Barbie's Biggest Cultural Moments

John Arehart/Shutterstock

Barbie's Biggest Cultural Moments

Barbie's Biggest Cultural Moments

It’s a Barbie world
Barbie's Biggest Cultural Moments

John Arehart/Shutterstock

Barbie bears no introduction. You know her. Or at least a version of her from your youth, or your child’s or your next-door neighbor’s. And if you know her, you almost certainly have an opinion of her. Over 61 years, 200 jobs and some very public missteps, Barbie has grown to represent not just one sort of woman but the limitless potential of all children who style her hair or swap her outfits. From Ruth Handler’s home to millions more, Barbara Millicent Roberts has cemented her place in the cultural zeitgeist. After all, it’s a Barbie world.

Barbie is born, 1959

Barbie is born, 1959

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Before Barbie’s 1959 New York Toy Fair debut, young girls mostly mothered baby dolls or toy toddlers for fun. Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, one of the world’s biggest businesses with humble beginnings, grew frustrated by her daughter’s limited play-time choices. Girls deserved a chance to play out their dreams too. So Ruth created a 3D, foot-tall doll named for her daughter Barbara. Skeptics questioned the appeal of a female-figured doll with downcast eyes and a striped swimsuit. Still, Barbie captured young imaginations like no toy before, and 350,000 Barbie dolls sold that first year.

Barbie meets Ken, 1961

Barbie meets Ken, 1961

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

In the two years following Barbie’s initial release, young girls, some members of Barbie’s newly minted Barbie fan club, wrote hundreds of letters to Mattel requesting a boyfriend for Barbie. In March 1961, they got their wish when Ken, this time named for Ruth’s son Kenneth, debuted pool-ready in bright red swim trunks and sandals.

Barbie gets her Dreamhouse, 1962

Barbie gets her Dreamhouse, 1962

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Barbie bought her Dreamhouse before most women had access to their own bank account. Not yet a mansion, Barbie’s first home was a one-room studio made of paper and cardboard. Foldable and portable, the studio had slim, modern mid-century furnishings and a hi-fi stereo. That same year, Barbie got her first car — a pretty peach two-seat convertible. Today, a Barbie Dreamhouse is sold every two minutes.

Barbie goes to space, 1965

Barbie goes to space, 1965

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Ever the jetsetter, Barbie walked the moon in 1965, four years before Neil and Buzz. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had already become the first female astronaut in space in 1963. And 20 years later, Sally Ride followed suit as the first American female astronaut in space. Prior to embarking on her astronomical career, Barbie already worked as a fashion editor, registered nurse and flight attendant.

Barbie turns to Twiggy, 1967

Barbie turns to Twiggy, 1967

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first of many celebrity look-a-like Barbies, Barbie adopted the stylings of teen model Twiggy in 1967. With a cropped cut, real lashes, iconic eyeliner and swinging blue, yellow and green frock, the Twiggy Barbie twisted and turned at the waist.

Malibu Barbie ditches the side-eye, 1971

Malibu Barbie ditches the side-eye, 1971

Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images

Malibu Barbie, released in 1971, was the first of Ruth’s dolls to gaze forward as opposed to the side. To be fully beach-ready, Malibu Barbie — sporting a cool blue swimsuit and fresh tan — could have used some sunscreen along with her rosy round sunglasses and bright yellow towel.

Diverse Barbie dolls debut, 1980

Diverse Barbie dolls debut, 1980

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

In 1968, Barbie introduced the world to the line’s first black doll, a friend of Barbie’s named Christie. Not until 1980 did Mattel release the first two dolls of color named Barbie, one black and another Latina.

