Dickens meets Barbie

The other day, I babysat my niece’s twin five-year-old girls for the day. Part of the time was spent watching a Barbie movie: a remake of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Or, should I say a reimagining of A Christmas Carol, with Barbie telling the story to her younger sister – but in this version, it is about a vain, selfish singer in Victorian London who is causing hardship to those she employs (she runs a theatre as well as being a singing star). Mostly particularly, to her best friend the costume designer.

Now, I have to admit, I was not keen to watch this film. I have never been a Barbie girl, nor lived in a Barbie world. And, as an author, my blood chilled to think of one of my books being remade over in Barbie’s image.

And yet… as I watched it, I found myself noticing something unusual. All the big speaking roles in this movie are female. All of them. There’s a notional love interest for the best friend. There’s a few lines said by the juggler at the theatre, and another couple of lines from the director of an orphanage. Every other word spoken (including by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future) were said by women or girls. Try to remember the last time you watched a movie like that. It was probably Steel Magnolias (1989).

Female-driven movies are vanishingly rare, and even in those women rarely speak more than 60% of the dialogue, according to a large analysis of Hollywood movies. A film with 95% of the dialogue by women? Not happening in Hollywood, but alive and well in Barbieland.

And who are the main characters in this film? Two women with successful careers, running their own businesses (in Christmas Future, when the singer is abandoned and in poverty due to her hardheartedness, the best friend has become an acclaimed designer).

The singer, of course, has been brought up to believe ‘in a selfish world, only the selfish succeed’, by her aunt (the replacement for Jacob Morley), and repudiating this certainly plays into a ‘be a good girl’ script. But then, so does Scrooge’s redemption.

The centrality of female friendship to a happy life was the subsidiary theme.

Barbie movies are very popular.

It makes me wonder about this coming generation of girls. The ones who grew up on Elsa’s defiant acceptance of her power in Frozen. Talk to an average five-to-ten year old – they want to be Elsa, not Anna, the bumbling, endearing ‘main character’. They want to be the one with power.

And the overt messages of Frozen? Don’t reject loving advances from your sister (as in Do you want to build a snowman?). Things go badly when you try to please other people by not being yourself. Don’t be afraid of your own power – as long as it’s wielded with love, it’s great!

These girls, pushed into being pinker than any generation before, are also being served up with role models I would have killed for as a child.

So, would Dickens have liked the Barbie version of A Christmas Carol? I doubt it. But I suspect his three daughters would have loved it!

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