that is plastic and doll sized, proportionate to Barbie and her friends. She lives in that magnificent pink mansion located in Malibu, CA – only it’s a plastic Malibu in which everyone is made of congealed artifice, possessing tiny waists, sturdy breasts and smooth, hairless genital regions. In other words? Nothing close to your idea of Malibu women. Little sisters Skipper, Stacie and Chelsea live with Barbs and her friends Teresa, Nikki and Midge are regular visitors. Ken is also heavily featured. Marry the wholesomeness of Little Women to the florid materialism of The Kardashians and you get this show. The dolls speak directly to camera via confessionals and are often seen through an unsteady docu-style lens.
This show is hilarious. No, I mean it. Hilarious. The main quality that punctuates the show’s dynamic lunacy is its high energy gag writing. Every five seconds of footage inhabits a joke about reality television, girlisms, pop culture cliches, Mattel’s toys themselves or the facetious capering of its cast of hapless characters. The writers actually wrote personalities and quirks for eleven inch dolls. Every character except for Barbie is casually flawed in some weird way. Producers even created “frenemies” for Barbie in the form of one-dimensional sociopath Raquelle and her dimwitted twin brother Ryan. Raquelle is the funniest character in the series because of how unlikable (yet strangely definite) her neurotic personality plays. She’s like Newman with eye liner.
The fact that Barbie is flawless does not escape the sense of humor of the writing staff. Her only flaw is that she is literally too perfect and it’s repeatedly hinted at despite the fact that young children may not catch on and will simply view Barbie as perfection incarnate. Adults watching know: no human woman is that amazing.* Barbie the cartoon cares relentlessly about everyone’s feelings and is constantly sincere. It should border on annoying, but it makes me think of classic animated female heroines like She-Ra and Jem. They’re perpetually good, yet unguarded and guileless.
I love what they’ve engaged upon because it’s in tune with the nature of how I played with dolls when I was young. My best friend Janet and I used to get all our Barbie’s together and imagine a mock-up home for them. Each doll would be assigned a weird personality. We’d act out absurd Real World and Cops style soap operas for the dolls to wallow in and include high camp antics, making everyone as cracked as possible. Totally Hair Barbie would have an affair with Aladdin. Princess Jasmine would find out and start destroying all the furniture Aladdin bought for her. Cinderella and Snow White would side with Jasmine and be like “Let’s tell Barbie that Aladdin is really her brother and it will ruin her”, but Teresa would have Barbie’s back and plot to cut off Jasmine’s hair in her sleep. Trini the Yellow Ranger would sometimes come in and karate chop everyone for no particular reason.
Where was I? Oh right, the show.
Why am I writing about a children’s animated series designed to sell what’s already the fastest selling toy in the world? It’s really, really, really funny for kids. Amusing for adults, but more importantly, Life In The Dreamhouse is really funny for sharp and intuitive girl kids. Entertainment featuring Barbie was previously just her trying to loosely interpret public domain fairy tales. But I love that Mattel has ordered a comedy sitcom mocking reality shows (probably the worst category of television children could be exposed to) while simultaneously promoting clean humor that’s both slapstick physical and banter based. All but two of the characters are female and virtually all of the hilarity exudes from them. In fact, most of the inhabitants of plastic Malibu are women. For girls to see that it’s not only okay for women to be funny, but it’s okay to make the funny from hyper femininity and material cultus? That matters. That’s not a new or novel concept, but it’s still a lacking concept in current entertainment. Women are still portrayed as competitive hellcats and validation obsessed victims across multiple spectrums. And if we have to keep giving speech space to people who tell children that only boys and a minority of “ugly girls” are funny people who have earned a good sense of humor, we are going to keep digging a whole of one-noted ideology in the culture of a generation’s future creativity. Girls who cannot see women with a strong sense of humor and an arrant, zingy confidence in being themselves – flaws and all – are not girls that are going to take risks.
Even Barbie has to fart and fall down at some point.* Dolly Parton exempt