In our #MeToo era, how has this 11½ inches of perky, pouty plastic endured? As Barbie turns 60, Karen Yossman argues that she was a trailblazer all along.
I’m on set with one of the world’s most famous women. While publicists and managers swarm through the studio, she sits serenely at her dressing table, her bee-stung pout arranged into a warm smile, oblivious to the maelstrom around her. Nearby a dizzying selection of couture ensembles has been laid out on a large trestle table. When she’s not travelling, she’ll shoot 20 to 30 looks over a ten-day period. Because, despite being only 11½ inches tall and made of plastic, Barbie is a consummate professional.
That’s right – Barbie as in the toy. You may not have picked one up in years but the original California girl is enjoying a new surge in popularity, thanks in part to her embracing the digital age. She is giving social media influencers a run for their money with an envy-inducing Instagram account, @BarbieStyle, which boasts almost two million followers and offers an intimate glimpse into a sun-drenched Los Angeles lifestyle.
Because the pictures are taken in close-up, every speck of dust shows up on camera. This means that before Barbie walks on to the set a stylist must gently cleanse her face, groom her hair and steam her clothes. ‘We treat her like a real person,’ explains product design manager Lynda Kyaw a touch reverentially. Given Barbie’s superstar status, it’s no less than she deserves.
Today, Barbie (or rather her PR team at toy company Mattel) has extended to a small group of journalists a rare, coveted invitation into her inner sanctum. Which is how I come to find myself cooing over miniature sequins and pinhead-sized buttons deep in the bowels of a former aeronautics factory on the outskirts of LA, where the Barbie design centre is located. After a whirlwind tour through the design process, including the fabric closet where we watch a seamstress nimbly cut patterns at a 1/80th scale, I am finally guided to the door of Barbie’s house. And it’s jaw-dropping.
Barbie’s Dreamhouse has been given a Grand Designs-style makeover. Forget her pink plastic monstrosity of old – now she holds the keys to a sophisticated cream, wood and glass number that wouldn’t look out of place in Architects’ Journal. The detail is breathtaking: tiny Christian Louboutin boxes are stacked inside the bedroom wardrobe, a Diptyque candle rests on a shelf. I even spy a miniature leather jacket with a working zip that took two days to make.
Next month the world’s most famous doll turns 60, although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Her perfectly symmetrical face remains wrinkle-free, her bust is as perky as ever and her swishy golden locks betray no hint of grey. (Her hair, I discover during my expedition, is made out of the same stuff as clingfilm. ‘It has a nice’ weight to it so it falls nicely when it’s styled,’ says lead product designer Carlyle Nuera.)
Life in plastic may do wonders for her complexion but not everything has been smooth sailing in Barbie’s world. Since her inception – the brainchild of American inventor Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot – the fashion doll’s curves have caused controversy. When Barbie was launched at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York, industry executives were convinced no parent would buy their child a doll with breasts (until then, baby dolls had been all the rage). The execs were swiftly proven wrong and for the next decade the world went bonkers for Barbie.
What stopped Barbie dead in her stiletto-heeled tracks was the advent of second-wave feminism, which disapproved of the doll’s va-va-voom figure and passion for fashion. In 1972 sales declined for the first time. Although Barbie bounced back in the consumer-driven 80s and 90s, when annual sales peaked at an astonishing $1.9 billion (£1.47 billion) in 1997, she has been dogged by accusations of sexism, body dysmorphia and even, bizarrely, white supremacy ever since.
Finally, in 2014, for the first time she found herself dethroned as the top girls’ Christmas toy by Elsa of the hit film Frozen. Then the famously slender doll (a 1965 edition came with a set of scales set to 110lb and a diet manual that read ‘Don’t eat!’) started piling on the pounds in an attempt to win over millennial mums, many of whom object to what they see as Barbie’s traditional ‘body shaming’ figure. In 2016 Mattel made headlines around the world when it debuted a heavier ‘curvy’ Barbie, alongside ‘petite’ and ‘tall’ versions, in addition to introducing more eye colours, hairstyles and skin tones, all in the name of cultural diversity.
