When I’m giving talking with fellow writers, maybe even giving advice, it isn’t long before I’m sharing what I learned from Barbie movies. I really do feel it was a key part of my author’s journey.
Now you might already be wondering, WTH? and that’s fine, but follow me on this, it was a subtle but interesting point. There are plenty of things that I don’t like about them, but there’s million of blog posts on that type of stuff.
Years ago when my daughter was three and the rage among little girls was Barbie and The Twelve Dancing Princesses and then Barbie and the Diamond Castle, as any good dad, I sat and kept her company when she watched the movies. Again and again and again. Not every single time, as I’m sure she watched it more than a million times, but enough that I started to deconstruct the movie.
I was used to “boy oriented cartoons” which always broke down into physical violence in a matter of minutes. One side declared themselves the side of right, the others were deemed the side of wrong, and then powers and/or fists would be used until the side of wrong were beaten back or subdued. It was no surprise why 1. boys got engaged because it was exciting and 2. why boys then acted this out by play fighting.
What I knew of “girl oriented cartoons” were from the 80s, where it seemed everyone needed to have a pretty dress, pretty hair, and be liked. I found that in the mid 2000s, things like for the boys, hadn’t changed much. I wasn’t a fan of the idea of my daughter watching these Barbie movies and so insisted that “Daddy watches them with you, to make sure they are a good idea, okay?” Right on the first viewing, I was impressed.
The big difference was that they had action and excitement without needing to resort to violence beyond maybe a short scene of bonking a guard on the head with a frying pan or tripping them with a rope. It was clear that there was significantly more effort put in that I was used to for the “boy oriented cartoons” (which my daughter also watched sometimes). There was some level of intrigue and always a deception or two involved by the villain.
They also used character conflict to build tension. This is no surprise if you think of an older cartoon, but for young girls to have excitement and action without violence, to have some (though limited by adult standards) character depth instead of flat characters? It was interesting.
So the lessons that I ultimately took away?
1. Don’t underestimate your audience. A lot of writers do that, they dumb things down. I didn’t really believe it until I started reading some young adult fiction and kept noticing how simplistic they made things, how uni-dimensional and most importantly, and how little effort they asked of the reader. Some argue that this is “necessary for the reader of today” but I don’t think so, and there’s plenty of counter examples.
2. A clear reminder that for conflict and tension, you don’t need to resort to an out and out slugfest. There are many ways to get the pulse racing of the reader, and particularly in adventure stories, having some fisticuffs can be unavoidable but it can be very measured.
3. You can challenge yourself to find different ways to bring things across that can just as easily appeal to girls as to boys. I marvelled at the number of boys who would sit and watch these movies, after first complaining that it was a BARBIE movie. They didn’t miss the punching and kicking, they didn’t miss the masks and laser blasts. They were engaged by the story and the beat management.
4. Lastly, you can pick up great tips from the most unlikely of places.