When Barbie debuted in the American toy market in 1959, clad in a black-and-white bathing suit, she didn’t just make a splash.
It was more like a boom, sending children and parents (and subsequent generations) scurrying to possess this icon of femininity and setting off a decadeslong debate about impossible beauty standards, gender roles, race and role models.
“The doll functions like a Rorschach test; people project wildly dissimilar and often opposing fantasies on it,” author and Barbie scholar M.G. Lord wrote in 1995 in “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.”
Now the plastic plaything has been brought to life in a new major motion picture by Oscar-nominated writer and director Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Alongside the movie, creator Mattel has launched an extensive marketing campaign, complete with Barbie clothes and accessories and gear sold by several different retailers for fans to play dress-up for themselves. “Barbie” is also the latest entry into a wave of films cashing in on valuable toy brands and merchandising opportunities.
Across the last 64 years, the toy line has remained a powerhouse. Since 1959, the toy line has made billions for Mattel. In 2021 alone, after several years of decline, Mattel sold 86 million dolls, totaling a record high of $1.7 billion in annual sales. The doll has also been the subject of an Andy Warhol painting and Aqua’s hit pop single “Barbie Girl.”
To understand Barbie’s staying power and long (curvaceous) shadow, here are six things you should know.
1. Barbie was based off a gag gift for adults
After Mattel’s early hit toys (like a kid’s ukulele and their Burp Gun), co-founder Ruth Handler had the idea for something new.
She had observed her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls and imagining their lives in an adult world with jobs and relationships, and Ruth wanted to make a 3D version for Mattel. Then, during a trip in Europe in the 1950s, the family came across a set of Bild Lilli dolls in a store window. A teenager at the time, Barbara immediately wanted one.
Unbeknownst to Handler, Lilli was a gag gift that men would buy for each other, Lord said. The doll was based on a lascivious comic strip character with a witty sense of humor who was depicted sleeping with wealthy men for money and gifts.
“I didn’t know who Lilli was or even that its name was Lilli,” Handler told Lord in an interview for her book. “I only saw an adult-shape body that I had been trying to describe for years, and our guys [at Mattel] said couldn’t be done.”
Handler’s discovery of Lilli led to the design for Barbie, a cool, trendy doll that was named for their daughter. When Barbie became a massive success for Mattel and the Handlers, Lilli’s toymaker tried unsuccessfully to sue for infringement, later selling the rights to Mattel.
Geared at kids rather than adults, Barbie’s trendy fashions, high heels and bachelorette lifestyle were still often a shock to parents who considered such things too risque for little girls.
“She came out in 1959, so a lot of women were still homemakers [and nurturers] and wearing more traditional clothing,” said Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, a curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. “And then all of a sudden you have this blond bombshell in your playroom and it’s like, what are you supposed to make of this? And what is she telling your children?”
2. Barbie has been many things… but not a parent
In the 1950s, many toys for girls were very focused on family play — baby dolls that needed caretaking, Handler had observed. Barbie marked a dramatic shift: With her extensive wardrobe, Parnett-Dwyer said, she is considered one of the first fashion dolls, and had a sexy, independent vibe that was unique for the time.
Fashion modeling was, in fact, teenage Barbie’s first job, and over the decades she’s gone on to pursue many careers. That list includes astronaut, doctor and president of the United States.
But two roles that often have been projected onto women — namely, mother and wife — have never applied to Barbie.
Lord, now the co-host of a brand new podcast series from the LAist called “The Barbie Tapes,” believes this characterization can be partially attributed to Handler’s personal discontent in her role as a housewife, especially during the period when her husband was fighting in World War II and she had to raise their children alone. In Lord’s old recordings from an in-person interview, Handler said that she “stayed home from ‘41 to ‘44 and played mother.”
While Barbie has never had a child, her longtime friend Midge was once made with a detachable baby bump, which revealed a newborn baby inside. The toy was quickly taken off the shelves in the United States in 2002, after some parents complained that it promoted teen pregnancy.
Meanwhile, Barbie “had a boyfriend, but she never actually got married,” Parnett-Dwyer said.
Lord in her book describes that longtime boyfriend Ken as “a lackluster fellow, a mere accessory.” In 2004, they split up (yes, we are still talking about dolls) and Mattel introduced a new love interest for Barbie — an Australian surfer named Blaine — after asking for public input.
She even got her own (Dream)house in 1962, before such an asset was widely available to many American women. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, banks could discriminate on the basis of sex or marital status. They could credit applications from single women who didn’t have a man to cosign, barring many women from accessing the kind of mortgage Barbie surely would’ve required to secure her first home.
