How Barbie movies foster female friendship

The sisterhood of the Barbie canon

Michelle used to act out Barbie movies at recess.
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The biggest difference between girls that grew up in the 2000s versus the 2010s is who they define as their Rapunzel. In 2010, little girls were singing “I See the Light” with Mandy Moore’s animated Rapunzel following that year’s release of Disney’s Tangled. For those of us who grew up in the aughts, Barbie was Rapunzel, and her talking dragon and magic paintbrush hold special places in our hearts.

The early Barbie films shaped my girlhood beginning with Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper. I was in grade one, and I had just procured this new musical adventure on VHS. I soon found a confidante in Nicole, who was the only other girl in my class who wanted to act out the whole movie with me at recess—including the songs.

We would perform “Written in Your Heart” usually without an audience, and while no one else shared our passion for Princess and the Pauper, we had each other. Nicole was the Anneliese to my Erika.

Barbie movies fostered a sense of friendship and sisterhood throughout my upbringing. Not only were they glittery princess movies that we as little girls could watch together (for me, it was usually at Nicole’s birthday sleepover), but they thematically emphasized female relationships.

These movies are far from feminist cinema—with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed protagonist, the Barbie universe really lacks diversity. Moreover, the majority of the Barbie movies we grew up with follow the classic convention, ending with Barbie’s character marrying a prince.

That said, the Barbie canon is rich with complex female stories that rival the likes of Disney, where princesses are rarely represented as having strong female relationships.

Like Belle, Disney princesses often fall into the “I’m Not Like Other Girls” category: unable  to connect with other girls because they’re intelligent, unlike the other bimbos in the village. Additionally, sisters in Disney are limited to the evil-step-sibling variety in Cinderella, or else are like Ariel’s sisters who only briefly appear at the beginning and the end of The Little Mermaid. Until Frozen, female relationships were almost entirely absent in Disney films. 

In contrast, Barbie films emphasized sisterhood and female friendship from the get-go. It’s not an accident that Princess and the Pauper solidified my friendship with Nicole: there was an interesting female role for each of us to play. Annaliese was the science-loving, dutiful princess, and Erika, the hard-working servant girl who dreamed of being a singer. They were complex characters with distinct wants and needs, and we could see our friendship mirrored in their own.

You also have movies that are all about sisterhood, like The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Whereas Ariel’s desire to walk on land alienates her from her sisters, Princess Genevieve and her sisters are united against the oppressive Duchess Rowena. They cope with her strict rule by singing and dancing, eventually discovering a magical world where they’re free to dance together.

Not all sister plots are successful. Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus shoehorns an absurd sister connection into the story, making the Pegasus Barbie’s sister. This movie raises more questions than warm and fuzzy feelings. However, the movie fosters female connection regardless when I watch it now. My housemates and I recently rewatched this one, and mercilessly made fun of the surreal storyline and annoying polar bear sidekick.

Barbie movie viewings with my housemates have become a common occurrence, with each of us sharing our childhood connections with each film. Through rewatching Swan Lake and Mariposa, I learned that my housemates had similar experiences bonding with their sisters and girlhood best friends through these movies. My housemate Chiara and her little sister would watch Barbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and immediately demand “Again!” the second it was finished.

The movies that fostered female friendships when I was little feed female friendships now. I can hum The Twelve Dancing Princess theme at work, and my co-worker Maia will know exactly what it is. And I can always count on my housemates for a Barbie movie marathon.

While Barbie movies are far from being masterpieces, for many girls, they’re where we first found sisterhood. If you made it through childhood without watching these films or if you want to revisit the past, I suggest rummaging through YouTube for at least one of them.

The animation may be dated, but the messages of supportive female connection are timeless. 

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