Barbie is a popular doll known for her unrealistic body, her blond hair and her various careers. Throughout the years, Barbie has had over 200 occupations and she has recently added vlogger to her repertoire. Through short videos on YouTube, Barbie gives children a look into her life and tries to educate them along the way. With a YouTube channel that has over nine million subscribers, Barbie uses her platform to talk about her life, do challenges and talk about topics that are important to her. The doll seems to be more lifelike than ever in her animated videos and acts similar to other lifestyle vloggers on YouTube. Barbie becomes authentic and "real" because of the way she is animated, her character, and the message of her vlogs. By analysing her vlogs, this paper will answer how Barbie’s vlogs on YouTube combine non-fiction elements with fictional content with regard to animation, character, and message.
Who is Barbie?
Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, co-founder of the company Mattel, who made the doll for her daughter Barbara. The doll was first presented in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair and has since been sold over 1 billion times ([The history of Barbie], n.d; Agence France-Presse, 2019). Barbie’s appearance, clothing, accessories, and occupations have changed a lot since the 1950s, but Barbie’s goal of inspiring little girls never did ([The history of Barbie], n.d.). As Handler explains herself, Barbie was meant to represent the fact that women have the ability to choose their own future (Venard, 2019). Handler’s perspective on the fact that girls no longer needed to only become mothers, made her realize that toys marketed towards girls could be more than just babies or mother or housewife characters (Venard, 2019). Her idea was to design a toy that reflected a woman’s ability to work and be autonomous (Venard, 2019).
Barbie has always been controversial and the general consensus at the time of her debut at the Toy Fair was dislike or even hatred. There were mostly male executives present at the Fair, who were not impressed, but small stores still wanted to sell the doll, which eventually turned out to be a huge hit (Kahn, 2019). Years later, Barbie was criticised for the portrayal of an unhealthy body image, the lack of diversity in her designs, and in the context of various other controversies, including a sexist doll from 1992 that said “math class is tough” perpetuating a stereotype that girls are not smart enough in science-related subjects (Hains, 2014).
Barbie’s appearance, clothing, accessories, and occupations have changed a lot since the 1950s, but Barbie’s goal of inspiring little girls never did.
Despite all of this, Barbie still exists 60 years later and is still successful. Mattel reported that Barbie sales had reached a five-year high in 2019 after the company started selling more diverse Barbies, including a Barbie in a wheelchair and a curvy black Barbie with an Afro (Whitten, 2019; Cramer, 2020). Barbie as a brand keeps reinventing itself to make sure that the doll stays relevant, which also included Barbie's start of a career as a Youtuber. The first video uploaded to her YouTube channel on 19 June 2015 was a video titled 10 things about me and has since been viewed over 3 million times (as of 14/06/2020).
Barbie’s vlogs are all fully animated and her mannerisms and movements are based on other (lifestyle) YouTubers' behavior. The evolution of the animation used in Barbie’s vlogs over the years is also clearly visible. The animation becomes more detailed and "life-like" in her more recent vlogs. This can be seen in the way that small movements, such as Barbie tucking her hair behind her ear, are included in her animation. There is also a pronounced change in the way in which her face and hair are designed to look even more life-like thanks to added shadows and (slightly) more realistic proportions.
Barbie animates her stories by gesturing with her hands and arms. For example, when she lists things, she will actually put up one, two, or three fingers to make her point. She also moves like a real person would: when she's talking, her body, head, and hair all move. She will also close her eyes and tilt her head back when she is exasperated and moves her whole body when she laughs. This is all made possible thanks to actress America Young who wears a motion-capture suit when voicing and acting out Barbie’s vlogs (Vice News, 2018). By having her demeanor based on actual human movements, Barbie comes across as even more authentic.
The authenticity in Barbie’s videos is also enhanced through reality effects. Roland Barthes' essay titled "The Reality Effect" contains a passage that explains the concept as follows: "the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent, standing alone, become the true signified of realism" (Barthes, 1986). Reality effects can thus be understood as the small details that do not add anything to the narrative but do enhance the atmosphere and make the story feel real (Oxfordreference.com, n.d.). Reality effects in Barbie's vlogs include a shaky camera when she is vlogging, her pulling her arm back in the beginning of the video as if she had just pressed the record button on her camera, and cut-outs in the video as if she had to edit something out. By animating these little things that technically add nothing to the narrative, Barbie as a vlogger becomes more real.