For the time, “she was very progressive, which is awesome if you’re thinking of it in terms of being a feminist and what you want to teach your children, but if that wasn’t your values, that’s really uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Parnett-Dwyer said.
Part of the rationale of rolling out many different Barbies with many different pursuits is rooted in business. Like any other company, Mattel is aware that more variety equals more opportunity for profit, said Emily Aguiló-Pérez, an assistant English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who wrote the book, “An American Icon in Puerto Rico: Barbie, Girlhood, and Colonialism at Play.”
The company has made plenty of missteps, but Barbie’s message has always been aspirational, she said, and an invitation for kids to imagine iterations of girlhood and womanhood beyond traditional domestic roles.
Barbie’s “branding [and] mottos have been ‘Girls can be anything, imagine the possibilities,” Aguiló-Pérez’ said. “It’s always tried to be about imagining beyond some of the options that girls were given.”
3. The toy line has tried to keep up with social changes
For basically her entire existence, Barbie’s popularity has been paired with controversy and critique.
The National Organization for Women protested in front of a 1972 toy fair, handing out leaflets that said Barbie, among other dolls, encouraged “little girls to see themselves solely as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers.”
In response to the increasing backlash, Mattel attempted to catch up with contemporary trends, Lord said.
“Mattel is not as retrograde as Mattel seems,” she said. Lord, a first-generation Barbie owner, went on to explain that Mattel gave Barbie careers beyond fashion as early as 1961 with the introduction of a flight attendant and nurse Barbie. But Barbie’s career-oriented image didn’t hit its stride until the 1980s, and the dolls were also still predominantly white.
In the 1960s and 1970s, “Mattel had progressively been trying to catch up to culture through the doll, but they haven’t really wanted to let go of the idea that Barbie was always thin, white and blonde with blue eyes,” said Aria S. Halliday, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and Program in African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky.
“Talking Christie,” a friend of Barbie’s who was Black, made her debut in 1969. But it would be another decade until Mattel released a doll in 1979 who was both Black and named Barbie. Her outfit was designed by Kitty Black Perkins, a Black designer at Mattel who went on to become chief designer of fashions and doll concepts for the company, according to The Strong National Museum of Play.
After Perkins joined the team in the 1970s, Halliday said, “we began to see the designs of Barbie change.”
“They’re thinking about texture of hair, they’re thinking about color, they’re thinking about different outfits and different ways to approach Barbie,” she said.
In the 1980s, the Day-to-Night Barbie doll could change from its pink executive business suit to a glittery (still pink) evening dress, reflecting the rise in women’s workforce participation across the decade. During the Seoul premiere of the 2023 film, Robbie’s red-carpet look paid homage to that outfit.
“Barbie and her chic corporate feminism was more in tune with the times,” Lord said.
For her book, Aguiló-Pérez spoke to a group of Puerto Rican women and girls about their lived experiences with, and opinions of, Barbie. They discussed how the doll influenced their identities around conceptions of race, nationalism, femininity and more.
Barbie herself is in many ways viewed as a symbol of whiteness and of the United States as a colonizing force in Puerto Rico, Aguiló-Pérez said. Her participants said they did not see enough of themselves in the Barbies available in the toy aisle, even at points where there were comparatively more dolls of color available.
“The central image was and remains the white, blond Barbie,” Aguiló-Pérez said.
Mattel released Puerto Rican Barbie in 1997. Part of the “Dolls of the World” line, it was marketed as more of a collector’s item than a doll to play with, Aguiló-Pérez said. But some group participants who were young at the time of the doll’s debut said that although they didn’t necessarily feel represented by the doll’s looks, they nonetheless embraced the toy, which offered them a sense of national pride.
Between 2011 and 2015, the brand’s sales dropped amid a greater cultural desire for more imagery of realistic beauty ideals, and Mattel decided it was time for another Barbie makeover. The company introduced a new wave of its existing Fashionistas line in 2016, which featured dolls with a variety of body shapes, features and skin tones, plus ones who use wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs later introduced in 2019. The rollout coincided with a rebound in sales.
This year, Mattel also released a Barbie with Down syndrome. On their website, the company said their work with the National Down Syndrome Society “informed the design process from start to finish.”
Halliday said the focus on the dolls’ various messages largely comes from parents and adults trying to protect their kids from harmful narratives around patriarchy and race. Many Black women she talked to said, “My mom never let me have Barbies,” or “She only let me have the Barbie that looked like me.”
In reality, she said, children draw from a “constellation” of experiences from their childhood when shaping their view of the world, not just from the toys they play with.
