The Barbie butterfly was supposed to take off in flight, almost as if by magic. Surprisingly to me only, she didn’t actually fly around our small apartment as promised. Magic Jewel Barbie with her blue and pink tulle gown came with various strings of “jewels” that when dipped through the accompanying bottle were supposed to change color. Yet, no matter how many times we tried we never could get the “magic” to happen.
The first novela I remember watching was El Privilegio de Amar (1998) — a story about an orphaned young woman who falls in love with a young man from a wealthy and distinguished family. Secrets are revealed, infidelities occur. I learned about melodramas by watching telenovelas and quickly realized I could recreate the worlds I saw on my screen — obviously with my Barbies.
The dolls were never about what the back of the box said anyway. I just wanted the magic Barbie promised. And when that didn’t deliver, I set out to create my own.
Both Barbies and telenovelas were at their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s. These two pop cultural icons have been (rightly) criticized for perpetuating race, class, and gender stereotypes. Along the way, the doll became a globally recognized brand and telenovelas forever changed the nature of Latin American media. Their turn-of-the-century moment formed a convergence of ideal “Americanness” and drama-infused Latinidad — leading to an implosion of all kinds of innovative world-building for real-life Latinas like me.
To find out more about how Latinas experienced this pop culture boom of hyper-femininity and storytelling, LatinaMediaCo talked to several women who played telenovelas with their Barbies growing up.
For 36-year-old film critic, Ieda Marcondes, Barbies were an emotional release. “I took this over-the-top quality to my storylines where everything was melodramatic and tragic. I was a very sensitive kid, so it’s possible that I also felt my emotions in an exaggerated way, much like the novelas,” she told LatinaMediaCo. Playing with Barbies was a way to express herself and act out her emotions — novelas also helped tap into her feelings, especially since growing up in São Paulo during the late 80s and 90s, all conversations revolved around the shows. “In a weird way, novelas taught me what would be perceived as normal [emotions] and whenever I tried to put that into practice, by mimicking, results would vary.”
For her part, Itssel Jaimes, who is 29 and grew up in Houston, always made sure her Barbie storylines had a happy ending. “You know novelas love cliffhangers, [but] I would just resolve the issue whatever it was or make the guy fall in love at the end,” she said. Jaimes, who started watching novelas at 6 years old, used her Barbies as a way to achieve a completeness that the serials left unopened. She used the more diverse My Scene dolls to build up storylines about evil twins, baby daddy drama, and adultery. “Mind you, this was before I had ‘The Talk’ so I was just regurgitating scenes from novelas my mom would watch at the time.”
Ana Avalos’ educational experience with novelas also leaned towards sex. “I was not prohibited from watching any scenes and because I often saw sex scenes that were covered up with sheets, on the floor of my room it was a common occurrence to have Ken or Barbie on top of the other covered by a kleenex.” She added surprise pregnancies, cheating scandals, and shoving other Barbies down the stairs. Avalos, 27, grew up intimately understanding the female gaze — seeing how telenovelas were written, as well as living with her aunts, mom, and grandma. “I had no access to male storytelling when it came to love. Which I think just meant that the ordinary and the every day was both important and needed drama to be elevated.” She used her Barbies as a further foray into the world of women-led stories.
Telenovelas were a form of intergenerational bonding, especially for young Latinas in the diaspora. Abigail Quiles, a 19-year-old student at the University of Vermont, was born and raised in the Bronx and remembers Teresa (2010) as the first telenovela she would watch with her grandma. “I didn’t process information about the plot, but I loved watching the dramatics of it and asking my grandma what was going on.” She learned Spanish through her grandmother’s plot explanations and later on Quiles would translate the dramatics onto her Barbies. “My storylines sometimes involved the famous ‘slap’ from novelas and the intense music after,” she said. She feels that the drama queen persona became a part of who she is today, “I’m not afraid to share my thoughts and it opened the door for me to have a big imagination.”
On top of learning about the world around them through Barbie and telenovelas, the convergence of these two pop culture icons also brought about self-discovery. 26-year-old sound editor Nicole Watlington never saw herself as a “doll kind of girl.” Barbie was the exception. “For some reason I liked Barbies. I never wanted to model my appearance after a Barbie or anything like that. I liked that I had the power to create little narratives and that they’ve sort of looked like the celebrities I was consuming on TV.” She would take her Ken doll everywhere, would wash his hair with real shampoo and conditioner. And he would always host the mansion parties she loved to throw.
Watlington would catch snippets of novelas at her grandma’s house. “Re-enacting these situations was a way for me to live that teenage drama that I was consuming. I desperately tried to be a teenager, so I crafted my own fantasies through the dolls.” She explains when you’re a kid, you barely have any control and even asking questions might get you shut down. Through her Barbies, she could express her curiosities in a safe space she created. This included the realization of her own sexuality. “There’s a reason why I almost always went for a Ken just like I always wanted to be the husband whenever I played with friends and there was a marriage involved. In my head, it was the only way I could pretend I was dating Barbie. Again, there’s this sense of control. Like, it’s ok that I want this because I’m channeling that through Ken.”
Control was also a big theme for Miriam Santana, an English PhD student at UT Austin. “That was the space where I could determine the story that I created. I was the puppeteer,” she said when asked about why she chose to re-enact novelas with her Barbies. Growing up undocumented in a small one-bedroom with four other people, everything else was just about survival. “I remember I played the most with my Barbies when we were in the most difficult financial situation,” Santana recalls that her parents were proud to buy her all the nicest Barbies as their way to provide a small taste of a lifestyle they weren’t able to afford. Though of course, her Barbie stories included infidelity and sex, they also enacted a realization of class that most of her other classmates and friends in Santa Clarita didn’t have. Telenovelas also were a part of this early education on disparity. “We’re watching what my parents want to watch, and that was the novelas. For me, what drew me was always the romance but with MariMar I was fascinated by class. I don’t even know if 5-year-olds should be thinking about class and love in that way but the novelas sure took that out of me.”
With Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the doll has once again captured the imaginations of people all over the world. Her hot pink brand has come back during an age where people are reconceptualizing their relationships with all things girly. For Latinas, the combination of Barbie and telenovelas allowed us to navigate the world of sex and love in ways that made sense to us. And although we know little of Barbie the hype surrounding the movie has given us permission to go back to that vulnerable place of childhood. To a place where we are able to once again express ourselves in imaginative and hyper-feminine ways and exist through the act of creation.