A LatAm Lens: Gauging Barbie's Complex Cultural Legacy

'There's an aspiration and an animosity, coexisting,' says ECD Carmen Love

One of our favorite things about seeing the Barbie movie has been talking about the Barbie movie, because it brings up so many threads. For that reason, people have galvanized around this piece of entertainment in a way that’s surprising, almost as if whole communities can be remade just by discussing it.

We sat down with ECD Carmen Love—whose flightpath has taken her from Mexico City to Los Angeles to Paris—to discuss Barbie’s complicated relationship to Mexican identity, and how it talks to Latin Americans. We also touch upon how it’s impacted my identity as a Filipino. 

Expect to get your Rosa Mexicano fix, and a lot of new vocabulary words that won’t show up on Duolingo.

Hey, Carmen. Tell us about your human trajectory.

Carmen Love: I'm an executive creative director who works independently with different brands, companies, or directly with personalities to help them find their place in culture and connect with the audience they're looking for. 

I'm based in Paris, but traveling quite a bit. I started as an art director, and was always influenced by design and music. Along the way, I realized writing was a better outlet for my creativity within a work environment. So I became a copywriter out of a natural progression, rather than something that was planned. 

I worked in Mexico City for maybe the first 10, 12 years of my career. I did the tour of duty at all the main agencies, the international shops. At one point, I was tapped to start an office in Mexico City for Chiat\Day. They were opening their first international shop for Gatorade, one of my dream brands. Of course I said yes, and helped them for a few years. 

By then, I'd built a strong relationship with the core team in LA. They offered me an opportunity to move to L.A. and keep working with Chiat. I spent almost 10 years there. More recently, as of the pandemic, having the opportunity to work remotely from anywhere in the world, I thought, "Why not Paris?" It was a place that always spoke to me. A lot of my intellectual heroes found inspiration there ... and having worked in both Latin American and U.S. markets, I wanted to experience working in the European market, as well.

Somebody visiting Paris told me beauty and death are always right on top of each other here. Would you agree?

Yeah, that sounds accurate. That contrast is ever present. The city feels infinite to me. I always say that the geographic extension of Paris can't be measured longitudinally. You measure it in depth and layers. 

Coming from the U.S., the fact that beauty is treated as a public good is incredible. It's intentional; places of beauty are created so everybody can enjoy them. It's not tied to where you live, your income or any kind of subscription. I thought that was beautiful.

How did you find the Barbie movie?

Full disclosure, Mattel was a client of mine for about two years. Maybe I have some insight or bias that's not the common denominator. Obviously I don't speak for the brand; I'm not commenting on it beyond being an observer.

Barbie's very multi-layered. It seemed like the culmination of a lot of conversations we were having back then about the role of the brand in culture—what it wanted to mean for generations moving forward. They did a masterful job putting it together, especially at that scale, and with that level of attention to detail. 

Obviously it was going to be a huge pop-culture sensation, because it's so well done and the casting was on point. The fact that they chose Rodrigo Prieto as DPE was brilliant. It's exciting to see such a financially successful project with so much female leadership. That the industry invested at that level is really exciting. 

How long ago was Mattel a client of yours? 

Maybe four years ago.

So it's been a long trajectory, if you're seeing the culmination of conversations you had then.

I think it's been on their radar for a long time, because of how the original Barbie was portrayed, and how cultural understanding of women's roles have changed. They're a smart brand that's very self-aware. They get culture better than anyone. So I think this was a very long onramp, internally discussing things like, “How do you stay in the cultural conversation in a way that's positive and constructive to kids, and families shopping for those kids? How do we see ourselves existing in culture in the next five, six, seven generations?” They weren’t even thinking in terms of years. So Barbie's a smart, obviously business-driven decision, but also a very deliberate choice of how to show up in culture.

I'm glad you brought up Rodrigo Prieto. I was reading about how he made this conscious decision to incorporate Rosa Mexicano. Did you clock the use of it? I wonder if Prieto incorporated other cultural features that people might not have noticed, because they're less distinct.

I definitely noticed the Rosa Mexicano. Of course in Barbie, you're expecting everything to be pink. But all of a sudden, there was one particular shot, a wide shot where she's speaking to the camera, with different things happening in the background ... And suddenly it was like, bam! That's Rosa Mexicano! There were panels at different focal depths, and it was just a visual assault at that point. I was like, "That's Rodrigo Prieto." From there on, throughout the movie, you see touches of it. 

