Barbie, the 11.5-inch, full-figured plastic doll from Mattel, Inc., is among the most popular toys ever invented. By 1998 Mattel estimated that the average American girl between the ages of three and eleven owned ten Barbie dolls. Precisely because it is so popular, the Barbie doll has become more than just a toy: it is a central figure in American debates about women's relationship to fashion, their independence in the workplace, their dependence on men, and their body image. Satirized by musicians and comedians, criticized by feminist scholars, and embraced by children throughout the world, the Barbie doll exists both as a physical toy and an image of femininity. The
physical attributes of the doll (its shape and its beauty), along with the myriad costumes and props available to it, have been tied to some of the most fundamental questions about what makes a woman successful and what constitutes an appropriate role for a woman in American society.
INSPIRATION TO REALITY
The Barbie doll's creator, Ruth Handler, was inspired when she noticed her daughter creating imaginative teenage and adult lives for her paper dolls. Handler investigated whether there was an opportunity to produce a doll in the likeness of an adult for the toy market. She was well positioned to do so, for she and her husband, Elliot, ran Mattel, which they had founded with Harold Matson in 1945 to manufacture plastic picture frames. Soon Mattel had found a niche in toy manufacturing with plastic miniature furniture and the 1947 release of the Uke-A-Doodle,
a plastic ukelele. The celebrated 1955 “burp gun,” which was modeled on a Soviet submachine gun first developed in the early 1940s, solidified Mattel's place as a premiere toymaker. When Handler introduced her idea, many of her colleagues were skeptical, but during a trip to Switzerland, she encountered the Lilli doll and realized that she had found the kind of toy she had hoped to produce at Mattel.
Created in 1952, the Lilli doll was based on a cartoon character from the German publication Bild Zeitung and was an 11.5-inch, platinum-ponytailed, heavily made-up, full-figured doll with high heels for feet. The Lilli doll was not intended for children—it was an adult toy, complete with tight sweaters and racy lingerie. The adult shape of the Lilli doll interested Handler, and she decided to produce her own doll. Unable to do so cost effectively in the United States, Mattel soon discovered a manufacturing source in Japan.
The Barbie doll (named for Handler's daughter, Barbara) was introduced at a unique time in history: a time when the luxury of fashionable attire was available to an increasing number of women, when roles for women were changing dramatically, when teenager emerged as a definition of the distinct period between childhood and adult life, and when teenagers were embraced by television and movie producers as a viable target market. Mattel capitalized on these trends in American culture when it introduced the Barbie doll in 1959 as a teenage fashion model. Many store buyers predicted that it would bomb because of its steep price tag of $3. Sears, for example, refused to buy any initially. Yet young girls turned out in droves for the Barbie doll and her carefully made outfits, complete with tiny buttons and real zippers.
BARBIE ON THE MARKET
As a fashion toy, the Barbie doll seemed especially well suited to the era in which it was introduced. When Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1947, he changed women's fashion from the utilitarian style demanded by shortages during World War II to an extravagant style that celebrated the voluptuousness of the female form. With the dramatic change in styles, high fashion soon gained popular interest. By the early 1950s designers had broadened their client base by licensing designs to department stores.
Beauty and fashion were further highlighted on the first nationally televised Miss America Pageant in 1954. The Barbie doll, with its fashionable accessories, was one of the first dolls to present young girls with an opportunity to participate in the emerging world of fashion. Meticulously crafted outfits that mimicked the most desirable fashions of the time could be purchased for the doll. By 1961 Barbie had become the best-selling doll of all time and remained in that reigning position into the twenty-first century.
Mattel's decision to market the Barbie doll as a teenager in 1959 made sense in the context of the themes resonating in popular culture at that time. Teenagers were just emerging as a distinct and interesting social group, as evidenced by the attention directed toward them. At least eight movies with teenage in the title were released between 1956 and 1961, including Teenage Rebel (1956), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), and Teenage Millionaire (1961). During these same years, the Little Miss America pageant debuted, Teenbeat magazine began publication for a teenage readership, and teen idols such as Fabian and Frankie Avalon made youthful audiences swoon. Barbie represented a wholesome part of this emerging culture.
