Ms. Understood: Barbie Turns 60

The woman in charge of The Children’s Museum’s new Barbie exhibit never played with Barbie. The willowy blonde doll held no interest for Jennifer Pace Robinson, who wore glasses as a child and was something of a tomboy. Instead, the museum’s vice president staged Star Wars action-figure invasions in her friend’s Barbie Dream House. “I loved comic books and superheroes,” she says. “I never had a strong connection with Barbie.”

Pace Robinson knows she was firmly in the minority, though. Mattel, the company that makes the doll, estimates that at its peak in the 1990s, more than 95 percent of American girls between ages 3 and 11 owned at least one Barbie. By Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, Mattel had sold more than 1 billion of its leading ladies.

Yet her success came with a lot of criticism from feminist scholars: Her proportions are unrealistic. She teaches girls to measure their worth by their weight. She’s the poster child for whitewashing and materialism. She represents a regressive view of women. In the 1960s, it was Ken who was the airline captain, Barbie the stewardess. The 1980s dolls lived in a pink Dream House. The 1993 Police Officer Barbie came with a sparkly gold party dress for the “Police Awards Ball.”

Perhaps in response to those critiques, the siren has received a makeover in recent years. In 2016, Mattel debuted a doll that came in four body types: original, petite, tall, and curvy. The company eventually expanded the collection to encompass eight body types, 35 skin tones, and 94 hairstyles, including dolls that are bald, use wheelchairs, or are gender-neutral. In 2019, according to Mattel, more than half of the dolls it sold came from diverse backgrounds.

The toy company also committed to making Barbie more empowering. Mattel executives said they wanted to close the “Dream Gap.” (Research shows that by age 5, girls start to believe they aren’t as smart or capable as boys.) As part of that mission, they introduced a line of dolls representing real female role models, from Frida Kahlo to Katherine Johnson, the NASA engineer featured in the film Hidden Figures. Barbie’s careers now range from rock climber to robot programmer. “We really were delighted to see how the brand evolved,” says Pace Robinson of her team’s work curating The Children’s Museum exhibit.

Barbie: You Can Be Anything opens here (originally slated for May 2020, but postponed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic) before heading out on a national tour. It showcases the more than 200 careers Barbie has held since her debut in 1959. (Technically, the exhibit is celebrating the anniversary a year late.) Despite Mattel’s messaging, though, it hasn’t always been a smooth arc of inspiration and empowerment from Barbie’s debut to the diverse, ambitious dolls of today. That was the challenge the museum faced as it planned its displays: how to curate a culturally conscious exhibit that reconciles the doll’s problematic history with her surprisingly progressive moments.

Feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Jessica Valenti have long argued that Barbie’s physically impossible figure creates unrealistic expectations for young girls. If Barbie were a real woman, she’d crawl on all fours. Her 18-inch waist would leave room for half a liver and a few inches of intestine. She wouldn’t have enough body fat to menstruate. A 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that 5-to-8-year-old girls who played with Barbie expressed greater preoccupation with being thin than when they played with other dolls.

“Barbie was a single woman out in public working skilled, relatively educated jobs. She didn’t have a man, and she didn’t need one.”

Yet despite Barbie’s unrealistic body—her creator, the American businesswoman Ruth Handler, based her on a buxom German doll—she expanded the imaginative possibilities for the girls who played with her when she debuted 60 years ago, at a time when baby dolls taught girls to be mothers and most women didn’t work outside the home.

“Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of the future,” Handler said in a 1977 interview with The New York Times. “If she was going to do role-playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”

For Handler, Barbie embodied the fact that a little girl had choices—that, as she wrote in her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, she “could be anything she wanted to be.”

Paul Mullins, an anthropology professor at IUPUI who has published on Barbie as part of his work on modern material culture, says Barbie’s first five years were actually among her most progressive. “That was the most truly feminist moment Barbie had,” he says. “Barbie was a single woman out in public working skilled, relatively educated jobs. She didn’t have a man, and she didn’t need one.” Barbie was a career woman who didn’t do what Mullins calls “domestic goddess housework.” Though her options reflected the gendered expectations of the time—some of her careers included a nurse, model, and ballerina—the fact that she was working outside the home, he says, was radical.

But according to Mullins, the doll’s ambitions didn’t last long. Those first five years were followed by what he calls some “terribly reactionary periods.” He says it’s challenging to assess the doll in one way for her entire 60 years.

