20. Barbie and Ken

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

Barbie was a popular submission. We are including two here, one from Adam Scher and one from Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez.

 

 
 
 

Contributor: Adam Scher

Senior Curator

Minnesota Historical Society

From the Love Generation to Generation-Y, she’s seen it all. She’s done it all too, with a resume that includes fashion model, firefighter, engineer, surgeon, astronaut, rock star, summit diplomat, and presidential candidate. She’s the ultimate cultural chameleon, transforming herself from a miniskirted ’60s Mod to a denim-clad ’70s hippie chick. Her signature golden locks have sported every conceivable hairstyle from bubble cut to page boy. She’s one of the most intoxicating pop culture icons of the twentieth century, the subject of scores of books, articles, and even college courses. She’s the Babe Ruth of post-World War II toys. And her name is Barbie.

When Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler suggested an adult-bodied female doll to company executives in the early 1950s, they were less than enthusiastic. After all, infant dolls had dominated the market for decades, and fit the bill in preparing young girls for their future role as mothers. But when Handler noticed her daughter Barbara (Barbie’s namesake) giving adult roles to the paper dolls she played with, she knew there was a niche to be filled. Handler was in Europe in 1956 when she spotted a blonde-haired, long-legged doll named Bild Lilli, named after a German cartoon strip character. Lilli was a sassy, independent working girl and her womanly figure was just what Handler envisioned for her doll. Mattel took cues from the Lilli doll and adapted their own design which debuted as Barbie in 1959. Marketed as a “Teen-age fashion model,” Barbie was the first mass-produced toy in America with adult features and was an instant success, with 350,000 dolls sold in the first year of production. Mattel was a pioneer in television advertising, being the first toy maker to broadcast commercials directly to kids in 1955 as a sponsor for the Mickey Mouse Club program. Soon after her debut, Barbie commercials began to saturate children’s primetime TV programming and sales skyrocketed. 

 By 1961, consumer demand had reached such a fever pitch that Mattel released a new doll. Barbie’s boyfriend Ken (named after Handler’s son) debuted in March of that year, clad in red swim trunks and sporting “molded” plastic hair. Like Barbie, Ken has transformed his appearance over the years, particularly in the grooming department, which reached its pinnacle in 1973 with a rooted hairstyle for Mod Hair Ken. Barbie’s coterie continued to grow with the introduction of best friend Midge in 1963 and little sister Skipper in 1964. 

More than 800 million Barbies have been sold worldwide, but being the most popular doll in history hasn’t always been easy. With a seemingly endless stash of clothing, cars, and “Dream Houses,” Barbie has been branded as a poster child for materialism, and many claim that her supermodel-on-steroids good looks and unrealistic body proportions have created unachievable expectations for young girls. Others defend Barbie as a positive influence who provided an alternative to the traditional gender roles of the 1950s, a point echoed by her creator. “My whole philosophy of Barbie,” said Ruth Handler, “was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” Whatever her fate, there’s no denying that Barbie has played a significant role as both a mirror and model of American culture. 

(From Toys of the '50s, '60s, and '70s by Kate Roberts and Adam Scher, published by the Minnesota Historical Society to accompany an exhibit by the same name. For more on the book and the exhibit, visit http://tinyurl.com/MinnToys)

 

Contributor: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

PhD Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction

Pennsylvania State University

Barbie is a cultural icon that has been present since 1959, and has been a popular toy among girls since then.  She has become a great part of children’s culture – be it by the doll’s presence or absence in children’s lives. Whether children’s experiences with the doll were positive or negative, Barbie generally plays a role in childhood, especially in Western cultures (Rand, 1995; Driscoll, 2008). 

 According to Mattel® one Barbie doll is sold every three seconds somewhere in the world, and it is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, remaining the world’s most popular doll. Barbie doll has had approximately 150 careers and characterized more than 40 different nationalities. Although the doll itself can be considered the most prominent Barbie artifact in childhood culture, she has made her way into children’s lives in many other venues as well. Children can interact with Barbie through trading cards, video games, computer and online games, books, movies, music, and other Barbie toys. Such is her prominence in American childhood that she was featured as one of the iconic toys in Pixar’s Toy Story movies (Parts 2 & 3). 

One reason Barbie is an important childhood artifact is the different conversations that emerge around her. A number of scholars have written about individuals’ childhood experiences with the doll and their negotiations with how Barbie contributed, and still does, to their own identities. (Rand, 1995; Rogers, 1998; McDonough, 1999; Reid-Walsh & Mitchell, 2000). Whether these experiences are remembered as positive or negative, the fact remains that Barbie was an integral part of their childhood as it continues to be for current girls. Barbie has played a very significant role in many children’s lives, including my own. 

Barbie dolls were my favorite for a long time. I could dress them up, brush their hair, and they could be anything I wanted them to be. They adopted the various professions I wanted to be when I grew up, thus, I was vicariously living my dreams through them. Playing with my Barbie dolls was a time of private play, where I was able to express myself through my dolls. When I first started playing with Barbie dolls, I did not have a great number of accessories or “Barbie artifacts,” thus they were mostly DIY creations. My mom would make clothes for my Barbie dolls. As she has told me, this is how she used to play with her Barbie doll: designing and creating her clothes. I would also use household objects to serve as Barbie furniture or other objects. 

This creativity with Barbie play has transferred into virtual spaces, where a number of girls have created YouTube channels devoted to showing episodes of their own Barbie play and how to create artifacts (Rockin’ Barbie, BarbieGirlfuntime, Barbie and Ricky). The different venues in which Barbie is present and her position as the leading doll among girls further attest to Barbie’s popularity and significance as an artifact of American childhood. 

References

Driscoll, C. (2008). "Barbie Culture." In C. Mitchell & J. Reid-Walsh (Eds.). Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia. (Vol. 1) (pp. 39-47). London: Greenwood Press.

McDonough, Y.Z. (1999). The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. New York, NY: Touchstone.  

Rand, E. (1995). Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Duke University Press. 

Reid-Walsh, J. & Mitchell, C. (2000). "Just a doll?: ‘Liberating’ accounts of Barbie-play." Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 22 (2), 175-190.

Rogers, M. (1998). Barbie Culture. London: SAGE Publications. 

 

Previous ArtifactList of 25 Childhood ArtifactsNext Artifact

 

Categories: AC25

Thank you Emily. I really agree with your point that the importance of Barbie is how she has opened up the conversation. The breath of literature on her is astonishing.