Playing with Barbie: The Best of Us and Barbie On Screen

Movies Lists Barbie
Playing with Barbie: The Best of Us and Barbie On Screen

Barbie is, first and foremost, a plaything. But in her storied 60+ years among us, we’ve come to imbue Mattel’s wünderproduct with a myriad of meanings, many of them conflicting. That’s because we’ve found many different ways to play with Barbie, not all sanctioned by corporate. Such a dynamic range of play has naturally made its way into movies along with Barbie. When she appears, we see a filmmaker putting her into play and a playfield defined by her maker. Considering this tension between play and playground, let’s look at the best cinematic examples of sanctioned and unauthorized Barbie play.

Here are the most playful, best Barbie movies:

Barbie: The Princess & the Popstar (2012)

No film exemplifies the appeal of playing with Barbie better than her direct-to-DVD release Barbie: The Princess & the Popstar. Based on Mark Twain’s classic The Prince and the Pauper and her own 2004 video hit, Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (2004), this identity-swap movie features Barbie (voiced by Kelly Sheridan) as Princess Victoria, a sheltered young woman longing to see the world and be famous (because royalty is a less fun kind of famous). She looks at someone like singing sensation Keira and wishes she could “have her life.” When she finally meets her musical idol (voiced by Ashleigh Bell), who wants a break from the popstar life, the pair dream up a scheme to magically change their appearance and pass as the other for a week of fun. Not only does The Princess & the Popstar rapidly swap hairstyles and costumes with a charming self-awareness, just as one might when playing dress-up with dolls, but it also gets at the heart of what makes Barbie appealing: You can project your life’s fantasies into her. “I wish I had her life” is the underlying desire capitalized on by all Barbie marketing. Barbie can be anything, and therefore, by extension, we can be anything. Sorta.

Black Barbie: A Documentary (2023)

As Lagueria Davis’ Black Barbie shows, Barbie has an assumed and even demanded whiteness. She is the white lady. Davis’ sentimental doc follows her aunt and former Mattel employee, Beulah Mae Mitchell, as she tells the public story of how Barbie became Black. For a long time, if a Black child (or any non-white child) wanted to play with Barbie, they had to lose part of themselves during play. But in response to the changing culture of the 1960s and 1970s, Mattel listened and created Black Barbie. Since then, several Black Barbies have given diverse generations a future with Barbie. This hasn’t stopped Barbie from participating primarily as a sign and symbol of whiteness. Films like Barbie as the Island Princess and Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation show that Barbie has no problem ruling over a territory based on her inherent goodness and whiteness.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Barbie loves playing with others, you see. She’s sometimes licensed out to other companies for some playtime, especially her longtime bestie, The Walt Disney Company. But she comes with parameters, and Toy Story 3 is a fine example of Barbie’s limits and possibilities. She fits right in with the Toy Story universe in which being a toy is both an identity and a job. She believes in hyper-friendship and the wonder of The Dreamhouse. When she meets Ken, an entire corporate history swells their hearts when they realize they were “made for each other.” She is one of a million, but singular. Yet, she’s not exactly suited for peril. You’ll notice that Barbie isn’t around for any outbursts of aggression, like when Buzz goes berserk after a factory reset. There’s no way Mattel would let their prized commodity get involved in a brawl. That would be unladylike. Barbie can be fun and heartbroken, but she cannot be violent. She does torture Ken for information, but that was because she’s looking out for her friends. Barbie will do anything for friendship! And given that she’s already been a member of the Navy and Operation Desert Storm, maybe that’s why she waterboards this Ken so well.

Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour (1998)

The more we watch and play with Barbie, the more we realize that contradiction is the norm, not an aberration. Until now, we’ve looked at Mattel-sanctioned playgrounds, but once we’re out from under corporate control, whole worlds of playful possibility open up. Susan Stern’s cheeky and insightful documentary explores all the people and markets outside Mattel’s reach. She interviews dealers, players and collectors who make profit and merriment despite lawsuits and threats. We learn about the secondary commerce markets which thrive on Barbie’s uniqueness and limited-editionness that are at the foundation of the Barbie business model, some even beating Mattel at their own game, selling Barbie for hundreds if not thousands of dollars—profits Mattel will never see, no matter how much they try. But more importantly than the markets, Stern’s humanist film highlights all the queer play that happens with Barbie. Drag queens dress like her; others dress their dolls like drag queens. Many revert Barbie to the sex doll that inspired her creation, freely adding anatomies where none previously existed. As a sexual and cultural fetish object, Barbie has been suggestively spit-roasted and literally spit-roasted as a sign of destroying the past and ushering in a new world order. 

Magical Universe (2013)

We tend to be suspicious of adults who play with Barbies, especially men. Playing with Barbie outside the prescribed gender and age turns one into a queer curiosity, someone we assume has an arrested development. Yet sometimes, from this play comes great art. Director Jeremy Workman’s film about Al Carbee, an outsider artist from Maine who took wonderous photos with Barbie, is a prime example of how powerful unlicensed play can be. In treating his Barbies like real people, ciphers of the intergalactic world in his mind, Carbee created photos and collages of staggering complexity and beauty. His rundown house is filled with staged scenes and Barbie dioramas (and guppies). Out of this chaos comes well-conceived and ordered works. Not everyone is comfortable with his art, but after his community sees his visions, Carbee moves from being an outsider to (almost) being an insider. Some can see his playfulness, which reminds them of when they played with Barbie. Mattel only provided the model forms. Like any good playmate of Barbie, Carbee gave her his imagined lives and created a different, perverse, and complex magical universe of Barbie that makes people think.