The Barbie doll fit well into the emerging social scene made popular by such trends. Marketed without parents, the Barbie doll allowed children to imagine the teenage world as independent from the adult world of family. Though by 1961 Barbie did have a little sister in the Skipper doll, having a sibling did not impose any limitations on the Barbie doll family responsibilities. Early on, the Barbie doll could be a prom date for the Ken doll (introduced in 1961 after much consumer demand, and named after Handler's son) or outfitted for a sock hop. The Barbie doll was, however, different from real teenagers in one crucial way: it possessed a fully developed figure.
BARBIE, CAREER WOMAN
Though the teenage identity for the Barbie doll has persisted in some of Mattel's marketing, shortly after the doll's introduction Mattel also marketed it as a young adult capable of pursuing a career. Indeed, Handler had imagined a three-dimensional doll that children could use to imagine their grown-up lives, though Barbie marketing did not portray traditional young adulthood. Introduced during a period when most women stayed home to raise families, the Barbie doll could be outfitted in extravagant wedding dresses offered by Mattel, but the company never marketed the Ken doll as a spouse—in fact, the two publically “broke up” in 2004. In an intentional move by Mattel, children were left to choose the marital status of the doll. With no set family responsibilities, Barbie was the first doll to allow young girls to imagine an unrestricted, single adult life.
Mattel soon marketed Barbie as a nurse, an airline stewardess, and a college graduate. The career choices for the doll captured a developing trend in American culture: the increase in female independence. As career opportunities for women broadened in the 1960s and 1970s, the Barbie doll fit well into the flux of American society. Within a decade of the doll's introduction, the career costumes available to the Barbie doll multiplied rapidly, faster at first than opportunities for actual women. The Barbie doll could be an astronaut (1965); a surgeon (1973); an Olympic athlete (1975); a veterinarian, a reporter, or a doctor (1985); a UNICEF Ambassador (1989); a marine corps sergeant or presidential candidate (1992); a police officer (1993); or a paleontologist (1997)—to name a few.
BARBIE AND FEMINISM
As women embraced their new freedoms in the workplace, they began to fear the effects of these freedoms on the family and on femininity in general. Concerns about how a woman could balance the demands of career and family became some of the most hotly debated topics in American society. Women's roles in popular television shows illustrated the debates. The stay-at-home mothers found in the characters of Harriet Nelson (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1952–1966) and June Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver, 1957–1963) were replaced in the 1970s by the career women represented by Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda. The 1980s featured single mother Murphy Brown, and the 1990s presented successful lawyer Ally McBeal, a character who spent much of her time considering how difficult women's choices about career and family really are. Articles discussing the benefits of devoting oneself to a family or balancing a satisfying career with child rearing abounded in magazines such as Working Mother, Parenting, and Parents.
In addition, as women grappled with their role in society, they questioned the role of physical beauty in their lives. In the 1950s “the commodification of one's look became the basis of success,” according to Wini Breines in Young, White and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties (1992). But by the 1960s and early 1970s, the basis of success was no longer necessarily beauty. During these decades, women began to enter (and finish) college in greater numbers. As these educated women pursued careers outside the home and postponed marriage and childbirth, they began to challenge the role of conventional beauty: some burned their bras, others discarded their makeup, others stopped shaving their legs, and still others began to wear pants to work. The feminist movement made significant progress in diminishing the importance of idealized beauty for women, although women's bodies remained a source of contention in American culture.
