Why You Should Watch 'Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse' (No, Really)
We’ve gotten to the point where it’s no longer strange for cartoons to transcend age limits for their audiences. The risqué thrill of 90s ‘adult animated comedy’ has toned down, and instead shows have opted to broaden their scope and tell family-friendly stories that appeal to kids whilst also not shying away from the more adult themes/jokes/references. A big part of why shows like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and Avatar: The Last Airbender work is because of their grandiose storytelling that puts story over pandering to an audience. It’s a part of the changing values of society and helps play a huge role in the upbringing of kids who look back over texts and form their identities/sense of self off them.
Mattel’s Barbie needs no introduction, of course. First appearing in 1959 the fashion doll quickly became a staple of worldwide ‘girl culture’. Her pink branding and style-obsessed appearance, whilst harmful now, was considered the norm for decades. Girls growing up wanted Barbie dolls, with the goal of the marketing ensuring that those same girls would want to be Barbie no matter what she was, a horse rider, a surgeon, an astronaut, whatever. The doll spawned a multimillion-dollar franchise, with collectable sets, games and, you guessed it, film and TV spin offs. During the 1990s, Barbie’s wholesome and old-fashioned aesthetic lead to declining sales (as well as stiff competition from Bratz) and her career-specific line of dolls wasn’t appealing to the sexed-up modern pizzazz of her competition. So Mattel opted for a more interactive space, they reimagined Barbie as a princess and placed her in a variety of public domain (cha-ching) stories and fables whilst releasing movie-specific dolls to accompany the releases. It was a genius marketing move and I remember the buzz specifically around Barbie in the Nutcracker all across school growing up.
However, despite strong sales, the series couldn’t manage to keep up with the changes in their audience’s behaviour. Barbie could be any variation of a princess/mermaid/big sister she wanted, but her age was starting to show once again. Cut to 2012. And Barbie officially has her first TV series (technically web series), Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse created by David Wiebe. The CGI-animated series keeps all the familiar tropes of the Barbie franchise (Ken, the fashion-fuelled lifestyle etc.) but presents it as a whacky sitcom/reality-TV show (more on that later). And you know what? I really bloody love it.
I remember I was at a house party once and somebody put it on as a joke, and I was initially cynical due to the various shades of pink on display and the voice in my head screaming ‘this is a manufactured product to sell dolls to girls, this is going to be suuuper obnoxious’ but, hold on, ‘was that a Star Wars joke? Are they being self-aware? IS THAT A 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY REFERENCE IN A BARBIE TV SHOW?’
I know that now sounds like I only enjoy it because it’s packed full of film references, and yes whilst that’s partly true, that’s not the only reason. Life in the Dreamhouse is the best kind of hollow product tie-in. One that recognises its sinister commercial roots and instead just decides to tell jokes and be entertaining. It’s almost as if that’s the best way of getting through to kids.
Focusing on the happenings of the titular house where Barbie and her three younger sisters (yeah, I didn’t know either) live, the series presents them simultaneously as living-beings whilst also showing their limitations as literal dolls a-la Toy Story. Each character isn’t particularly fleshed out but instead acts as an archetype that the show can mine for comedic effect; Barbie herself is the stooge, humble and good natured, talented and…pretty much a blank slate. But this doesn’t make her a foil, instead her elevated status just exaggerates the ‘pristine and perfect’ ideology of the Barbie name, and this is solidified by the supporting characters. Ken is constantly striving to be the perfect boyfriend, though has a child-like obsession with inventing machinery that usually ends up malfunctioning. Raquelle serves as a frenemy to Barbie, jealous of the attention she gets from the world and from Ken, though Barbie herself never notices. Raquelle’s brother Ryan is an idiotic frenemy to Ken, competing for Barbie’s affections whilst being so vain he carries around cardboard cut-outs of himself. All of this adds up to a sitcom-level of antics that are sometimes given the surrealist twist of abiding by cartoon logic, that is, no logic at all.
Sure, the animation’s garishly bright colour palette can be an eyesore at times but the rigidity of the production is cleverly utilised by the fact that they’re freaking dolls. Characters struggle to grip things with their imposable limbs, the dreamhouse is filled with appliances that are merely stickers or defy any kind of world rule, Barbie has a giant make-up station with a head-sculpt of her based on a toy line from the 2000s…it’s wonderfully bizarre to not quite know when the show will skirt between meta-logic and situational-logic, and that’s something that continues into the show’s format too.
Life in the Dreamhouse occasionally features fly-on-the-wall style interview sections with its characters, that frames the wacky goings on as if it’s a reality TV show. To strengthen this jarring presentation, the show has numerous ‘special’ episodes where the characters are ‘reunited’ on a studio set hosted by a Ryan-Seacrest-type where they go over the happenings of previous episodes and confront each other over arguments/relationships. Oh, and they also do a brilliant spoof of The Amazing Race too. This denial to stick to one subject actually does the show justice, and allows it to drop shorter episodes so that they never drag or feel cumbersome; everything the show does is in service to what jokes it can land and then it gets out of there as fast as possible. Sometimes the jokes come from left field too, it’s as if the writers (Barbara Haynes, Rachel Powell, Robin J. Stein and Wiebe) sat in a room and tried to stuff as many references in as possible without losing sight of the Barbie-centric narrative. Whether it’s a sly The Simpsons nod (Ken and Ryan watch a football match where the announcer screams ‘back to wing, back to centre, centre holds it…holds it…HOLDS IT!’ or having characters bypass transition animations in order to change location. It’s all reminiscent of the immediacy you’d find in many comedy sketches on Youtube.
