The Turbulent History of Barbie

Ariana Powell


As children, millennials and Gen Z-ers probably remember walking into Toys "R" Us and seeing the sprawling aisles of toys. One side of the store was covered in blue, action figures, dinosaurs and Hot Wheels. On the other, the walls were splashed with pink, baby dolls, kitchen playsets and, of course, Barbie products.

Barbie has been around since 1959, after Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel, took a trip to Switzerland, and came into contact with the German Bild Lilli doll – a toy, based on popular comic strips, that originated in adult shops because of her curvy shape, big breasts and “suggestively arched eyebrows,” according to Time magazine.

According to a HistoryHit article, Handler “saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls at home, and wanted to create a more realistic and tangible toy that represented what the girls ‘wanted to be.’” From these two influences, Barbie, full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts, was created, named after Ruth’s daughter, Barbara.

Barbie has influenced multiple generations, starting with Baby Boomers, in her striped black-and-white swimsuit – the look of which is replicated to at a T by Margot Robbie in Greta Gerwig's upcoming film "Barbie," which will be released on April 21.



This film will be only the latest addition to the list of Barbie-influenced media. The brand has inspired songs such as Aqua's "Barbie Girl," and Ava Max's reversal of the popular pop song "Not Your Barbie Girl," and more recently Scene Queen and Set It Off's alt z-rock song "Barbie & Ken."

There have also been multiple animated Barbie movies, such as the fan favorite "Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses," and Netflix’s series "Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse."

As Barbie is back into the public eye, thanks to the new film, there is an opportunity to discuss the importance of gender equality and inclusion.

Those who have marketed and sold the doll have often perpetuated the idea that a thin, blonde, blue-eyed doll is the model for femininity. And those who have bought the doll for their children have perpetuated this myth too.



Handler had the power to encourage feminist values and a sense of independence in young children, but she may not have known the extent of the power she had.

Mattel did release the first career Barbie in 1960, which encourages the idea of gender equality and women in the workplace -- a move that seemed to echo Handler’s own pioneering presence in the toy-making industry. Handler was one of the few women in the industry at that time.

However, the career initially chosen, that of fashion design, is a now regarded as a typical female-assigned career, and may not demonstrate to children the multiple options open to all genders, ranging from creative careers to more STEM-based jobs.

A year later, in 1961, Ken, named after Handler’s son, Kenneth Handler, came on the scene. He was created basically as Barbie’s romantic interest, another idea that today is regarded as encouraging female dependence on men.



Early Mattel commercials advertising Barbie products usually cast girls, making occasional changes starting in 2015. Instead of marketing the dolls simply as children’s toys, Barbie is still generally regarded as a girl’s toy.

Parents, grandparents and other well-meaning family members may also -- without realizing – have bought and encouraged girls in their family to engage with Barbie dolls – which is how the doll became stereotyped as the ideal girl’s toy.

The Barbie brand has taken great major steps to become more racially and culturally inclusive. The first Black Barbie, Christie, was released in 1969. Teresa, the first Hispanic Barbie was released in 1980, and the first Native American Barbie in 1993. But it wasn’t until 2016, when Mattel released their Barbie Fashionistas collection, and seven different skin tones, 22 eye colors, and 24 hairstyles were implemented in the doll design.

The Fashionistas collection also introduced different body types to the Barbie world. Since the doll’s release in 1959, Barbie has had the same hourglass shape, an echo of the original Bild Lilli doll. Perfect plastic skin, large breasts, long legs, and no stretch marks, cellulite or a realistic body type.



The doll’s influence even affected Handler’s own granddaughter, Stacey Handler, the inspiration for the Stacey dolls. In her book, "The Body Burden, Living in the Shadow of Barbie," Stacey talks about how she used to starve herself in the attempt to look like Barbie.

The doll has even sparked something called The Barbie Doll Syndrome. It is “a type of body dysmorphic disorder, which has been described as the drive to attain impossible standards of physical appearance such as that of the Barbie doll,” according to Hektoen International.

Some people with this syndrome have gone to extremes to resemble Barbie. People like Valeria Lukyanova and Rodrigo Alves have spent thousands of dollars on physical enhancements to look like a living Barbie doll.

Another study highlighted by Teen Vogue shows that girls who play with thinner dolls have more problems regarding their self-body image, rather than those who play with curvier dolls.

In 2014, a doll company, Lammily, released a realistic Barbie-type doll. The doll was modeled after the typical body proportions of a 19-year-old, according to the CDC, and included “cellulite, stretch marks, freckles, acne, glasses, temporary tattoo, scratches, bruises, cast, mosquito bites and dirt stains.” It took Mattel two more years to create a product moderately similar.



The Ken doll also sets unrealistic expectations for the perfect male body. The image of the flat, cinched abdomen, chiseled facial features, blue eyes, and light skin tone is often a far cry from what men’s real bodies look like.

Mattel is also taking advantage of the brand power, and in 2020, as part of the Fashionistas collection, it released more dolls with disabilities and illnesses, providing representation for a wider variety of children, or whoever turns to the doll for inspiration and motivation.

According to Barbie Media's fast facts, the brand is the most diverse fashion doll on the market. However, the original thin, blonde, blue-eyed Barbie doll still remains the main character in many media recreations.

The fast facts also state that more than 100 dolls are sold every minute, and the Barbie brand has over 99 percent brand awareness globally.

Maybe that 99 percent brand awareness worldwide should exhibit a new face of the brand. The company has made impressive decisions to continuously diversify the brand as a whole since its origin, so it definitely has the power to rebrand the face of Barbie to make her even more diverse.


Author Bio:

Ariana Powell is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--RomitaGirl67 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Victoria Borodinova (PublicDomainPictures, Creative Commons)

--RomitaGirl67 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Maxpixel (Creative Commons)


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