My favorite Barbie turned 60 recently. But she does not look a day older than the first Barbie I embraced, hugged and kissed more than two decades ago. She still doesn’t have a single wrinkle. Blonde or brunette, slender or curvy, black or white, Indian or Icelandic, this iconic doll has evolved with time, and despite fierce competition, still sells well over 58 million units each year in over 150 countries.
Barbie has sold over 1 billion dolls ever since her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. Legend has it that Barbie was invented by Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, who felt that her daughter Barbara was limited in her choice of toys, basically baby dolls, and the only role that she could play with them was of caregiver or mother. In contrast, Handler felt her son could freely imagine being an astronaut, cowboy, pilot or surgeon. Hence was born the enduring and endearing icon of Barbie, a shortened version of Barbara, the daughter of its creator. The new doll was an instant success, selling 300,000 pieces in the very first year. And, there has been no looking back ever since.
Over the years, Barbie has become a marketing and sociological case study on gender evolution. Way back in 1959, the very appearance of an adult doll was a radical idea.
Mattel has gone on record to say Barbie ‘was supposed to teach girls that they had choices, that they could be anything’. Barbie has over the past 60 years had over 180 careers, becoming a nurse in 1961, and an astronaut during the space race. During the 1990s, she was a baby doctor, a firefighter and a pilot. And in the past few years she’s been a director, a scientist, a game developer and the president. In fact, Barbie’s dolled up debut was met with much doubt. Modeled after Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor among other 1950s stars, Barbie was dressed in black and white stripped swimsuit and her hair was pulled up in her signature ponytail. She retailed for just $3.
Barbie’s pinup measurements have always been a cause for concern to feminists. The excuse, at least initially given was that her body structure was exaggerated to match the aesthetics of the time and, strangely enough, the fabric available (yes, that is what Barbie’s designer Carlyle Nuera has officially been quoted as saying)! To be fair, since the blonde beauty first hit stores, and after a torrent of complaints and criticism over what was seen as ‘unrealistic proportions’, Mattel has made many changes over the years -- introducing multiple body types and dozens of skin tones. Since 2016, Barbie is available in three different body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles.
Mattel has tried hard to keep Barbie contemporary, real life and relatable. The Barbie franchise today represents more than 40 different nationalities. Barbie has faced opposition on other fronts too. In the 1960s, one Barbie model came with a dieting book that said “Don’t Eat.” And in the early 1990s, one of Teen Talk Barbie’s programmed phrases was “Math class is tough.” At least in current times, Mattel has steered clear of such controversies.
India has had her own versions of the Barbie with beauties Aishwarya Rai and Katrina Kaif being ‘dolled’ up by the global franchise. The dusky (read darker) Deepika Padukone has so far not made the cut, and some say because of her skin tone may never ever do so. But I suppose much of such talk is deliberate and only builds further the legend of the Barbie, always alive, always contemporary, always a subject of debate.
What is really interesting is how Barbie has developed as an individual, and as a personality uniquely her own, with her own love life, social life and more.
Some key dates in the history and evolution of Barbie
March 9, 1959: Barbie makes her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York.
1961: Creation of Ken, Barbie's on-off boyfriend. The two dolls are named after creator Ruth Handler's children.
1965: Barbie becomes an astronaut, four years before Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.
1965: Barbie gets bendable legs.
1967: The first celebrity Barbie is issued -- in the form of British model Twiggy.
1968: Mattel markets the first black doll, a friend for Barbie named Christie. In 1980, the first Black Barbie is marketed.
1970: The first fully articulated Barbie is created.
1992: Barbie is a presidential candidate for the first time.
2004: Barbie dumps Ken for a surfer named Blaine, the brother of one of her friends. But the relationship only lasts a short time.
February 14, 2011: Ken officially returns to Barbie's life.
2014: Mattel produces Ella, a bald friend of Barbie suffering from cancer. She is given free to children going through chemotherapy who have lost their hair.
2016: Barbie makes the front page of Time magazine when she is introduced in several new looks: tall, petite and curvy.
Today, Barbie is not only a toy store success -- she has a massive social media presence, and is something of an 'influencer' with millions of followers. She has an actual identity: Barbie Millicent Roberts, who hails from the made-up town of Willows in the Midwest. And now, she speaks directly to girls about her life, and important current topics. In 2018, the brand launched a sweeping campaign to help young girls close the so-called 'Dream Gap' -- using Barbie to teach them to believe in themselves, and not to buy into sexist gender stereotypes. Barbie actually has a hair stylist, makeup artist and photographer who travel with her 'for real' in the United States and abroad for Instagram photo sessions (barbiestyle). The account has nearly two million followers.
So, the key question marketers and sociologists must answer is if Barbie has it all as she hits 60, but remains forever young, still single and without kids (so far)?
MG Lord, author of the famous biography ‘Forever Barbie’, has an interesting perspective on what Barbie actually stands for, "She is what the child wants her to be. How a child sees the Barbie doll is often framed by how the mother of that child feels about the idea of femininity." Lord adds for good measure, "The problem here is not an 11.5-inch plastic object. The problem is the larger culture and the idea of femininity."
(Carol Goyal is a lawyer by training. She writes on a wide variety of societal subjects.)