In the same year, the toy company, which has long been working on a live-action Barbie movie, announced they had cast comedian Amy Schumer, known for her crude humour and body positivity, in the title role.
Dr Pragya Agarwal of Merseyside-based The 50 Percent Project, a think-tank dedicated to tackling subconscious bias, has three daughters: two-year-old twins and a 20-year-old. She says her eldest, who today is a staunch feminist, was obsessed with Barbie as a child. Although Agarwal is not a fan of Barbie’s figure she has never banned her in her home, acknowledging that she encourages creativity. ‘Those little accessories are really sweet and children love playing with them,’ she says. ‘And the fact that [Mattel] is trying to change her image is good as well.’
Inevitably, of course, not everyone has been mollified by Barbie’s new shape. Some suggest Mattel hasn’t gone far enough and should make Barbie even bigger. Barbie’s bold new look also risks destroying the doll’s 98 per cent brand recognition rate (meaning only two per cent of the world can’t recognise a Barbie), since her enduring image – the one that has turned her into a global icon – is that of a glamorous, blonde and yes, sorry, slim fashion doll.
‘I know they’ve made some diverse ones, but really Barbie as she always has been is the main Barbie still, isn’t she?’ points out Nicky Hutchinson, a body image consultant who works with children. ‘People say, “Oh, it’s just a teenage doll”, but it does have an impact in all sorts of ways. Although Mattel has made a big effort to present more diverse bodies, that quite sexualised long hair, very thin body and big boobs look is still what a lot of kids aspire to. So I think it’s a bit pernicious and giving a limited view of women.’
This internal conflict between Handler’s creation and the demands of an increasingly sensitive society has even spilled over into the movie. Schumer’s ‘right-on’ casting was met with almost universal bemusement and she eventually dropped out citing scheduling issues. Last month Mattel announced she has been replaced by Margot Robbie, who one Hollywood producer privately described as ‘Barbie come to life’. Barbie’s boyfriend Ken has yet to be cast but we can expect a beefcake (Barbie may have given up the thigh gap but Ken’s biceps have only become more defined over the years).
Still, Mattel’s efforts to appear more inclusive are working. Last year Barbie sales increased by 24 per cent internationally, of which, says Mattel senior vice president Lisa McKnight, over half of the dolls sold were ‘diverse’. ‘Barbie’s secret to success is to constantly evolve and we’ve always been at our best when we’re connecting to culture,’ she tells me.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience at least a flicker of schadenfreude when I first heard that the new curvy Barbie was having trouble slipping into her old skinny jeans. But the truth is I can no more hold Barbie’s beauty against her than I can against Naomi, Cindy, Christy et al. In fact, I can’t help but look on her rather fondly.
Being a child of the early 90s, I was chiefly preoccupied with Barbie, as were my friends. And Barbie doesn’t seem to have done us any lasting damage. I qualified as a solicitor before moving into journalism while my friends went on to become teachers, doctors and entrepreneurs. All the things, in fact, that Barbie showed us we could be.
Because, in addition to couture, Barbie has always worn an air of ambition, a trait she inherited from her creator. As a working mother, as well as an entrepreneur, her inventor Ruth Handler was a rarity in postwar America. She channelled her own frustration with domestic drudgery into Barbie’s creation. Almost from Barbie’s inception, Mattel produced career-inspired versions of the doll. In the 60s Barbie tried her hand at nursing, teaching and flight attending and in 1965 she even became an astronaut. ‘[Handler] was an iconoclast,’ says filmmaker Andrea Nevins, whose documentary on Barbie, Tiny Shoulders, is set to air on the BBC later this year. ‘She was breaking the mould. I think she was really trying to give girls an opportunity to dream.’
Which is why it’s no surprise she’s proved to be such a hit online, especially since she’s mainly selling nostalgia rather than product. Fans of the Instagram account seem predominantly to be women who no longer play with dolls but still long for a bit of Barbie in their lives.
To that end, like any fashion blogger worth her salt, Barbie has parlayed her social media success into a book deal (The Art of Barbie Style) and even a handful of commercial partnerships. In 2014 Mattel collaborated first with Karl Lagerfeld, who designed a £135 Barbie that sold out within hours. A Charlotte Olympia shoe collection, which included a pair of £735 platform sandals adorned with Barbie’s face, followed in 2016.
