It’s another beautiful day for content creation, at least according to the sky blue backdrop rigged outside the windows of one tasteful midcentury-modern Malibu dream home in particular, though strictly temporally speaking, we’re in El Segundo. Indoors, seated among an embarrassment of houseplants, a young woman strikes a pose with her stylish friends. There’s a month’s worth of content to shoot this week—such is the life of catering to just over 3 million Instagram and TikTok followers—so she’s assembled a team to help. From a few inches away, her stylist leans forward and adjusts the tilt of a hand while our star influencer smiles patiently, plastically, under the crush of lights. Barbie is nothing if not a professional. 

“The smallest little movement can make it look like a doll,” says Zlatan Kusnoor with a sigh that says yes, I am aware this is a doll. Kusnoor, a senior creative manager and art director at toy maker Mattel, oversees Barbie’s social media presence and is my unofficial tour guide today. Peering through his round, Apfelian glasses, he suggests lifting Barbie’s head a little to zhuzh up the faux on-camera eye contact. Barbie’s photographer, producer, and social media manager look on. Her wardrobe stylist stands nearby with a backup top and skirt and is at the ready, if things get truly dire, to make a run to the doll head cabinet.

To wander the Barbie production studios is to constantly recalibrate one’s sense of scale: Here, the world shrinks down to one sixth of itself, from her three-room home—complete with a tiny pink fridge, a tiny pink espresso machine, and a glistening pool—to an entire contained universe’s worth of props and accessories that make a convincing life, at least onscreen. No detail is left unattended: A miniature bell pepper gets flagged for looking suspiciously disproportionate; another Barbie’s surgically precise manicure earns approving coos across the board. “People think it’s just taking the doll out of the box…” Kusnoor says of the enterprise that is running Barbie’s socials while he waves one aforementioned blondie jerkily. “But no. It’s actually very meticulous.” 

Think of it as playing house with Barbie at the highest level, in service of possibly the most self-aware, if not delightful, corporate presence on the internet: On Instagram as @barbiestyle, our eternally teenaged Californian (and her recently introduced New York City counterpart, Barbie “Brooklyn” Roberts) posts slice-of-life tableaus, red carpet appearances, and workout selfies galore. On TikTok, where Barbie’s videos have received 8.8 million likes since joining the platform in October 2021, she tries out ASMR, shows off her amateur pottery skills, and invites fans to watch her organize an (already neat) bathroom

©2023 Mattel, Inc.

Of course Barbie would be great at posting, but it’s not just because of her particular access to an unlimited wardrobe and forever photo-ready makeup. Like any super-influencer worth her sponcon these days, Barbie has savvily mastered the skill of sharing her aspirational “life” with just enough personality to give any of the more wooden Kard-Jenner clones of your timeline a run for their own hot pink Bimmers. Half of the joke is that Barbie—well, the dozens of decision makers at Mattel—is in on it. On IG, she brags about surviving Y2K style the first time around; in a “day in the life”–style video, she ruminates on the finer points of being a doll (Pro: “Perfect haircut.” Con: “NEVER. GROWS.”).

What’s ironic about Barbie’s foray into the creator economy, beyond a reflection of the state of 2023 careerism, is the obvious debt that our current generation of influencerdom owes directly to her. We’ve been living in Barbie’s world for something like a social media generation now—whether she was on Instagram or not. Consider how the past six decades or so of successive childhoods spent interchanging trendy outfits, arranging posable limbs, and playacting fantasy CEO-astronaut-jetsetter-mermaid-cowgirl ambitions trained us for the daily labor of #OOTD posts, #GRWM videos, and ongoing curation of our lives for public consumption. Becoming an influencer these days means nothing short of treating yourself—and presenting your image—as a branded product: that is, to appear as Barbie-like as possible. 

Think of the influencer/model Yaya in last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness, cheesing for a photo with a plate of pasta she’ll never eat; think of TikTok’s Bella Poarch on her 2022 album Dolls, singing “Build a Bitch” in reaction to her fame. Where once the name “Barbie” held a derisive connotation in pop culture for vapid blonds and fake beauty, she’s become aspirational once more: Cue the latest Ozempic-fueled craze for thinness, the waning stigma of plastic surgery, entire global supply chains rejiggered in pursuit of the fast-fashion demand (and girly-girl style à la LoveShackFancy, Hill House, and its ilk). Hot girl summer never ends, and I’m told bimbofication is back. So is Barbiecore. It all seems set to culminate later this year, when Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie hits theaters July 21. We’re a big ways away from Little Women. 

Where Barbie’s social media gets most deliciously meta is when she reflects the trappings of influencer culture back to us. Even Barbie knows that the illusion is the point. On Instagram in January, she showed her fans how hard it is to get Ken (the original Instagram boyfriend, if you think about it) to take a good photo of her; on TikTok, she responds to a question “How do you make your vids look so good?” with a faux behind-the-scenes video of her “production crew.”

Like any other person-as-brand (and brand-as-person) conglomeration cluttering up our social feeds, Barbie’s content creation takes the work of a full-time team. There’s the preproduction phase, where her wardrobe stylist tracks real-life influencers and runways for inspiration: In the style closet, magazine pages forecasting neon and sheer trends are tacked up alongside a printout of Kendall Jenner wearing tights instead of pants. If Barbie’s outfit can’t be cobbled together out of her existing looks (I count seven craft trays dedicated to shoes, sorted by color), vintage pieces get called in from eBay, or a particularly on-trend piece might be created custom through the in-house couturier of patternmakers and fabricators. 

Concepts and scripts—which the creative team puts together with a writers room—are debated and finalized. At the art department, I’m invited to play with a convincingly half-eaten pile of miniature chicken wings being prepped for a Super Bowl concept. (Observes one of my guides: “No bite marks in the celery though,” to which an art department staffer reasons, “Nobody wants garnish.”) I set the teeny wings down next to an also-teeny brown paper delivery bag that already has a micro receipt stapled on it, the better for Ken to transport the wings to Barbie’s watch party. “It’s so small,” Olivier Loranger Gagnon, who oversees the TikTok shoots, explains, “but people do notice.” 

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