I’m on Team Barbie, and not for the reason you think

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This OG Barbie was very similar to my first – except mine had brown hair.

BOOMER LIFE 1I recall my first Barbie, Barbie #1, the 11.5” tall doll with high-heel feet, demure eyes looking to the right, or was it to the left, and the black ponytail be-bopping on her head. Originally sold for $3 (a loss leader, I’m sure, as she was basically a hangar for the gazillion outfits and accessories sold to dress her, along with her pink “rides” and homes, and ever-increasing number of family and friends.)

My Barbie came in both brunette and blonde, but I only saw the brunettes, as blonde Barbies outnumbered her dark-haired twins by a 3:1 ratio and must have been snapped off the shelves as soon as someone placed them there. (Perhaps it was true, that at the time, “blondes have more fun.”)

 Oh, and that black-and-white zebra-striped bathing suit! We girls were in heaven, able to leave our baby dolls behind (Betsy Wetsy, Tiny Tears, Baby Cheerful Tearful, Thumbelina, Chatty Cathy) which put us all into the role of “mommy” or caretaker, and stash our young women/teen-aged paper dolls, those one-dimensional females with paper cut-out clothing with tabs, to a real aspirational teen/young woman. (Admission: I had several “Annette” (Funicello) cutouts because, um, my name was Annette). And Barbie, had (gasp!) breasts! (Which, let’s face it, many 4–11-year-olds looked forward to having.)

One of the reasons I am in awe of Barbie and Mattel, is how she came about and was marketed.

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The Fashionista line expands to Ken dolls, with an array of different boyfriends for Barbie to choose from. Image/Mattel

In the 1950s, her creator, Ruth Handler, noticed that her son, Kenneth (Get it: Ken) played with toy guns, trucks, and soldiers, while daughter Barbara (“Barbie”) played with baby dolls, enforcing the idea that little girls would grow up to be mothers and housewives. A prescient Handler wanted to develop a doll that would allow little girls to believe they could do and be anything. Hander and her husband Elliott with friend Harold “Matt” Matson created Mattel and there was no looking back. Daughter Barbara took part in the ceremony immortalizing Barbie’s (full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts) hand and footprints in cement on Hollywood Boulevard in 2002.

Barbie’s origins are a bit disreputable. Barbie’s physical appearance was inspired by Bild Lilli, a not-for-children German doll created in 1952 and based on a high-end call girl named Lilli who was featured in the comic strip, Bild-Zeitung. Sold as an adult novelty in bars and tobacco shops and definitely not as a toy for children, Handler saw the Bild Lilli doll while on vacation in Europe and brought it home.

Said Handler in her 1994 autobiography:

“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

When the Barbie doll was presented in 1959 at the New York International Toy Fair, all the big buyers were unconvinced that a womanly-appearing doll would appeal to little girls and turned their backs. While being ignored at an International Toy Fair would have sent most entrepreneurs scurrying back to where they came from, Handler opted to sell her doll direct to her consumers, children. In the past, toys had been marketed to parents who, let’s face it, held the purse strings. Mattel, however, decided to market directly to the end user, children, by sponsoring the Mickey Mouse Club television program in 1955. By the end of 1959, approximately 1 billion dolls had been sold.

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Barbie’s German sister, the Bild Lilli doll. Image/Wikipedia

Politicians and others consider this: Mattel estimates that Barbie has more than 99% global awareness. One Barbie is sold every three seconds. It is estimated that one billion outfits have been made for Barbie and her friends since her 1959 debut. (That’s a lot of closet space.)

She has her own Facebook page and thousands of blogs and websites. She had a book series about her life, with her backstory revealed in a Random House book series in the 1960s. The series included the names of her parents, George and Margaret, who have never been released as dolls, and that she was “born” in the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin. Barbie comes from a large family with seven siblings. Skipper was introduced in 1964, twins Todd and Tutti were around from 1965 to 1971, Stacie hit shelves in 1990, Kelly was sold from 1994 to 2010 and Chelsea was introduced in 2011 as a replacement for Kelly. Barbie’s youngest sister, Krissy, was sold as part of a set with Barbie and Ken from 1998 to 2001.

Remember the Barbie Dreamhouse that retailed for just dollars in first introduced as a one-room abode? Forbes estimates that the current Dream House would be worth around $16 million if it were real. The three-story house has seven rooms, an elevator, a garage, and a pool. See how that dreamhouse has evolved over the years. 

Barbie’s BFF, Christie, is one of her oldest friends tracing back to her introduction and one of the first Black dolls in Barbie world debuting in 1968. And Barbie had famous friends, too. Count on 1967s supermodel Twiggy, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis and Priscilla Presley and Nicki Minaj (I have to admit that I had to look up exactly who Nicki Minaj was).

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In 2020 Mattel introduced a line of diverse Barbies including with no hair, prosthetics and vitiligo. Image/Mattel

Although Barbie’s career began as a Teenage Fashion Model,” she went on to become a fashion designer, flight attendant, nurse, astronaut (1960s), surgeon and Olympic skier (1970s), and then a presidential candidate (2000s). In total, she pursued more than 200 careers. Today, Barbie is available in nearly two dozen skin tones, multiple hair and eye colors and body shapes, as a wheelchair user and as an individual with Down syndrome. In 1971, her eyes were adjusted to look forward rather than sideways, and she now shows her teeth. She had hair that “grew” (Totally Hair Barbie, 1992, the most popular Barbie, ever sold) and a string you could pull to have her say awkward things like, “Math is hard.” Parents also had issues with Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie in 2009.

And just in case you want to ensure you have the correct color “Barbie pink,” her Pantone Match System (PMS) color is PMS 219.

In 2019 Mattel launched its Inspiring Women Series of Barbies, a 10-doll collection highlighting distinguished American women of the past, including Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Maya Angelou, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ida B. Wells, the legendary African American journalist and anti-lynching activist. 

Of course, long after my Barbie and her wardrobe disappeared as I grew into my teens, my own two daughters collected their own Barbies and clothing. Heads were taken off (I hear that’s a popular thing) and put back on, hair was cut, and I was always tripping over fugitive shoes, pocketbooks, gloves, and other small Barbie items that had escaped the Barbie box. It was with a big sigh that, with their approval, I passed along everything Barbie to someone else when they outgrew Barbie. 

And so, it goes. Although she will always remain 19 years old, according to Mattel, having been around 64 years old, it appears Barbie is not heading toward retirement anytime soon. Nor will she enjoy wedded bliss (she has a wardrobe featuring dozens of wedding gowns designed by such luminaries Bob Mackie and Carolina Herrera). Frozen in time with her family and friends, Barbie will continue to embrace future opportunities and consumer goods, making her a welcome addition to future generations of children.

Click for a slideshow of  Barbie through the years, and see which Barbie was popular the year you were born


About this Author

Annette Kurman

A native of Philadelphia with baccalaureate degrees in journalism, nursing, as well as an MBA from now defunct Daniel Webster College, Nashua, her endeavors in various roles and industries — as well a very supportive husband — once again bring her to the question of “What do I want to do when I grow up?”