That was exciting. Like you said, it's a very particular color, really saturated and vibrant. If you spent time in Mexico, specifically Mexico City, it's very recognizable. Seeing it in the context of an icon that is not just very American, but global, was a nice statement of identity and identification with a larger cultural world. 

It's like, "Oh, there are some real world elements that are present, even in Barbieland. It's not all Stereotypical Barbie."

I didn't notice other particular cultural elements within Barbie's world, but I appreciated how Gloria, the mom, was portrayed. It seems they deliberately avoided stereotypes that (actress) America Ferrera must have had to play throughout her career. In the script and character development, it seems like she was given the freedom to define this woman as a real person without having to play to "the Latina mom," with predetermined associations about who she is. I saw acknowledgement of Latin American humanity.

I appreciated that she and her daughter are not caricatures. Her daughter is kind of a jerk because she's at that age, and they have a complicated, typical mother/daughter relationship. But off to the side, her husband—who's America Ferrera's actual husband—is learning Spanish. You get the sense that this is important in their family, even if it's not front-loaded in the storytelling.
Do you feel the movie had a particular relationship to the LatAm audience?

I would say so. Let's say they did more than they needed to do to acknowledge the Latin American audience. Having the dad learning Spanish felt organic, true to life.

Barbie is a cultural icon. In many ways, it upheld certain beauty standards, or femininity standards that are maybe especially challenging to a Latin American audience. In many cases, you don't see yourself in Barbie's character. There's an aspiration and an animosity, coexisting. 

I like that that they went out of their way to acknowledge the cultural importance of Latin American families and people in that context, and did it in a way that is natural, not preachy. Like, "this is reality. We're acknowledging that the world is diverse, and it's equally important."

When I was growing up, in the '80s going into the '90s, I had a very specific relationship to Barbie. I never had an Asian Barbie; even if one existed it would have probably not have been my kind of Asian. The diversity of Asianness is something we're just recently coming to terms with.

That's a whole other movie right there.

For me, the Barbie dolls that were available were black and white, literally. You got white dolls or Black dolls. My family chose white dolls. For a long time, I thought I was white, because those were the only doll options.
I’m not putting this all on Barbie, obviously there were other cultural contributors. But Barbie helped complicate and shape my sense of self—like how badly I wanted blond hair, this length of leg and type of body. 
I’m not sure whether, for Latin American kids, it was different or the same. Teresa came out in the '80s, and there was this idea that she had a Latin identity. She had features that coded more Latin, and a quinceañera dress. It seems like Mattel had a consciousness of the LatAm audience much earlier. What was your personal experience of Barbie growing up? 

I didn't grow up having Barbies. I didn't grow up in Mexico City. My family split time between New York, Mexico City and some small Mexican beach towns. I didn't have a typical Mexican childhood. I think my parents also had particular ideas about how they wanted to raise us. 

They were strict, but with purpose. I feel they were aware of trying to expand our worlds beyond having us grow up tied to a national identity. They wanted us to have a global perspective. But they were also aware of not leaving us to buy into some of the stereotypes that my generation was closely entwined with. For example, I never had a quinceañera. We did not watch telenovelas; that was off-limits.

So I didn't have Barbies. I had to convince my dad to sneakily buy stuff for me that was Barbie-related but not the doll, because my mom would not have it. For example, he bought me the pink Corvette even if there was no doll to put in it. It was like, "a Corvette? Cool. The blonde Barbie stereotype? Don't know if we should lead you down that path."

I didn't have a Barbie until I was close to aging out. Somebody gave me one as a birthday present, and I was like, "achievement unlocked." I loved it, the whole fantasy of it. At the same time, I remember understanding why my mom specifically didn't want to feed into it too much. There was this weird dichotomy: This is super aspirational, but it can also be addictive to a young mind, you know?

I think it has parallels with things like quinceañeras, that are like a rite of passage—things linked to certain expressions of femininity that you have to go through and learn from, but you also have to decide what's valid for you and what isn't. Barbie represented that to some degree. 

Even today, Barbie is used as a compliment. In Mexico, if you're talking about a woman who is beautiful and accomplished, and represents this ideal of femininity, people will say, "Oh, she's a Barbie."

Regardless of what she looks like? If she's beautiful and accomplished, she's a Barbie?