“There’s a lot of ways that adult kind of ideas about [how] children are playing creates a narrative about what the doll means,” she said.
4. Barbie’s looks may be flawless, but she’s also made blunders
Alongside its many successes, the Barbie brand has also made missteps.
While Christy is considered the first real Black Barbie, Lord said that there was an “unfortunate iteration” of the existing Francie doll with darker skin that appeared in 1967.
Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, in 1975 became Growing Up Skipper: Twisting the toy’s arm would make it sprout breasts and grow taller.
Lord believes that after Handler left Mattel, the toy line was aimless for a while, and that some of the men who designed action toys for boys “were taking a stab at Barbie products.”
While Mattel doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual diversity today, the toymaker once inadvertently modeled Earring Magic Ken after queer culture in the 1990s. An effort to give Ken a trendier makeover to appeal more to girls of the era, the resulting rave outfit and accessories appeared to appropriate queer fashion.
In the early 1990s, the company released Teen Talk Barbie, which was originally programmed to say phrases like “Math class is tough!”, drawing widespread criticism as a result. In 1993, an anonymous group of artists carefully switched this particular Barbie’s voice box with that of a G.I. Joe doll and returned both dolls to their original stores, which restocked them on shelves.
It’s not clear how many dolls these artists managed to voice-swap, but their goal was to draw attention to the rigid gender norms embodied by the dolls that they viewed as detrimental to children.
They pulled off the stunt just in time for that year’s holiday season, much to the chagrin of parents whose children had brand-new Barbies that instead said phrases like, “Vengeance is mine,” according to The Strong museum.
A 2010 book called “Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer” drew delayed criticism for its plotline, which involved Barbie tapping her male friends for help after she accidentally infects a computer with a virus.
Mattel stopped publishing the book after backlash exploded in 2014. But a site called Feminist Hacker Barbie emerged that welcomed users to reimagine the story sans sexism.
5. Barbie has had a prolific film career
While the new film is the first ever live-action version of the character, many who grew up in the early 2000s will remember a massive library of straight-to-video CGI movies, not to mention her role in the “Toy Story” series.
William Lau, a director on eight Barbie films between 2004 and 2013, such as “Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper,” has noted a surge in adults reaching out to him in recent years to talk about how much the films affected them as kids.
“That just warms my heart,” he said.
Lau attributes the resurgence of popularity to the pandemic, when many people were stuck inside and had time to rewatch old favorites and “retreat back to old memories.” He also said social media has helped to push the old movies back into the spotlight, with many people dressing up as the characters and singing the songs.
He was also surprised to see people post memes about Bibble, a small, puffy companion to Barbie’s character in the “Fairytopia” series, and Preminger, the main antagonist in “Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper.”
“There’s just something about him; his design, his stature and of course [he’s voiced by] Martin Short. He’s a legend,” Lau said.
6. Barbie showed that video games are for everyone
For decades, video games were marketed almost exclusively to boys, setting up a self-fulfilling loop that excluded girls from engaging with the medium for a long time. But Mattel attempted to broaden that appeal through several video game titles, including one recent addition to the World Video Game Hall of Fame — “Barbie Fashion Designer,” which debuted in 1996.
Barbie Fashion Designer wasn’t the first Barbie-themed video game Mattel released, but it was “by far the most influential,” said Lindsey Kurano, curator of electronic games at The Strong museum. By 1997, she said the number of video games marketed to girls ballooned from virtually zero to more than 200 titles.
Barbie Fashion Designer featured a unique combination of digital and physical play. Users designed clothing for their dolls on their computers and printed them on a special type of soft, malleable paper. They then cut out the new items and used them to dress up their Barbies. This inventive approach was key to its popularity, Kurano said, and also ahead of its time.
“It’s not just a game [where] you’re clicking around and then you sign off,” she said. “It has play elements outside of the software, and it’s connecting it back to the doll itself.”
Barbie Fashion Designer was also intuitive, Kurano said, which was an important quality for a game at a time when computer literacy wasn’t as common as it is today.
Part of the key to its success was the fact that stores placed the game in the toy aisle rather than the usual video game section, making it more likely to catch the eye of the girls it was geared toward.
“Not only was it better [than prior Barbie games,] but also they sort of realized their mistake,” Kurano said. “Like, ‘If girls aren’t buying video games, why are we putting it in the video game section? Let’s put it with the Barbies.’”
Kurano emphasized that video games are and always have been for everyone — the fact that they were once solely designed with men and boys in mind never stopped other genders from playing them. But the recognition of an undertapped demographic post-Barbie Fashion Designer was nonetheless significant.