Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse is shamelessly one of my favorite TV shows on earth. Here’s why.
In 2014, recently unemployed and feeling sorry for myself, I searched through Netflix for something to watch. That was my first introduction to Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. I watched every episode available on Netflix (12 20 minute multi-episode compilations out of the 75 episodes created) that dark afternoon. I am now obsessed with this show in a way that’s not far off from my appreciation for the Star Wars franchise and Savage Garden’s eponymous album.
Since my first viewing, I’ve made almost every person that matters to me watch it. Romantic partners, close friends, my roommate: they’ve all been witness to the glory that is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. While you might think that my obsession with this show would leave me living alone without friends or lovers to talk to, almost everyone who has watched it with me has said that they were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. Except for my roommate, but he has bad taste and can be ignored. The show is, in fact, an excellent self-satirical comedy that parodies nearly every aspect of consumerist culture that Mattel propagates through the Barbie brand.
The show is arguably made for adults just as much as it is for kids. It makes jokes and references to films and television that would be unlikely for children under the age of twelve to comprehend. From the pilot episode, Closet Princess, we’re introduced to Closet — a sentient AI that controls Barbie’s oversized closet reminiscent of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The episode Trapped in the Closet parodies Indiana Jones while The Amaze Chase takes on the format of The Amazing Race. There’s nods to The Wizard of Oz and Gravity, and probably many more references that I miss because I mostly watch children’s shows.
The references to popular culture aren’t the only thing that make this show amazing. The show satirizes reality TV, having all of the characters (including the animals) take asides in a confessional booth. Many of its gags revolve around the ridiculousness of Barbie toys throughout the years. Barbie’s youngest sister, Chelsea, has to jump on a water pump in order for the water in the shower to run. The dolls regularly warn each other to not cut their hair since it won’t grow back. Barbie references the fact that she’s had 135 careers (and counting!), and that her and Ken have been dating for 43 years (Ken was first introduced in 1961 meaning that they’ve actually now dated for 56 years). They decorate their homes with stickers, and their world is powered by a giant central battery on a beach in Malibu where the show takes place.
While the gags are entertaining, the characters and plot lines are what make the show so incredibly fascinating to me. Barbie is exactly who you’d expect her to be: a chipper, perfect, organized and loving person with unlimited resources and unlimited motivation. She rarely seems to show any emotion outside of concern for those around her and a relentlessly optimistic attitude. She’s boring.
What isn’t boring is how the conflict in the show is built around Barbie. Plot lines are built around issues that occur because Barbie quite literally has it all. In Closet Princess, Barbie and her friends Teresa and Nikki get lost (and eventually starved and dehydrated) searching for a barrette in Barbie’s closet that spans acres. In Closet Clothes Out, the same vast closet nearly explodes because it reaches capacity due to Barbie’s nostalgia-driven hoarding. There’s an undercurrent of awareness of just how ridiculous idolizing Barbie’s lifestyle truly is.
Barbie’s sisters, Chelsea, Skipper, and Stacie, live with Barbie and are so entitled that when given tasks such as “decorate for the pool party” they argue over who has to do it — even though, in the Dreamhouse universe, all that requires is the press of a button. Barbie’s frenemy, Raquelle, obsessively competes with Barbie, fuelled by envy towards the affection that Barbie receives.
To me, the most compelling character in the series is Ken. There are only three male characters: Ken, Closet, and Raquelle’s twin brother Ryan. Ken’s purpose in life seems to be entirely centered on making sure Barbie is happy. Ken’s flaws as a character are often rooted in the anxiety he has about constantly wanting to please Barbie, and insecurities regarding his relationship with traditional masculinity. He is constantly stressed by the amount of labour he has to put into his relationship with Barbie, and regularly appears to be a neurotic mess. Ken spends most of the series supporting Barbie to the point that it almost seems like a comment on the Bechdel test. There are only 3 male characters in the show, one of which is an AI, and all of which exist solely to serve Barbie.
Ken is aware that Barbie has everything she could possibly want, so he often invents new gadgets in an attempt to impress her. While he considers himself an inventor, the majority of his inventions are inherently flawed. Ken created Closet, whom he shares a strange father/son relationship with. For some reason, though, Ken installs an “evil button” that causes Closet to act nefariously. No one knows why Ken installed the evil button, because it’s senseless, but he did.
In Perf Pool Party, Barbie’s new waterslide can’t handle the amount of people that want to use it — so Ken offers to build her a bigger, better, one. Ken spends the entire party working on the slide, refusing food and water and eventually becoming parched and dehydrated. Like many of his inventions, Ken’s waterslide doesn’t work quite right. He doesn’t calculate the “slipocity” correctly, and when his rival Ryan insists on being the first to ride the slide, he is launched into space.
Ken tries to build Chelsea a bike for her birthday, but can’t follow the instructions and ends up building a self-aware tennis-playing robot. He gets flustered trying to assemble Barbie’s first car and fails, and she then builds it in a matter of seconds. He spends the rest of the episode trying to repair the schlond poofa (a muffler) on the car while Barbie recklessly drives her friends to the beach. In Oh How Campy, we see Ken gathering wood for the fire, saying “nothing like the great outdoors to show off ones man skills!” — only to return to a fire that’s already going. We often see Ken’s health and self-esteem deteriorating because he’s so obsessively focussed on Barbie that he forgets to take care of himself. It gets dark.
Barbie and Ken’s relationship is the only romantic relationship that exists in the show, likely due to its heteronormative nature and lack of male characters. Consequently, Raquelle competes with Barbie for Ken’s attention while Ryan competes with Ken for Barbie’s attention. This rivalry comes into play regularly, and demonstrates even more terribly unhealthy relationship dynamics. Ryan’s attempts at gaining Barbie’s attention all revolve around his own narcissism: he gifts lifesize cardboard cutouts of himself for Barbie’s birthday every year, and writes terrible songs that he insists on performing for her (I can relate to Ryan a lot sometimes, honestly). Meanwhile, Raquelle tries to win Ken over by sabotaging Barbie: Raquelle locks Barbie in the closet, and constantly tries to manipulate Ken into doing things like applying sunscreen for her while he’s focussed on trying to help Barbie.
The show’s extremism demonstrates the problematic nature of a world that revolves around one “perfect” archetype of consumerism and “girliness”. While it’s often questionable in its depiction of relationships, consumerism and identity — the way that these elements are presented comes off as sarcastic and silly. While I’m not sure that the satire of the show is something that would be understood by children, watching it as an adult is nothing but enchanting and hilarious. I absolutely love Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse and I feel no shame in doing so.