Hype House

Barbie’s Dreamhouse and the architecture of controversy

“Hey, Barbie, I like your style,” goes “Pink,” one of the songs on the soundtrack for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. “If that really was a mirror, you’d see a perfect smile.” Emphasis on the If: In the Dreamhouse, Barbie’s furniture and accessories are merely three-dimensional symbols. The mirror in question is not a reflective surface; it is a piece of plastic with a silver sticker attached. But it might not be so simple. The lyric points at one persistent difficulty in addressing Barbie’s universe: Where does real life end, and where does Barbie begin? As a cypher, Barbie and her accompanying fantasies—of feminism, of single girlhood, of homeownership—are a laboratory for the endless production and reproduction of fantastical American lifestyles. Barbie’s Dreamhouse is a twisted knot of artifice and actuality, a tangle so complete—and so threateningly aware of its multiplicity—that the Dreamhouse’s ideological and representational confusion has become its defining feature. This is a house that talks back: for each argument made about the Dreamhouse’s societal role, an equal and opposite counterpoint emerges. Call it post-post-post-modernism: the mansion’s polymorphic architecture generates its own endless critical apparatus, an Ouroboros of hype encoded within the house itself.

Allow me to begin by unspooling one prominent line of thinking in Dreamhouse studies (not a thing, but close to one—even Princeton architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has contributed to the growing field). This argument, mostly set forth by Mattel—but also echoed by much recent criticism of the Barbie movie and its corporate apparatus—posits that Barbie and her house represent aspirational forms of femininity and encourage children to desire these aspirational forms of femininity and eventually attempt to live “like Barbie” in the real world. “Explore living in the Barbie® Malibu Dreamhouse,” writes Mattel in its web copy. “Because when a girl plays with Barbie®, she imagines everything she could become!” In this logic, the social world and the built environment are preternaturally joined, Barbie’s architecture a perfect simulacrum of real-world empowerment. Writer and editor Whitney Mallett rearticulates Mattel’s statement for an adult audience in the 2022 book Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey, writing that “Barbie’s first Dreamhouse was a statement of independence. … [It was] a vision of a bachelorette pad for a liberated single woman.” For Mallett (and Mattel), Barbie’s Dreamhouses offer a clear—perhaps too clear—connection between design innovation and the production of American femininity’s platonic ideal.

Released in 1962, the first Dreamhouse employed key attributes of West Coast modernism: Its square structure, large windows, and blocky furniture emblematized the era’s optimistic view of the relationship between design and social improvement. These elements distinguished the Dreamhouse from the stuffy Victorian dollhouses of yore; instead of gabled, Rapunzel-ready turrets, they featured open living spaces and indoor-outdoor components that suggested Barbie’s liberated lifestyle. As a result, the Dreamhouse’s transparent, open structure recalls Mies van der Rohe’s modernist Farnsworth House much more than it does Balmoral Castle. “Change the architecture,” goes anthropologist James Holston’s summary of modernist architectural beliefs, “and society will be forced to follow the program of social change that the architecture embodies.” While Barbie’s single-person studio is a far cry from the public housing developments Holston refers to, past and present consideration of the Dreamhouse follows a similar logic, linking Barbie to a lineage of forward-thinking architects. Larger Dreamhouses emerged as American women supposedly dreamed bigger—the floral-pastiche mansion Dreamhouses of the 1990s cost almost $400 and could spread to nearly five feet in width. Progress! Right?

Not exactly. Despite her many careers, Barbie, remarks critic Frederika Eilers, is primarily a consumer. “Barbie’s plastic body,” writes Eilers in the 2021 volume Deconstructing Dolls, “is materially, socially, and aesthetically modern.” So, then, is her house. Early Dreamhouse models deliberately excluded a kitchen, family room, and laundry room, further differentiating it from typical dollhouses, which cast children into the role of parent (mother) and homemaker (wife). Barbie’s accessories—her clothes, appliances, furniture, car, and, most importantly, her house—don’t merely constitute her subjectivity; they are her sole means of expressing it. Barbie isn’t a doctor until she has a stethoscope; she isn’t pregnant until she has a detachable plastic belly. Barbie’s “girl power” is exclusively embodied by her ability to own: own a house, a car, a full wardrobe. She cannot “do anything” until she owns everything: Barbie’s ability to act depends upon her possession—which is really the child’s possession—of plastic accessories that symbolize each social role. Through this lens, the Dreamhouse transforms from a symbol of feminist revolution to a sign of its failure: as they play with Barbie and her house, children themselves occupy the doll’s most prominent role—not wife or mother, but buyer.

