I’m really letting my dork-flag fly for this article!
I can’t tell you when I got my first Barbie; I think Barbies have always been a natural part of my life, like the sun rising in the east or daytime television. I don’t know when my consumption of Barbies started—probably sometime before my earliest memories with a Christmas gift or a doll on the Walmart shelf—but I can tell you that it hasn’t ended.
As a 23-year-old adult, I still collect Barbies and place them lovingly on a shelf. I’m a slow collector—mostly because I’m broke—but I’m amassing a slow and steady collection of tiny women that I’m very proud of.
Recently, I was out with my mom, and we stopped at a vintage toy store to pick up a 1997 graduation Barbie doll. On our way to go to lunch, I was sitting in the passenger seat admiring my new collector’s item and telling my mom (who was very politely listening and nodding along) about the doll and its make. She laughed and said, “I’m getting flashbacks to when you were little!”. I laughed along and agreed, but that comment started an ongoing discussion: how has this doll kept the attention of kids and adult collectors for 60 years? Why am I still fascinated with Barbie?
My general answer is that Barbie has kept up with the times. As women’s roles in society have changed and evolved, so has Barbie’s. Barbie has seen three waves of feminism, and she has progressed along accordingly, adopting the values of the modern woman, regardless of if modern meant 1972, 1998, or 2021. Barbie has been a part of my life for over twenty years, and I don’t think she could’ve pulled that off without constantly evolving into newer and better versions of herself.
Here’s a very brief timeline I’ve compiled showing how Barbie has continued to be Queen Bee (or Queen B) for the past 60 years by keeping up with and celebrating the modern woman.
*Most of my research for this article came from the book Barbie Forever: Her Inspiration, History, and Legacy. Check it out here.
1959–Barbie is Born
Barbie was created by the co-founder of Mattel and absolute icon Ruth Handler as a way to create a further creative play for her daughter. After seeing her daughter play with paper dolls for more than just dress up, enacting the doll’s own world, friends, family, and career, she wanted to make a grown-up doll for her daughter to play with. Her goal with Barbie was to create a cool teenaged doll for her daughter to look up to and through which she could act out her ideas and goals for when she’s older. Barbie was pretty, smart, very tidy and well put together, and a lady for little girls to look up to. Made by a woman and with girls and play in mind, Barbie debuted in 1959; the rest is history.
1961–Barbie’s First Job
Just being a cool gal with a great wardrobe was all well and good for the fifties, but with the sixties, more and more women were in the workplace and seeking independence, and Barbie followed suit. In 1961—just two years after her inception—Barbie was given her first job. In 1961, Barbie became a registered nurse! With a very stylish and neat nurse costume, a little nurse’s hat, and a hot water bottle, Barbie was out in the world as a working professional: showing all the girls who played with her that they’re smart and capable of pursuing a rewarding career, just like her. With the sixties came several jobs for Barbie, including teacher, fashion designer, and astronaut. Since then, Barbie has done basically every career that you can think of: engineer, ballerina, doctor, vet, pop sensation; she’s even run for president four times since 1992. (I like to think she won each time!)
1962–Barbie’s First Dream House
I’m assuming that with all the money that Barbie made from being an astronaut-teacher-nurse, she purchased a beautiful cardboard bungalow in 1962 all on her own. The first dream house was a modern sixties bachelor-style dream with a record player, a huge closet for all of her fashion, and a single bed (so we know this is just Barbie’s house, she did it all on her own, and this is her house and her house only). This is particularly groundbreaking because, at this time in the United States, women couldn’t open their own bank account without a man to sign off on it, but Barbie didn’t give a fuck, and she taught girls to strive for independence and a really cool record player.
1968–Barbie’s Friend Christie
Throughout the sixties, Barbie had been given several friends, including her boyfriend Ken (1961), her best friend Midge (1963), Midge’s boyfriend—and later, husband—Allan, (1964), and her sisters Skipper (1964) and Stacey (1968), but these were all white (and mostly blond) friends. Far ahead of its time, Mattel released Christie in 1968. Christie was a black doll with short, black, curled hair. She was dressed in the fashion of the time and looked very stylish and well-groomed, just like Barbie. She had Barbie’s signature eye make-up and some traditionally black features.
Christie, alongside Midge, Ken, and Allan was marketed as a friend of Barbie. She was at times sold in gift sets along with Barbie and Midge and even drawn in illustrations with Barbie and her friends. This was pretty revolutionary and very cool of Barbie at the time, as the sixties were a decade of great racial tension and the civil rights movement. Barbie being friends with a black woman who’s just as stylish, cool, and fun as Barbie was an anti-racist movement that encouraged all little girls to be proud of who they were and be friends with whom they wished to be friends with regardless of race.
1980–Barbie Can be Any Race
In the year 1980, twelve years after the release of the Christie doll, Mattel releases its first black Barbie. The iconic black Barbie that was recently re-released for 2020 is absolutely incredible. She’s dressed to the nines in a sparkling red gown and beautiful gold jewelry to really dazzle audiences for her debut. This is the first time that the name “Barbie” was put on a doll of color. No longer was the black doll just a side character to Barbie’s life; she is Barbie! This was a really cool choice, showing little girls of all races that absolutely anyone can be Barbie and embody her values. Along with the first black Barbie, 1980 also brought the first Latina Barbie, and since then, Mattel has released hundreds of Barbies depicting different races, cultures, and countries! Anyone can be Barbie!