Barbie was still the doll of choice for little girls to use to imagine their own lives as adults. Just as critics worried about whether toy guns or the violence in popular television shows would make children violent, they began to wonder if (and how) the ubiquitous Barbie doll influenced children's ideas about womanhood. The doll's characteristics mirrored many aspects of the debates about modern womanhood—it could have any career a child imagined, it could remain single or marry, and it was conventionally beautiful. Barbie's appeal as a strong, independent woman extended beyond the realm of young girls. Barbie and Ken have been appropriated by gay male culture as a means of empowerment as well.
Regarding the Barbie doll as a toy to envision an adult life, young mothers, struggling to balance careers and parenthood, wondered if the independent Barbie doll oversimplified the choices available to young women. Without family ties, the doll seemed to deny girls practice at the difficult balancing act their mothers attempted daily. But supporters of the Barbie doll reasoned that if children could decide whether the Barbie doll would “marry,” they could also decide whether the Barbie doll would “have children.” The “Barbie Babysits” set did include a baby whom some girls used as Barbie's own, but the option remained for children to decide. That Mattel did not define the doll as a mother or spouse was a gift of imaginative freedom for girls.
BARBIE AND THE BEAUTY STANDARD
As women began to rethink the role of beauty in their lives, some became conflicted about how a modern woman should shape or adorn herself to be attractive to the opposite sex and worried that if women obsessed over their looks they would neglect their minds. The Barbie doll, with its perennially attractive face, silky hair, shapely body, and myriad beauty accessories, came under attack as promoting an obsession with “good” looks. Critics of the doll used the term Barbie to describe a beautiful but empty-headed woman. The number of magazine articles dedicated to beauty issues attests to the continuing cultural obsession with physical beauty, an obsession most obviously displayed in Hollywood. The Barbie doll was caught in the crosshairs of this conflict.
Actress Pamela Anderson personified the struggle women had with regard to beauty and intellect. Anderson, who had dyed her hair blond and enhanced her breasts, resembled a living Barbie doll during her rise to fame. After achieving some success on Baywatch, she made news in 1999 when she had her breast implants removed. Similarly, in the television show Ally McBeal, the character Georgia, with her shapely body and flowing blond hair, becomes so frustrated by people referring to her as “Barbie” that she cuts off her hair. Despite the negative connotation
notation of Barbie, some women find the type of beauty represented by the Barbie doll a source of female power and advocate the use of female beauty as an essential tool for success. Some have gone to extremes: a woman named Cindy Jackson, for instance, has had more than twenty operations and has spent approximately $55,000 on plastic surgery to mold herself into the image of the Barbie doll in the 1990s.
For many, beauty and fashion are indelibly linked, and since its debut the Barbie doll has been consistently in style. Over its fifty years in production, the Barbie doll has undergone extensive makeovers to stay current with evolving trends and to better meet consumer tastes. In 1967 she got a new, friendlier face, and in the 2000s her features were redesigned again to look more like the stylized Bratz dolls, which were beginning to outsell Barbie dolls. Mattel took care to dress the first Barbie dolls in detailed, fashionable attire. In the early years Barbie fashions reflected French designs, but as fashion trends shifted to other areas, the attire for the Barbie doll mimicked the changes. In the early 1970s, for example, the Barbie doll wore Mod clothes akin to those popularized by fashion model Twiggy. And throughout the years, gowns and glamorous accessories for gala events have always been available to the Barbie doll. Some observers note that Barbie clothing can be used to perfectly trace fashion trends since 1959. Ken's evolving looks can be similarly used to trace men's trends: he started out modeled as a young, goofy boy and was remade in the late 1960s to look muscular and hyper-masculine.
While critics complain about the use of waifish runway models who do not represent “average” female bodies, they also complain about the Barbie doll's size. Some have criticized the dimensions of the Barbie doll as portraying an unattainable ideal of the female shape. Various magazines have reported the dimensions the Barbie doll would have if she were life-sized (39-21-33) and have noted that a real woman with those dimensions would be unable to menstruate. Charlotte Johnson, the Barbie doll's first dress designer, explained to M. G. Lord in Forever Barbie that the doll was not intended to reflect a female figure realistically but rather to portray a flattering shape underneath fashionable clothes. According to Lord, Johnson understood scale: “When you put human-scale fabric on an object that is one-sixth human size, a multi-layered cloth waistband is going to protrude like a truck tire around a human tummy. … Because fabric of a proportionally diminished gauge could not be woven on existing looms, something else had to be pared down—and that something was Barbie's figure.”
