A Toy Story

Serving up plastic role-models in materialism and identity

How do eleven and a half inches of plastic and vinyl, reflect the cultural evolution of white middle class suburban American women?  And how has she infiltrated the rest of the world and indoctrinated young women with conservative American ideals? Barbie was an innovator from the start.  She was born in 1958 resplendent with a three dimensional voluptuous body at a time when her competitors where all babies, like Betsy Wetsy, Bride dolls or cardboard cut-outs, with paper clothes.  She was a foreigner - made in Japan, because her country men deemed her, with all her haute couture, too expensive to manufacture to a budget that would still leave her affordable for the average little girl.
Barbie was a trend setter with career goals; she had style, she had flair, a wedding gown and a very nice house-dress with a matching apron.  She was giving mixed messages about feminine roles, but her messages supporting a high consumption lifestyle were clear and timely in the post war late 1950's When she hit the streets in 1959, Barbie attracted strong objections from parents. Mothers and Fathers worried about, what they deemed were unnecessary influences and moral pressures being placed on their daughters.

Barbie was too sexy, too flashy and too fashionable.

Deliberately striving for influence and pressure towards an increased consumer base, Mattel, combated this by using the new medium of television. They targeted, and very successfully too, the daughters themselves using 52 weeks of advertising spots on the new "Mickey Mouse Club" television show.

Reflecting 1950's feminine ideology and the post war shift in societal trends, Barbie, set new feminine agendas and delivered a role model for society's ideals of females; what they should look like; how they should behave and dress.  Barbie was packaged with a new set of future goals, further to those of raising a family, at a time when, women were perhaps reflecting on new feelings of independence and purpose from their war jobs. Ironically these ambitions were reflected only in her many outfits and uniforms which were supported with cute accessories rather than tools of trade.

Barbie was ".a teaching tool for femininity." (Dembner).  As a physical ideal, (physical impossibility without surgery) Barbie dolls offered some variety with several available choices of hair colour from redheads and brunettes to blondes.

An interesting shift and a clear demonstration of the changing 'ideal' in
Women: blondes soon outnumbered the others by two to one.  Popular US television shows at the time were also starring more and more blondes in leading roles, and considering Barbie was born in Marilyn Monroe's home town, perhaps Barbie also felt that gentlemen preferred blondes. Like Marilyn, Barbie was also painted by Andy Warhol. In 1960, social trends stubbornly remained unchanged in the view of women's lives and careers being a means to an end of getting married. "Women were considered failures without male companionship." (Johnston)  Barbie needed a boyfriend, to validate her success.

Enter Ken, a teen male role-model of clean boyish masculinity.  Sadly prudish 60's society, was still struggling with Barbie's 'full' figure, so rather than exposing young girls to the realities of male adulthood, poor Ken was born with permanent underwear.  The new media was again employed, this time to affirm their 'ideal' 1960's model of innocent courtship. Along with a TV advertising campaign, Barbie records and a Barbie and Ken comics were launched.

Equally important for women to be social successes, Barbie was given the first of many girl-friends; Midge.  Intended to be softer and less intimidating than Barbie, Midge had a wide smile and freckles, although maintaining the impossible body shape.

In 1961, following America's growing obsession with Jackie Kennedy, Barbie was given a face-lift, where her features were softened, and she was given a bobbed hairstyle. She took on all the style and sophistication of the decades newest trend-setter with a wardrobe makeover incorporating Chanel style suits like those favoured by the First Lady.  A new Barbie was launched with bendable legs, and a timely re-visitation to the popularity of brunettes.

In 1965, coinciding with the Lunar landing, and fortunately her new bendy legs, Mattel launched an Astronaut Barbie.

This is possibly the only time Barbie was a cultural innovator, being years before women would be accepted into the space programme.

An invasion of British culture saw Barbie ditch her unlikely space suit for the 'Mod' fashions of the late 60's.  A fixation with hair at the time, and exaggerated eye makeup, saw Barbie switch to wearing her hair long and straight, and she was given a more youthful face sporting long rooted eyelashes.  Technology was on the move as well, and Barbie's body "underwent dramatic changes including a new Twist 'N Turn waist." (Barbie.com) Barbie's life still evolved around her looks and clothes, rather than her career goals, and her profession of choice returned its focus to modelling.

In 1968, Barbie became more politically correct and multicultural minded, making friends with a black African-American doll, Christie.  In 1968 Ken is noticeably absent, and it has been suggested that perhaps he was doing a stint in Vietnam.  If so he fared better than many returning veterans, looking and feeling better than ever, with bigger muscles, bendable knees, and speaking!  But he was still pressed to keep up with his girl.

