Mattie Kahn is the senior culture editor at Glamour.
Since her debut in 1959, Barbie has survived critique, censure, competition, and the advent of social media. Six decades later, America’s most controversial doll looks better than ever.By Mattie KahnMarch 7, 2019
We stashed the bodies in the basement.
It was dark, windowless, and cold—almost morguelike. But the cousins and I didn’t care. The chill kept our grandparents upstairs, which meant no witnesses to interrupt our crimes. A few hours of euphoric destruction, and then we would pile the carcasses in a plastic weekender bag we shoved behind a rolled-up carpet until the next time, leaving errant limbs to roll around like loose pennies at the bottom.
Some of the happiest childhood memories I have were made in that basement. It was where we mounted drawn-out melodramas. Gave bad haircuts! Applied vulgar tattoos in Sharpie! And sure, it was home to the occasional decapitation.
What I mean is: God, we loved our Barbie dolls.
Like more than 90 percent of American women, I grew up with Barbies. Tons of them. I had a pilot Barbie and a waitress Barbie. I had a swimsuit Barbie, a disco Barbie, and several Barbies that I stripped naked to liberate them from their too-stiff organza gowns. (Truth: I wanted to see their boobs.) I also had a Barbie Dreamhouse—even in 2019, 30 are sold per hour—and a pink convertible that Ken “fell” out of when Barbie floored it. (Truth: He was pushed. I pushed him.)
I can’t remember “the first” Barbie or even the one I liked best. But somehow the collection just expanded, with new Barbies added to the group to make the others jealous like proto-contestants on Bachelor in Paradise. The Barbies in my grandparents’ basement were the most abused, but even the ones I had at home endured hideous bobs and occasional pratfalls.
It doesn’t take a therapist to explain what I understood at six: This world wasn’t built for me. With Barbies, I could act out.
The standard Barbie is 11 and 1/2 inches tall, but her reach is enormous. She has more brand awareness than Kim Kardashian and the queen of England. (Mattel ranks it at 99 percent worldwide.) Over 58 million of her are purchased each year, and she’s available in 150 countries.
Six decades after her invention, she’s still the number-one fashion doll in the United States and, since Mattel introduced new skin tones and hair textures in 2015 in response to a 20 percent drop in sales between 2012 and 2014, the most diverse. In 2016 the brand also unveiled three new body types—petite, tall, and curvy. Last month it announced it’ll add to the collection: Barbie in a wheelchair; one with a prosthetic limb (a first for Barbie); some with a new, braided hair texture; and an entire fourth shape, with a smaller bust, less defined waist, and more defined arms.
For a doll who was once programmed to complain that “math class is tough” on command, it’s all quite impressive. But then, she didn’t have to do a lot to exceed expectations. Like most women born in 1959, she was underestimated from the start.
Barbie made her first appearance at the New York Toy Fair that March. At the time, she was an unprecedented experiment. But Ruth Handler was sure she would sell. Handler was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland. At 43, she was an executive vice president at Mattel, the behemoth brand she had founded with her husband Elliot Handler and his friend Harold Matson in 1944.
From the moment Mattel was established, Ruth Handler decided to be essential to the business, both because she had brilliant ideas and because she couldn’t bear to remain at home. In an interview, Handler said she loved motherhood. But the conventions of it? Well, those repelled her. Or as she put it: “Knowing how to cook and keeping a good house? Oh shit, it was awful.” For all Barbie’s foibles—and the Sleepover Barbie released in 1965 that came with a scale set to 110 pounds and a diet book plastered with the words “Don’t Eat!” is but one example—it’s no surprise that when Handler created Barbie, she made her an independent woman and a wage earner. Fine, she was a teen swimsuit model at first, but then a flight attendant, a teacher, and an astronaut. An afterthought, Ken wasn’t introduced until 1961. And like all of her accessories, he was sold separately.Advertisement
The writer Peggy Orenstein put it best in the recent Hulu film Tiny Shoulders: “For girls, the Barbie represented a kind of rebellion. There’s no Mom-With-Three-Ungrateful-Kids Barbie.”
