MARINA DEL REY, California — She's got brown hair and brown eyes, and she's dressed in a black Lycra suit. That's right: It's the famous Mattel doll Barbie, in the flesh. And she's woke as hell.
Her name is America Young, and for the past three years, she's donned a motion-capture suit every month as part of Mattel’s effort to bring the 59-year-old icon into the digital age.
On shoot days, Young is presented with a script that she quickly reviews and acts out in Barbie’s “bedroom,” an empty white room but for a few sets of stacked apple boxes that represent furniture. As Young performs, animators take notes as they work to turn the stick figure on their screens into the familiar blonde — supplemented with a human edge.
Despite Barbie's universal fame, kids weren’t playing with her like they used to, Mattel says — they want iPads, instead.
So in 2015, Barbie got her own vlog.
Today, she has nearly 5 million subscribers on YouTube, an audience that draws from every age group. Mattel says the vlog has played a major role in turning around 20 years of declining sales: Since its launch, Barbie sales have climbed, increasing by 24 percent this year alone.
Barbie’s channel is similar to her human influencer counterparts: She does viral challenges and makeup tutorials, and even goes deep on topics like depression. In her latest video, for example, Barbie breaks down the “dream gap,” a phenomenon where girls begin to lose confidence in their own competence at age 5.
And like other YouTubers, Barbie also gives subtle nods to her merch, like the baking challenge she debuted around the time a new oven came on the market. But unlike her YouTube counterparts, she has a team behind her with backgrounds in children’s programming and psychology making sure that everything she says is packaged just right.
“I don't think I, as a writer, feel comfortable having a conversation that would give Barbie a singular point of view, because we're about bringing everybody together,” said Mattel executive producer Julia Pistor.
That's because, at the end of the day, even Barbie’s warm and fuzzy vlogs need to translate into cash — and that can’t happen if she takes too strong a stand.
This segment originally aired October 10, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.