Photograph via Instagram.

Instagram Influencers Are the Barbie Dolls of Our Age

Barbie’s social media presence shows us how the average Instagram influencer’s values are eerily similar to the anachronistic doll’s.

by Sarah Bochicchio
Jun 20 2018, 4:07pm

Photograph via Instagram.

On Memorial Day, she was snapped in her coziest white loungewear, posing nonchalantly on her fluffiest white duvet. With her head turned in profile, she studied a corner of her patio through the French doors—white chaises, a potted fern, palm trees—and held a teacup in her hand. The caption read: “Long weekends are my cup of tea. Hope you all have a lovely holiday!”

A few self-promotional hashtags—#barbie #barbiestyle—gave away the charade. This immaculately executed Instagram belongs to an 11-inch doll.

A brightly lit, colorful array of avocado toast, flat lays, girl gangs, and fashion collabs, Barbie’s Style Instagram account @BarbieStyle is virtually indistinguishable from those of human influencers. Since its inception, @BarbieStyle has been a pitch-perfect embodiment of the Instagram lewk—the lighting, the candid-but-not poses, the you-didn’t-really-eat-that food posts. She’s jetting off to Art Basel Miami (but not actually posting about the art), luxuriating après-ski at Sundance (without substantive film reviews), and sporting fringe and vaguely Ganado prints at Coachella (no comment on the music). Influencers appear at her side with regularity: Gigi Hadid, Iris Apfel, and Aimee Song; she even cheekily weighed in on the infamous Laurel and Yanny debate. Recently, she has started doing sponsored (read: paid) posts: celebrating #NationalNailPolishDay and #Shoesday with @Sally_Hansen and @shoedazzle. And nearly two million people follow her carefully executed moves (the account was even parodied on Saturday Night Live).

@BarbieStyle was born in 2014 at the hands of two Mattel execs: Kim Culmone, Vice President, Barbie Design; and Robert Best, Senior Director, Barbie Design, along with photography and creative lead Zlatan Zukanovic. Amid continued slipping sales—they dropped 20% between 2012 and 2014—the account maneuvered Barbie into the digital world, opening an opportunity for her to relate to audiences in a new cultural climate. Written and shot as a first-person narrative, @BarbieStyle occupies the same aspirational ground as many an influencer—only on a (literally) smaller scale. Her nomination entry to the Shorty Awards lists her devotion to “real-world shoot locations, elevated brand partnerships, real-time event attendance and continuous travel to new locations for the account.” There are no green screens involved. It’s all “real.” At once a reflection of our aesthetic ideal and deeply, actively embedded in it, @BarbieStyle manages to reproduce, expand upon, and surpass other InstaContent in its utter precision and premeditation.

In an interview with Fashionista last year, Robert Best, the man behind the camera, explained the account’s popularity: “People love to see things that they respond to in real life reflected in everything around them. Barbie Style is just a miniature, tongue-in-cheek version of a social media platform…I think it’s because, when you look at it, it looks like a real-person Instagram.”

But behind the millennial pink, something more sinister lurks. Is it cute that an 11-inch plastic doll can (albeit painstakingly) replicate our visual ideals? Or is it a little bit disheartening that crippling beauty conventions have carried over from one of the most repressive historical decades to become reflections of our decade, too?

Barbie hasn’t garnered this success, this exacting imitation, in spite of her miniature, artificial frame. It’s because of it. Barbie’s distinction is that she is a doll of fantasy—both in the sense that she represents limitless, imaginary play and her very physicality is based on a desired ideal. Where Gigi Hadid, for example, is expected to look like a doll, Barbie already is. Barbie was developed in the 1950s, and she’s generally dismissed as anachronistic, a retro holdover from a more delusional time, but the ease with which her Instagram fits into this universe reveals that the persona and values of the modern-day Instagram influencer are eerily similar to hers.

These are the traces of commercial-grade feminism: look good for no one but yourself—just in case there’s someone watching, anywhere, anytime.

When I broach this subject with social media strategist Marcy Huang, she suggests, “Barbie lends itself (herself?) to the tropes of Instagram, because a lot of those tropes are fashion, beauty, overt femininity. A lot of that stuff is here. Even like the cute pink car.”

Many, many human Influencers embody a floaty, frilly femininity and luxury, direct takeoffs from the Barbie lifestyle. The influencer demonstrates a mind-boggling capacity to match multi-patterned looks to the natural world—as if, say, a wisteria-lined street in South Carolina were a set made specifically for the purposes of a walk-by in a tulle dress. Her world is a glamorous one: funfetti dressing, abundant skirts, Chanel accessories in every color. She appears beautifully relaxed in her hotel robe, surrounded by her pricey, Parisian-inspired breakfast. Her looks are well arranged, but glossed over with a focus on health—or the treat-yourself-by-consuming version, self-care. Her world is as well appointed and packaged as, well, a doll’s. (One wonders if Lil Miquela is taking notes.)

Another midcentury vestige carries over: an obsession with a narrow kind of perfection. @BarbieStyle removes the human presence by removing human error, by removing human limitations. Like a plucky, blonde Santa, she exists somewhere beyond time—never aging, jumping from Paris to New York in an instant, capable of being someone, somewhere, something that we cannot be—and yet being us, far better than we can manage. Isn’t that what makes influence worthy of professionalization?

To Huang, the main attraction of an influencer is a sense of “relatable unrelatability.” That is, she says, “There is some level of perfection, but it feels attainable. If you only had the money, if you only had the resources. Because how many of us have looked at an influencer’s profile and thought, ‘Oh, I could be her.’” It’s bite-sized escapism. “It’s selling that impression of ‘oh, I could be at Coachella now’ but you’re actually at your desk job.”

But @BarbieStyle unintentially underscores the unattainability of the influencer life. No matter where Barbie is—exploring the Marciano Art Foundation, luxuriating in bed, frolicking around Paris—no shoe goes unpolished, workouts draw no sweat, her hair never strays beyond intentionally tousled. The human Instagram magnate similarly has no bad angles. Standing beside her own Pantene ad, The Blonde Salad’s Chiara Ferragni offers up a game of spot-the-difference, her InstaPose barely diverging from the professional, major haircare brand advertisement. Her own Instagrams seem almost more immaculately positioned. There’s not a coffee stain, an inconvenient whitehead, or even passersby cheapening her shot—the most unruly elements of the world are curated away. These are the traces of commercial-grade feminism: look good for no one but yourself—just in case there’s someone watching, anywhere, anytime. To embody perfection not just in our exceptional moments, but our most mundane ones, too.

“It’s hard for me to believe that people want things other than perfection on their feeds,” Huang continues. “Because that’s what they post themselves. You would never post a photo of yourself that you looked bad in.” @BarbieStyle takes this only one step further—a level of perfection that literally defies human ability.

@BarbieStyle offers up—on a tiny platter—the very essence of our gridded feeds. Perhaps we should strive towards a visual ideal that can’t be mimicked and mocked by a doll no taller than a human forearm.