Barbie’s transformation from liberated woman to dutiful consumer accompanies the Dreamhouse’s idealization of suburban life. Each successive Dreamhouse era saw the addition of rooms and furniture that gradually expanded the house from its original bachelorette pad to a totalizing live-work-play complex. The first model was a studio bungalow constructed from cardboard with no kitchen, prompting players to imagine Barbie with a life outside the small cottage (buying food, going out to eat, working). The 2021 Dreamhouse is the opposite: made only of plastic, Barbie’s sparse and functional studio has morphed into an all-inclusive multistory McMansion that includes a kitchen, a “party room,” a “pet area” (pool included), and a wheelchair-accessible elevator (a later addition—earlier models featured elevators into which Barbie’s wheelchair couldn’t fit). The increased size and utility of the present-day Dreamhouse signal the doll’s potentially alienating alignment with contemporary American suburbia: Barbie doesn’t walk, she drives; she doesn’t go out, she hosts. And despite her ever-rotating career wardrobes—there are Barbie Florists, Doctors, Salon Stylists, even something called a “Chicken Farmer” (her shirt says “LIVE LOVE FARM”)—the house, alas, prevents her from working. The Dreamhouse’s structure limits its function: each room’s predesignation—a kitchen, a bedroom, a bedroom-slash-“party room”—leaves only enough room for the original intent, not for, say, performing open-heart surgery. Thus, the Dreamhouse becomes a multipurpose site that reflects an idealized bedroom community: Jobs occur in a distant, invisible land. Barbie can always stay home.

The Barbie Dreamhouse is at once a symbol of isolated, privatized suburbia (an enormous, all-inclusive complex built for one) and a reinvigorated vision of domestic life made public (an open construction that, like a certain Midwestern Mies house, anticipates the hypervisibility of a sole, female inhabitant).

Maybe. The argument that situates Barbie as a passive suburban consumer can reify gendered stereotypes, concocting what media theorist Lynn Spigel calls an “illusionary public sphere”—which, as such, never existed, or only existed for very privileged groups. In Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, Spigel argues that these problematic conceptions “typically describe public life as a realm of active citizenship and useful labor … [and] the home as a space of trivial pursuit.” Such perspectives make homebound modes of production and creativity—Todd Haynes’s Superstar, which recounts the life and death (by anorexia) of singer Karen Carpenter using Barbies, might be one example of this subversive domestic aesthetic—into mere hobbies “with almost no relationship to productive forces in culture.” This “century-long aversion to suburbia” perpetuates conceptions of “urban life as all that is male, productive, participatory, and rational, while at the same time pathologizing suburbia as … feminine, consumer-oriented, passive, and irrational.” Viewing Barbie as primarily a consumer, then, might imply the denigration of nonmonetized domestic labor (cooking, cleaning, and, Barbie’s favorite, hosting) and dismiss the cultural production that Barbie and doll players do in the Dreamhouse, furthering the overvaluation of the masculine-coded public sphere.

So you can have it all, Mattel says—sort of. The Dreamhouse is physically and theoretically constructed such that it can be seen as both public and private, a space that collapses oppressive, gendered divides. The mansion has no walls that shield its occupants from view (which enables what Mattel calls “360 degree play”), positioning home life as a visible public affair. The Dreamhouse becomes a site for the elaboration of fantasies that juxtapose typical constructions of public life: in the house, she can do anything, in full view of outsiders. The domestic sphere is no longer jettisoned as the realm of the oppressed housewife, but instead transformed into an all-encompassing expression for a kind of counterpublic—Barbie and all her friends. In web copy, Mattel proposes each room as a place for productive social interaction, encouraging players to act out “the ultimate get-together” and something called a “pet playdate.” The newest Dreamhouses offer endless opportunities for user customization, allowing players to shift the house’s function at will: with lift-out plastic walls and battery-powered lighting, a bedroom can become a nightclub. (The 2021 model has a DJ booth.) The Dreamhouse’s customizable, public-facing structure enables Barbie, her friends, and those who play with them to participate in cultural production from a traditionally private, domestic locale—the exact place it is typically exiled from.

That perspective, though, might be a bit too boosterish. User modification of Barbie’s home was coded into the Dreamhouse beginning in 1978, when the house’s modular A-frame structure featured detachable, rotating parts that allowed players easier access to individual rooms. These alterable components, from Mattel’s perspective, increased the length of time a child might be willing to play with the toy. Mattel still highlights the Dreamhouse’s interactive elements, which the brand’s executives call “toyetic,” behind the scenes. But their outward-facing functions are different. No longer focused on players’ ease of use, toyetic aspects center on Barbie’s ability to host, party, work, and “influence”: In Barbie’s Malibu House, the living room becomes an entertainment room and the shower becomes a vanity. The multilevel, modular 2021 Dreamhouse references TikTok “hype houses” through “sleek, airy interiors spiked by eye-catching designer pieces … [and] photogenic scenographies perfect for Zoom backgrounds and video storytelling.” In an odd precursor to Covid-era work-from-home setups, Barbie’s careers come with accessories that enable players to work wherever, at least within limits: The chicken farmer Barbie comes with a chicken coop, scientist Barbie with a small lab—and even though doctor Barbie probably does require an actual office (Barbie Office was discontinued in the 1990s), she sometimes comes with an X-ray machine. The Dreamhouse does indeed fuse the public and private spheres—and, in doing so, it reflects a real-world collapse of work-life balance. Through “Instagram-ready” details and career add-on sets, players act out living in an idealized world where they never stop working—just like real influencers.

