Somebody had a very special birthday this month and it’s someone who has had multiple impressive jobs, many a fabulous home, and a man who has eyes only for her. Who could it be? None other than Barbie! Yep, the Malibu princess turned 60 on March 9 and doesn’t she look fab for her age?!
During those 60 years Barbie has been everything from best friend to president. She’s been a doctor, an astronaut, a news anchor, a fashion editor, flight attendant, and everything in between. And despite numerous controversies surrounding her hair color, waist size, and skin color, Barbie remains Mattel’s best-selling toy. A total of more than a billion Barbie dolls have been sold over the years and every year nearly 60 million are bought around the world. A whopping 100 Barbies are said to be sold every minute! Not bad for a girl whose inspiration came from a risqué German doll named Bild Lilli.
Truth be told, I love Barbie and all things Barbie. I’ve always wanted a wall in my house filled with big vintage and pop art sketches of the doll but for some reason my husband is not on board. Go figure. And who didn’t love Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua’s fun and flirty 1997 hit “I’m A Barbie Girl.” You’re probably right now singing “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic” after reading the title.
If I were a gazillionaire living in a dream house with a ton of rooms, I’d dedicate one just to Barbie. I’d have all my old Barbies displayed, along with her Dreamhouse, clothes, and everything vintage. Those hangars! Those little bitty shoes! That white pink stole! And those carrying cases! I still have one exactly like the red one above and if I close my eyes I can picture how it feels and how it smells. These are childhood memories that have indeed lasted a lifetime.
Growing up a Hispanic brunette, I never cared that Barbie was blonde-haired and blue-eyed. My sisters and I played with her and her Dreamhouse that we still have at my mom’s house and we never, ever felt slighted by her whiteness or thinness. She was just a doll to us and one who gave us countless hours of playful pretend joy. We had Barbie and later added Midge, Ken, and Skipper and I remember how exciting it was when new Barbies had bendable knees and twist-and-turn waists. All these years later, today girls of all colors and shapes can find a Barbie in their own image, which is what Barbie was intended to be all along.
Created by then Mattel owner Ruth Handler and her husband Elliott, Barbie was inspired by the paper dolls their daughter Barbara played with and designed after Bild Lilli. (I also remember LOVING paper dolls, especially Betsy McCall ones that came each month in my mom’s McCall’s magazine.) The Handlers also invented Hot Wheels and named Barbie and Ken after their children. It’s safe to say that little did they know they had an icon on their hands when Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. They probably thought they just had a cute doll with a ponytail, holding sunglasses, and wearing a swimsuit. Instead, what the Handlers handed the world was its most popular and famous doll of all time. Let’s give them a hand for doing so.
Since that debut, Barbie has undergone many a makeover, had many a career, and many a celebrity has been made into their very own Barbie doll. Some makeovers have been received with fanfare but others have been met with criticism, including and probably by some of those very stars who thought nothing of being a Barbie themselves. But that’ a whole other blog. So, let’s start with her figure. That ubiquitous and unrealistic figure that many say conveys an unrealistic body image to young girls.
A standard Barbie dolls is 11.5 inches tall, which equates to around 5’9” in real life and weighs around 110 pounds, which most experts and doctors consider underweight for her height. The doll’s “real life” measurements are estimated to be a 36-inch chest, an 18-inch waist, and 33-inch-wide hips. According to the BBC, if you made the original body into a true human size figure, she would have a 21-inch waist and 30-inch hips. Sadly, the average waist of an American woman in 2018 was 39 inches.
In response, Mattel has altered Barbie’s figure and a new line of body types including tall, petite, and curvy, was introduced. Curvy Barbie gained a great deal of attention and accolades but sadly many young girls still consider her “fat,” even though she would be an equivalent of a size 4 in women’s clothing. That, my friends, is not Barbie’s fault.
But that’s just the start of the controversies that have surrounded our Barbie girl.
Diversity was also lacking in early day Barbies, but in their defense, Mattel has attempted to create Barbies that appeal to a range of races and cultures and dolls representing all walks of life.