1985–We Girls Can Do Anything Campaign
In 1985, Mattel released the “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign across North America. You can still watch the commercial on YouTube in which a peppy song about girls being able to do, dream, or achieve anything if they try plays over videos of girls of many ages achieving different things from learning to tie their shoes to using a microscope to learn science and biology. Barbie continues to this day to share ad campaigns that are meant to encourage girls to pursue their goals. In 2007 they had the “Be Who You Wanna Be” jingle, and in 2016 they had the “You Can Be Anything” video, where young girls chose Barbie career dolls that corresponded to what they’d like to be when they grow up.
1997–Share a Smile Becky
In 1997, Barbie released their first disabled doll called “Share a Smile Becky.” Becky was just as pretty and fashionable as Barbie, and the doll was placed in a sitting position so she could fit into her own wheelchair. There were several variations of Becky, depicting her as a talented young woman with many hobbies and not just “Barbie’s disabled friend.” Becky was the school photographer, complete with a little camera and strap in one playset. In another, Becky participates in the Paralympics, complete with a uniform and a gold medal!
Later on, when Barbie really diversified its dolls around 2016, much like Christie, Becky just became a regular Barbie doll with the name Barbie, making disabled children the main character, just like they did with Christie.
In 2015, Mattel released several dolls of inspiring women who they called “sheroes”. This line included Gabby Douglas, Misty Copeland, and even Ibtihaj Muhammad, becoming the first Barbie with a Hijab!
After the release of the original “sheroes” line, Barbie released (and is continuing to release) several dolls that are modeled after history-making women. These collector dolls are available for wide purchase from Amazon, Toys R Us, and Walmart for around $30. Now they’re called the Inspiring Women Dolls, and they include Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, Sally Ride, and Florence Nightingale. These dolls expanded the room for imagination and played by giving girls specific and real role models to look up to and to emulate. Just this week, they released Eleanor Roosevelt!
2015–First Barbie Commercial with a Little Boy
In 2015 Barbie did a collaboration on a doll with the fashion brand Moschino. That was pretty par for the course, but what was pretty new and groundbreaking for the time is when they released the ad campaign for the doll, and it featured a little boy!
The 30-second ad made major headlines as it was the first Barbie commercial to ever feature a boy playing with the dolls alongside the girls, and it was definitely refreshing to see! The little boy calls Barbie “totally fierce” and hands the doll her Moschino purse. The commercial was light-hearted, cute, and a great way to invite little boys into imaginative Barbie play. Barbie is for everyone regardless of gender, and we’re starting to learn that!
2016–Barbie’s Body Changes
In 2016, one of the most major changes in Barbie history took place: different body types. Mattel did a pretty big overhaul of their ten-dollar fashion dolls and decided to introduce three new body types: petite, tall, and curvy. A huge criticism for many years from consumers of Barbie dolls was always Barbie’s unrealistic body, but by adding short, tall, and plus-size Barbies, Mattel knocked it out of the park, but they weren’t done yet; in the years that followed, hundreds of diverse fashion dolls were released.
Firstly, Ken followed suit with three different body types: broad, slim, and original, showing boys that they didn’t have to have big muscles and tiny hips to be handsome.
Then came a slew of diversity that is still expanding as you read this. Dolls with very, very light skin (even albinism) all the way to dolls with very dark rich skin, black dolls with natural black hair, dolls with cool undercuts, and dolls that are completely bald, dolls with thin and long noses, dolls with short wide noses, dolls with prosthetic legs and in wheelchairs, dolls with vitiligo! A range of dolls so wide and diverse hit the shelves for just ten dollars each, ensuring that every kid could find a doll that looked like them!
2021–Environmentally Friendly Packaging
Mattel is still releasing a slew of diverse dolls; they seem to come out weekly. With their inspiring women dolls and their diverse fashion dolls, lovers of Barbie assumed they’d be busy with those projects (at least I thought so), but Mattel really does keep up with the times and is always doing the next big thing, so early his year they announced environmentally friendly packaging for their fashion dolls!
The new sustainable design sells Barbies in a thick plastic case with a zipper so they can be reused for storage! There are so many possibilities with these cases; they can be used to carry pencils, make-up, Barbie clothes, and accessories, or the dolls themselves.
There are so many reasons why I still collect Barbies. Nostalgia, of course, the detail in their dolls, the fashion, the pink! Ultimately, the reason that I’ve been able to collect and enjoy Barbies without getting bored of them, or finding them repetitive, is because Mattel doesn’t let that happen. Barbie is not what she was in 1959, nor will she be like this in 2040. Barbie actively replicates and celebrates the times, whether it be women’s empowerment, civil rights, or environmental impact. Barbie is a modern feminist no matter what year she’s in, and I will always love her for that.