The first Ken doll arrived in 1961 after girls wrote to Mattel asking for a boyfriend for Barbie. He was a “boy next door” sidekick meant to showcase Barbie, not a partner. Then, around 1964, Ken’s career options—and muscles—expanded dramatically, as Barbie’s retreated into the domestic realm. He piloted planes while she volunteered as a “candy striper”—an unpaid hospital volunteer. Mullins says this shift reflected a retreat to clear gender roles amid a politically charged society in the mid-1960s.

Yet Barbie continued to have some groundbreaking careers. The 1965 Astronaut Barbie preceded the first real female NASA astronaut by almost two decades, for instance. “Even in her most reactionary moments, Barbie still had many career opportunities available to her,” Mullins says.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]A 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that 5-to-8-year-old girls who played with Barbie expressed greater preoccupation with being thin than when they played with other dolls. [/pullquote]That changed, he says, when the Vietnam War went south for the United States. Starting around 1968, Mattel wanted nothing to do with either politics or the ideals espoused by second-wave feminists. “I think they were fearful of a politically charged real world and decided to make a fantasy world for Barbie where she just went to the sweet shop and fell back on very traditional gender roles,” Mullins says.

The doll’s outfits were no longer linked to careers, and she was sold with apparel like a multicolored “Sunflower” dress. Rather than heading to the office, Malibu Barbie went to the beach. But the company soon reversed course again, and in 1973, Surgeon Barbie rejoined the workforce—a progressive choice at a time when only 9 percent of doctors were women.

Handler left the company in 1974 after being accused of falsifying financial reports in an attempt to inflate Mattel stock prices, and Barbie returned to the domestic goddess archetype. Mid-1980s and 1990s Barbies came with dishwashers, washers, and dryers, as well as the famous 1984 Barbie Dream House. “She had gone in a very different direction than what I think Ruth Handler ever intended,” Mullins says.

In the mid-2000s, Barbie had an identity crisis when sales took a nosedive as competitors like Bratz came on the scene. Mullins says Mattel began to think more creatively about how to sell Barbie around 2010, but didn’t figure out how to do so successfully until recently. And the company had a number of missteps along the way—it published a book called Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, in which Barbie explained to her younger sister, Skipper, that all she knew how to do was design a puppy on her laptop. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game,” she said. And in 2014, Barbie appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue as part of Mattel’s “unapologetic” campaign that embraced Barbie’s sexuality. “It was one of the first moments Mattel conceded that this was not a normal woman’s body,” Mullins says.

The doll’s sales continued to spiral—between 2012 and 2014, purchases dropped by 20 percent. Then Barbie turned the corner. In 2015, Mattel introduced the line of “Shero” dolls that celebrated female barrier-breakers like Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. Their launch was followed by curvy, petite, and tall dolls in 2016, an “Inspiring Women” line that honored female role models in 2018, and, in 2020, a group of 176 racially, culturally, and physically diverse dolls that were bald, rocked a gold prosthetic leg, and sported rainbow hair.

And it worked. Sales had rebounded to a five-year high by the end of 2019. Mattel launched the Dream Gap Project to inspire girls to pursue any career they could imagine. Yet even the diverse, ambitious Barbies couldn’t seem to shed the doll’s reputation as a sexist stereotype.

Diverse Barbies and the dolls celebrating luminaries such as Ava DuVernay have improved the toy’s reputation.

In a study by Oregon State University, researchers asked girls between ages 4 and 7 to play with a Doctor Barbie, a Fashion Barbie, or a Mrs. Potato Head. They then asked them how many of 10 careers they thought they could do, and then how many of the same jobs they thought boys could do. Girls who played with Barbie saw significantly fewer career possibilities for themselves than for boys—it made no difference whether they played with the Doctor Barbie or the fashion doll. The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head thought their potential was equal to that of boys.

The researchers suggested that even when Barbie is dressed as a physician, girls still focus on her unattainable figure. So although Ruth Handler’s inaugural Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and President Barbie were all progressive for their eras, they came packaged in the same idealized wrapping. In planning its exhibit, The Children’s Museum’s task was to highlight the doll’s better nature—to show girls that they really, truly could be anything, no matter what they looked like.

On a sunny day last May at the Mattel offices in El Segundo, California—a beachside city of 17,000 a few miles outside Los Angeles—Barbie’s 60th-anniversary exhibit was born. The Children’s Museum team there for the planning meeting knew the doll inside and out, having previously partnered with Mattel on a Barbie fashion exhibit in 2009, a pink-drenched, style-centric showcase so popular the museum extended it twice.