When comparing Barbie’s vlogs to other popular lifestyle vloggers', there are many notable similarities to be found. In Barbie’s vlog Feeling blue? You’re not alone, she normalises feeling sad by saying that she sometimes feels blue too, and describing what she does to help with that feeling. Zoella, a popular lifestyle vlogger, also made a video back in 2012 in which she talked about panic attacks and anxiety. While Zoella’s topic might be a bit heavier and more explicit in content, both Barbie and Zoella talk about mental health and give their audience tips. They both film their videos in their bedrooms with their brightly coloured décor and just talk into the camera. Another comparison that can be drawn concerns the way they hold themselves and use their hands to emphasise certain points. They both gesture with their hands and sometimes touch their hair or face in a self-conscious manner.
By basing Barbie’s animation on an actual actress and taking inspiration from fellow lifestyle Youtubers, fictional Barbie looks and acts like a real person would. This combination of non-fiction elements with fictional Barbie allows the audience to connect with Barbie’s character.
Barbie’s character is an important part of her vlogs because character is what attracts an audience to content like YouTube videos. According to Batty (2014), characters enable the audience to understand media. Characters are used to populate a narrative and make it feel credible, as well as to guide us through the narrative for us to elicit meaning (Batty, 2014). Batty writes about the structure of sympathy, a model created by Smith, which reminds us that the way an audience interacts with and understands a narrative is through a structured character journey. We become attached to characters on the basis of values or qualities that are similar to ones we possess. Because Barbie comes across as "relatable", the audience sympathises with her and is able to understand the narrative.
Barbie becomes relatable in the way she addresses the audience. Barbie is very precise in the words she uses and how she describes certain events. Julia Pistor, executive producer and writer of her videos, explains that Barbie’s main character trait is curiosity (Mattel, n.d.). She has, after all, had over 200 careers, so some curiosity can be expected. Pistor says that they have made her grounded, not perfect, and unafraid to make mistakes or be herself (Mattel, n.d.). “Barbie is conscious of language and words; she talks about intention and she’s self-reflective. … While we might use words that kids sometimes need to look up, we try to be true to Barbie being a 17-year-old influencer” (Mattel, n.d.). This is very important because this self-reflective nature of Barbie’s character allows her to discuss difficult topics in such a way that it inspires children to think about and discuss those topics as well. Barbie treats her audience as equals, she never talks down to them and acts like the viewer is a good friend of hers. Her audience is mostly girls aged 6 to 11 while she herself is 17 years old, but this does not mean that Barbie "dumbs down" her words to make herself understandable for her target audience.
At the end of every vlog, Barbie makes a peace sign and says "pace", which stands for "positive attitude changes everything". This is something that Barbie reminds her audience of in every vlog, and that shows us something about Barbie’s character. She encourages girls to think about the phrase, which shows that Barbie herself is self-reflective.
Barbie talks about important topics in her vlogs, such as bullying, female empowerment, and depression. In her vlog titled Sorry Reflex, Barbie talks about how girls in particular often say sorry even when they have nothing to be sorry for. When she introduces the topic, she starts her sentences with “I think”, which reinforces her intention and self-reflectiveness. She gives examples to illustrate her point, explains why she believes that girls say sorry too often, and gives concrete examples on how to change this learned reflex. One example is “If you feel sad, instead of saying sorry, you say ‘thank you for understanding my feelings’” (Barbie, 2018). This normalises these feelings and explains to girls that it is not necessary to apologise for your feelings. This ties in with Pistor’s explanation that another key part of Barbie’s character is her intention to empower and inspire girls (Mattel, n.d.). Barbie’s message here is that there is more power in saying thank you than in saying sorry, and she tells girls to actively watch how many times they say sorry and change that into saying thank you.
Barbie is first and foremost a product and her vlogs are a way to market that product to (young) children. However, Mattel combines meaningful lessons with fun videos in order to change the general negative perception of Barbie. When Mattel designed a new dreamhouse toy that they needed to market, Barbie renovated her house and uploaded a room tour to her YouTube channel (Vice News, 2018). This is of course reminiscent of other Youtubers that advertise their merch, but the interesting twist here is that Barbie is not just selling a product, she is the product herself (Vice News, 2018). That is a fine line to be walking because Mattel is presenting Barbie as a "real" person while wanting to sell her as much as possible.
