Photo courtesy Marc Serota/Mattel
The Sawgrass Mills Mall is the second biggest tourist attraction in Florida after Walt Disney World. Built in the shape of an alligator, the Everglades-themed outlet shopping center caters to South American tourists who’ve flown to South Florida to purchase discounted, damaged Louis Vuitton suitcases they’ll fill with cheap products purchased at T.J. Maxx and Banana Republic.
To locals, this place is obviously hell. But since this is Florida—where there is nothing to do except smoke crack at your house and smoke pills at motels built for tourists—neighborhood kids practically live at Sawgrass. When I was a tween, it was where I watched my friends turn into Juicy Couture sluts and where I groped a boy’s dick for the first time. (He later broke my heart at f.y.e.) It was my second home, and a broken one at that. So I was surprised when I learned via the Daily Mail that “The Barbie Dream House Experience” was opening at Sawgrass.
The Mail described the life-sized replica of Barbie’s Dream House as a “10,000 foot pink paradise.” But to my friends in Florida, the Dream House sounded like another cruel reminder of what it’s like to grow up in another person’s paradise.
“That’s Barbie’s Dream House?” said my friend Alex, who still lives in Florida. “Yeah, F. Scott Fitzgerald was totally thinking about a fake house in the middle of an outlet mall built in the shape of an alligator when he wrote The Great Gatsby. This is the fucking American dream.”
But I wanted to find something good in Barbie’s Dream House. I find it hard to believe humanity could build something that has no redeeming qualities at all, even a mall that plays artificial bird sounds on loop.
Last week, when I was in Fort Lauderdale visiting my mom, I returned to the Sawgrass Mall to experience the Dream House myself.
I planned to go alone, but my friend Melanie, who also still lives in Florida, insisted she join me. “Barbie’s Dream House sounds scarier than a chemical drug trip in Amsterdam,” she said. “You can’t go alone.” So I called up Barbie’s publicist and asked for two press tickets. He’d only give us tickets if we agreed to take no photos or videos, and told me a marketer named Yarni would meet us at the entrance.
Two hours later, Melanie and I entered through a pink gift shop, where a salesgirl sold dolls and dollhouses. Mesmerized by the pink overhead lights and the fake chandelier hanging above us, we forgot about Yarni. I felt like an Olivia Newton John song. I felt like fucking magic.
Yarni and a girl in a teal shirt stepped through the pink haze I was trapped in. “I’m Leila,” the girl said. “I’ll be your tour guide.”
Yarni reminded us that Barbie banned all guests—including non-media members—from taking photos, and then let Leila lead us into a tiny pink room lit by pink and blue lights. On the wall, a picture of Barbie started to move. Barbie explained that she was out of town and had “lost her glitter” (Florida stripper speak for “I lost my cocaine”) and needed our help “finding her glitter.”
Photo courtesy Marc Serota/Mattel
“This is just like the Haunted Mansion,” Melanie said.
“Um, no it’s not,” Leila corrected her. “The Haunted Mansion isn’t pink.”
Melanie shot me a frightened look—the wall slid open revealing a giant pink room. “The kitchen!” Leila shouted.
She sped into the giant pink room and told us to make cupcakes. There was no food in sight. I opened the kitchen drawers and found spoons and forks hidden in see-through plastic boxes. I tried to take off the lid, but they were sealed tight. Leila showed me a screen on the kitchen counter—by making cupcakes, she meant tapping touchscreens to create digital baked goods.
Then she brought Melanie and me into a giant freezer. Inside, we found a few cupcakes hidden behind glass, a massive sleigh built for “photo-ops,” over 15 dolls, and a flat-screen TV playing Barbie webisodes. Inside this, the Barbie dream fridge, there were no vegetables, meat, or old take-out. There was no food at all. I’m not sure what this was supposed to tell little girls, but to me it looked like Leila needed to stage an intervention for Barbie’s obvious eating disorder.
But Leila had no time to participate in investigative journalism—she was sent on a mission by a publicist and needed to show us the living room, where she pointed at shelves full of Barbie dolls and untitled pink books.
“This is the Versace doll,” Leila said.
“Do the books have titles?” I asked.
