How Could You Refuse?: The Resurgence of Barbie Princess and the Pauper in the Pandemic and the Restorative Power of Nostalgia

By Lily Jaremski

“I have a podcast. I can do some of the audio editing,” I offer to my fellow group project members. Naturally this statement begs the question: “What is your podcast about?” Maybe I wanted them to ask. I don’t know. “My friends and I review Barbie movies. We’re going in chronological order.” That usually brings some attention.

As little as we tend to talk about them now, so many people, especially girls, have memories of watching Barbie movies growing up. We have strong feelings about which Barbie character is the coolest, which love interest is the least lame, and whether or not the dogs from Barbie and the Diamond Castle are Lovecraftian monsters of Old.

The idea for the podcast really originates from my senior year of high school. As an angsty middle schooler, I sold my Barbie movie collection in a yard sale in order to purchase an iPod 4. I was feeling nostalgic and discovered I could purchase my entire collection back on eBay. Around Christmas, I had a bunch of friends over to spend the day watching Barbie movies that we had enjoyed in our youth. That event evolved into a yearly tradition of getting together to comment on the bad animation, eat snacks, and enjoy the nostalgia of revisiting these movies from our childhood.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Zoom gatherings with friends were still a novelty and I spent a lot of time reconnecting with people online, I got together one evening and reminisced with my old Girl Scout troop, some of whom I’ve known for fifteen years. In the midst of our reminiscing, we started talking about Barbie movie nights and how much we would miss being able to joke and gossip about them over sparkling cider. Then, one of my friends suggested that we start a Barbie movie review podcast. Over the summer, the idea blossomed until it became Girls Like You.

I should point out: we’re not the only people who feel a nostalgia for Barbie movies. The hashtag #barbiemovies has 72.3 million views on TikTok. On YouTube, bootleg uploads of the movies have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views before they are removed. Across the internet this summer, classic Barbie movies experienced an unprecedented resurgence in popularity, with one emerging as a clear favorite. In fact, the reexamining of Barbie Princess and the Pauper, Barbie’s first musical movie, has confirmed over and over again that it’s … actually good?

Barbie Movies, as a property, have done fairly well in the intervening years between my childhood and my young adulthood. They are estimated to have garnered almost two billion dollars in sales revenue across 37 movies. And along with their continuing popularity with young kids, Barbie movies have managed to remain in the cultural zeitgeist. (Remember the Bibble memes a few years back? A true icon.)

Barbie Princess and the Pauper is my favorite Barbie movie, but I’m pretty sure I’m not biased when I say that it’s the best Barbie movie ever made. It has an interesting, if familiar, plot and amazing music. To this day it serves drama, romance, and  inspiring story about doing the right thing and listening to your heart.

So, here’s a basic plot synopsis: Erika and Annelise are two identical Barbie clones living in an unspecified kingdom long ago. Annelise is the princess of a kingdom that is struggling financially while she lives the opulent life of a royal. Erika is a pauper working off a debt left to her by her parents at the royal seamstress. Their paths cross one day in the village and they sing a duet about how similar they look, and part ways with plans to one day bring Erika to the castle to sing. Annelise is set to be married off to the neighboring King Dominick, but the Queen’s advisor Preminger has a plan to kidnap her and pretend to rescue her so he can marry her and be king instead. Annelise’s tutor and crush, Julian, enlists Erika’s help in pretending to be Annelise (with a convenient blonde wig) in order to figure out Preminger’s plan. Inevitably, chaos ensues, both Barbie doppelgangers fall for the wrong man, and their cats fall in love. It’s amazing.

Okay, you say, so it’s silly and fun. But why is it still so popular? Is the pull of nostalgia just that strong? I would argue that beyond being a fun movie from childhood that holds up now, it’s actually a good film. The music is certainly good. The duet “I Am a Girl Like You” brings up a core memory in many of my fellow Millennial-Gen Z cuspers and I can still sing Erika’s hopeful “The Cat’s Meow” from memory, but by far the most iconic number is Preminger’s villain song “How Could I Refuse.” Martin Short (yes, that Martin Short) chews up the scenery and delivers some of the most stellar evil voice acting I have ever heard.

Like other nostalgic properties, Barbie Princess and the Pauper offers the audience both elements that are enjoyable in and of themselves, like the great songs, and elements that are fun to joke about upon rewatching. Why did they give King Dominick such a penchant for dressing up as other people? What was that accent choice with Preminger’s gold-toothed poodle? Why did Julian just happen to have a blonde wig lying around that perfectly matched Annelise’s hair? Is this proof that Annelise was actually wearing a wig the whole time? Is she bald? All discussions my friends and I have had over the years of rewatching Barbie movies.

The first few Barbie movies were stories based off of existing properties. Until the Fairytopia movies came out and created new, original stories and worlds, Barbie movies were based off of ballets, fairy tales, or existing narratives. A familiar story makes it easy for audiences to connect with, and in the cases of Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie of Swan Lake, scores were prewritten as well. The basis for Barbie Princess and the Pauper, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, was a property that was much less familiar to the Barbie movies’ target audience. Maybe that is why the movie felt so special and different to Barbie’s young audience at the time.

To those who have never seen a Barbie movie before, Barbie Princess and the Pauper seems like it would be a shallow story. A toy line with a less-than-feminist reputation making a princess movie? Please. But part of the reason that it has retained so much popularity over the years is that at its core, it is filled with great messages for people young and slightly less young (I refuse to call myself old yet). In the opening song, Erika and Annelise sing, “Duty means doing the thing your heart may well regret.” They reaffirm their commitments to promises they have made, even if those choices are not in line with their dreams. By the end of the movie, once she has freed herself from the control of the royal seamstress Madame Carp, Erika rejects Dominick’s proposal in favor of traveling the world to follow her dream of performing on stage. She comes back to him at the end, and Barbie’s narration reminds us that “sometimes being free means choosing not to go, but to stay.”

To me, this is the best part of Barbie movies, and Barbie Princess and the Pauper in particular. The main characters (read: Barbie facsimiles) are never motivated by romance or a crush on a man to move the plot forward. Instead, they are focused on their own adventure and sometimes happen to find love along the way. Barbie has a diversity of interests: dancing, painting, singing, and today even being a superhero or a spy. For me, this is why these movies will always hold up. The characters are relatable, have clear motivations, and stand up to their antagonists without needing anyone else. Their love interests are enticed by their independence and adventurous spirits.

An okay, maybe nostalgia has something to do with it too. Maybe rewatching Barbie movies with friends reminds us of a simpler time when we had fewer worries. Everything that has happened this year, from a surprising return home after spring break, to an uncertain summer, to an isolated fall semester, makes me want to return to a simpler time. It makes me want to pull out my singing Erika and Annelise Barbies and spend hours creating new worlds for them. Now that I’m facing graduation and a rickety future of real-world adult life, Barbie movies feel simpler.

I will always be grateful for what these movies have done for me. They encouraged me to go after what I wanted, they inspired a love for musical theatre and dress up, and they brought me closer together with two of my best friends this summer. Things could always be worse.

At least you’re not an indentured servant.

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