Barbie Girl – 60 Years of Pink Empowerment

If you ask anyone who knows me personally and you tell them I wrote a piece on a doll they will laugh at your face for hours. I wouldn’t blame them because I have never been exactly a fan of dolls, especially when I was a kid. Actually, I used to torture them by dyeing their hair with black paint or by detaching their arms and legs. My mother simply pretended not to see all the signs which could give the impression I was about to become a serial killer and eventually stopped buying me dolls. Yet, when I heard that the famous Barbie doll was turning 60 years old, I decided to dig deeper and I found out a bunch of interesting facts.

Barbara Millicent Robert was born in 1959 in the little fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin from George and Margaret Robert. She attended Willows High School and then she became a fabulous model. But let’s take a step back. Every creature comes from a genius brain and that happens to be the one of Ruth Handler, an American mother who noticed her daughter didn’t want to play with the dolls she had, all resembling babies so that children could pretend to be their mothers; she used to clip adult women figures from magazines and she would play with those all day, inventing plots inspired by adulthood life. So when Mrs Handler found herself strolling in front of a toy shop in Switzerland, she suddenly saw a doll called Lilli, which gave her the idea of creating a doll which resembled an adult woman in every detail. She bought the doll, brought it back to the States and started to draw the final projects. Lucky for her, Mrs Handler’s husband was one of the co-founders of Mattel, a toy brand which built wooden dollhouses. And there she was, the Barbie we all know making her debut to the American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959. The original model featured a black and white swimsuit and the doll was available both in a blonde and brunette version. The presentation was a bit of a shock for the customers and the industry, maybe because the doll really looked like a woman, but within a year over 350.000 pieces were made and they were sold for 3 dollars each. 

The very first Barbie doll, 1959

The introduction of a new type of doll inevitably triggered public opinion and the doll was immediately labelled as shallow, a symbol of materialism and of course a bad example to follow for young ladies in the early 60s. Ruth Handler stated that Barbie stood as a symbol for each girl who had the right to become what she wanted and that there was nothing wrong with pretending to dream of a free and stylish adult life. Honestly, I think the message of Barbie goes even deeper than that, right towards a feminist semiotic meaning and against all that was expected from a woman to do in the 60s. Barbie is in line with every feminist principle of that revolutionary era, fighting everyone who dared to tell women how to dress and what job they could or could not take. From this point of view, she is the most fashionable toy ever made, always up to date with what was happening in the real world and changing with it. Since Barbie is a direct representation of our society, all the critiques made to her are actually meant for us all, but at the same time, I’m not sure we need to demonise a toy which is basically made to let children use their imagination.

BUSY IN BUSINESS

I dare you to find someone with a resume as impressive as the one Barbie has. With more than 200 jobs, Barbie has been an astronaut in space before Armstrong did, she has been a police officer, a marine, a pilot and a rockstar with her own band “Barbie and The Rockers”. In 1970 she followed the feminist wake and became a surfer girl in Malibu, with a whole new look: new face sculpt, straight hair, an open smile with pearly white teeth and most importantly, her blue eyes faced forward for the first time. After a couple of years, her popularity dropped and she reinvented herself; most women began to attend university and to experience the working world, so Barbie became a surgeon and a professional Olympic skier. Barbie sampled careers which were impossible for women to access or where women were underrepresented in order to show girls they could be anything they wanted to be and to encourage those dreams through play. For this reason, Barbie became businesswoman and UNICEF ambassador in the 80s and she run for president in the 90s. Nowadays, Barbie is an international influencer with her Instagram account and Youtube channel, counting 7 million subscribers on the latter alone. I wanted to see with my own eyes how a doll can have a successful vlog and I watched some of her Youtube videos. Wow, people, that’s some brilliant stuff! Stop right there any prejudice you might have and do it too, there is no way you can be too old for this. All you will see is an inspiring woman who talks about self-esteem, discrimination and space pioneers. If you don’t know what to let your children watch, then give them that expensive iPad of yours and tune them into her channel playlist; they will surely come out better than watching any other influencer’s dumb tutorial. 

THE GLITTER, THE GLAMOUR, THE HOOK

Barbie was one of the very first toys to have an extensive marketing campaign through television advertising, printed media and internet later on. Mattel claims that over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in 150 countries and that 3 Barbies are sold every second. Whether this is fact or fiction, what is to be sure of is the potential that this doll has to sell. In 1987 a media franchise started for her with a series of animated films, branded apparel, books, cosmetics and video games. Barbie’s accessories are as famous as she is and they were first introduced in 1963. From that day she owned 14 dogs, 7 horses, 2 cats, a parrot, a panda, a dolphin, an uncountable amount of shoes and dresses, some of which designed by designers such as Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and Moschino. Between 4800 pieces of accessorizing, it would be a shame not to mention her cars. It’s quite obvious she has a passion for fast and fun cars, but even if Barbie was born in 1959, it was not until 1962 that she drove her own automobile. This was a British Austin-Healey roadster type, available in bubblegum pink or orange-brown. The fact that she has a thing for convertibles is not just a stylish choice but it was also a way for children to see their toy in action while playing. Some of her most famous vehicles include a Chevrolet Corvette, a hippie country camper, a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce, a Ford Mustang, a Volkswagen New Beetle and in 2010 a pink Fiat 500. 

