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Barbie: The world's most famous plastic doll

Sabine Kieselbach | Ulrike Sommer
July 19, 2023

Greta Gerwig's new film has generated a lot of hype. But what is behind the mystique of Barbie — the doll that has always been more than just a toy.

Picture of actress Margot Robbie in the role of the Mattel doll Barbie, dressed in a striped bathing suit, wearing high heels and white framed sunglasses.
Barbie: Forever young and now in the fleshImage: Warner Bros/Zumapress/picture alliance

There she stands, a monolith in a desert landscape: icon, goddess, superwoman. The first teaser trailer of "Barbie" directed by Greta Gerwig parodied the iconic "Dawn of Man" opening sequence from director Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."  

In Gerwig's version, young girls sit around playing with old-fashioned baby dolls, but then dump their vintage toys after a towering, statuesque Barbie  (played by Margot Robbie) appears in high heels and a striped bathing suit, before winking at viewers over her white-framed, cat-eye sunglasses.

Set to the instantly recognizable "Space Odyssey" score, the teaser trailer was released by Warner Bros Pictures in December 2022. Not only a sly wink to Kubrick's classic, it also refers to Barbie's founding legend and recipe for success.

Ruth Handler (1916-2002), the "Mother of Barbie," didn't want to produce another doll designed for her daughter and her friends to practice for their future role as mothers. Her doll, which was to become one of the world's best-selling toys, was a young woman who was self-confident, attractive and gainfully employed.

The US-American Handler hailed from a Polish-Jewish emigrant family in which everyone, whether male or female, had to contribute to the income. Together with her husband, Elliot, and Harold Matson, she founded the company Mattel in a garage in 1945. The trio manufactured picture frames and dollhouse furniture. Since the doll furniture sold well, they specialized in the production of various toys. It is now one of the world's leading toy companies.

Black and white picture of a smiling woman wearing a triple-strand pearl necklace with a picture of a doll in the forefront. The woman is Ruth Handler who created the doll called Barbie.
Ruth Handler, who created Barbie, is said to have breathed very progressive ideas into the dollImage: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/picture alliance

Barbie was modelled to be a career woman. Not just as a secretary, but a doctor, pilot, astronaut and even the female president of the United States — something that has yet to happen in reality. All this, of course, in appropriately coordinated outfits.

To this day, the toy company says Barbie "inspires the limitless potential in every girl."

Susan Shapiro, an avowed Barbie fan, describes the message like this: "You don't have to be a mommy taking care of little babies. You don't have to get married. You don't have to have your father or your husband supporting you. You can support yourself. You could do anything you want. You could have one of hundreds of careers."

Barbie has her own house and her own car, in which her ever-loyal companion Ken has been allowed to sit in the passenger seat since 1961. He could never keep up with her glamour, however, and Ryan Gosling as Ken in the Barbie movie even sings a sad song about that. "Doesn't seem to matter what I do. I'm always number two… I'm just Ken."

Film still of actors Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie as the Mattel dolls Ken and Barbie.
In Greta Gerwig's film too, Ken is secondary and remains in Barbie's pink shadowImage: Warner Bros/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Feminist icon or toxic beauty ideal?

The fact that Ruth Handler had created a working and financially independent woman out of the doll named after her daughter Barbara was a provocation in the conservative 1950s and early 1960s. Nevertheless, Barbie fell into disrepute in feminist circles. For the US author and feminist Jill Filipovic, Barbie conveys "a really unhealthy, ideal image of femininity and what it means to be an attractive woman, a good woman, worthy woman."

Endless legs, a wasp waist, a toned body: With Barbie, this ideal was transported into children's rooms: "Young, white, no disabilities, ready for action and performance in a capitalist world," is how cultural scientist Elisabeth Lechner sums it up to DW. A questionable ideal of beauty that can trigger a distorted body image in girls, as studies suggest.

Mattel has reacted to this and expanded the product range and made it more diverse. There are now Barbies with different body shapes, Barbies with prosthetic legs, in wheelchairs, a chemotherapy Barbie and, most recently, one with Down syndrome. For Elisabeth Lechner, who has studied body images and body positivity in depth, that doesn't change the basic problem.

"There are now studies that prove that even forms of objectification that are also meant to be positive, i.e., positive compliments on appearance, remind women that it's always just about their appearance," she says.

Picture of documentary filmmaker Lagueria Davis posing with a set featuring different dolls.
Lagueria Davis tells the story of Black Barbie in her documentary film

Barbie and diversity

The first step towards diversification came early, in the 1960s, when deep racial conflicts shook the USA. The year Martin Luther King was assassinated, the first Black doll appeared in the Barbie universe. Her name was Christie. In her documentary "Black Barbie," director Lagueria Davis traces the story of its creation.

Working Black women like Lagueria Davis' aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, were the ones who convinced Ruth Handler of the idea: "We want a Black toy! We want a Black doll! A doll that African American girls can identify with." But it wasn't until 1980 that this Black doll was allowed to be called Barbie.

"Mattel's narrative is one thing where they are very progressive with introducing a Black friend for Barbie through our lens, through the story in which we enter it, you know, the Black woman lens. While that feels progressive for them, it feels less progressive for us in the sense that for 21 years there wasn't a Black fashion doll worthy of the Barbie brand name," Davis told DW.

And yet, for many women of Beulah May Mitchell's generation at the time, it was a triumph: A Black Barbie — proof that African American women were beautiful, that they could be glamorous and successful.

A row of dolls with different skin tones and body shapes.
Today, Barbie dolls are more diverse than in previous decadesImage: Cover-Images/imago images

Competition from Africa

Meanwhile, Black Barbie has a serious rival on the African continent. Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoya saw a gap in the market in 2007. The trigger was his young daughter. In a conversation, she had expressed that she would rather be white than Black, because white was beautiful. So, he looked for a figure that would show African girls that they could be proud of their skin color and their figure.

This is how the Queens of Africa came into being. These are not simply dark-skinned mirror images of globalized beauty standards, however. Okoya's dolls are based on the different skin tones, hairstyles and clothing of Nigeria's many ethnic groups.

"It's my identity. It's who I am. And that was a message that was behind the Queens of Africa," he told DW.

A bespectacled man, Taofick Okoya, poses with three dolls of differing skin tones.
Taofick Okoya's 'Queens of Africa' represents the diversity among Nigerian womenImage: ISAAC I.E. EMOKPAE

But is Barbie sustainable?

A doll is more than just a toy. It can be a figure of identification for a child, shaping its future image of normality and beauty. So, it's no wonder that today Barbie — one of the world's best-selling dolls — is still the subject of debate around empowerment, beauty ideals and not least, sustainability. The non-profit media outlet The Conversation reports that American researchers last year quantified what each doll costs the climate. Every 182-gram Barbie causes about 660 grams of carbon emissions, including plastic production, manufacture and transport.

In more than six decades of Barbie history, Mattel has always cleverly adapted its marketing to the spirit of the times and, of course, has now also launched a Barbie made of recycled plastic. Barbie is probably the "wokest doll" ever. There is only thing she's not allowed to do yet: age. No matter her skin color Barbie remains "forever young."

This article was originally written in German.