Barbie: Doll Of Empowerment, Or Oppression? Biography And Facts

Fads | June 26, 2020

Barbie dolls dressed in a variety of costumes are part of the huge inventory at KittyÕs Collectables in Laguna Beach. Owner Kitty Stuart is one of the largest vintage Barbie doll dealerships in the U.S. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Ge

The Barbie doll, introduced in 1959, has seen her share of changes -- just as flesh-and-blood women were effecting changes in society. Barbie gets props for being an independent young woman who didn't teach girls to cook and change diapers. On the other hand -- that voluptuous torso and those endless legs were not a figure any young girl could achieve, and Barbie had thrown off the shackles of domesticity only to embrace mindless consumerism. Just what has been a healthy message -- and what messages have been harmful -- for young girls has been a moving target over the past 60 years, and Barbie's status as the most popular girls' toy has put her in the crosshairs as well.

The inspiration for Barbie. Source: (pinterest)

When Ruth Handler, who founded Mattel with her husband Elliott, noticed her young daughter spending significant time playing with paper dolls, she was inspired to create a 3-D version. While on a trip to Germany, she found the eventual model for the doll: a doll named Lilli based on a cartoon character published in the newspaper Bild. The character was a working woman who did what she needed to do to get what she wanted. The doll was sold as a racy gag gift in tobacco shops. Handler bought three of the dolls: one for her daughter and the other two for Mattel. She worked with Jack Ryan, an engineer, to redesign the doll and create the first Barbie. She named the doll Barbie after her daughter.  

Who Is Barbie, Anyway?

An early brunette Barbie. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Rogers. The first Barbies were modeled after the glamorous stars of the 1950s, and the doll faced criticism because of the shape of her body before she was even available for sale. During a market study before the release of the doll, mothers complained about her figure. However, rather than redesign her, Mattel began marketing the doll directly to children via television ads, and were, in fact the first company to use this strategy when they sponsored the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955.  

The First Barbie Wore A Strapless Swimsuit

One of the first Barbies. Source: (History.com)

Barbie made her debut at the New York International Toy Fair on March 9, 1959, and despite initial skepticism in the toy industry, went on to be a success, selling over a billion dolls. These first Barbies were dressed in a zebra-stripe swimsuit and were either blonde or brunette, with a topknot ponytail, black eyeliner, red lips, and perfectly arched eyebrows. Her first clothes were handstitched in Japan. As the ‘60s and ‘70s wore on, Barbie’s outfits changed with the times, reflecting trends. Additionally, in 1967, they introduced Twist 'N Turn Barbie, which turned at the waist and had bendable knees.  

Barbie's Little Sister Grew Breasts Right Before Your Eyes

One of the controversial Barbies. Source: (Messy Nessy Chic)

As Barbie grew in popularity, Mattel added characters. Barbie’s boyfriend was introduced in 1961, and he was named Ken after Handler’s son. In 1963, Barbie’s best friend Midge Hadley was introduced. The following year saw the introduction not only of the first Barbie Dream House, but also of Barbie’s first little sister, Skipper. Skipper had a controversial moment, just like her big sister, when, in 1975, Mattel released Growing Up Skipper. When you cranked one of her arms, the doll grew in height, while her chest also expanded, reflecting the changes in puberty. 

Barbie Had A Black Friend Who Wasn't Black Barbie

Barbie’s friend Christie, an African American doll, was introduced in 1968, but the first official black Barbie was produced in 1980, along with the first Latina Barbie as well as the first of the international Barbies. In 1967, Mattel introduced Barbies modeled after celebrities, with the first being Twiggy. Other celebrities, including Audrey Hepburn, Diana Ross, and J.K. Rowling would follow.  

Barbie Lost Her Sex-Kitten Expression And Makeup In The '70s

Malibu Barbie. Source: (Barbie Media)

In the 1970’s, they introduced “Live Action Barbie,” a doll that could dance on "stage" accessory and that was discontinued within a year. Mattel also began producing Malibu Barbie, a doll that had some pretty significant changes, but also reflected the more relaxed nature of the time period. The Barbie’s face new face design was more sculpted, sun-tanned, and makeup free. Her eyes were also changed. The original Barbie had a coy, demure look, as she glanced sideways, and with the Barbies starting in 1971, they looked forward, a move that won the praises of some feminists.   

Barbie Taught Girls Anorexia In 1963

Accessories to accompany the babysitter Barbie. Souce: (ebay)

Throughout her existence, criticisms have continued, often focusing on her unrealistic body proportions and the doll caused more body image controversy in 1963 when the teenaged “babysitter” Barbie was sold with an accessory: the doll sized book titled How To Lose Weight, that reads “Don’t Eat.” Two years later, “babysitter” Barbie started attending sleepovers, accompanied by a pink scale, with the weight permanently reading 110, 35 pounds less than a woman her height should weigh. 

Barbie Would Never Have That Time Of The Month

Source: New York Daily News

Barbie's body proportions have continued to stir controversy, when one study in Finland in 1994 concluded that she lacked the body fat to menstruate. 

Barbie Has Had Over 200 Careers And Went To The Moon Before Neil Armstrong

Just a few of her careers, including presidential candidate. Source: (The Week).

Others have criticized her materialism as she has cars, clothes, and a dream home. However, Handler’s intent had been to show girls that they could be anything they wanted to be, and Barbie has had many careers during her lifetime. In fact, she has had more than 200 careers, including becoming an astronaut and going to the moon in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong. Her diverse jobs have ranged from rock star to paleontologist. And women who played with the doll claim that Barbie helped them to see an alternative to the gender stereotypes they grew up with.    

Barbie Struggled With Math, And Her Little Sister Got Pregnant

Pregnant Midge, Barbie's friend. Source: (Reddit)

Other controversies over the years include Pregnant Midge, the doll that critics were afraid may encourage teenage pregnancy.  She was also controversial because she didn't have a ring on her finger.  There was also Teen Talk Barbie, whose sayings included “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is hard.” Controversy also surrounded a tattooed Barbie and “Video Girl,” the Barbie who caught the attention of the FBI, who were concerned that, because of the camera that was part of the Barbie, she might be used to create pornography.   

Today: Chemotherapy Barbie, Vitiligo Barbie, Wheelchair Barbie, And More

Some of the Fashionistas. Source: (Insider)

To address some of the controversies surrounding Barbies, Mattel responded by changing the doll’s proportions to make them more representative of the adult form, and in 2016, introduced the Barbie Fashionistas. These Barbies were produced with four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors, and 24 hairstyles. Mattel also began producing more diverse dolls, including Ella, who has no hair because of chemo, a doll with vitiligo, and a doll who is in a wheelchair.

Mattel has also the Inspiring Women series, which maintains Handler's original vision that girls can be anything, and  includes women such as Frido Kahlo, Amelia Earhart, Katherine Johnson (a mathematician who contributed to the space programs), and Ashley Graham (a plus-size model).

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Barbie | Feminism | Toys

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!