Of course, with 75 episodes it’s difficult to know which ones to seek out. So I’ve singled out three episodes to get your started on the show, that prove it’s more than the typical cash-grab.
Trapped in the Dreamhouse
The first episode of the show I watched and the one that piqued my interest further, Trapped in the Dreamhouse is arguably right up my alley and filled to the brim with film clichés, conventions and references whilst sneaking in enough quips to offer a great introduction to each of the characters.
Whilst preparing for Teresa’s fashion show, Barbie, Midge and Summer get trapped inside the dreamhouse after Raquelle switches the robotic closet’s power switch to ‘evil’…evil Krusty doll anyone? When they don’t show up to the runway on time, Ken’s ‘Barbie sense’ tingles and he vows to save her, though of course he’s useless. Instead it’s up to the girls to make their way through the labyrinthian challenges across the dreamhouse and escape in time. It’s a broad setup that allows for so many set pieces. Whether it’s the HAL 9000-like closet robot, the Star Wars quotes he talks in, the pieces of fashion littered throughout the closet that reference things like the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with giant Barbie head in place of the runaway boulder.
It’s a great starting point and one of the longer episodes to boot (coming it at a full 12 minutes!) whilst featuring a catwalk montage and an evil homicidal robot bent on fashion galaxy domination. What more could you really ask for? Also, you can feel how much they wanted to call the episode Trapped in the Closet.
A Smidge of Midge
Playfully referencing the doll’s past is one of the show’s best assets (in the first episode Barbie and Ken are celebrating their 53rd anniversary, for example) but here that history takes centre stage as Barbie’s originally best friend doll Midge Hadley visits the dreamhouse. First introduced in 1963 to accompany Barbie, Midge shows up in black and white, with an old americana style that brings forth a live-studio audience laugh track to Malibu. With it, come a whole host of playful digs in the form of brilliant one-liners.
“They don’t have computers, cell phones, or even…colours!”
“You look like a movie on that channel no one watches.”
The majority of the episode plays on the outdated style and dialect from Midge. Her vocabulary still compels her to state ‘va-va-voom’ whenever she fancies someone, and her articulation leaves a lot to be desired. Then, as she announces she’s moving to Malibu too the whole Barbie gang decide to give Midge a makeover to bring her into the modern day. That means teaching her about technology and making sure she’s…well, in colour. It’s all hastily blown over in a quick montage and the episode is one of the shorter instalments in the show’s run, but its fleeting style is part of its charm. That, and the adherence to the cheesy 1960s sitcom style wears thin rather quick. As a by-product however Midge is one of the more well-rounded characters in the show, and her old-fashioned heart manages to become one of the series’ best running jokes.
The Amaze Chase
A 30-minute special as every character takes part in a clear spoof of The Amazing Race on national television. It’s comedy duos aplenty as different character combinations and switched throughout allowing for an almost nonstop barrage of jokes. Whether it’s Ken and Closet working together amidst Closet’s desire for ‘father and son’ bonding or Barbie’s desire to get Skipper (her sister) back on her team after accidentally snooping through her diary.
“You need to learn something about privacy. Watch the video I uploaded online about it.”
And I haven’t even got to the schlond poofa. Originally a throwaway joke about a random car part Ken keeps finding, the valve-like component took on a life of its own when fans of the show turned it into a meme, thanks to the show’s popularity outside its target audience. The creators of the show reacted positively and have hidden numerous schlond poofas in the show’s background, as well as having it feature in narrative of some episodes. In The Amaze Chase, Ken’s car of course comes equipped with a one of a kind, platinum, super-charged schlond poofa which…doesn’t exactly do much but is exciting nonetheless.
As the different teams are eliminated during challenges, the rivalries become intensified and Barbie desperation to win Skipper back and prove she’s a good sister shine through. Well, they would, if there wasn’t a background subplot about Barbie’s cat, dog and horse also participating in the race and accidentally driving through Area 51, stealing an alien and being tracked down by the government. No big deal. The episode itself is hardly surprising, but it’s still fun to see that the characters can work in an extended runtime when given a big enough playground.
Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse isn’t spectacular, but it’s better than it has any right to be. It’s what I’d imagine I’d have strived to create if I was given the keys to the franchise, and I’d be kind of proud of it too. Unfortunately, the series ended in 2015 and was replaced with a similarly-themed series Barbie: Dreamhouse Adventures in 2018. Created more as a way of answering fan questions about Barbie’s relationship with her sisters, the series aims for a younger demographic and sadly reverts to many of the pitfalls of infant programming. But that’s what makes Life in the Dreamhouse feel special. So if you’ve got some little ones, or even if you want something to stick on in the background that’ll raise a smirk while you work, you could do a lot worse…
Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse is available on Youtube and the Barbie website.
Some of it is available on Netflix.
I am not responsible for the respect you might lose if parents catch you watching it.
Hi again. Serious reminder as usual.
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