Toy Story 3 In Real Life (2020)

Perhaps more fascinating than the original, the anonymous full-length fan film Toy Story 3 In Real Life is a complete stop-motion remake of the 2010 film using actual toys. Unlike Pixar’s series, this film lets you feel the hands essential to Barbie play. You get a sense that each shot is carefully placed and arranged, just like Carbee’s photos, with the hand having just retracted behind the camera before the shot is taken. The scenes with Barbie remind us how much we project onto her. Far from the overly-fawning and expressive Barbie in the film, the Barbie-Barbie of this version can’t move her face or limbs. Yet she’s alive. Toy Story 3 in Real Life takes the Toy Story chapter and makes it feel like we’re at a friend’s house playing with toys for hours, acting out a narrative we’ve just made up. Though the film is technically illegal, I suspect it’s lasted because it’s an extraordinary labor of love that remains a testament to the power of toys and play in material ways that not even Pixar could dream up.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

We often think of projecting our own lives onto Barbie, but what happens when we project the lives of others? Todd Haynes’ seminal short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story uses Barbies to tell the tragic story of Karen Carpenter, her talents and her private struggles. The film has long languished in bootleg circles, locked down by the Carpenter and Mattel families. Such unlicensed TV-movie-inspired play goes beyond mere cheeky recreation. Through Carpenter’s struggles with her body image, Haynes transforms Barbie into both problem and actor, something later directors like Greta Gerwig will grapple with. We see her as a model that compels young girls to be unnaturally skinny and the site of self-empowerment to overcome it. Haynes takes the queer perspective that Barbie simultaneously contains multiple and sometimes devious meanings. Like the queens and queers we met in Barbie Nation, by using corporate figures of heteronormativity and inverting them through perverse play, Haynes transforms Barbie into an icon of New Queer Cinema and paves the way for contemporary queer unauthorized Barbie play, like the stinging YouTube sensation The Most Popular Girls.

Barbie & the Diamond Castle (2008)

This direct-to-DVD animated adventure about the importance of intimate and lasting friendship doesn’t deal with play explicitly. But what it does do is offer a chance for queer play and interpretation with the sanctioned playground. Mattel and director Gino Nichele leave just enough ambiguity for Diamond Castle to cultivate a queer reading. Considered by many fans to be Barbie’s most Sapphic film, Barbie & the Diamond Castle follows Barbie (again/always/still voiced by Kelly Sheridan) and Teresa (Cassidy Ladden), girls who function as a bonded pair, as “two voices, one song,” truly and intimately “connected.” Mattel certainly didn’t mean for this film to be explicitly queer. Yet a queer reading can easily be extracted from the film’s ambiguity. As one fan mentions, Barbie and Teresa’s dresses make up the lesbian flag when put together, which makes a queer reading feel at least subliminally sanctioned. Mattel knows that in their female-dominated world of Barbie, same-sex erotics are more common than they admit. They know you make your dolls fuck, but they’ll never give explicit permission for explicit play. Barbie & the Diamond Castle is a glimmering and interactive example of a playground provided by a corporation, and players still create their own rules and interpretations. By doing so, they can find and be their authentic (queer) selves in Barbieland.

Barbie (2023)

All of these forms of play show up in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. It’s an incredibly play-full film that, from the very beginning, announces that Gerwig has built its aesthetics around how we play with Barbie. Along with production designer Sarah Greenwood, they lean into the plasticity of Barbie and her manufactured environs. Barbie moves illogically because we play with her that way, often foregoing stairs and water in favor of imagination. The film is also structured around the idea of parallel play with Barbie (Margot Robbie) and America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, sharing a connection, a soul. There’s a dichotomy set up between Barbieland and “The Real World,” but those boundaries are extremely porous. When Gloria plays with Barbie, Barbie feels it, even when the play is sad and existential. Kate McKinnon’s mangled character, Weird Barbie, nods to what happens when the play gets rough, just like what happens to the toys in Toy Story 3. What’s particularly fascinating about Gerwig’s Barbie is its explicit attempt to add feminist play within a highly corporatized sandbox. It’s not just Mattel; this time, it’s also Warner Bros. So while Barbie champions girl power and equality (not so much equity), we still sense that Gerwig and husband/co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach have their hands twist-tied to a corporate-approved box, unable to follow through on their grand ideological swings. 2023’s Barbie is the culmination of decades of Barbie play and a rose-colored reminder that our imagination is always limited when we play within corporate-controlled spaces.

This list has tried to cover all the different kinds of Barbie play that show up in her movie appearances. Barbie is a vessel for our identities and ideologies, whether within corporate guidelines or outside of them. Yet, this brief history shows that some of the most meaningful and impactful play happens outside of capitalist approval, when we’re free to play with Barbie and free to express ourselves.

B! is a writer, scholar, and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes queer and critical words for Paste Magazine, Into Magazine, The Spool, and Honey Literary Journal. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps, and doing nothing at all. They are the inaugural recipient of Rotten Tomatoes & Chicago Film Critics Association’s Emerging Critics Grant for their excellence in film criticism.

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