Yes, but obviously it tends towards a certain aesthetic. Not blond and blue-eyed necessarily. In terms of appearance and ethnicity, Mexico is varied. There's a stereotype of what people think Mexican people should look like, but it's not necessarily true. There are people who look like Barbie, even if that's not the common expectation.

Do you think there's a Latin American nostalgic experience of Barbie that's unique?

I think there is. Ironically, it might be more focused on the stereotypical Barbie. There was a certain kind of innocence to that concept of femininity and beauty and ease within perfection. In more recent years, society started reflecting on itself, trying to figure out what we did right or wrong in terms of how we value ourselves as a country, or as a community. It makes you question a lot of the things that you might have grown up loving. There is a lot of admiration for Barbie and the kind of femininity that she represented. At the same time, it's always been a bit unattainable to the average Latin American person.

Well, the average anyone.

Yeah, the average anyone. There's a term in Spanish: malinchismo. Are you familiar with it? Malinche was an indigenous woman who, in the times of the conquest, was an interpreter for the Spaniards and of native origin. She was supposed to be an impartial party, but she ended up falling in love with Hernán Cortés. I think they even had kids together. She quickly became considered a traitor to native Mexican values because she handed everything over to her Spanish interlocutors.

Stemming from her name, malinchismo is used to describe a Mexican person who values foreign influences or foreign people over their own native origin. It's openly talked about, but at the same time, it's so built into the culture that it's hard to notice, even when you're doing it yourself—like when you automatically believe that if something is foreign, it must be better than what's available locally. Irrationally, with no analysis: Because it's from the U.S., or Japan, it must be better than the Mexican option. 

There's this tension between wanting to be part of the world and being seen as equally competent and valuable. Then there's that built-in malinchismo that's like, "maybe we're not enough." 

The relationship with Barbie is also tied to that notion. She's beautiful, powerful, feminine. She's also clearly an outsider. If I contrast that to my reality as a Mexican or Latin American girl child, it reinforces the malinchismo.

I have a friend who's white and blonde, and spent about 15 years in Egypt. Now she's back in the U.S. and having a kind of reverse culture shock. In Egypt she felt admired and seen as exceptionally beautiful, which is not necessarily the case in the U.S.
She has this theory. Basically, you as a woman of color might compare yourself to something a white girl does, or how she looks. Everyone might think she's beautiful. But if you objectively look at her, there's nothing special. It's just a halo—in this case, of whiteness—that obscures what are actually generic features. 
This effect of colonialism is strange. As a Filipino, we deal with it in a particular way. There's this Filipino decolonization movement of reclaiming everything the Spanish took from us. But in my family, my father is insistent we're not Filipino. We're Spanish. There's this elaborate family lore that goes back to the first Spanish ancestor, and works hard to make that point. We're Spanish—but not Conquistadors!—and happened to end up in the Philippines.

That resonates with my experience with Mexico, too. There is also this reclaiming of Mestizo identity, saying "we're all mixed now." At the same time, people are talking about their heritage. Everybody knows that they had a French grandfather or Spanish great-grandfather, but when you ask, "what about the indigenous side?" everybody's like, "we don't know," or, "we're more European than native." 

There's a lot of that. And while not everybody does it, I would say up until very recent generations—which are doing a good job of interrogating what happened, what is the real lineage—there was pride among certain Mexicans in being more European than indigenous.

There's a common Filipino compliment. If a Filipino is trying to say you're attractive, successful or beautiful, they might say, "I didn't know you were Filipino. You don't seem Filipino." When I was younger, I was flattered. Now I find it hurtful. But my mother still feels it necessary to reassure me, like, "they're not saying you’re not Filipino. They're saying you're special." It's this sort of inherent colonialism that we negotiate all the time.

Yeah. It's so ingrained that even if you don't believe what it's saying at face value, you understand how it's a compliment, which is really confronting when you're trying to navigate these things.

It reminded me of something that is also common in Mexico—if you're at a market, or just shopping or whatever, the vendors will call out to you as a güerita or güera, which means "blonde," to get your attention. It's specific to market and barrio environments, where there's a marked class difference between people selling the wares and people buying them. It's the same intention of the phrase you've just shared. By calling you güerita, even if you're not blonde, that signifies "you look blonde to me," or "you look white to me," because you are the boss in this situation. You're the person with the purchasing power. It's deferential in a way that is totally colorist and colonialist. But it's such a part of the culture that you don't think about it until you start unpacking stuff.