Barbie as a brand and Mattel as a company have a different message. Barbie’s main message is to inspire and educate girls while Mattel’s "message" is to sell as much as possible. According to McKnight, senior vice-president and global general manager for the Barbie brand, Barbie’s narrative is that she is a young independent woman who pursues various careers (Agence France-Presse, 2019). As Pistor says, “Barbie is not just a doll – she’s a brand. The vlog gives her emotional equity, and it makes our business better when people feel she’s someone they can root for” (Mattel, n.d.). There is a potentially problematic aspect to portraying Barbie like this. Young children tend to believe that advertisements are fair, accurate, balanced, and truthful (Dittmann, 2004). This potentially becomes more problematic when children are not watching ordinary advertisements but a doll acting and talking like a real person. Barbie never directly talks about buying anything related to Barbie products, but the exposure might still prove to be an effective way of influencing children to want a Barbie doll.
The message Barbie sends with her vlogs is empowering and inspiring for younger children. But Mattel’s message is intertwined with hers.
As hinted at above, Barbie also uses her platform to educate her audience. Some of her videos have a more educational format. Videos like Feeling blue?, I’m only “joking…?”, and what’s the dream gap? each focus on a topic that Barbie explains and teaches the audience about. But her other videos also usually contain various educational messages. In a recent vlog, Barbie shows what she brings to the beach (Barbie, 2020). While discussing all the things that she has in her bag, she talks about the importance of sunscreen (“Seriously, I lather sunscreen on all day”), the benefits of journaling daily, and how sunglasses are stylish but also protect your eyes (Barbie, 2020). So, even while making a video that seems trivial, Barbie manages to squeeze in some small lessons on taking care of your body and mind.
At the end of the video, Barbie even raises the topic of social media awareness. She says that being at the beach, completely unplugged from social media, feels good and that it made her realise (again showing her character trait of self-reflection) that people are rarely totally unplugged. “I feel like I waste a lot of time on social media. Not just connecting with people but scrolling and scrolling. And I’m just comparing myself to other people and that does not feel good” (Barbie, 2020). By saying this, Barbie is first of all showing her relatability. Her audience probably can relate to this feeling of wasting time on social media and Barbie is pointing that out to them. She then comments on the fact that the constant scrolling makes her compare herself to others and that she does not like that. Pointing out the fact that Barbie compares herself to others might make her audience realise that Barbie, their role model, does that too, which normalises that feeling and might make them realise that it does not help to compare oneself to others.
Even though Mattel is already educating children through Barbie’s vlogs, the company could potentially do more than that and educate children on issues of racism and privilege. However, it seems like they are not likely to make that step, which becomes clear when McKnight explains that “we don’t want to be divisive. … We don’t want to alienate anybody. We want to be inclusive and we want every girl to find a way into the brand” (Vice News, 2018). Here, we can clearly see that the goal to sell more is in direct conflict with the ability to educate children. Mattel consciously makes the decision to not talk about racism or privilege because according to them, it might alienate people from the brand. Barbie is able to educate and inspire children through easy and quick vlogs without seeming to be instructing the children or being patronizing. But she could do even more in educating young children if the company's interests did not get in the way.
Fictional Barbie as a real vlogger
In conclusion, by having Barbie upload vlogs, Mattel is combining non-fiction elements with fictional content in three aspects: animation, character, and message. By animating Barbie with the help of a motion-capture suit, Barbie looks, moves, and sounds like a real human vlogger would. When comparing her to other lifestyle Youtubers such as Zoella, Barbie really holds herself like a real vlogger would. Her character consists of various key traits, the most important being curiosity, self-reflection, and being unafraid to be herself. These three traits are things that girls can look up to. She treats her audience as equals and never talks down to them even though her audience is younger than she supposedly is.
The message Barbie sends with her vlogs is empowering and inspiring for younger children. But Mattel’s message is intertwined with hers. Barbie is being presented as a role model by Mattel but their ultimate goal is to make money off Barbie dolls. Whether the use of marketing in such a way is problematic could be interesting for future research. By making Barbie feel authentic, real, and inspiring, the company behind Barbie is able to successfully combine non-fiction elements with fictional content in order to boost sales of Barbies and improve the public’s general perspective on the doll.
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