BARBIE OBSESSED

Being the most famous doll in the world, Barbie has a very large number of collectors; Mattel estimates those are around 100.000, with 90% of women at an average age of 40, purchasing around 20 dolls each year and spending upwards of 1.000 dollars per year. While the very first Barbie was sold for 3 dollars, a mint boxed Barbie from 1959 was sold on eBay for almost 4.000 dollars in 2004. In 2006 a 1965 Barbie in Midnight red set a world record for being auctioned for 9.000 sterling at Christie’s in London. Obsession calls for something more than collecting items though. In fact, there is a medical phenomenon named “Barbie syndrome” which is the desire for real people to look exactly like the Barbie doll. Many people have gone into surgery in order to have a tiny waist, big pointy breasts and the whitest of all smiles while spending a great deal of money. Some of those people became famous worldwide, like Valeria Lukyanova, Lacey Wildd and Rodrigo Alves, “The Human Ken Doll”.

A rare Barbie doll from the 60s
Vintage Barbie, 1964
Totally Hair Barbie, 1992

20th CENTURY TOYBOY

All we have ever known is that if there is a Barbie there usually is a Ken. But does Ken really have a crucial role in Barbie’s life? I honestly never really considered him and the jokes about the poor guy not having a hint of male package did not help his cause for sure. However, you should know that Ken Carson is 2 years younger than Barbie, making the situation already less common than we may think. He was born in the same town as Barbie and they met for the first time in 1961 on the set of a television commercial where it was love at first sight. Their relationship last for years until Barbie dumped him on Valentine’s Day in 2004, and if that’s not cruel I don’t know what is! Some say Ken was not committing, while Barbie got confused after wearing wedding dresses every now and then. But you will never guess what our dear Barbara was up to. After breaking up she ran off to Malibu and, without taking so much time to think about the new single life, she started dating a certain DJ Blaine, Aussie radio Dj and boogie boarder. I’m still not sure whether to think she has been a big fat bitch or “whatever” as long as she finally found sexual fulfilment. In order to impress Barbie, Ken got a makeover in 2006 and from that moment he was determined to get her back. He delivered personalised cupcakes and put up billboards professing his love for her (Mattel really put up real billboards advertising what Ken was doing!) so after a series of grand gestures, the two finally got back together in 2011. I’m not sure how broke Ken was after paying for all of that or if Barbie could have sued him for stalking, but now you can see Ken occasionally appearing in Barbie’s vlogs, looking a bit less useless than he did before.

IT’S A BARBIE WORLD

Barbie has no children and maybe she never will, giving additional meaning to women’s freedom to choose whether or not to have children, a kind of option that was not even contemplated in the past. Barbie has a ton of brothers and sisters though, definitely too many for their parents to have such a colourful life. From time to time, Mattel created Skipper, Todd and Stacie (twin brother and sister), Kelly, Krissy, and Francie. I would never, ever put myself in that family’s shoes, especially when you have to buy hundreds of presents for Christmas or in the unfortunate event of collective Coke & candy consumption. When she is not busy running for president or changing diapers to her siblings, Barbie gathers with her multicultural friends: the Hispanic Theresa, Midge and African American Christie. Diversity is something that goes way back for the Barbie world and efforts to blend in different cultures and genders have always been made by Mattel. It wasn’t so easy when Barbie clashed with the Middle East cultures and her fabulous five-inch heels were banned along with her fierce career. There is now a sort of copy named Fulla, fully covered and featuring a hijab which is very distant from what our western Barbara represents. But diversity is not just a skin tone and cultural matter, it deals also with different shapes and sizes. For this reason, in 2016 Mattel introduced a whole new range of body sizes for the dolls: tall, petite and curvy. This immediately drew media attention and even Time magazine put Barbie on the cover with the headline “Now Can We Stop Talking About My Body?”

Barbie is right, we should stop talking about her for once and actually realise she is one of the most clever and empowering toys ever made. A rebel, a pioneer and a true feminist. If we look closer, all she teaches is to be free and confident with who we are and honestly, I have no idea why some dumb pundit judged a book by its cover, looking only at her blonde hair and saying she was a wrong role model for girls and that such perfection could make them feel insecure. As a woman, I say we moved forward towards a better level of social equality, thanks to everyone who delivered the same messages Barbie does and if the “pretty & smart” duo scares you, that’s not our problem. 

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