Barbie had been Handler’s idea, the first product she’d ever dreamed up for Mattel. (Until then she’d handled the finances, while her husband tinkered with his designs.) She’d wanted to make a grown-up three-dimensional doll for girls like her daughter Barbara and her friends, who lavished attention on the cardboard cutouts that Handler snipped out for them from women’s magazines. It struck her: “Little girls just want to be bigger girls.” But at the time stores didn’t sell adult dolls. Instead shops stocked infant dolls that seemed to reinforce the expectation that all girls should want children of their own. Handler knew the world was bigger than the bond between a mother and infant. So she proposed a corrective: a miniature woman made from plastic with clothes that girls could swap out, like the ones the cutout dolls had. Oh, and also, she had to have breasts, just like a grown woman. That part was important.
Handler pitched the concept, and Mattel…balked. Her husband insisted no mother would ever purchase a doll for her daughter that was so developed. Her team said the doll would be too expensive to make and sell—Handler wanted zippers, darts, real hems, polish, and lipstick. Besides, what was the market? What child wanted to be around more adults?
But Handler plowed ahead. And soon she found her test case in, uh, a sex object. It was 1956 and Handler was on vacation in Europe when she encountered the Bild-Lilli doll, a gag gift that men gave each other at bachelor parties. The doll looked like a stripper, and Handler was entranced. She had her edits in mind—softer plastic, less severe proportions, and an à la carte wardrobe. In modern parlance, we’d call it a “makeunder.” But Lilli proved it was possible to make a doll like the one Handler envisioned. She snapped one up for Barbara and more for research. When she returned to America, Handler found a plant in Japan to mold a Lilli-like doll and Mattel hired a movie makeup artist to give her a more approachable expression. Handler named her Barbie, after her daughter. With the basic elements nailed down, Handler moved on to the accessories. She tapped a fashion designer to create a full Barbie wardrobe. She enlisted a Mattel executive who’d started his career at the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon to draw up plans that would give Barbie hip and shoulder sockets so that her limbs could move. It made sense; from missiles to Barbies. Feats of craftsmanship, engineered to blow up.
For her Toy Fair debut, Barbie wore her best zebra-striped swimsuit while Handler chain-smoked and waited for the reviews to come in. It did not go well. “For the most part, the doll was hated,” a Mattel sales rep told Robin Gerber, who chronicled how the Handlers founded Mattel in the book Barbie and Ruth. There were almost no female shoppers on the floor at expos like the Toy Fair, which is largely an industry event. And the male executives were confounded. Her breasts, the shape, the clothes that children could just take off—Barbie terrified them. Not one serious account bit. Handler had developed a reputation as a maverick with nerves of steel; she’d made Mattel millions in sales. She drove a hot-pink Thunderbird convertible! Still, when she went home that night, she cried. She couldn’t believe no one wanted her doll.Advertisement
Thanks to some smaller orders, Barbie was still slated to sell in stores. As soon as it arrived, mothers went wild for it. Stores had to restock over and over. That summer, Handler recalled to Gerber, it seemed the entire business had gone “frantic with demand for Barbie.”
“The thing about Barbie was she was meant to be imagined into different situations and given different clothes to wear and given different stories,” explains historian and journalist Amanda Foreman, Ph.D. “It really was radical.” In 1963, The New York Times came to the same conclusion, crediting Mattel for “the revolutionary idea that little girls today are viewing their girl dolls increasingly as themselves and not as their babies.”
For about a decade, sales climbed (and climbed and climbed) as Barbie flooded the American consciousness. There seemed to be no end to her potential—or her closet. Then came 1968. Barbie had earned Mattel a total of $500 million in sales. The doll was the reason the brand had landed on the Fortune 500 list. But that September a protest exploded at the Miss America pageant, as 400 women picketed the event and denounced its obsession with women’s looks.