Mattel and its toyetic features encourage players’ prescribed control over the house’s appearance and use, celebrating multifunctional pieces as key to extending the house’s playability. The Dreamhouse links users’ limited agency with a toy’s sustained life span, an argument that feels eerily like those made by advocates for alternative real estate options like tiny houses, converted vans, and makeshift home offices. A bunk bed that folds into a wall? A shower that turns into a vanity? A house that can be folded up and transported? As in the Dreamhouse, so in life: every aspect of these small spaces must be multifunctional for the home to be livable. As the A&E website page for the now-defunct HGTV home reno show Tiny House Nation declares, these buyers are “drawn to the prospect of financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle, and limiting one’s own environmental footprint.” By radically downsizing, minihome owners find solutions (or maybe “copes”) for systemic problems like rising housing costs, employment that requires mobility (several Tiny House Nation episodes star traveling nurses), and diminished Social Security for retirees. In a fun-house mirror of Mattel’s logic, champions of the tiny house movement and #vanlife celebrate the limited agency of their living arrangements, espousing the relative flexibility, modifiability, and affordability of their housing.

The plastic mansion anticipates its own destruction, but that destruction is never fully realized; the Dreamhouse’s generic malleability remains its ultimate defense.

Don’t hate the player, though. Arguments that alternative housing merely Band-Aids larger social problems can underestimate how these owners interact with their homes, using their mobile domiciles to create nontraditional, sustainable ways of living. Likewise, the actual ways that users of all ages interact with Barbie’s landscape transcend Mattel’s intended uses and even acknowledge the absurd aspects of the products themselves—often with violent outcomes that are anticipated and even encouraged by the house’s architecture. The Dreamhouse is plastic (i.e., indestructible) and enables modifications that allow for nonnormative configurations, like having no walls in the bedroom or placing the slide so that Barbie slams into her own house (just an idea). Each activity suggested by the house’s manufacturer—turn this into that, use one thing for another—simultaneously suggests that users go beyond the house’s intended uses, which often occurs to grotesque ends. An April 2006 Harper’s column states that “actual physical violence [to Barbie] was reported (gleefully) across age, school, and gender,” perhaps a reaction to anti-Barbie sentiment at the time. My own memories support those reports: I didn’t have a Barbie—my parents found the doll sexist—but when I “gleefully” played with Barbies at friends’ houses, we, too, committed what Harper’s calls “Barbie-torture.” In retrospect, it seems like a way of acting out my parents’ views—“punishing” the dolls for the “bad” things they promoted—while vindictively resisting them. It is tempting to consider Barbie’s Dreamhouse an isolated, imaginary model, but these considerations exclude the house’s function as a toy subject to the whims of individual players.

Doll users’ mixture of awareness, delight, and resistance to manufacturer dicta—and to their accompanying social norms—appears throughout scholarly examination, a result of design that furthers the products’ scandalizing attributes. Media studies scholar Rebecca Hains observed a group of young Black girls who used their Bratz dolls to act out a satirical “bricouleur” of American slavery, pulling from “classroom lessons and mainstream media content” while making fun of the dolls’ sexualized characteristics. (“They’re some cute slaves,” one girl remarked during Hains’s observation.) Adult Barbie collectors employ similar techniques that subvert the dolls’ encoded meanings; Lynn Spigel recounts the work of ethnographer Erica Rand, whose 1995 book Barbie’s Queer Accessories “considers the way lesbians and lesbian publications … have appropriated Barbie’s image in ways that acknowledge the queer pleasure she evokes.” In each case, Barbie’s and the Bratz dolls’ problematic qualities—Barbie’s normative, heterosexual whiteness, the racial difference and “sexiness” of a Bratz doll—serve as points of departure for play precisely because they are problematic. The same can be said of Barbie’s Dreamhouse: its parodic celebration of American ideals—an enormous mansion for one person, an embrace of paradoxical multifunctional gimmicks, a love of artifice—generates continued attraction to it, as players act out a simultaneous desire for and hatred of convention.

The Dreamhouse’s admixture of architectural styles and design elements mobilize its controversial position. It is at once a symbol of isolated, privatized suburbia (an enormous, all-inclusive complex built for one) and a reinvigorated vision of domestic life made public (an open construction that, like a certain Midwestern Mies house, anticipates the hypervisibility of a sole, female inhabitant). It is both an ever-fluctuating modernist structure adaptable to unconventional needs and a home that markets perpetual labor as ideal, desirable, and freely chosen. The Dreamhouse’s multiplicity is not a bug but a feature: its architecture enables users to play with and through the problems proposed by the house itself. The plastic mansion anticipates its own destruction, but that destruction is never fully realized; the Dreamhouse’s generic malleability remains its ultimate defense. This self-critical, self-promoting style (you could call it an aesthetics of hype) enacts a relentless point-counterpoint that anticipates any intended critique—and forecloses any coherent politic. You just might “see a perfect smile”: on a Mattel executive’s face, laughing all the way to the bank, or on that of a child, smashing her Dreamhouse apart. Both, after all, are thanks to its design.

Claudia Ross is a writer in Los Angeles. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, ArtReview, The Baffler, VICE, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She sort of wants a Dreamhouse now.