#SeniorSeminar: Ana Teresa & "The Ambiguous Feminism Throughout the Evolution of Barbie Movies"

Thu, 01/12/23
Ana Teresa and Barbie dolls

My name is Ana Teresa, and I graduated from FSU in fall 2022. I double majored in History and English with a focus on Editing, Writing, and Media. I have a minor in French too. I joined FSU in 2018. As part of the History major, I had to write an article-length paper, the senior thesis. I chose to do my senior seminar on U.S pop culture with Dr. Mooney.

I loved the idea of working on pop culture. It was such a broad field, with so many options to write my paper on. To be honest, it was so broad that I wasn’t even sure of what counted as Pop Culture, and what didn’t. I was thinking of TV shows, movies, toys, but we spent the first few weeks of the class reviewing different approaches to, and themes in, pop culture to get a sense of how other people had written on that topic, as well as what pop culture even was. I eventually decided to work on the animated Barbie movies that were released between 2001 and 2014. In an English elective a few years ago, we looked at film genres and spent a whole class analyzing zombie movies. When I completed that course, I decided to watch a Barbie movie with my sister to take a break from the zombie genre. As we were watching the movie, I told my sister that I would love to write a paper on the Barbie movies, but I never did. So, that’s why I decided on this topic last fall: rather than doing a paper about a single Barbie movie, I would do a paper about them all.

My runner-up project had been to write about K-Pop. But while there is a lot of literature on Korean dramas, there isn’t so much written on K-Pop itself. That made me decide to go with the Barbie angle because there is so much research available on Barbie already.

Between 2001 and 2014, Mattel, the company that owns the Barbie franchise, brought out 28 Barbie movies. The first thing I did, once I had decided on that project, was to sit down and watch the movies. That was a bit overwhelming, but it got me started thinking about what themes I could write about, what angles to take. I had never reviewed movies from a historical perspective before. Dr. Mooney said that I should first analyze the films and only then place them in their historical context.

So initially, I reviewed the movies to find common patterns and themes. After noticing some patterns, I decided to categorize the movies in two distinct categories, or eras, as I called them. I divided the movie between the First Era of Barbie movies, then the Transition Era, and the Second Era. After I categorized them, I looked at how each era was dealing with the themes I found.  I decided to look at feminism in the movies and focused on gender roles. Specifically, I looked at body image, the princess trope, and happy endings. While the movies have much in common with Disney movies, the original idea had been that Barbie would be a more empowered, feminist character; she would take action and get things done. This idea did not always translate to the screen.

From the First Era of movies, which spans from 2001 to 2007, Barbie was acting in ways that were supposed to be empowering to young girls, but other things that she did or things that occurred in the movie contradicted that. As the movies progressed to the Transition Era, and eventually the Second Era, which starts in 2010, it seemed like Mattel was attempting to correct those contradictions and make Barbie even more empowering, but instead those contradictions continued even to the end of the Second Era.

An example of this ambiguity is that Barbie is always very active and hands on, she is the one who solves the problems, she is the one who rescues people. But on the other hand, her body shape becomes more and more unrealistic. She becomes thinner and thinner in her waist, making her overall proportions unachievable for young girls. In the end, however, I noticed that after the Transition Era, which included 2008 and 2009, was also when other more girl-empowering movies started to be released, like Frozen or Brave. That made me reach the conclusion that these Barbie movies, although ambiguous in terms of gender roles, were among the first movies intended to provide empowering role models for young girls.

Other than the movies, another major source I used for my paper was teenage magazines from the time. Specifically, I looked at Seventeen magazine. I found the 2010 to 2013 issues in an online archive. They helped me write about the beauty standards and dating culture of the time and how young girls perceived romance. What shocked me was that the focus was almost entirely on how women can attract men and what men like or don’t like. I was also horrified by the beauty culture that they were writing about. So much anti-fat culture and fat-shaming was printed in the magazines. All the emphasis was on women having to be thin.

Besides the movies and the teen magazines, I looked at academic material to help me understand the Barbie culture. The topic of Barbie’s body proportions has received the most attention over time. I read a lot of what had been written about the doll and the distorted body she was equipped with and applied it to the movies, given that the doll was the main actor. I also read studies that had been done on whether children had been influenced by Barbie and the movies and talked about how relevant it was that these studies were even happening, and I also read interviews with the movie executives. It all helped me combine the details with the big picture.

Doing the senior seminar paper was a challenge, especially getting organized and staying on time with my deadlines. I am a big procrastinator. I had hoped to work a bit on the paper every day or every week, but when it came down to it, I set aside the four or five days before each deadline and worked exclusively on the paper.

Dr. Mooney had various deadlines built in during the semester for us to submit some parts of the paper, and that helped me stay on track. When I had to submit five pages from my paper, I realized that I had quite a lot to say about the topic and that I would be able to write the senior seminar paper, which helped relieve my anxiety a little bit. When we submitted the first draft of the paper, we discussed our work in class and we saw what everybody else was working on. By the time it came to working on the final draft, we had already written a lot of the paper and received feedback on it.

Getting started was the hardest part. Writing the first five pages helped me start the writing process. In the end, I discarded half of what I had written and divided the other half across multiple sections of my paper. In writing those five pages, I came to realize that my approach was not that good and that I had to change how I was going to structure the paper. Writing things down helped me see that.

The presentation was also a bit daunting. Dr. Mooney had told us to keep our talk to 10 minutes, and it was hard to cover all the material in such a short period of time. I am also not a very confident public speaker, so speaking in front of the group made me nervous. But my classmates and Dr. Mooney were all very supportive and were very engaged on the topic, so I was not so nervous when I talked. We had also decided, without talking about it, to dress up in the theme of our papers for the presentation. So, I wore a lot of pink that day.

The presentation helped me clarify my argument. When I was preparing for it and had to tell my classmates about my topic, it made me look at how I was phrasing things as well as the structure of my paper, so I decided to organize some of it differently. When I was done with the paper, I felt very proud of myself and confident. It was the longest paper I have written so far, 27 pages.

My advice to students starting their senior seminar paper now would be to not worry about having an argument from the beginning. Dr. Mooney told me that I will need to do my research before I can fashion my argument. I was still nervous about not having what I thought was a good enough argument by the time I submitted the first draft – and that was more than halfway through the semester. But I decided to sit down and write what I did know and once I had done that, I realized that I did have an argument, and eventually I just had to fine-tune it. Once you have done your reading and analyzed your sources, you will find your argument.

Also, don’t worry about whether you can write a senior seminar paper. I was worried whether I could write such a long piece because the longest paper I had written before was only 12 pages, but then it turned out I had so much to say that I could have written even more than I did. The senior seminar class was a great learning experience for me; I feel better about myself as a writer now.