Backlash against Barbie followed. Second-wave feminists hated her. Critics rejected Barbie’s anatomical impossibilities and her vacuous preoccupations. Her conspicuous consumption. Her whiteness and thinness. Her blond-ness. If she were a real person, she’d be too malnourished to menstruate. She’d topple over, unable to balance those breasts with her minuscule perma-arched feet. She became an avatar for a traditional, gendered role that Handler herself had never assumed: the docile, silent sidekick. In the recent film about Barbie, Tiny Shoulders, Gloria Steinem summed it up: “She was everything we didn’t want to be.”
Still, Barbie trucked on. She had careers that real women hadn’t been able to have. She went to space almost two decades before Sally Ride; she became a surgeon when just 9 percent of all doctors were women; she’s run for president five times! (No verdict on whether she’s ever won.) She’s even defied tech start-up statistics in the book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. But the book caused an uproar when in it she tells her sister Skipper that she can’t design an entire program on her own: “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
Activists were not impressed. In 1970 at the Women’s Strike, one poster read: “I am not a Barbie doll.” In 1972, Barbie sales declined for the first time since she arrived in stores. Mattel didn’t comment on the critique, but around that same time it made one modest design change. When she debuted, Barbie’s gaze was cast downward. But with the 1971 Malibu Barbie, Mattel tilted them up to be level. “Suddenly, she goes from being object to subject,” Foreman notes. “It’s the development of a sui generis female gaze.”
Over the next two decades, attitudes toward Barbie ebbed and flowed, but sales more or less held on. Flesh-and-blood women weren’t sure how to position themselves at work, whether to imitate men and climb the ladder or take an ax to its rungs. Barbie seemed to mirror those uncertainties—the 1985 Day-to-Night Barbie wore a power suit that turned into a sequined gown and carried both a briefcase and a clutch.
In the 2000s Barbie started to show her age. The British press circulated research that claimed to report “barbaric” behavior from girls directed toward their Barbies. In one notable example, girls wrenched off the plastic limbs and melted them in the microwave. Some experts postulated that the girls were envious of the dolls and jealous of their good looks and “have it all” fantasies. Others believed the abuse was evidence that the Barbies were bad for girls or gave rise to an unnatural aggression. (Perhaps it was just a mash-up of pastimes; the Easy-Bake Oven was popular at the time too.)Advertisement
The mania made news stateside, with a piece titled “Off With Her Head!” in The New York Times. But in the comments on the article, one woman pushed back on the entire premise. “I cannot believe that doll destruction is a new phenomenon,” she wrote. “I am 46 years old. By the time I was eight, all of my dolls had been decapitated, delimbed, or otherwise defaced…. But my cars and stuffed animals remained intact, displayed around my room. I suspect little girls are more attuned to the world women inhabit than we think.”
Barbie is a literal blank slate, or so the charge goes. For Foreman, the historian, that’s also the secret to her success. Handler created a doll that could be read both as a “reflection of cultural values and in quiet rebellion against those values.” Foreman thinks that the brand has stumbled most when it’s thrown that careful balance out of whack, either because Mattel has fallen too far behind consumers or because it’s overcorrected, bungling its attempts to keep up with them. (When Mattel expanded its line to include new skin tones and hair colors in 2015, one critic griped: Great, a doll that could now “body shame in all colors.”)
All the while, most girls—nine out of 10 American girls, in fact—have Barbies. The numbers suggest that even the most horrified mothers capitulated. And with the sheer number of them in circulation came the stories. The Barbie we loved and hated. The Barbies we wanted to be (and some of us wanted to maim). Ariel Dumas, a a writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, was granted Barbies, which she adored, but said her parents made clear to her that the doll wasn’t real, much less a woman to aspire to.
“If you had a friend coming over, the bin of Barbies would come out,” Dumas recalls. “You’d go to your friend, ‘Which one do you want to be?’ And she’d choose her doll. Then after your friend had chosen, you’d take your best, cleanest, most prized Barbie from some other drawer and be like, ‘I’m her.’” Dumas laughs: “It made me ruthless.” As it happened, Dumas’ dog later chewed off the hand of her favorite Barbie, putting her in such distress that her father rushed to the hardware store, picked out the tiniest coil of metal he could find, and transformed the beleaguered doll into “Hook Barbie.” Dumas liked to send her down a zip line that her father had strung up between a light fixture in one room and a chair in another. It was instant social cred—no one had Zipline Barbie.