Despite the practical reasons for construction of the Barbie doll, the unrealistic dimensions of the doll have brought the strongest criticism in the context of a culture obsessed with weight and looks. In one instance, the Barbie doll's accessories supported the criticism. The 1965 “Slumber Party” outfit for the Barbie doll came complete with a bathroom scale set to 110 pounds and a book titled How to Lose Weight containing the advice: “Don't Eat.” The Ken doll accessories, on the other hand, included a pastry and a glass of milk.
Convinced that toys that projected negative images had ill effects on children, Cathy Meredig of High Self Esteem Toys developed a more realistically proportioned doll in 1991. She believed “if we have enough children playing with a responsibly proportioned doll that we can raise a generation of girls that feels comfortable with the way they look,” according to the Washington Post. Her Happy to Be Me doll, which looked frumpy and had uneven hair plugs, did not sell well, however. The American Girl doll offered the most significant challenge to Barbie, giving girls dolls of their own age with realistic clothing and stories from different time periods in American history. This threat was ameliorated, for Mattel in any case, by the acquisition of the American Girl franchise. American Girl and Barbie now flourish under the same corporate roof.
The Barbie doll has had several other competitors, but none have been able to compete with the glamour or the comprehensiveness offered by the Barbie doll and its accessories. Barbie offers children an imaginary world of individual success and, as witnessed by the pink aisle in most toy stores, an amazing array of props to fulfill children's fantasies. By the early 1980s the Barbie brand also offered these “opportunities” to many diverse ethnicities, becoming available in a variety of ethnic and racial dolls. Although sometimes criticized for promoting excessive consumerism, the Barbie doll, her extended group of friends and family, and the plethora of accessories offer more choices for children to play out their own fantasies than any other toy on the market. Some of Barbie's companions have been lauded as progressive and inclusive, such as Becky, Barbie's wheelchair-bound friend, while others such as pregnant Midge, who came with an infant in her stomach, proved to be highly controversial.
Mattel has attempted to respond to criticism over the years, with varying success. Barbie's body shape was modified in 1997 to be more realistic—a wider waist, for example—but this turned out to be a momentary deviation rather than an indication of a long-term trend away from the Barbie doll's 1950s-era body. Barbie simply refused to gain weight. In 2001 the Barbie doll faced its first real competition with the release of the Bratz dolls. Bratz were notable for their oversized heads and large eyes. They were also heavily made up and scantily clad. Sales of these new fashion dolls soon outpaced Barbie, causing Mattel to redesign Barbie's features and put her in newer, more unusual outfits in the mid-2000s. In 2009 Mattel made modifications to its African American doll (the So in Style Barbie), as well as to other versions of the doll—including Totally Tattooed Barbie and Barbie Video Girl—in a bid for increased realism that served to keep the doll abreast of the times and in order to stay competitive in the fashion doll market.
Whereas some blame the Barbie doll for encouraging young girls to criticize their own physical attributes or to shop excessively, others see the doll as a blank slate on which children can create their own realities. For many, the Barbie doll dramatizes the conflicting but abundant possibilities for women. And perhaps because there are so many possibilities for women today, the Barbie doll continues to be popular, with sales of more than $3 billion per year. Barbie's fiftieth birthday bash in 2009 confirmed that she was as youthful and stylish as ever—the party was held in New York during Fashion Week. Although she has not aged, Barbie is perhaps a little wiser, as she contemplates the enormity of her star status in American culture and ponders where her journeys will take her.
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