But this time around, the museum and Mattel wanted to focus on careers beyond fashion. “We wanted to capitalize on the ‘You Can Be Anything’ campaign,” says Pace Robinson, The Children’s Museum vice president, “as well as the new dolls they had coming out.”

[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]Mattel launched the Dream Gap Project to inspire girls to pursue any career they could imagine. Yet even the diverse, ambitious Barbies couldn’t seem to shed the doll’s reputation as a sexist stereotype.[/pullquote]Mattel and the museum team discovered they had the same vision: to acknowledge Barbie’s history, but to focus on celebrating the diverse new dolls. Almost 90 percent of the Barbies in the exhibit, they decided, would be from the modern era. But the dolls were just the starting point.

When Barbie: You Can Be Anything opens later this summer, aspiring pilots, presidents, and computer programmers will all find a station devoted to their career. There, in addition to the dolls, they can dress up like their heroes and learn about that job. Pace Robinson says the museum hopes to not just introduce girls to brilliant women, but allow them to envision themselves following in their footsteps. Each of the career areas will also tell the story of a real-life female role model in that position—and invite visitors to role-play real-life tasks, like flying Barbie’s plane or coding a robot to solve a problem. Five Shero displays will share the stories of inspiring women like jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and gymnast Laurie Hernandez alongside their Barbies, and will also include artifacts like a pair of Amelia Earhart’s goggles.

If the exhibit sounds more like Career Day than doll display, that’s by design, Pace Robinson says. “We used the doll as a jumping-off point to spark inspiring play experiences about women beyond the doll,” she says. And the museum faced the added challenge of creating an exhibit that could travel the country for five years—which means it could hardly pack the showcase with many hundreds of dolls. “We wanted to make this as flexible as possible to get it out to as many different places as possible,” Pace Robinson says. “That’s why there’s more of an experience focus as opposed to a heavy-duty object show.”

“What I love about the Barbie brand is that if you’re interested in fashion and you want to put together outfits for your dolls, that’s great. But your doll can still be an astronaut, or a scientist, or solve world problems.”

Pace Robinson says the team debated how much of Barbie’s history to include, and decided they needed Handler’s story to showcase how Barbie initially expanded play possibilities for girls. “So we ended up creating the storyline of ‘Meet Ruth Handler and be inspired by her, meet Barbie, meet the new dolls and the real women they’re based on,’” she says.

Pace Robinson relished the opportunity to develop an exhibit that encompasses a much wider range of careers than the 2009 fashion experience. “What I love about the Barbie brand is that if you’re interested in fashion and you want to put together outfits for your dolls, that’s great,” she says. “But your doll can still be an astronaut, or a scientist, or solve world problems.”

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, a museum-studies professor at IUPUI, says that, in general, museums need to be cautious when developing brand-based exhibits. The museum is contractually obligated to celebrate Barbie at every turn, but doesn’t want to look like it’s not aware of the societal criticism. “You have the advantage of a well-established and publicly recognized entity,” she says. “But at the same time, you have to work within the limitations of the brand’s intellectual property, which is very strictly controlled.” 

But she says The Children’s Museum has a long track record of success when partnering with brands like LEGO and Transformers. And she agrees with the museum’s decision to opt for an empowerment focus. “If you and I were to write a history of Barbie for adults, we’d take a more critical stance,” she says. “But that’s not what kids are going to be engaged by.” 

Despite Barbie’s modern aspirations, some critics say the doll still comes up short in the realism department. Mattel’s “curvy” Barbie, after all, is closer to a size 4 than a size 14. And some of the Shero dolls, like the one based on Chinese volleyball star Hui Ruoqi, have been criticized for their Westernized features. Frida Kahlo’s is missing her trademark unibrow. British boxing champion Nicola Adams’s contains no trace of her real-life counterpart’s bulky biceps.

Elizabeth Segran, a writer with a doctoral degree in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, objected to the dolls in Mattel’s 2018 International Women’s Day collection on the grounds that they weren’t realistic representations of the women they were meant to depict. “The new dolls, based on accomplished real-life women, are diverse in every single way except one,” she wrote in a Fast Company magazine article. “They’re all unnaturally thin.”

For years, according to the IUPUI anthropology professor Mullins, Mattel maintained that the doll’s “titanically weird” figure was purely functional. “Mattel argues that Barbie’s big breasts and tiny waist have nothing to do with sexuality,” he says. “They claim they’re functionally necessary to hold clothing on the doll, like garments that cinch at the waist.” But the Oregon State study showed that Barbie’s career ambitions were inextricable from her unattainable figure.

Mattel launched a series of dolls celebrating luminaries such as Ava DuVernay.

“It’s a very selective vision of diversity,” Mullins says. “Even if they’ve owned up to the potential that there are people who are not white, it’s still not an enormously diverse selection of body types.”

So how could the museum ensure a curvy girl, a black girl, a Burmese girl, or a boy who has two moms felt included in the new exhibit?

“Those are the conversations that keep us up at night,” Pace Robinson says. “We want to make sure that our visitors, however diverse they are, are seeing themselves in this.” She says the museum had “difficult conversations” with board members about historic criticisms of Barbie, from her unrealistic proportions to her lack of diversity, when it was planning the first Barbie exhibit in 2009. But when the team asked them to share their memories of playing with the doll, they were surprised: Most of the stories they heard were empowering ones.

One of the strongest proponents of the exhibit was an African-American board member, Sheila Triplett. Growing up, Triplett played with the 1968 Christie doll—Barbie’s first black friend. “To see that chocolate face as a child was so powerful,” she says. “Sure, there have been criticisms about the doll’s hair texture and European features, but when my mom was a kid, their dolls didn’t look anything close to that.” And Triplett views the company’s push toward diversity as genuine. “This wasn’t something that Mattel did just to have something out there,” she says. “They said, ‘There are different little girls, and we need to make different little dolls to make sure they feel included.’” 

Even though the exhibit won’t explicitly address criticisms of Barbie, Pace Robinson says they were conscientious about creating the most diverse exhibit possible. Two of the five featured Sheroes are black, and one is a Latina. And not all the dolls in the exhibit are rail-thin. “We were really purposeful about which dolls we chose to feature,” Pace Robinson says. “And that goes back to wanting little girls to see themselves in the dolls, whether you’re tall or short, and regardless of the color of your skin.”

According to Pace Robinson, the museum’s mission is to celebrate the power of toys, not to label them as good or bad. “So we’re not going to go too far down into some of those other conversations,” she says. But the museum hopes the exhibit will spark opportunities for families to have them. She says the exhibit will include prompts asking mothers and grandmothers to share their stories of playing with Barbie with their children and grandchildren.

“We have groups of dolls on display from different time periods, and we’re including labels that say things like, ‘If you played with this Barbie, tell your family about it,’” she says. “Or, ‘Ask your mom what she wanted to be when she grew up. How is that different from what you dream of being today?’”

Kryder-Reid, the IUPUI museum studies professor, says the strategy is a smart one. “Some of the most important learning happens through conversations among visitors,” she says. “A didactic approach of ‘Examine the different body dimensions of Barbie and how they’ve changed’ wouldn’t be nearly as effective.”

The future of Barbie remains to be seen. After falling 25 percent between 2012 and 2017, sales rebounded to top $1 billion in 2019. Mattel says a curvy black Barbie with an Afro was its top-selling doll last year.

As for the museum, it hopes the new exhibit will inspire girls to stop thinking that only boys can build robots or pilot planes. “I think it’s great that it’s not just a doll any longer,” Pace Robinson says. “There’s an online presence, there are games, and she’s become a platform for so many types of creativity.”

Kryder-Reid commends the museum for tackling a doll that has had a fraught history with feminists. “They’re fairly courageous beyond what most children’s museums do,” she says. “Not many of them are going to tackle AIDS and the Holocaust and white supremacy as our Children’s Museum has. Their exhibits have addressed some of our most pressing and vital issues, but in a way that’s accessible to families.”

Since her Barbie-less childhood, Pace Robinson has completely changed her attitude about the toy. While she maintains her affection for Boba Fett, she’s now a full-on Barbie fan. Five dolls stand guard in her office, Batgirl and Wonder Woman Barbies among them. “It’s been lovely to see the evolution,” she says. “I have glasses, and now I can find a doll that looks like me.”

And she’s excited to see what else Mattel has in the pipeline. “They’ve worked hard to engage people with what they’re interested in,” she says. “I think that goes back to their goal of wanting everyone to see themselves in a Barbie.”