Reflections on Barbie at Sixty
Barbie turned sixty this month. Her actual birthday: March 9, 1959.
Two weeks later on my fifth birthday, I unwrapped a long, narrow cardboard box, with images of fashionable young women in beautiful clothes splashed across it. Inside was a doll like none I’d ever seen before.
She was tall, shapely, with a blonde ponytail, wearing a strapless black and white striped swimsuit, gold earrings, and black high-heeled sandals. She carried a pair of sunglasses.
She was my soulmate. I was five.
True, I had other dolls—a baby doll named Patty Sue, a Ginny doll, a big Cinderella doll (who was really too big to play with). But none of them had Barbie’s allure. She was a grown-up doll with grown-up clothes and, I imagined, an independent, grown-up life. Even at five, I wanted to be a grown-up. Barbie let me imagine what that might be like.
An Expanding Collection
I traded my blonde Barbie in for a newer model in the early 1960s, a brunette with a fringe of dark, curly bangs and a sleek ponytail. Over the next several years, my Barbie collection grew—a blonde with bouffant hair; her perky friend Midge; a red-headed Skipper and a dark-haired Scooter; Ken, whose fuzzy hair wore off, leaving him bald; Allen, who I thought was much more handsome; Francie with her long hair arranged in a perfect flip; and my favorite: a Barbie with bendable legs and a short, red pageboy. I renamed her Millie, short for Millicent, Barbie’s official middle name.
Eventually, my little sister Angela got into the act, with a collection of her own Barbies. Together we had enough dolls to create an entire town. We named it Robertson, and set it up in the spare bedroom. A pair of cardboard Barbie Dreamhouses covered the bed. The cardboard Barbie and Skipper School was back in the corner, in front of the closet door. Up higher on the mirrored dresser—a pair of improvised Barbie penthouse apartments, furnished with Barbie doll boxes (artistically draped with Kleenexes), a jewelry box table, and an official plastic Barbie canopy bed. A pair of Barbie convertibles—orange with turquoise interiors—sped along the gray-carpeted roadway below. Mother was incredibly tolerant: she let us keep the town assembled an entire summer.
When we took our first family vacation in 1964, and visited Knott’s Berry Farm, Angela and I pooled money from our saved-up allowances and bought a miniature reproduction, nineteenth century cast iron stove, scaled perfectly for our Barbies. We also bought a pair of handmade, old-fashioned Barbie doll dresses—high-necked with long sleeves and full skirts. When we got home, the focus of our Barbie world changed. We set up the stove on the raised fireplace hearth in the family room and pretended our Barbies were frontier women, battling the elements—blizzards, tornados, and droughts. Breyer plastic horses replaced those Barbie convertibles.
An Independent Woman
What did Barbie represent to me then? As a child of the 1950s and early 1960s, Barbie was about independence and freedom. As one writer has pointed out, Barbie provided “an alternative to restrictive 1950s gender roles. Unlike baby dolls, Barbie did not teach nurturing. Outfitted with career paraphernalia, the doll was a model for financial self-sufficiency…. Nor was the doll defined by relationships of responsibility to men or family.”1
In Robertson, my red-headed Millie was a schoolteacher, an actress, or a nurse. While those careers may seem traditional to us now, at the time, my Millie was an unconventional woman. Her life was always vastly more interesting than Ken’s or Allan’s. She lived life on her own terms, pursuing whatever dreams I chose as a five-, eight-, or ten-year-old to give her. She helped me imagine the kind of life I could grow up to live.
My Daughter’s Generation
I gave my daughter her first Barbie when she was five, but by then Barbie’s reputation was clouded. “I can’t believe you let your daughter play with Barbies,” the mother of one of my daughter’s playmates remarked during the early 1980s. “It reinforces stereotypes.” A recent article in The Washington Post makes the same observation: “Over the years, peer-reviewed research has suggested that Barbie dolls could harm young girls’ body images, food intake and career aspirations, among other issues.”2
Perhaps as Barbie evolved, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, the brand did lose sight of its liberating origins. All Things Barbie became very pink and very blonde. Her shape, which had always been controversial (even before she was launched in 1959), inspired legitimate and essential criticism. So did her lack of diversity. And with all those clothes, houses, and cars, was Barbie encouraging consumerism? Had she become a dangerous role model?
These issues didn’t seem to affect my daughter. True, she played with her Barbies very differently than I had. But for her, Barbie became the source of scientific experimentation. She tossed several Barbies out her dad’s second-floor office window to see if they would crack or break. One afternoon, I opened the freezer to a tangle of long black hair draped over an ice tray: it was Barbie—in another one of my daughter’s experiments. How long could Barbie survive below-freezing temperatures?
My daughter went on to study math and physics in college.
Barbie at Sixty
In the end, I can only speak to my own personal experience with Barbie. I remember her not just with nostalgia but appreciation. She let me play out my dreams of independence and self-sufficiency. The imaginative possibilities she allowed me to explore have, in many ways, shaped my adult life.
As Barbie has evolved into the 21st century, her profile has shifted. She is not as pink or white or blonde or unrealistically proportioned as she once was. And as the Encyclopedia Britannica points her, her resume now includes “airline pilot, astronaut, doctor, Olympic athlete, and United States presidential candidate.”3
Perhaps Barbie is evolving into the doll Lisa Simpson envisioned in The Simpsons episode of 1994, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy,” a doll with "the wisdom of Gertrude Stein, the wit of Cathy Guisewite, the tenacity of Nina Totenberg, the common sense of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the down-to-earth good looks of Eleanor Roosevelt.”4
Childhood dreams evolve, and so should all things that inspire them, including Barbie. This new decade may be her most challenging.
1. M.G. Lord, “Barbie Doll,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Barbie/.
2. Rebecca Hains, “Barbie is 60. And she’s reinventing herself,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2019.
3. M.G. Lord, “Barbie Doll.”
4. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy,” The Simpsons, Episode 14, Season 5, Fox Network, February 17, 1994.