1970's new technology gave Barbie moving joints in her wrists, elbows, ankles.  By 1976, with her enhanced move-ability, Barbie demonstrated her potential to have it all and she became very sportive, taking up horse riding, Olympic skiing, gymnastics and ice skating.  Her career goals expanded and she became a doctor, surgical nurse, ballerina and flight attendant.  New Barbie dolls were launched with corresponding new fashions, new accessories and new advertising campaigns.  All this increased activity and proficiency, saw Barbie honoured with the nomination of U.S. bicentennial celebration's "doll of the century", and she was placed in a time capsule to be opened in 2076.

As with the previous decade, during the 70s Barbie mirrored the world's lifestyle trends and other new dolls included a disco version, a prairie
look and a sun-kissed Malibu Barbie.   She even joined the flower child
movement becoming a hippie, although her timing with this was off.

After a brief flirtation with 1981's 'Cowboy Chic', Barbie became an adult collector's item as the first generation of little girls grew up. Mattel cashed, in producing limited edition dolls with nostalgic themes, which quickly sold out.  'Happy Holidays Barbie' released in 1988 created an adult collecting boom taking Barbie to another level of consumerism.

Whether inspired by expanding numbers and diversity of collectors, or by desegregation, Barbie became increasingly politically correct with the birth of  Black Barbie and Hispanic Barbie. A year later she had another injection of multiculturalism with Oriental Barbie, Italian Barbie, Parisian Barbie, and Royal U.K. Barbie.

In 1985 Barbie landed a lucrative modelling contract where the most famous European designers dressed her. This was lucrative from both financial and PR perspectives, for all involved. In 1987 Barbie became a material girl, imitating Madonna's street-trash look, before trying a short career in rap music, and releasing a few new recordings.

Barbie decided in 1989 to give the U.S. Army a 'WAC', (sorry, couldn't resist), as well as the Marine's, Air Force, and Navy. Fashionably fitted uniforms and accessories, followed for the next three years although Barbie was more prone to carry handbags and binoculars than weapons. Unlike the male action figure dolls made for Boys at the time that came with replicated authentic equipment, (albeit often violent or destructive in nature) Barbie still had no more than a decorative effect on her environment.
In 1994 racial issues become increasingly important to Barbie and a new Native American Barbie challenges white privilege.

Barbie also finds her voice and pronounces to the world: "Math is Hard" and "Lets go to the Mall".  Equally disturbing choices, but the former sparked concerns and numerous heated debates on girls' education.

In 1999 following a brief stint as a biker (with her own Harley) Barbie, turning 40, became Girls Inc.'s "Ambassador of Dreams". Donating $1.5 million dollars to the non-profit American organisation, Mattel in another clever PR move, added its support to teaching programs for girls in technology, finance, math and science, career planning, and sports.

Money well invested, this move remedied a slump in Barbie sales and launched a the new cooler "Generation" of Barbie. These Barbies were seriously hip with tattoos on their stomachs and even nose-rings.

Then doing a back-flip to address criticism from feminist groups, the more serious minded, Working Woman Barbie arrived with a mobile phone, laptop, day planner, and a coffee cup.

Barbie also had a 'millennium makeover', complete with an old-school Princess Diana-esque, downward gaze and paradoxically, heavier, more dramatic makeup. Barbie also ran for president in the millennium and in true Miss World contestant style, she campaigned for world peace. Also equality, animal kindness, education, and the environment. Following the success of Working Woman, Barbie came dressed in smart suits and sensible, shoulder-length haircuts, she continued 'the look' of a power dressing corporate-sex-pot.

In tune with the diversity theme, Barbie Presidential candidate's came in Caucasian, African American and Latina. With an Asian American candidate missing from the diversity mix, questions were raised. "This dis has led to speculation and outrage among Asian Americans. If Asian girls do indeed pick up white dolls, some argue, it's either because of complex social conditioning (to the tune of "white is right") or a simple lack of other options." (Ophira Edut).

Barbie's Millennium Mid-life crisis

In 2004 Barbie had a breast reduction and a trial separation from her partner of 40 years, Ken.

Apparently, her disproportionate breasts weren't sitting well with her summer fashion, hipster shorts and midriff tops,  the only rational reason for a girl to want smaller breasts, surely.  And poor old Ken has been ditched for a new image and an Australian boogie boarder with the unlikely name of Blaine. 

Barbie also gained recognition as a real Hollywood celebrity and her failed romance and new affair have been given serious treatment in the media headlines.  Russell Arons, Vice President of marketing at Mattel, describing himself as Barbie and Ken's business manager, assured the US tabloids that "Like other celebrity couples,[they]...will remain friends."