“No,” Leila said, laughing. “They’re just Barbie books.” She then showed us Barbie’s white couch and family portraits, which, like the player in the freezer, were flat screens playing Barbie webisodes about her siblings and pet dolphins. Leila said girls love the webisodes.
“They already know where Barbie’s glitter is when they come here, because they’re seen every webisode,” she said. “The webisodes are really good. I started watching them at work and watch them at home, because I had to see how they end!”
In the next rooms, Barbie’s balcony and bedroom, Leila showed us more of what seemed to be an endless parade of pink. The balcony’s towel cabinet was full of dolls, and there were a dozen dolls showcased on the bedroom wall. Barbie’s bed was a solid block somebody had painted pink.
“Are there any pillows?” I asked as the three of us lay on the bed.
“They’re right there,” Leila said, pointing at pillows painted on.
“Oh my God!” Melanie shouted. “I had those bedsheets as a kid. Those are the bedsheets that were in my Dream House.”
“Right?” Leila said. “Where was this when we were kids?”
“What do you usually do with the kids you give tours in this room?” I asked.
Photo courtesy Marc Serota/Mattel
“We play ‘Barbie, Ken, Sparkle,’” she said. She explained this was a game where kids flex their muscles when she says, “Ken,” strike any pose they like when she says, “Barbie,” and make spirit fingers when she says “Sparkle.” I struggled not to laugh; Melanie smiled and asked Leila how she could apply to work at Barbie’s Dream House. She then followed Leila to the Glitterizer, a massive life-size doll box.
“What’s this for?” I asked as I stepped inside the Gitterizer.
“Barbie steps in every morning to glitterize,” replied Leila. Oh. I opened the box and walked in with Melanie, expecting glitter to cover me but nothing happened.
“Where’s the glitter?” I asked.
“It’s a photo-op for the kids that visit,” Leila explained. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had been lied to—visitors could take photos. Barbie’s publicist had just fooled me into not taking photos.
But Melanie didn’t notice this, or didn’t care. She followed Leila into Barbie’s bathroom, where Barbie’s pet dolphin Flippy stuck his head out of the toilet, and then her closet. I expected the closet to be a life-size replica of Mariah Carey’s closet as seen on Cribs, but with the exception of ballerina clothes that could only fit on a toddler (and are probably for sale at Toys R Us), the closet only had dolls and accessories. Barbie’s interior decorator had installed mirrors on the end of the two walls that made up the room to make the closet look never-ending—a metaphor, I thought, for how all this pink glamour was a corporate mirage.
Yet Melanie still bought into the shtick. She stood with Leila in front of a mirror playing an interactive game that fits imaginary clothes on your body, smiling as if their dream, not Mattel’s, had come true. I followed the girls into Barbie’s plane, a white room that smelled like a decade-old fart and had yet another flat screen and two fake plane windows painted on the wall.
On the screen, Barbie told us we were going to her entertainment island, a private property in the shape of a heart where Barbie takes care of her jobs. I thought this would mean the roughly 1,000 jobs Barbie had obtained after over 50 years of leaning in. The white wall opened onto a display of Barbie’s biggest accomplishments, including becoming a rock star (in 1986) and President of the United States (2000).
“What do the girls do here?” I asked Leila.
“This is where they learn to model!” She led us across the pink room to a black curtain, which she parted, revealing a group of six-year-old girls learning how to catwalk down a white stage. “The girls get to choose their own makeup,” she said, gesturing at another employee putting children’s makeup on her face in the mirror reserved for elementary school girls. Children’s makeup. This was more terrifying than the Haunted Mansion could ever hope to be. Leila turned away from the curtain and walked across the room to lead us to the exit through the gift shop.
I want to say that Barbie’s Dream House was a feminist inspiration, that behind the pink there was a core of inner beauty, but it was really just an interactive advertisement for internet videos and souvenirs, like an EDM fest for tween girls. It wasn’t even pop culture. It was just pop—a plastic pink promotion for a plastic doll that told girls they had to be plastic too.
Walking back to my mom’s BMW, Melanie wondered aloud why she had asked for a job application. “I would never work there,” she said. “What was I thinking? Those pink and blue lights were so dreamy. You know, they were just like pink strip club lights.” @MitchSunderland
More terrifying travel: