The Barbie cinematic universe began in 2001 and, at the time of writing, is now made of 43 animated movies. Though some of you may think of Barbie’s legacy as trivial, the franchise helped pioneer early 2000s media and popularised the use of audio-visual animation. Barbie’s adventures immersed millions of children into a pink luminescent universe which catapulted our beloved protagonist into an array of careers: doctor, teacher, architect and even Vice Presidential candidate. For an entire generation, Barbie was the perfect form of escapism.
Up until now, the films, while adored by many, have not necessarily called for a great amount of critical analysis or academic discussion. Nevertheless, one YouTuber has taken it upon himself to dissect and highlight unconventional themes from within the franchise.
Meet Alexander Ávila, an undergraduate student at Brown University concentrating in sociology, with interests in sociological theory, critical theory, political sociology and social media. He is also the brains behind the YouTube channel (once known as AreTheyGay and now renamed after the content creator) which currently boasts over 365,000 subscribers.
Ávila’s content has a clear format: “Social analysis…but gay?”, as his channel’s description indicates. His most recent quest? To analyse and investigate the different complexities and contextualisation of the Barbie film franchise—the ultimate summer project.
Ávila’s eponymous YouTube channel hosts a multitude of videos where he considers two TV or movie characters—for example, detective icons Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—and asks himself one question: “Are They Gay?”. While following this specific structure has proved successful in the past, the YouTuber has since decided to shift his focus, experimenting with longer form content in order to provide even deeper sociological perspectives.
After all, Ávila has been uploading to the video sharing platform for over seven years now, which explains why he’d want to come up with different topics on his mission to explore meaningful issues and cultural phenomena that have had an impact on the LGBTQIA+ community.
His most recent video, released on 30 August 2022 and titled How Spotify Manufactures Gay Culture, trials this new content format. Always investing a great amount of time and effort into his videos in order to present clear anthropological arguments through a queer sociological lens while simultaneously entertaining his viewers, in this particular video, Ávila tackled the question: “Why is some music more gay than other music?”
The YouTuber conducted an elaborate survey wherein members of the LGBTQIA+ community were presented with two anonymous playlists, one containing LGBTQIA+ songs (Playlist 1) and the other containing tracks from Spotify’s top hits list (Playlist 2). They were then asked to vote on which playlist they believe had been put together by an LGBTQIA+ individual.
When the votes were finally tallied, 69.9 per cent of people believed that Playlist 1, which was indeed curated by a queer person, was perceived by the community to be “gayer.” Ávila went on to provide further details as to why certain genres of music may be perceived as such, particularly taking into account how more often than not, music that is labelled as ‘queer’ is solely representative of distinct segments of the community, such as white gay men for example.
And it seems like Ávila’s new recipe didn’t disappoint.In many of his videos’ comments section, viewers have shared messages praised the YouTuber’s work and dedication, thanking him for helping reignite their interest in queer academia and creating such unique and important content.
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Under How Spotify Manufactures Gay Culture, one individual wrote: “Thank you for another incredible video. The way you make these complex and academic ideas accessible, fun, and easy to understand is amazing. I really appreciate all the work you do.”
While all of Ávila’s videos succeed in both entertaining and educating viewers, there is one in particular that I’ve had my mind stuck on. In January 2022, the thinker uploaded a video to his channel titled Overanalyzing the Barbie Movies with Queer Marxist Theory. The 48-minute long video has since amassed over 800,000 views.
In it, Ávila touches upon a multitude of themes put forward throughout the animated films. Most prominent are the ways in which many of the Barbie films subvert classic cinematic conventions by purposefully avoiding, or even discouraging, the ‘male gaze’.
As you probably know already, the ‘male gaze’ is often criticised, particularly by feminist film theorists, for solely prioritising the needs and desires of the heterosexual man. Audiences are forced to view women from the male perspective, resulting in a prominence of highly sexualised cinema that subjugates the female experience.
And yet, when it comes to the Barbie cinematic universe, the most important relationships portrayed in the films are those between Barbie herself and her female friends. Even though heterosexual relationships do exist within the universe, they are in no way the focal point of the movies or the driving force behind Barbie’s actions and decisions.
Rather, the films promote self-determination and female friendships. As Ávila explained, they were also an important space in which young queer women could move away from the male gaze, towards a female gaze that validated their identities and feelings.
Speaking to SCREENSHOT, Ávila shared how he first conjured up the idea of the Are They Gay video series aged 15 or 16. Having just began reading The Great Gatsby in class, Ávila recalled, “I had been immersed in fandom and shipping culture and was pretty skilled in picking up on gay subtext in all types of media. But for some reason, when I was in class, debating whether or not Nick was in love with Gatsby, I had a lot of fun picking specific quotes and textual evidence in favour of Nick’s queerness.”
The YouTuber went on to explain: “I was also pretty good at making a case. I thought, ‘there must be others like me who read gay subtext into media but need the opportunity to articulate it/have it articulated in a clear way.’ So I started the channel to be that voice for other people.”
