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Bring on Barbie: Analyzing the Doll's Cultural Legacy

Published August 13, 2023
Published August 13, 2023

Barbie is the hardest-working woman in showbiz. The 64-year-old has been walking the playrooms, runways, and Dreamhouses of this world since her birth in 1959. Barbie (short for Barbara Millicent Roberts) was designed by Ruth Handler and named after her daughter.  Her appearance was styled after Bild Lilli, a German comic strip character originally available as a gag gift in tobacco shops and later modeled into a children’s toy.

Upon seeing her daughter play with outfits on paper dolls—which, unlike the play dolls of the time, had interchangeable outfit options and looked more mature—Handler began working on the prototype that was to become Barbie. Whereas the current play dolls of the era let children play caretaking mothers, Handler’s concept with Barbie was about exploring the experience of being a grown woman. The Mattel empire, founded by Handler and her husband, had been running since 1945 by the time Barbie rolled around.

She was a highly feminized model, a departure from the toddler-like faces of dolls from decades before. While most dolls were dressed in dowdy, strawberry print sacks, Barbie burst onto the scene in a black and white chevron bathing suit, high heels, and legs for days. Rather than an innocent smirk, Barbie had a fire engine red pout and black eyeliner—a high femme prototype for the ages. And that bold look worked: 300,000 dolls sold in the first year of launch.

The Growth of the Mattel Empire

The Mattel empire soon expanded to other iterations. Ken (named after Handler's son) was introduced in 1961, and Barbie’s sister, Skipper, in 1964.The first African American version of the doll, Christie, was introduced in 1968 amid the Civil Rights movement. In 1980, an African American and Latina Barbie were also released (although the models simply went by the name “Black Barbie” and “Hispanic Barbie”).

Barbie didn’t just remain a children’s toy but instead became an international icon of pop culture. She was the key focus of critical artwork, such as Nancy Burson’s 1994 piece “Aged Barbie,” a Polaroid of Barbie that aged her normally smooth face into a more mature image. Artist Tom Forsythe created a 78-photopgrah series in 1997, which placed the doll inside enchiladas baking in the oven or a kitchen mixer. “I thought the pictures needed something that really said ‘crass consumerism,’ and to me, that’s Barbie,” the artist said to The New York Times in 2004. The artist was later sued by Mattel for unfair use, but the court ruled in Forsythe’s favor, with Mattel ordered to pay $1.8 million of his legal fees. Further artistic explorations of the product include stylized portraits representing individual lives during the pandemic (“The Barbie is Her/Me: A Reflection of Black Women During Quarantine” by artist Kandice Odister) and the lack of Black representation in doll products (the exhibition “Black Doll Blues” by artist Betye Saar).

Feminist Nightmare or Aspirational Role Model?

Barbie was a flight attendant, an astronaut, a fashion designer; the sky was the limit for her professional ambitions, which totalled more than 250 careers. In 1962, Barbie received the keys to the Barbie Dreamhouse, in an era where women owning their own houses was a rarity. Barbie was the American dream personified: a can-do attitude and heavy emphasis on working your way towards the Barbie mansion day by day—acquiring a host of wardrobe and accessories along the way. A materialist manifesto in a child-friendly format.

But as beauty journalist Jessica Defino notes: “It’s more difficult still to challenge the feminist reclamation of Barbie-esque beauty standards when the doll is generally seen as an icon of second-wave feminism and the struggle for workplace equality. This, I think, is a misinterpretation of Barbie and her many careers. Upon closer inspection, Barbie more accurately reflects the backlash to second-wave feminism … She taught young girls they could be anything they wanted to be—astronaut! businesswoman! President of the United States!—so long as they met the baseline standard of beauty first.”

A 2016 study among 160 girls ages five to eight in Adelaide, Australia, found that exposure to Barbie equated to “higher thin-ideal internalisation” with a 5.25/9 mean score across the 40 participants exposed to a Barbie doll versus the control group. A 2016 study among 112 girls ages six to eight reported that those playing with thinner dolls versus full-figured dolls experienced higher body size discrepancies.

