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The evolution of a living doll

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • July 13, 2023

When we first heard about the new live-action Barbie movie directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie as the titular character with Ryan Gosling playing Ken, many of us were a bit perplexed. Despite the stellar personnel, we had to wonder: Is this a terrible idea?

And yet, as we have digested the indelibly bright, shiny images from the production, the sparkling buzz from the set, and the rollicking clips and trailers revealing an astonishing supporting cast—including Kate McKinnon, Will Ferrell, America Ferrara, Simu Liu, and Issa Rae—many of us have found ourselves admitting a surprising truth. We're pretty friggin' excited. As we all wait for next week's release, join us for a look at Barbie's iconic history and evolution over the last six-plus decades.

Barbie's birth

Barbie was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who cofounded Mattel with her husband, Elliot Handler. She says she was inspired to create the doll after noticing her daughter playing with paper dolls and dreaming about what kind of woman she would become. Ruth decided girls should have a proper doll to act out their aspirations. Barbie's appearance was modeled on the German Bild Lilli doll, a racy gag gift marketed toward men. Ruth named the doll after her daughter.

Since Barbie's inception, her body has drawn controversy. Mothers in an early market study criticized Barbie for having "too much of a figure." Mattel found a way around this derision by advertising the doll directly to children—the first toy company to do so—and Barbie quickly became a hit. To learn more about Barbie's creation check out Barbie and Ruth The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber. And here's a good option for younger readers.

Vintage—1960s and '70s 

As Barbie's popularity grew, Mattel began rolling out her community of friends. Her boyfriend Ken (named after the Handler's son) was introduced in 1961. In 1963, Barbie's best friend Midge joined the squad and in 1964, Barbie's little sister Skipper came along. To learn more about this time period in Barbie's development, check out this free-wheeling account of life as a toy designer at Mattel during the "Golden Age" of Barbie. Here are a few of the groovy books from this era.

If you're interested in vintage Barbie, you can also check out our collectibles.

1980s and '90s

While feminists may take issue with aspects of Barbie's appearance and image, few can deny that she represents a certain independence and ambition. As Ms. Handler wrote in her 1994 biography, "My whole philosophy of Barbie 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." Indeed, Barbie boasts an impressive resume with more than 200 careers including astronaut, doctor, paleontologist, rock star, and computer engineer to name just a few.

In 1980, Mattel issued the first African American and Latina Barbies. Along with that shift came a raft of international Barbies, representing a diversity of cultures around the world.

Barbie's look changed with the times. She was fashioned to reflect the era at hand. In the 1990s, the cover art for her books shifted to photographs of actual dolls, rather than illustrations. Here are some examples reflecting this time period.

2000s—The Barbie Cinematic Universe

While Gerwig's Barbie movie may be the first of its kind, it's certainly not Barbie's first time on the screen. In the early 2000s, Mattel launched their franchise of hugely popular CGI-animated Barbie films, often recycling classic fairy tales, ballets, and literature. They were known for their catchy tunes and have become cult classics for a lot of their now-grown millennial and gen-z audiences. Here are some of our favorites. 

Today's Barbie

With its $145 million price tag, Gerwig's Barbie has yet to prove itself at the box office, but the buzz and excitement surrounding the film has got to be encouraging. In any case, it has already relaunched the 64-year-old iconic toy squarely into the center of the cultural zeitgeist. Barbie is everywhere right now. Fans and nonfans alike are paying attention, and we are too. Here are some fun books celebrating Barbie culture and style over the years.

As we all wait with bated breath for the big release next week, hopefully some of these Barbie tidbits will be enough to tide us over. Also, get your preorder in for the movie's slappin' soundtrack. (It even comes with a complimentary poster!) 

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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