Barbie says, ‘We Can Do Anything!’ 1985

Barbie says, ‘We Can Do Anything!’ 1985

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

“You know it and so does your little girl. We girls can do anything!” starts the classic 1985 Barbie commercial. Day-to-night Barbie, released that same year, was prominently featured in the ad, cut in between montages of young girls daydreaming and competing in gymnastic tournaments. As CEO, Day-to-night Barbie dressed for business in a pastel pink power suit and matching top hat. At night, her workwear gave way to a sparkly pink party dress. “Love working from nine to five, but when the day is done we deserve some fun,” the sing-a-long commercial continues, “We girls can do anything!”

Barbie by Andy, 1986

Barbie by Andy, 1986

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Andy Warhol painted not one, but seemingly two portraits of Barbie the year prior to his 1987 death. Yet the first of the two portraits, a Barbie headshot painted against a royal blue background, is not of Barbie at all. Instead, the portrait is of Billyboy*, a young American designer, Barbie collector and Warhol’s muse. Warhol bugged Billyboy* for a portrait, but he refused. Instead he quipped, “do a portrait of Barbie because Barbie c'est moi.” Warhol did. Later, he recreated the same painting with a red background that sold to Mattel.

Barbie for President, 1992

Barbie for President, 1992

Getty Images

Barbie has run for president just about every election year since 1992. The first presidential Barbie was outfitted in a red, white and blue ball gown suited for the Inaugural Ball. A red suit set was included in the box for an outfit change later. 2000 presidential Barbie got a haircut much like a former teacher turned famous First Lady and future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Finally, 2016 presidential Barbie was sold alongside a vice president Barbie.

Totally Hair Barbie, 1992

Totally Hair Barbie, 1992

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The best-selling Barbie of all time, Totally Hair Barbie, released in 1992, featured the longest hair ever on a Barbie doll, all crimped and tucked behind a chunky headband. Over 10 million Totally Hair Barbie dolls were sold.

Teen Talk Barbie says ‘Math class is tough,’ 1992

Teen Talk Barbie says ‘Math class is tough,’ 1992

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

A computer chip inserted into Teen Talk Barbie, released in July 1992, randomly selected four phases out of 270 for each doll to say. By October, Mattel cut one increasingly controversial school-yard saying; “math class is tough.” Prior to the company’s decision, the American Association of University Women issued a report and public plea that Mattel cut the catchphrase since preteen girls were already at the highest risk for losing confidence in their math abilities. Mattel obliged. “In hindsight,” the company said, “the phrase 'math class is tough,' while correct for many students both male and female, should not have been included.”

‘Barbie Girl’ the song, 1997

‘Barbie Girl’ the song, 1997

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

One of the top songs of the year in 1997, “Barbie Girl” by Europop group Aqua, declared the whole world belonged to Barbie. “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” With other sexualized lyrics, the verified hit called out the dangerous gender norms and standards Barbie perpetuated. As can be expected, the critical undertones and sexual overtones of the song and accompanying music video did not fit well with the family-friendly Barbie brand. Mattel sued MCA Records and the song’s producers for defamation. Through various appeals, the case rose all the way up to the Supreme Court where justices declined to hear Mattel’s case.

Barbie and Ken break up, 2004

Barbie and Ken break up, 2004

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

At the 2004 International Toy Fair, Barbie and Ken’s spokespeople announced the famous couple called it quits. “This is an announcement we thought we would never make,” Barbie’s spokesperson Ken Sunshine said. “I will confirm that Ken and Barbie will go their separate ways.” The publicists dismissed speculations of why, after 43 years, the pair drifted apart. After Ken, Barbie began a relationship with Australian boogie-boarder Blaine only to return to Ken in 2011.

Barbie stars in Toy Story 3, 2010

Barbie stars in Toy Story 3, 2010

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Despite their ongoing split, Barbie and Ken teamed up for two laugh-out-loud self-revelatory roles in Disney Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.” He compliments her leg-warmers. She compliments his ascot, all to the tune of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver.” Iconic.