We do this too! Filipino vendors will go, "Hey, puti." Puti means white or light-skinned, but it's almost synonymous with beautiful. It's very ingrained. I have a grandmother who only goes by Lola Puti—her entire identity is being the "white grandmother."

I find it interesting that we can coexist with all these cultural nuances and not buy into them. On some level, you know it's wrong. Yet you also understand how deep it is in the culture. At some point, it will have to be dismantled. But it's such a massive challenge to try to dismantle all these things and remove them from the culture. They're harmful, but at the same time, it's part of the identity itself.

Barbie addresses these sorts of paradoxes—these logical fallacies you have to live with, not only as a woman, but as a human in patriarchy. Barbieland itself is great for a lot of people, but also has its own problems and contradictions. The fact that Barbie doesn't know where the Kens sleep at night is never resolved!

I loved that. You can extrapolate that to the homeowner classes in the U.S., versus the homeless. Where do they go? Nobody knows. And you don't want to know. That's a whole other movie, too. We could talk about that for, like, four hours.

I was thinking of America Ferrera's speech about all the contradictions inherent to being women. My youngest sister is 14 years younger than me. When she was a kid, Barbies were not the thing; it was Bratz. With Bratz, you didn't have this black versus white dichotomy I grew up with. You had ethnic diversity just as a result of collecting them; it's built into the model. 
Do you think Barbie's done a good job of separating itself from this sense of black and/or white? Is that something Mattel has done a good job working toward?

They’ve made an admirable, noble push to get there. But I think there is still this classification within those Barbies, where the white stereotypical Barbie is still the most aspirational. I don't know if that's a reflection of culture, or the fact that she was the first, and other Barbies are kind of supporting cast members. But I haven't seen a situation where the Black Barbie or the curvy Barbie is on the same level as stereotypical Barbie. I don't think we're there yet as a culture.

This is not a value judgement, just an unfortunate cultural effect of colorism and white supremacy.

Black Barbie was President, but she's still a side character in the Barbie movie. 

Everything this movie stands for seeks to establish that parity is desirable. And that is the ideal. But we're not there yet.

We're moving around this topic of cultural complexities Barbie is part of, because she's part of the culture. The movie raises these tensions without presenting a clear solution. I once read that solutionism is an imperial reflex, which suggests the answer isn't always simplicity; it's complexity. That's what diversity is, right?
I like this implication that we should learn how to sit with discomfort and conflict. And it's not perfect, but like Ruth Handler says in the movie, living is also surprising and beautiful. 
I wonder if this perspective is compromised by the fact that this is a story underwritten by a brand. Some people feel Barbie gives so many topics their just desserts, but lets Mattel off the hook. In the movie Mattel starts out villainous, then becomes silly and harmless. As a professional and a viewer, how did you relate to that?

Specifically Mattel's role, like how it portrays itself in the film?

Do you think a lot of the larger messages of the film are compromised by how the brand interacts with them? It never deals with the fact that Mattel's entirely run by men. Instead, they're positioned as people with goodish hearts, even if they're totally profit-driven. And they keep this ghost of a woman on the 17th floor, and that's enough to represent the spirit of women in the company?!

This film is a huge vehicle for Mattel and their brands, and this is just the beginning. I think they acknowledge they are part of the problem. They portray themselves as self-aware in terms of their contributions to the issues the film deals with. At the same time, in this toy world, it's easy to let yourself off the hook. 

They are obviously going to go easy on themselves, because it's still a commercial vehicle, and they have to be careful of their brand. But I think that some of the topics that were touched on, and the questions raised, even by generating all this discomfort that we're talking about ... That discomfort is progress, compared to where we were before.

Before, Barbie and what she represented was just assigned to you. There was no question that this is aspirational, this is good. The fact that that's interrogated now, and we're having conversations about what it means, is a step in the right direction. 

Progress is never going to be perfect. But it's like what they say—you go to war with the army you have. So let's be here for it. This is a step in a very long journey. Let's take it and run. People who never thought about the contradictions of being a woman, never thought about the contradictions of what the brand represents, are now thinking about it and talking about it.

What did you put in your Barbie Corvette?

Strawberry Shortcake. She made the cut somehow, maybe because she was a redhead (and an entrepreneur!). But when I finally got a Barbie, stars aligned. I could put her in instead.

Profile picture for user Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

Advertise With Us

Featured Clio Award Winner



The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.