For younger fans, Barbie also has a presence on YouTube where she reigns as the number one girls’ brand with a series of animated ‘vlogger’ videos in which, like Zoella, she talks directly to the camera, discussing everything from baking to depression. ‘She is a role model – she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s kind and she’s relatable – and we’re seeing amazing feedback,’ says McKnight.
For years Mattel had resisted giving Barbie a defined personality for fear it would inhibit the way in which kids played with her, reportedly even turning down a cameo in the first Toy Story film, although she went on to appear in the sequels. (By Toy Story 3 Barbie not only rescues her fellow toys but gives an impassioned speech condemning authoritarianism.) The evolution of her personality has been a welcome development for the doll’s die-hard fans who have never been persuaded by the claim that blonde hair and a love of pink signify a lack of depth or intelligence. In fact, Barbie has been using her platform to highlight a range of good causes, including conservation, via a newly announced partnership with National Geographic.
Even the feminist movement no longer sees her as public enemy number one, acknowledging that bashing Barbie is itself symptomatic of a sexist society. ‘Yes, there’s this whole issue about beauty ideals,’ says feminist writer and philosopher Dr Jane Clare Jones. ‘But [by talking about Barbie] we’re still stuck in this whole story about women and what they look like.’
In many ways, Barbie is the ultimate poster girl for female independence: she works, owns her own house and her on-off boyfriend Ken is often little more than an afterthought. ‘For girls, the Barbie doll represented a kind of rebellion. There’s no “mum with three ungrateful kids” Barbie,’ feminist writer Peggy Orenstein points out in Tiny Shoulders. ‘Barbie is always single, she’s always carefree.’
And Barbie is nothing if not durable. Now, having reinvented herself more times than Madonna, she finally seems to be growing comfortable in her polymer skin. Next month, as Barbie raises a tiny plastic glass to entering her seventh decade, I’ll be toasting her too (even if I do secretly hope she finally sprouts some crow’s feet).
In a Barbie world…
…there’s never a dull moment; these are her most memorable.
9 March 1959
Barbie makes her debut at New York Toy Fair with vital statistics that, if real, would measure an unnatural 36-18-33. Two years later, Ken comes along.
Barbie’s friend Christie, one of the first African-American dolls, goes on sale and is every inch the hip 60s chick.
Barbie launches the We Girls Can Do Anything campaign, a series of ads encouraging girls to believe in themselves and featuring a song with the lyrics ‘Anything is possible as long as I try’. The following year Andy Warhol creates a portrait of Barbie.
At a time when few women were applying to go to medical school. Barbie is saving lives in the operating theatre working as a surgeon.
With her long flowing mane – the longest ever – Totally Hair Barbie sells over ten million dolls to become the bestselling Barbie of all time.
Barbie creates an outcry when she hits the shelves in a biker’s jacket and fishnets. Christian groups protest about her over-sexualisation.
Feminists in Berlin burn a Barbie, arguing that the doll perpetuates gender stereotypes. Mattel brings out the first disabled doll, Becky, which is discontinued as the wheelchair can’t fit through Barbie’s front door.
With sales dropping amid accusations that Barbie is a bad influence on girls due to sexism, Mattel starts a social media campaign called #unapologetic to counter Barbie’s critics. (‘Be YOU. Be Bold. Be #Unapologetic’).
Barbie gets a makeover with more body types (petite, tall and curvy), skin tones, eye colours and hairstyles. The following year hijab-wearing Barbie is launched inspired by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Global sales of Barbie are up by 24 per cent to $152.7 million (£118.64 million) in the first quarter of 2018. To mark International Women’s Day, Mattel unveils a collection of Barbies inspired by empowering female role models, such as Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart.
Barbie celebrates her 60th birthday on 9 March. Mattel announces it will debut a doll with a prosthetic leg as part of its Fashionistas line offering diverse representations of beauty. Margot Robbie is confirmed to play Barbie on the big screen.