“The reason I liked Barbie is because we never stuck to the prescribed accessories or costumes,” Dumas says. “She could be a doctor or a vet or an astronaut, and there should be Barbies that all kids can see themselves in. That’s great. But to me the point of Barbie is still what happens outside that prescribed narrative. She’s problematic, but that imagination part never gets old.”
For Anne Donahue, a writer in Toronto, the improvised scripts she and her friends would write for their Barbies were “a map of what we felt growing up looked like.” With the dolls, Donahue inhabited a pretend world animated with real anxieties. Sex, love, careers, dramas, jealousies. “She was where we imagined adulthood,” Donahue says. “It was like VR, but miniature. And with incredible shoes.”
Even my feminist mother had once been desperate for Barbie. Her best friend Josie owned the bridal doll, and she craved it. But my grandmother deemed the $5 doll an absurd extravagance and forbade it. To my brother, sister, and me, it seemed absurd that the mother who once swore to us she wouldn’t come to our weddings if we had matching bridesmaid dresses lusted after a doll in such a conventional gown. But we decided she needed it. When we were 15, 11, and five, we pooled our allowances and ordered the bridal Barbie on eBay. When I asked her if she remembered our stunt, she didn’t miss a beat: “It remains one of the greatest presents I’ve ever gotten in my life.”Advertisement
When Mattel launched the new shapes in 2016, the aim had been to make Barbie seem more inclusive. But it wasn’t some last-minute gesture. Mattel is a business, with a bottom line and shareholders to appease. To make a shift like this one was a massive investment. “Door heights, bathtub sizes, bicycles—everything has to be adjusted,” Kim Culmone, who’s been the vice president and head of design at Barbie since 2013, explains in Tiny Shoulders. “I think a lot of people see the product on the shelf and think, Oh, just change it. But it’s a huge operational undertaking.” Culmone ticks off the new realities: Who can fit in the car? Who fits in the elevator? When will the Dreamhouse be wheelchair accessible? The entire universe “has to shift.”
That universe includes customers too. In the film, which chronicles how the new bodies were developed and revealed, Culmone listens in on some of the focus groups that were assembled to test the bigger dolls. In one, a girl announces that she doesn’t like this Barbie because she’s fat. In another, girls giggle when one cries, “She has a fat butt!” The camera pans to Culmone, who looks at her feet.
Still, Culmone believed the idea would work. It had to, or Mattel faced irrelevance, not least because its competition now also includes the games and diversions kids can find online. The bet paid off. Mattel confirms that in both 2016 and 2017, the number-one best-seller in Barbie’s main line was a curvier red-headed doll. And with the introduction of the new shapes and some leadership adjustments, sales across the Barbie brand in general have started to rebound. Life in plastic, once more fantastic. “Beyond the sentiment and the headlines and the letters that get sent to me from parents and kids who want to thank our team,” Culmone says, “that indicates that it’s been successful.”
Barbie is 60 now, with more new faces than Cher and Madonna combined, a fresh career as an Instagram influencer, and zero wrinkles. (It doesn’t feel accurate to claim that Barbie has turned 60, given that ethylene-vinyl acetate can’t show sunspots. But still.) She has four bodies and vertiginous heels in two sizes. She’s been an athlete. A problematic Frida Kahlo. A transcendent Ibtihaj Muhammad. She’s been a companion. A flash point. A role model. A terrible role model. All of us. None of us. An omen—and a Rorschach test. But here is what we know: She’s forced the people in at least one boardroom in America to have a real conversation about what it would mean to build a world for women. It’s not a solution for racism or gender discrimination. It can’t pass paid-leave legislation. And it is restricted to women who hover just under a foot tall. But even so: Not bad for a doll.