Marxist Barbie Discourse and the Weird Wide Web of Queer Video Essays

There are many ways to mark the times before and after pivotal events. There’s the markers historians use, such as B.C.E. and C.E.; the casual longing use of the “Before Times” to refer to our carefree, pre-Covid existences. And then, there is life after Barbenheimer Weekend, henceforth dividing our evermore chaotic time into another schism: Before Barbie and After Barbie. And after seeing a hotly-anticipated movie like Barbie comes the aftermath, the Olive Gardenesque neverending buffet of cultural response. We feast on the hot takes, stuff ourselves silly on discourse, admire everyone’s premiere night ‘fit pics in the comforting glow of our phones, placing bets on the over-under of how many drag kings will perform to “I’m Just Ken” (The answer? All of them, and I will watch every single number with joy and admiration and tip generously)

So what is there to do now that you’ve seen Barbie twice and read every thinkpiece about it in existence and texted all your friends to tell them that they are beautiful and capable of anything and more than (K)enough? I will be coming down from the pink, Indigo-Girls-tinged haze with my favorite method of exploring any cultural phenomenon — watching as many long, overly elaborate, documentary-style YouTube video essays about the subject as I possibly can. Video essays have been my go-to “background TV” for a while now, kept me company through quarantine and other isolating mental health patches, and what better way to celebrate a communal zeitgeisty moment than by sharing a favorite with you, readers?

With the Barbie hype pervading every corner of TikTok, every drag show theme, even the creeping vines of our subconscious, it only makes sense that I start with the best video essay to recover from Greta Gerwig’s film — Alexander Avila’s “Overanalyzing the Barbie Movies With Queer Marxist Theory.” Although there are many queer readings of the Barbie animated franchise on YouTube, including this one from Drawpinion Dump, but Avila’s video is, I would argue, the definitive Barbieverse deep dive.

Although Avila’s video focuses on queer readings of animated Barbie films, it makes for the perfect prelude to Barbie because he provides some important historical context to the creation of the titular doll and her cultural significance over time, particularly to, as Avila puts it, the kids that made their Barbies kiss, or dressed Barbie in Ken’s clothes and Ken in Barbie’s. The primary focus of these animated movies is homosocial relationships rather than, say, Barbie and Ken, and that emphasis, naturally, is ripe for queer readings (and boy, are there readings).

But this is also a video about queer Marxist theory, and Barbie is a brand in our capitalist hellworld, one that while offering some freedom on an individual level for exploring one’s identity through play, will never really challenge any big structural inequities. Avila uses Barbie as an instructive lens for talking about cultural hegemony (tl;dr maintaining power or domination over people through cultural force) and the appeal and pitfalls of liberal individualism. “You can project queerness onto the narrative and that can be genuinely liberating for some people, but the movie places the audience within the boundaries of a white, feminine and traditionally aristocratic queerness that maintains the hegemony of Barbie’s pink image,” Avila says in the video.

I don’t want to give too much away from the deep dives, especially into the queer yearning of Barbie and the Diamond Castle (let’s play “Barbie Lyric or Mitski Song?”). Come for the queer Barbie memories; stay for the only political theory crash course that refers to Antonio Gramsci as a “socialist twunk.”

There’s something deeply satisfying about a video deep dive, and I’m not the only one who thinks so—when I asked for video essay recommendations once on Lex, I was met with dozens of comments from strangers sharing their favorites, many of them queer. While this isn’t explicitly a queer channel, if you too can recite the “Shapeland” monologue from the Defunctland FastPass documentary, know that I see you and I love you.

As discourse and the general experience of Being Online gets worse and worse with the devolution of Twitter into 4chan for Boomers, the further fish-gutting of independent media, and comment sections continuing to be, well, comment sections, video essays, at least the good ones (and because it is YouTube, there are a lot of hot reactionary garbage ones too), teach us something new and encourage critical thinking. And even if you don’t learn much, I find them to be fun and interesting—it’s the same little brain-scratching buzz I get from enthusiastically sharing something I’m interested in with a friend, or listening to them do the same. Maybe this is the part where I should talk about the occasionally unhealthy parasocial relationships we have with queer Internet personalities, including video essayists, but that could really be a whole entire essay.

So, where to start on your own deep dive journey if you want to start exploring the wide world of queer YouTube video essays? There are the legions of Tumblr and fandom historians, offering exhaustive explorations of fandom and shipping moments that will give you flashbacks to mid-2010s SuperWhoLock Tumblr, but in a way that I promise is still interesting even if you have not watched even a second of Super, Who or Lock, and unpacking the legacy of subcultures exploring queer and trans identities on the platform.

There are the queer and trans pop cultural historians, covering everything from gay Muppeteering icon Richard Hunt to the story of Serena Olvido, the first trans actress in a Disney animated film, who played Ursula in the Spanish dub of The Little Mermaid; from the history of queerbaiting in film, to pop culture depictions of bisexuality in the early aughts, to drawing parallels between Anita Bryant and J.K. Rowling. Princess Weekes’s recent YouTube “version of a You’re Wrong About episode” on Anne Heche and what happens when we as a community fail one another, released just a couple of weeks ago, is essential viewing. And, if you are looking for something a little lower-stakes, there’s of course more contemporary pop culture commentary — Tee Noir’s hour-long breakdown of our long national nightmare that was The Ultimatum: Queer Love may be the most entertaining examination of that mess on the internet.

This is by no means exhaustive, and I could say more about a ton of other creators and I probably forgot to mention your favorite and I’m very, very sorry. But I hope these recommendations find you well, stoke your curiosity or encourage you to explore and examine something you’re interested in on your own terms.

Also, it goes without saying but since so many of the queer video essays I love the most have to do with film and television, support the writers & actors striking right now. Solidarity 5ever.

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Lindsay Eanet

Lindsay Eanet (@lindsayeanet) is a Chicago-based writer, editor and performer. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, Howler, Chicago Magazine and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a biweekly podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.

Lindsay has written 34 articles for us.

1 Comment

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