There are identity politics issues at stake, which Barbie raises, focused on ideology, but is she a fair ideal? If  Barbie has reflected our societies cultural progression over the last  fifty four years, has she also shaped women's expectations on themselves from childhood?  She has certainly reflected a cultural importance placed on women to be both nurturing and decorative but little else.  Her careers have been as whimsical as their accessories, and geared more towards increasing her sex appeal than her impact on the world around her.

Her light and fluffy treatment of racial awareness and ethnic inclusion, have also been heavily criticised. It has been suggested (strongly) that the Black and Hispanic Barbies should carry facial and physical features of their own ethnicity rather than just be re-coloured versions of white Barbie, with a head of black hair.

Looking at the popular 'Super Models' on world catwalks at the time these dolls were launched, it could be argued that the multicultural mix of Barbie dolls, considering also the exclusion of Asian Barbies, was based more on fashion trends than on genuine racial inclusion.

Finally, new multicultural dolls launched in this generation include: Islamic Barbie, Hispanic Barbie, Jamaican Barbie, Kenyan Barbie and Chinese Barbie (better late than never).

Such embracing of other cultures surely is indicative of her own cultural and ethical progression?  Perhaps not if you look at her many beau's over the years, including James Dean, James Bond, Frank Sinatra and even Elvis. Barbie has never dated outside of her own race and Ken has never had anything but Caucasian friends.  'Coloured' girls particularly pretty ones with white boys might be acceptable, but nice white girls are clearly not being encouraged to look past white boys.  Not by Barbie's example at least.

Some of those, who believe Barbie is a role model, and a very negative one at that, are trying to reverse the ideology or the process, that her portrayal of a physical ideal, in particular, is too limiting.  This concept has seen the birth similar dolls, with more realistic Rueben-esque body shapes and less keen fashion sense.  When you look at today's popular celebrities and the boom industry of cosmetic surgery, perhaps they have a point.

But aside from these issues, Barbie still projects and promotes a heavy consumer lifestyle which has also mirrored our own.  Somehow, her many careers, 130 and still counting, have afforded her the purchasing power to dress in all things Versace, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent (just to name a few).  She owns a Porche, a Ferrari, a Jaguar, a Harley, a Volvo, a four wheel drive (to pull her double horse-trailer), a new Beetle-convertible, a Vespa Scooter and a Corvette. She has two motor homes, a yacht, several horses, a Hawaiian bungalow and a dream house. That's a lot to aspire to in one lifetime. Large scale drug dealing would be a more likely career to support shopping habits such as Barbie's.

Obsessively focussed in her pursuit of vanity, leisure activities and shopping, is she intended as a role model for little girls, or does she simply reflect our society and its attitudes to the participation and expectations of women?  Anne Parducci, Mattel's Senior Vice President of Barbie Marketing, would tend to confirm the role model intention in her comments to CNN.com. "We want Barbie to represent a lifestyle brand for girls, not just a brand of toys,"

It also says a lot about our society that Barbie's particular fluffy pink, lightweight character is being marketed and sold to young females with such staggering success.

Role model or cultural mirror?  Probably a large dose of both and neither is particularly flattering or promising.

"Every 3 seconds, a Barbie doll is bought somewhere in the world ... placed head to toe, Barbie dolls and family members sold since 1959 would circle the earth more than seven times."



Get-a-grip Barbie - BY JEREMY M. HANNA (health physicist & freelance writer- Columbia)

Barbie: The Early History - © 2000, Erica Wolf

Ophira Edut  Author: ‘Eastern Exposure? Asian American Barbie Is a No-Show’

Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body Image& Identity edited by Ophira Edut

Johnson, Kristi. The Barbie Doll as an Artifact of Suburbia. (6 March 2000)

The History Channel. Barbie Dolls.


Dembner, Alice. "35 and Still a Doll." The Boston Globe. 9 March 1994.

Hold, Patricia. "Hail Barbie, Icon of Female Culture." The San Francisco Chronicle. 13 Dec. 1994.

Barbie's Brothel Beginnings : L.M. Boyd The San Francisco Chronicle 4 December 1994.

Three faces of Barbie a snub to Asians -Patricia Wen: Boston Globe, May 27, 2000

Riddick, Kristin. Introduction. (6 March 2000)

"Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll."  M. G. Lord



Barbie's bad year: the truth behind a plastic smile


  1. Good article, I like your writing style too. Your blog post never fail to make me smile!

    1. Thanks Frederique,so nice of you to say so :0)
      I wish I had more time to write but its a trade-off against sleep mostly :0/