‘The woman who had it all’: New movie reminds us we’ve all been living in a Barbie world

For over 60 years, the world’s most famous doll has been a source of both inspiration and debate.

By Sarah AschJuly 20, 2023 9:45 am, ,

If you grew up in the last six decades, chances are you encountered a Barbie doll as a child.

Barbie is ubiquitous in toy stores around the world, and she has undergone quite the evolution since parent company Mattel launched her in 1959. Part of that evolution includes what many are calling the movie of the summer, directed by Greta Gerwig and geared toward adults; it premieres in theaters Friday.

But how did we end up in a world with over 1 billion Barbies in it? 

For over 60 years, Barbie has offered kids an imaginative play world full of fashionable outfits and, some argue, female empowerment. 

The doll has also been the subject of fierce debate and critique. As early as the 1960s, the feminist movement has argued that Barbie reduces women to their looks and presents an unrealistic body standard for young girls.

But there’s no denying that Barbie was revolutionary when she hit the toy market. Before Barbie, dolls were all babies — think cherubic cheeks, round bellies and minimal hair. 

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Ruth Handler, who created Barbie and co-founded Mattel, was very clear that her doll was going to be different. Rather than give girls something to care for, Barbie was designed to give girls a future to dream about. That’s why, Handler said, she gave the doll mature features.

She came up with the idea for Barbie after encountering a German doll named Lilli, based on a sexy comic strip character and sold to adults. Barbie launched as a tamer version made for kids – and was named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara.

Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of “Redefining Girly,” consulted with Mattel to bring the parent’s perspective to the doll line. 

“Barbie was the center of her world and had this fabulous group of friends and this fantastic life and career and house and car,” she said. “It was just sort of like the woman who had it all.”

Atkins Wardy said play with Barbie can look like a lot of different things. 

“I know one time (my daughter) used all of my bras and hung them from her dresser so the Barbies could have sleeping hammocks,” she said. “A lot of times the Barbies were like on this island with kayaks and dinosaurs.”

For June, the 6-year-old daughter of Texas Standard Managing Producer Laura Rice, Barbie comes with a lot of possibilities. 

I can make her go on an airplane, or drive one. Or I could make her work at Disney World,” she said. “Or I can make her do tricks with a lion. Or make clothes for animals.”

Sarah Asch / Texas Standard

June, seen here playing with some of her Barbies, says she enjoys making them do a variety of things, like fly airplanes or tame lions.

Nalani Nuylan, who lives just north of Austin, says she grew up on the Barbie movies of the early 2000s and that the stories and the dolls offered her a role model.

“The Mattel movies were really impactful … how Barbie was talking to this younger girl in this older sister/mentor figure way, and I was the eldest girl in my family. I didn’t have that relationship. I was that relationship to my sisters,” she said. “So just to be able to rely on that and to learn these lessons while still being, you know, caught up in this world of princesses and ball gowns and magic, it was really great as a kid.”

Nalani Nuylan (left) and her younger sister Selia hold Barbies when they were kids. Courtesy photo

For some, the idealism of Barbie extends beyond her looks. In Barbie’s world, women often have more power and agency than they do in real life. For example, Barbie famously took on one of her first careers, as an astronaut, in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon – and almost a decade before women could have their own credit cards in the United States. 

That is part of what the marketing around Barbie promises: limitless possibility. 

“Barbie has been U.S. president, even though the United States has still not elected an actual female president,” said Aurora Sherman, an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University. “She’s been various types of practicing scientists … She has definitely been explored at least as a representation for girls, presenting kids as a positive role model – somebody to strive for; limitless, boundless possibilities.”

However, playing with Barbie may also have its drawbacks. Sherman says her research also shows that play with Barbie dolls is correlated with young girls narrowing their view of their own futures. In a 2014 study, Sherman asked girls ages 3 to 7 to consider a set of 10 careers, identifying which jobs they thought they could do and which they thought boys could do. 

“We were interested in whether the type of toy that children played with would impact their ideas about future careers for themselves,” she said. 

Sherman found that after playing with a fashion Barbie or a scientist Barbie, girls were more likely to give themselves fewer career prospects compared with girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head. Sherman says more research would be needed to determine exactly why that happened. 

“We do know that sexualized material does have an impact on adult women’s cognitive performance and ideas about themselves, including self-esteem,” she said. “So we speculate that perhaps the elements of the Barbie doll, even in their doctor outfit or costumes, may have communicated to girls some messages that are suggesting less competence or less capability.”

Jagan Cortez

Austin artist Joe Hermosa adds Barbie elements to the popular "I love you so much" mural on South Congress Avenue.

Part of this might come from Barbie’s physical form. 

“Barbie is proportioned to have extremely large bust, extremely small waist and extremely large hips. So generally, her physical proportions indicate an extremely idealized version of the female human body,” Sherman said. “So idealized, in fact, that she would neither menstruate nor be able to stand up straight if she were an actual human being.”

Atkins Wardy says these factors can and should be a point of conversation between parents and kids around Barbie play. But she also points out that Mattel has made important strides in diversifying body size and other features in their Barbie line in recent years. 

“I grew up in the 80s, so I remember all of my Barbies were blond, and I had black hair. So that made me sad,” she said. “I would cut my hair and tape it to my Barbies’ heads, because I was desperate for a dark-haired Barbie. And my mom used to use hair dye and dye some of my Barbies’ hair.”

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

Austin's "I love you so much" mural got a touch of Barbie on July 16, 2023.

Barbie has come a long way since then: In 1980, Mattel released the first Black and Hispanic dolls named Barbie. In 2016, in response to softening sales, Mattel further diversified options, including more body types, expanded skin tones, and new hair colors and styles. 

Then in 2022, Mattel released Barbies with disabilities – including a doll with a behind-the-ear hearing aid, one in a wheelchair and one with a prosthetic leg.

From a business perspective, the changes worked. Mattel had one of its highest grossing years for Barbie in a decade in 2021, selling about $1.7 billion of Barbie brand products. 

Statistic: Gross sales of Mattel's Barbie brand worldwide from 2012 to 2022 (in million U.S. dollars) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Given the deep history many have with the doll, perhaps it’s not surprising that so many are excited to see the live-action Barbie movie. And just like in the movie, Barbie has made the jump into our world – and that includes Texas.

In Austin, the iconic “I love you so much” mural received a temporary update, proclaiming Ken’s love of Barbie. A Dallas pop-up called “Destination: Barbie Land” has a glam boutique and disco dance floor. And a cafe in Houston is transforming into Barbie’s dreamhouse. 

So regardless of whether you plan to see the movie, keep an eye out for an extra splash of Barbie pink. 

And if you do have a kid in your life, ask them about their thoughts on Barbie. 

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