Barbie has turned 60 – and somehow she doesn’t have a wrinkle in sight, writes Suzanne Harrington
Barbie hits 60 this year. Almost a senior citizen. Does anyone care, or has she long been relegated to the mad doll collectors, the box-fresh fetishists? Does Gen Z even know who she is? Is she really the kind of thing Millennials would give to their kids? After all, writes Peggy Orenstein in Girls & Sex, “Barbie is (a) made of plastic and (b) has no vagina.” What does she mean, if anything, to the toy buying parents of 2019?
Yet sales are up. After years of slumping, there was a 24% increase in the first quarter of 2018, followed by 12% in the second. Mattel, Barbie’s parent, turned things around for the veteran 11.5 inch tall doll, who would be 35lb underweight for her height were she a human, by broadening her out. Literally.
Not only did they shorten her legs and widen her hips (Curvy Barbie — although in real life she’d be known as Normal Barbie), but they also added seven skin tones and 22 eye colours to reflect the world’s actual children, and not just the blonde blue-eyed ones.
And then they remarketed her. Instead of wafting about wishing she were a mermaid, or waiting for her boyfriend Ken to call, or going shopping for make-up, Mattel came up with a new strategy for Barbie: as a career role model. Thanks to creative play with Barbie dolls when you are a little kid, they posited, you could role model your future self by imagining yourself in your dream job while you are still five or six.
An advert, ‘Imagine the Possibilities’, first aired in October 2015, shows small girls coaching male football teams (“jump like a unicorn!”), giving university lectures, working as vets, palaeontologists and business executives; it is funny and sweet and very much ticking the empowerment box. So far, it has been viewed 120m times.
Barbara Millicent Roberts, born fully grown on March 9, 1959, in the fictional Mid West town of Willows, Wisconsin, has been rebranded from ditzy to gutsy. Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, which has 4.5m YouTube subscribers, portrays her as an empathic big sister figure who kicks ass. It’s been a long journey from the imagination of her American inventor, Ruth Handler, to having millions of online followers, but she seems to have made it. Barbie has moved with the times.
The doll originates from a more adult-orientated theme. Ruth Handler was inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli, a cartoon in the tabloid newspaper Bild. Bild Lilli was a wise-cracking, night-clubbing, curvaceous good-time girl, originally intended as a novelty toy for adults.
This is how Barbie became the first ever doll with fully developed bosoms — although, as previously noted, this is the extent of her female biology — to be marketed to small children.
They loved her, because she was so much more interesting than the baby dolls who you had to bottle feed and whose only trick was to wet themselves. Barbie was fun, camp, colourful. She had a life. She drove a pink Jeep and had a fabulous couture collection.
Aged just two, she met her boyfriend Ken Carson in 1961, with whom she remained in a relationship until 2004, when she dumped him. They were reunited two years later, although they have never married. Barbie and Ken were named after Ruth Handler’s own children; over the years, Barbie has had a host of siblings — Stacey, Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Krissy, Kelly — who pop up in her life from time to time, although they remain secondary characters in Barbie’s world.
She has been banned in Saudi Arabia for her “revealing clothing” and moulded plastic bosoms, and has long been the bane of feminist parents in the West, who invariably give in to their small children and hope that the virulent pink phase will pass. To call an actual woman a Barbie doll has always been an insult, a suggestion of airheaded consumerism, a shopper rather than a doer or a thinker. Although this is not strictly correct — Barbie’s CV is astonishing.
The diversity which is now part of the Barbie brand continues — last year, the Olympic champion boxer Nicola Adams, a black gay Yorkshire woman, had a Barbie made in her image. So did Frida Kahlo (except, sadly, Mattel didn’t give her a monobrow), and other role models including pilot Amelia Earhart, and Nasa scientist Katherine Johnson, were created to celebrate International Women’s Day. But before this obvious nod to parents who want their small kids to play with positive role models rather than braindead shoppers, Barbie has always been a workaholic.
The doll is indomitable. As well as working as cabin crew, Barbie is also a pilot. She has been dressed by Dior, but is also a couturier herself. She has been a surgeon, doctor, dentist, vet, and nurse. She has been an army officer, an air force pilot, an astronaut, and ran for president in 2004 (perhaps the break up from Ken further fired her ambitions?). She has more than 40 pets, including a lion, a zebra, and a panda. And, in the interests of keeping it real, she has also been a burger flipper.
Because Barbie has been around for forever, it has long been a thing for those little girls who grew up to be famous to have a doll made in their image. Not just the worthier role models, but pop stars like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, even veterans like Debbie Harry and several glorious versions of Cher. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn — they’ve all had a Barbie mini-me. There have even been camp Clark Gable versions of Ken.
As Barbie heads into her 60s, perhaps Mattel might consider addressing that greatest taboo of all: Ageing Barbie. There is already a labioplasty procedure known as The Barbie — which is confusing given her lack of vagina — but how about Menopausal Barbie? Imagine the accessories — varifocals and HRT patches.
Happy birthday, doll.