THE HISTORY OF BARBIE:
60 years with the world’s most controversial doll
She is the woman who has everything her own dream house, a pink convertible and a long and varied career. Soon to turn 60, she is still fiercely loved by a global legion of pink-clad acolytes, yet like many prominent women, her place in the spotlight has come with criticism and abuse. Angry students burned her in the 1960s. Iran exiled her in 2002. German feminists crucified her and held a “Barbie’cue” to protest the opening of a life-sized dream house in 2013. For a woman who has been an Olympic gold medallist and the President, Barbie is a controversial and polarising figure.
She is not real, of course – the 29cm miniature mannequin is mostly plastic and rubber – but her influence is huge. More than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold into 150 countries since 1959, meaning there is now one Barbie for every seven humans on earth. Ninety-nine per cent of America’s daughters own a Barbie. A 2006 UK study suggesting she causes low self-esteem is a
favourite reference of Barbie critics but that hasn’t stopped young devotees continuing to beg for a Barbie of their own.
“She’s a projection of what you want to be,” says Karen Valentine, 47, who owns more than 500 Barbies. “You get to experience things in an adult world that you can’t yourself. I have a Barbie that is somewhat similar to me, with long dark hair, and she’s cosied-up to Johnny Depp in my cabinet.”
During my own playground days, Barbie was a status symbol the way a handbag might be now. Six-year-old cubbyhouse bouncers would demand to know if you had a Barbie and if so, which one? We didn’t do it knowingly but Barbie was our way of signalling we were aware of trends and had the means to be part of them. One girl had a guaranteed invite to every birthday party because she always arrived clutching a recognisably rectangular present. My second-wave feminist mother rejected everything Barbie stood for but, like her friends, caved in to pester power.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Barbie dominated the doll market. Little girls were bewitched by her sparkly gowns and tiny glinting accessories, but
Barbie also attracted her share of criticism.
Her pinched waist, white skin, blonde hair and lean legs have been condemned for creating unattainable standards for girls. The only skerrick of flesh on Barbie’s finely engineered form are her breasts, which are as large and buoyant as twin blimps. (If further proof of Barbie’s power is needed, her 1998 breast reduction made the front page of The Wall Street Journal.) As hundreds of articles point out, a real woman with Barbie’s dimensions would only have room for half a liver.
In the documentary The Most Famous Doll in the World, a former toy seller recalls the scandal caused by “the doll with the tits”.
Her uncanny and unattainable proportions are said to have been based on a novelty German doll and cartoon character, Bild Lilli, who was a “woman of the night”. While Barbie’s aspirations differed markedly from her predecessor’s, her dimensions didn’t.
Karen says Barbie’s controversial physique is largely the result of practical limitations and insists that those who are critical of her tiny waist “don’t understand the history of the doll. When she was designed, with the couture and fashions at the time, she had to have a very slim waist so the three or four layers of fabric that she wore would not make her look like a Michelin Man. The dolls can be scaled down but fabrics can’t.”
Mattel is on the record saying Barbie was never meant to be real, but in 2016 the company released three new body shapes (tall, petite and curvy), and Barbie’s figure is not her only attribute that’s moved with the times.
In Barbie’s earliest incarnations, she didn’t seem to stray far from her dream house but, in fact, Barbie’s very existence is the result of one mother’s desire to open her daughter’s eyes to a future outside the home. When creator Ruth Handler unveiled the first-of-its-kind doll at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, the men at the convention said it would never sell. As we know, she proved them wrong. Named after Ruth’s daughter, Barbara (Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts), the doll showed that women could have a role in the wider world. She became a nurse (1961), an astronaut (1965) and a surgeon (1973). In recent years her manufacturer, Mattel, has sought to further amp up Barbie’s colourful resume and feminist credentials by immortalising trailblazers like aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, artist Frida Kahlo and Aussie environmentalist Bindi Irwin.
Mattel’s 2017 annual report stresses that success in the competitive toy market relies on correctly predicting social and media trends. With Bratz dolls and Disney Princess figurines nipping at Barbie’s plastic heels she’s had no choice but to evolve and Mattel is plainly making a bid for the daughters of fourth-wave feminism. Will it work?
Author Monica Dux has not bought a Barbie for her daughter. She dismisses Barbie’s 100-plus “careers” as merely accessories that are not fundamental to her personality and is concerned that she perpetuates rigid gender roles. However, she has also observed that most girls defy them. “Children make a really big effort to make something epic with Barbie and they do engage in a lot of different play, and that’s a really good thing,” Monica says.
