So Barbie has been trending recently, thanks to the new Barbie movie (yes, I’ve seen it, later I’ll share my thoughts about it–no spoilers). Whether you like, don’t like, or don’t care about Barbie, the doll/brand/movie, Barbie has played a pivotal role in pop culture. So I’d love to help you understand the history and messaging–both good and bad–behind the iconic doll. As a content warning, I will be mentioning disordered eating.
Barbie was created by a woman named Ruth Handler. She and her husband Elliott had co-founded the toy company Mattel. Up to that time, the only toy dolls out there were baby dolls, and girls would play as if they were mothers and caregivers. Ruth watched her daughter, Barbara, play differently with paper dolls of women, like they had careers. Ruth saw a need to create a toy doll that helped girls imagine more possibilities for their future.
On March 9, 1959, at the American Toy Fair in New York City, Ruth launched a doll named “Barbie” (after her daughter). Barbie looked like a young woman, was 11 inches tall, and had a black and white striped bathing suit, white cat-eye sunglasses, and blonde high ponytail. Barbie – whose full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts – was a big hit; 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold the first year.
Family + Friends
Two years later after Barbie launched, in 1961 Mattel released her boyfriend Ken (named after Ruth’s son). Mattel continued with Barbie’s first friend Midge Hadley in 1963, and Midge’s boyfriend/Ken’s buddy Allan in 1964. Also little sister Skipper arrived in 1964, twin younger siblings Todd and Tutti in 1965, and Barbie’s English cousin Francie Fairchild in 1966. Mattel also added more Barbie siblings decades later.
Barbie’s launch happened at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement. And after Mattel received complaints that the dolls thus far only had light skin, Mattel released a dark-skinned doll in 1968 named Christie. She was part of a line of dolls who would talk when you pulled a string on her back. Christie was Mattel’s first Black doll, however it wasn’t until 1980 that they released their first Black and Latina dolls named Barbie.
Barbie Lead the Way
In many ways, Barbie was ahead of her time. She did things before women were “allowed” to. In 1962, three years after Barbie hit the market, Mattel came out with Barbie’s Dreamhouse. Now the original model was not as extra as today’s is–it had one room, a TV, and record player–but the idea that a woman could own her home was bold because back then women couldn’t get their own credit card or bank account until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, twelve years later after the Barbie Dreamhouse came out.
Barbie also led the way for women and girls’ futures. Barbie’s many careers included going to space four years before a man landed on the moon. Astronaut Barbie was released in 1964, and it would take another 18 years before the first female, Sally Ride, went to space. In 1973 Dr. Barbie scrubbed in as a surgeon, which at the time was a rare sight–back then only nine percent of doctors were women. Barbie continued to break glass ceilings–in 1985 Day to Night CEO Barbie showed girls they could run a company. That same year Mattel launched a Barbie campaign, “We girls can do anything,” showing girls their many career possibilities.
In 1992 Barbie ran for President (and has continued to nearly every year since). In 2016 Barbie for President also included a female vice president as a set. And in 2020 Barbie for President came with a campaign manager, a fundraiser manager, and a voter–all dolls were female. Since 2015 Barbie has released dolls for their Inspiring Women and Sheroes series which feature historical heroes like Katherine Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart, and current leaders like Misty Copeland, Naomi Osaka, Zendaya. Barbie has been a pilot, firefighter, journalist, entrepreneur, robotics engineer, video game developer, paleontologist, Mars explorer–she’s at 250 careers and counting. Barbie has been a strong female role model; because girls saw Barbie do it, they believed it was possible for them, too.
Barbie not only helped girls see their futures, she also helped girls see themselves. In 1997 Barbie released the first doll who was a wheelchair user. To help young girls battling cancer, in 2012 Mattel created a bald doll named Ella. In 2019 Barbie’s Fashionista line included a doll with a prosthetic limb. In 2020 Barbie released a doll with vitiligo, she had patches of different colors of skin. In 2022 Barbie came out with a doll who wore hearing aids. Earlier this year Barbie announced their first doll with Down syndrome. Of course sooner releases would’ve been better for all these dolls, but I appreciate their efforts toward representation. It’s impactful for girls to see a doll who looks like them.
Barbie Behind the Times
Now not all of Barbie’s messages have been empowering. Barbie has also been out of touch and even harmful. In 1992 Teen Talk Barbie said things like, “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough!” Critics said Barbie was teaching girls that being pretty was more important than being smart. In 2015 Hello Barbie didn’t just repeat phrases, she could have an interactive conversation with kids using early AI technology (we discussed AI in the last episode). Parents later learned their kids’ conversations were being recorded and shared with third parties, so that did not go well.
Barbie has also presented unrealistic beauty standards. In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a bathroom scale and a book titled, “How to Lose Weight.” That’s just wrong. And for 57 years Barbie’s body proportions were way off. If she were a real woman, she would’ve worn a size 3 shoe, and due to the size of her chest, waist and hips, she would’ve had to walk on all fours (hands and legs). She would’ve also fit the criteria for an eating disorder. Barbie became an ideal of perfectionism and some saw her as objectifying women, which was underlined in Danish dance-pop group Aqua’s 1997 hit song “Barbie Girl.” Many studies were done on the impact Barbie had on girls’ body image. One study from 2006 found that girls who played with Barbie when they were young were more concerned about being thin compared to girls who played with other dolls.
Mattel finally responded in 2016 by releasing Barbie Fashionistas with petite, tall, and curvy body types. This line also introduced more diverse dolls with different skin tones, eye colors, and hairstyles. For Barbie’s 60th anniversary in 2019, Mattel launched a new Barbie body type with a smaller chest and less defined waist. It will be interesting to see if the different body types effect girls’ body image less than the previous one did, but I still think the changes needed to happen and Barbie can continue doing better.
So now to the Barbie movie. I’m not going to tell you whether or not to see it, that’s a conversation for your family. Here’s what I will tell you: I really appreciated that both the empowering and harmful messaging we just discussed were addressed in the movie. They didn’t pretend Barbie’s only had a positive impact on girls and women. There were multiple themes weaved into the story, including girls empowerment–and you know I love that. Seeing the movie gave me a lot to think about and reflect on. I’ll definitely be watching it again.
If you go see it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, or even a topic suggestion! Send an email (tweens get the OK from your parents) to [email protected] .
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