In 1998, her proportions were altered to give her a wider waist and smaller chest and hips from the 39-18-33 measurements on which the original was based. Journalist and social-poltical activist Gloria Steinem once said Barbie “was pretty much everything the feminist movement was trying to escape from. ”Barbie was the White, thin, ideal. The rigidity with which she adhered to beauty standards could only be matched by the very plastic she was made of. While the doll may have never developed a wrinkle over time, it did not age well according to societal standards, which increasingly called out the detrimental effects of the unrealistic beauty standard that Barbie portrayed. The New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman recently posed the question:  “Is there anything more symbolic of all that is surreal about Barbie—the way the doll gave young women a twisted idea of the perfect body, the way she represented female reality distorted by male fantasy—than her measurements?”

“Many women have a problem with their own bodies as they grow older. I cannot believe that the doll causes that,” Handler responded to the critics of her time. The late Barbie inventor  had bigger problems to face, being forced out of the company due to indictments for fraud, conspiracy, and false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission overvaluing the company’s earnings. There was soon trouble in Barbie Land.  After Handler’s exit, the company struggled.

“It’s more difficult still to challenge the feminist reclamation of Barbie-esque beauty standards when the doll is generally seen as an icon of second-wave feminism and the struggle for workplace equality."
By Jessica Defino, Beauty Journalist

The Dreamhouse Crumbles (And Is Later Renovated)

Bratz Dolls, which launched in 2001, proved to be stiff competition—in some part due to the fact that the brand was founded by a former Mattel employee. The doe-eyed, attitude-filled product took over a third of Barbie’s market share before ensuing lawsuits put the competition to a halt.

By the time its current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ynon Kreiz (former Chairman and CEO of Fox Kids Europe) joined the company in April 2018, Mattel had lost main retailer Toys “R” US due to the shop’s bankruptcy. Revenue for 2018 was $4.5 billion versus $6.5 billion just five years earlier, with a loss of $533 million compared to the $900 million profit the company had made in 2013. Kreiz restructured the company’s supply chain and slashed costs by $1 billion over the course of three years. Last year’s revenue added up to $4.6 billion with a $127 million profit. Sales grew by 47%, the highest growth rate in the past quarter century, with stock prices growing by 52% since Kreiz’s reign began.

Barbie also received a new look and philanthropic endeavor. In 2015, Mattel launched a “Shero” campaign, with dolls honoring women such as Ava DuVernay, founder of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement and Eva Chen, Editor-in-Chief of Lucky magazine. In 2018, the brand released an “Inspiring Women” collection featuring doll replicas of Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earheart, and Katherine Johnson. Celebrity dolls have been modeled after Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Cher, and Dianna Ross. That same year, Mattel launched The Dream Gap Project, “a global mission dedicated to closing the gap by challenging gender stereotypes and helping undo the biases that hold girls back from reaching their full potential” and donated  $250,000 per year to nonprofits that aid this mission and working with UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers on school curriculums.

On the fashion front, the doll was given a runway show with 50 creations from designers like Vera Wang and Rag & Bone in 2009 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her invention. In 2016, Mattel introduced a more diverse range of models, offering a curvy, petite, and tall option as well as customizable hair types and skin colors to diversify the representation of the model. A Barbie model with Down syndrome was also brought to market in 2023.

The Greta Gerwig Factor

But what has undboutbedly given Barbie a new lease on life is Barbie movie elevated toy-themed cinema thanks to an Oscar-nominated cast with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as leads, helmed by an intellectually driven director, Greta Gerwig.

Defino writes that “Greta Gerwig aims to subvert much of what the Mattel toy symbolizes in American culture: conformity, compliance, the objectification of women and girls,” however it falls short of its mission. “The movie may be a “feminist” reclamation of the Barbie narrative in spirit, but its material effect on society looks the same as subjugation: blonder, tanner, thinner, smoother, poreless, ageless, static, plastic,” she adds.

Gerwig’s flick adds in a dose of existentialism—in the middle of a party scene Barbie asks her friends "Do you guys ever think about dying?"—into what could have been just pure campy fluff. The film dares to challenge the very sexist and superficial notions that plagued its title character over the decades.

Judging by #barbiecore and the gigantic wave of incoming product collaborations, Barbie has entered a new era of heightened commercial potential. Even if these limited edition products are soon sold out or later sold at a discount, there has undoubtedly been a revival around Barbie, even if the vast number of consumer packaged goods outpour is causing some to reach for their pink Pepto Bismol. If we are about to reach peak Barbie momentum, the noise will become muted as consumers are oversaturated with releases. But as time has shown, you can’t keep Barbie down for too long.


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