Author Emily Maguire says the hysteria that surrounds Barbie is misplaced, and infantilises the girls who play with her. “I don’t see Barbie as any kind of feminist icon or hero, but I certainly don’t think she’s the sort of demon she’s been made out to be,” Emily says. “Obviously she’s an unrealistic figure but I don’t know how you isolate that from all the other influences we have.” Growing up, Emily was a self-described tomboy but she can still recall the exciting moment her mother took her to the toy aisle to purchase the Loving Hearts Barbie. The tactile pleasure of the velvet hearts that adorned Barbie’s gossamer-look gown
remains a vivid memory. “We really coveted those dolls,” she says. Her desire for the doll was, she agrees, a little bit about schoolyard status but Barbie’s enduring appeal lay in her versatility. Emily and her sister treated their Barbies like actors. “It didn’t matter which ones we had,” Emily says, “what their outfits were or their professions – we just made them what we wanted. We were always cutting or colouring their hair or tattooing them. When we were going through a Murder Mystery phase in our reading, they were always committing murders.”
Human rights advocate and author Tara Moss says she cried the first time she was given a Barbie. “I won a running race and there were two tables with wrapped prizes – one table for boys and one for girls. I was told to choose a prize from the girl’s table,” she says. Eight-yearold Tara wanted a prize from the boys’ table, but the race organisers were having none of that. She selected a parcel from the designated pile and unwrapped a Barbie.
“I remember crying my eyes out when I got home,” she says. Fortunately, Tara’s mother, Janni, knew just what to do and helped Tara turn the doll into a “kind of Vampira FrankenBarbie. We dyed her hair black and put stitches in her cheek and things, and I loved that doll to bits after that. I wish I still had it,” said Tara.
Pioneering AfricanAmerican filmmaker Ava DuVernay told Vanity Fair she agreed to lend her likeness to a Barbie because of her fond memories of playing with the doll. Like Tara, Ava didn’t accept the blondehaired, blue-eyed Barbie she was presented with. She gave the dolls radical makeovers so they more closely resembled the most beautiful women in her neighbourhood – the Latina sisters. “Spielberg had a Super 8 camera when he was little – I had a doll,” she told Vanity Fair.
The DuVernay Barbie was supposed to be a one-off but fans successfully petitioned Mattel to make her available in stores. Even Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay tweeted to say she wanted one. Adult collectors will tell you the source of the doll’s appeal is that she is a reminder of a simpler time. Little girls, they say, love the fantasy. Barbie had a boyfriend, but her assets – the home, the car, the caravan, the horse – were all hers. She represented adulthood and agency.
Emily disagrees. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a girl who was aspiring to be Barbie,” she says. The students Emily has taught, her nieces and her younger self, all looked to the real women in their lives for role models.
In our schoolyard, none of the Barbies were actually called Barbie – each had her own individual name. The first thing any of us did when we cut Barbie from her plastic manacles was strip her of her clothes. The urge to chop off her blonde hair was primal. I was never allowed a Ken companion for my Barbie, so when I got a new one, the old one was given a buzz cut, dressed in a unisex handkerchief poncho and re-christened Adam.
In an article on the female body, Margaret Atwood depicts a scene between two parents discussing whether to purchase one of the dolls. The father objects to her “false notion of beauty”. The mother argues their daughter will feel singled out without one. In the end their worries are for nothing when the doll comes “whizzing down the stairs, thrown like a dart”, stark naked and hair chopped off. “She’d been tattooed all over with purple ink in a scrollwork design,” Atwood writes. The father concludes: “I guess we’re safe.”
The triumph of the daughter’s imagination over the toy she’s been presented with in Margaret Atwood’s world is reminiscent of the play described by the women The Australian Women’s Weekly interviewed. Rather than being a sex object, a surgeon or a soccer player, Barbie was Tara’s vampire and Emily’s cunning murderess. She was Ava’s Latina goddess and my poncho-wearing Adam. Mattel may be trying to make Barbie all things to all people, but in the hands of imaginative girls Barbie truly can be it all: an astronaut with perfect lipstick and a buzzcut and ballpoint pen tattoo.
“We dyed her hair black and put stitches in her cheek, and I loved that doll to bits after that.”
50s The 1950s Barbies were an evolution of paper dolls. Ruth Handler had seen her daughter, Barbara, project her aspirations onto the paper cut-out and created a three dimensional “teen fashion model”.
10s Barbie was given her most radical makeover yet with Mattel releasing three new body types. She also got her own iPhone in 2014.
Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler named Barbie after their daughter, Barbara. Their son, Ken, was also a source of inspiration.