Having posted 28 videos within the Are they Gay series, the YouTuber decided to take a new approach. He explained, “I was already thinking of shifting the channel from Are They Gay to more sociological queer theory, and I thought Barbie would be a good opportunity for that since the Barbie brand is so culturally ubiquitous and easy to crack jokes about.”
He continued, “I didn’t know the video would be quite so queer Marxist at that point until I started reading into the secondary literature on Barbie and saw the sociological potential of analysing the Barbie movies. I then leaped onto the opportunity to teach my audience about Antonio Gramsci.”
Throughout his dissection of the Barbie film franchise, Ávila pointed to the existing bed of academic literature that tackles this theory: “I am not the first nor will I be the last person to use Neo-Marxism to talk about Barbie, and I wasn’t surprised that there was a giant body of cultural theory work on Barbie. However, my biggest takeaway is that sociological theory does not have to be boring, useless, esoteric, or cold.”
“Through analysing the cultural objects nearest and dearest to us, and with a little humour, it’s actually really easy and fun to get into sociology! I think this video shows us that it’s possible for dense social theory to attain a wide reach and appeal.”
When asked whether he had any fears or doubts about closing the Are They Gay chapter, Ávila remained sure of his decision, stating, “My audience has grown up with me, and I think they’ll appreciate the transition as their ideas and fascinations mature as well. And it’s also bringing in new viewers who can’t find queer sociology anywhere else!”
And if there was any confusion in regards to which Barbie film is in fact ‘the gayest’, Ávila has the answer for you, “It’s Barbie and the Diamond Castle. Cottagecore lesbians!”
The creator’s conclusion stated at the end of his analysis is clear: Barbie is a “floating signifier.” The brand intrinsically has no singular or stable meaning—while we can appreciate and emphasise the ways in which Barbie privileges certain bodies and femininities, we can also recognise the significant impact the character had in helping young queer people find their identities.
As for future content, Ávila signed off the interview with one resounding promise: “The next video could be Marxist or post-structuralist… but it will definitely be gay.”
Recent milestones within the Barbie universe have amplified the company’s commitment to greater diverse representation within the brand. In May 2022, Laverne Cox made history by helping to inspire the first ever transgender Barbie doll. At the time, the Orange is the New Black actress shared with TODAY Parents how overjoyed she was to help influence this integral move towards complete inclusion, “Barbie has been a really healing experience for me as an adult, and I hope Barbie fans of all ages can find healing and inspiration in this doll.”
In other developments, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has made strides to create dolls that are not only more physically representative, but also cater to a wide range of professions. In 2018, it debuted a series of dolls alongside the theme ‘women in space’—a move that the company hoped would encourage young girls to pursue a career in space and STEM.
What is evident is that Barbie continues to resonate with both children and adults to this day. The iconic gravity of this brand, and indeed the film franchise attached to it, is undeniable. In 2023, Barbie will be conjured into the format of a live action, star-studded Hollywood movie. With A-listers such as Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu involved, it’s sure to help maintain and enhance the legacy of Barbie.
Just days ahead of her 50th birthday, it has been revealed by the American toy manufacturing company Mattel that Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox will have the world’s first transgender Barbie doll modelled after her.
Barely able to contain her excitement, Cox told Page Six how much this new doll means to her, “I can’t wait for fans to find my doll on shelves and have the opportunity to add a Barbie doll modeled after a transgender person to their collection”.
The 49-year-old actress further revealed in a statement shared with PEOPLE that as a child, her mother would not let her play with Barbie dolls as she was “assigned male at birth.” But through therapy in her 30s and conversations with her mum, the actress shared that now, her mother sends her Barbies for both birthdays and Christmases. “I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to be in this process. It’s a process of reclaiming my inner child, healing her, giving her what she didn’t have the first go-round […] So to be turning 50 years old and be transgender and have a Barbie in my life, that feels just like a full-circle kind of healing moment.”
Cox was very much involved with the design of this revolutionary Barbie, and wanted it to match her likeness as much as possible. Striking conversations about hair, outfits and making the doll more African American, the LGBTQI+ advocate wanted her Barbie to be a “celebration of transness.”
With the introduction of nearly 250 pieces of anti-trans legislation in the US in 2022 alone, this is more than just a ‘toy’, as Cox told PEOPLE: “In this environment where trans kids are being attacked, that this can also be a celebration of transness, and also a space for them to dream, understand and be reminded that trans is beautiful […] That there’s hope and possibility for them to be themselves.”
Part of the company’s Tribute collection, Cox’s Barbie will appear alongside other inspiring women such as Rosa Parks and Helen Keller and retail for $40 on the Mattel website. This important announcement, with such a strong and loved spokesperson at the helm, is a big step forward in trans representation, and although some may say it’s ‘just a toy’, it’s far more than that—with trans kids now being able to go into their local toy shop and find something that represents them. A very proud moment in LGTBQI+ history.
To date, Mattel has also collaborated with European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to send a Barbie doll on a zero-gravity flight to inspire young girls to work in space and STEM.