Computer Engineer Barbie misstep, 2010

Computer Engineer Barbie misstep, 2010

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Originally published in 2010, a book called “Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer,” did not cause an online stir until 2014. Released alongside Computer Engineer Barbie, the children’s story revolved around the doll’s attempt to program a computer game. In the process, it’s revealed Barbie is only making the design ideas and will need to rely on friends Steven and Brian to turn her ideas into a “real game.” Barbie crashes her computer, ignores advice from a female computer instructor and, in the end, runs to Steven and Brian for the rescue. Mattel apologized following social media outcry.

Barbie’s friend Ella is a cancer patient, 2012

Barbie’s friend Ella is a cancer patient, 2012

MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

In 2011, Mattel made a one-of-a-kind bald Barbie for Grace, a 4-year-old New York girl with a rare form of leukemia. A year later, in 2012, Beckie Sypin and Jane Bingham launched an online campaign for Mattel to make more bald Barbie dolls. Their efforts were successful. Mattel produced a bald doll named Ella. A dear friend to Barbie, Ella dolls are freely distributed to children battling cancer and other diseases in hospitals nationwide.

Barbie covers Sports Illustrated, 2014

Barbie covers Sports Illustrated, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Barbie covered the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in a modern restyling of her classic 1959 black and white swimsuit. What could the two cultural icons, Barbie and SI, have in common? An #unapologetic nature, as the ad campaign championed. Barbie is much more than her looks. Like other iconic women Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum, she may have started her career in a swimsuit, but Barbie has accomplished much more.

Barbie goes social, 2014

Barbie goes social, 2014

DinosArt/Shutterstock

Barbie is her name, @barbiestyle is her Instagram handle. Already the proud owner of a Twitter account, Barbie launched her influencer brand on Instagram in 2014 and YouTube in 2015. Always in keeping with online etiquette, Barbie now has over 2 million Instagram followers and over 8 million YouTube subscribers.

Barbie Fashionistas, 2016

Barbie Fashionistas, 2016

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

“Now can we stop talking about my body?” read a Time magazine cover alongside the photographed profile of a new sort of Barbie, a curvy Barbie. In 2016, Barbie expanded it’s Barbie Fashionistas line with the introduction of 30 new Barbies in three new body shapes (petite, tall and curvy), seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Ken was given a similar makeover in 2017, with the addition of 15 Ken dolls with two new body types (broad and slim), seven skin tones, eight hair colors and nine hairstyles.

Barbie wears a Hijab for the first time, 2017

Barbie wears a Hijab for the first time, 2017

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Glamour

In 2015, Mattel began honoring modern-day sheroes, women who inspire the next generation of girls. Fifty female role models from around the world have been honored and Barbie-fied since, including tennis champion Naomi Osaka, conservationist Bindi Irwin and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Only one woman was honored in 2017, Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American fencer and the first American Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab. Her limited-edition doll, sold throughout 2018, was the first Barbie to wear a hijab.

Barbie Frida controversy, 2018

Barbie Frida controversy, 2018

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Like the Sheroes series, Barbie’s Inspiring Women line pays tribute to famous and influential women. Only this time, the celebrated women are historical heroes, not present-day ones. Dolls made to look like Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson were the first of the series. Yet, controversy erupted over the Frida Kahlo doll. With light eyes, sans-unibrow and wheelchair, some argued the doll stood for all Frida despised: rigid beauty standards and excess consumerism. Mattel was later blocked from selling the dolls in Mexico, the artist’s home country.

A new class of Barbie dolls, 2020

A new class of Barbie dolls, 2020

Photo Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

A new class of Barbie Fashionistas was introduced in January 2020. For the first time, the collection included Barbie dolls with bald heads and vitiligo and a Ken doll with hair past his shoulders. Dolls with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs were introduced for the first time in 2019. Now, 176 different Barbie Fashionista dolls are sold in nine body shapes, 35 skin tones and 94 hairstyles. Maybe after six decades, Barbie has finally grown comfortable with who she is, something all women should do during their lifetime

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