“Colored Francie” debuted in 1967 and is sometimes considered the first African-American Barbie, but she was made using the same head molds as those of white Francie so she lacked what many consider traditional women of color characteristics. A year later Christie was introduced and was considered more racially authentic and accurate.
In 1980 Mattel began producing Hispanic dolls, including Teresa who is currently one of Barbie’s best friends. In addition, mixed race Asian-American Raquelle was one of the “I Can Be President” dolls while Summer Gordon appeals to all the gingers in the world with her strawberry blonde hair and green eyes.
All in all, Barbie now sports at least seven skin tones, 22 eyes colors, and 24 hair styles and colors and the “Barbie Fashionistas” line includes a doll with a prosthetic leg and another in a wheel chair. Last year the “Inspiring Women” line was released featuring the likes of Amelia Earhart and snowboarder Chloe Kim, among others. And just this year, more than 20 “Sheroes” dolls bear the likes of female heroes like activists and gymnasts.
Barbie’s rep also took a hit in 1992 when the talking “Teen Talk Barbie” said things like “I love shopping” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” As if those weren’t cringe-worthy enough, what ultimately broke the Barbie’s back was the now infamous “Math class is tough” phrase. Each doll was programmed to say four of 270 possible phrases and only less than 2 percent of all dolls sold said the dreaded math one. Still loud and vocal criticism led Mattel to eliminate it all together.
Given the full name Barbara Millicent Roberts, Barbie hails from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin and she attended Willows High School. Somehow she made her way to Malibu, California though. Her on-off boyfriend Ken Carson first appeared in 1961 and she had a famous younger sister named Skipper. Her family and friend circles continue to grow and morph and she even got a little friendly with Australian surfer Blaine when she and Ken were on a break. Oh my!
Through the years, Barbie’s cars are almost as famous as her wardrobe. She’s owned everything from a requisite pink convertible to more sporty Jeeps. She also holds a pilot’s license and can fly a commercial airplane. Barbie works hard and plays hard, and whether beach babe or boss lady, she lives her life to the fullest. Maybe that’s what we all love about her.
Barbie’s ever-evolving and progressive make-overs have also affected where she lives. Enter, the Barbie Dreamhouse. And what a dream it is.
The first Barbie Dreamhouse was introduced in 1962 and was made out of cardboard. It could be folded up into a portable luggage-like piece and is the one I had as a child. With a true minimalist vibe, the house is reminiscent of TV’s “Mad Men” and all things Rat Pack. Since then, Barbie’s digs have run the gamut and perfectly mimic the decades in which they were created, right down to their plastic.
The ‘70s saw Barbie move into a brightly decorated, fun, and girlie three-story home complete with an elevator, followed by a more realistic one a few years later that had working doors and windows. From there Barbie became urban-chic as she transitioned to city life as well as a full-blown “magical mansion” that featured a ringing telephone (remember those?!), a working doorbell, and a light-up fireplace. More recently Barbie’s home away from home boasts architectural details only a designer could dream up, including stained glass and bay windows, arches, and balconies. It’s important to also note that Barbie must be working hard as her most recent home has not one but two elevators.
Whatever her pros and cons, Barbie is an undeniable hit that has withstood generations of play and fame. In 2016 she was the subject of an exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratif in Paris and she is bonafide social media darling. Her Instagram account, @barbiestyle, has 2 million followers and nearly 6 million follow her YouTube animated vlogs. She is the subject of a Netflix series, has starred in close to 40 animated films, and a live-action movie featuring Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie is currently in production. I can’t wait for that one! Mattel is rightly proud of their girl and is commemorating her anniversary with a pop-up art installation in New York City. Think of the pink! Think of the lines! Think of the history.
Maybe deep down we are all Barbie girls, shouldn’t take her so seriously, and instead just have fun with the whole idea of a girl who can do anything and who dreams big. As they say, if you don’t have a dream, there’s no way to make one come true.
Happy Birthday Barbie!