She’s an icon, she’s a legend, she’s Barbie: The legacy of Barbara Millicent Roberts
For over 60 years, Barbie has been culturally embedded in the lives of our girls. But is it for the best — or the worst?
If there’s one thing I remember from my childhood, it’s the hours and hours I’d play with my Barbies.
Don’t even ask what melodramatic sagas I made my Barbies act out. There are only two things I can guarantee. First, that I would meticulously dress and style my Barbie. Second, that Barbie would always be accompanied by her loyal boyfriend, Ken.
Barbie may have once simply been a doll, but over the 60-plus years since her creation, she’s become so much more: a symbol, a jumping off point, an embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist at any given time. Most of us know her as Barbie, but some might be aware of her Christian name: Barbara Millicent Roberts.
Barbara Millicent Roberts has lived many lives over the past 60 years. She’s been a surgeon. A fashion designer. A U.S. army medic. A rapper. An Olympic swimmer. She even made a bid for president in 2012 (and in 2008, and in 2004 and in 2000).
These career moves don’t even cover her extensive movie career, which has been primarily fairytale-based, and has seen Barbie in a myriad of roles: “Rapunzel,” “Barbie in the Nutcracker,” “Barbie of Swan Lake” and much, much more.
Despite her forays in STEM, runs for public office and much more, Barbie hasn’t been without controversy. According to Britannica, Barbie naysayers have two primary complaints: that she encourages a materialistic lifestyle and that she has “unrealistic body proportions.”
This has, understandably, sparked a heated debate over the years. Is Barbie helpful or harmful to young girls? Is she a role model or a cautionary tale? Does she inspire girls or promote unrealistic standards?
It’s not surprising that Barbie has a complicated and controversial legacy — she’s been around for over 60 years — but whether or not said controversy is warranted is a whole other conversation.
The beginnings of, and conversations around, Barbie
The story of Barbie’s launch in 1959 offers a lesson in history, as well as the cultural values — and beauty standards — of the time.
The creation of Barbie
According to History, Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel, Inc. with her husband. “Inspired by watching their daughter play with make-believe paper dolls of adult women, Handler realized there was an unfilled niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future.”
Thus, Barbie was born. Mattel sold 300,000 Barbies within its first year. She likely started a doll revolution — according to History, Barbie “was the first mass-produced toy doll in the U.S. with adult features.”
Barbie’s friends quickly came into existence: There was Ken, as well as Midge Hadley, Barbie’s best friend who, according to History, was created to “counteract criticisms that Barbie was solely a sex symbol.” Shortly thereafter, Mattel created Skipper Roberts, Barbie’s little sister.
As absolutely horrifying as it’d be to see, there is a little part of me that hopes there’s a scene with Midge screaming “I’m in labor!” then all the Barbie’s freak out as is typical of a movie labor scene & then she just pops off her magnetic tummy and takes out the baby herself pic.twitter.com/rhNHTSCqF8— TreDolly (@TreDolly) April 5, 2023
What’s Barbie’s full name?
As mentioned above, Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. According to Barbie Media, she was named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara. Ken was reportedly named after Handler’s son, Kenneth.
How old is Barbie?
Barbie’s official birthday is March 9, 1959, per Barbie Media, making her 64 years old today.
Barbie in post-war America
During the ’60s, Barbie was seen as both progressive and regressive, representing traditional feminine values and symbolizing overt sexuality. In an essay entitled “What Barbie Dolls Have to Say about Postwar American Culture,” Miriam Forman-Brunell points out that in post-war America, Barbie represented both “conservatism and conformity,” as well as “contradiction, conflict, and contestation.”
Barbie symbolized a substantial shift in teen culture at the time. “Baby dolls had socialized ‘baby boomers’ to assume maternal and domestic roles consistent with the dominant postwar gender ideology,” Forman-Brunell wrote. But unlike her baby-doll counterparts, Barbie “would help girls imagine themselves as autonomous adolescents.”
While women had joined the workforce in droves during World War II, donning overalls and other classically mannish clothes, Barbie represented a call to traditional femininity.
“Like June Cleaver who vacuumed the house while wearing pumps in the new TV sit-coms of the period, Barbie had tiny, tippy-toed feet that also kept her immobilized, dependent, and contained within the household domain where women were safely idealized for their maternal devotion,” Forman-Brunell wrote.
2003 Gay Parisienne Barbie, 1959 Vintage Reproduction, Collector's Request, NIB, Mattel, Doll, Retro, Paris, France, Mattel, retro, 1950s https://t.co/KHGh4JPxSz via @Etsy #collectorsrequest #barbie #vintagereproduction #paris #france #Parisienne #ParisienneBarbie #1950s pic.twitter.com/1lhqtIJWlL— Wendy Webster (@peacemanor) April 4, 2023
Barbie’s association with traditional femininity is almost ironic, considering that Barbie was also almost immediately criticized for being too sexual. As Forman-Brunell points out, Barbie was modeled after Lilli, “a coquettish-looking German doll that male bachelors brought to bars and dangled from their rear-view mirrors.”
Critics called Barbie “sexually provocative,” citing her heavily-lined eyes, pouty red lips and over-accentuated female form. As Forman-Brunnell put it, “Barbie embodied both the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and the innocence of Debbie Reynolds.”
What does Barbie represent today?
Conversations around Barbie today echo those of the ’60s.
In her 2003 essay “The Wonder of Barbie: Popular Culture and the Making of Female Identity,” Lenore Wright wrote, “With her impossibly long legs, big eyes, and extensive bank account, Barbie garners female power through appearance — physical and material. The reality is that such power is fictitious, apparent, and even mythic.”
But, as Wright says, not everyone agrees. She cites Kristin Riddick, writer of “Barbie: The Image of Us All,” who said, “Some feminists actually believe she is the symbol of female emancipation because she works and does not have to depend on men for her wealth and possessions.”
“Barbie, in this reading, is both beautiful and empowered,” Wright concludes.
Perhaps it’s not about what Barbie represents for women, but what she represents in a larger conversation. As Sophie Gilbert wrote for The Atlantic, “Since her inception, she’s been an avatar for every debate about what modern women should be, do, say, represent, and (most of all) look like.”
Gilbert follows along with the documentary “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie.” The documentary chronicles the panicked team of Barbie marketers and designers as they work to redesign Barbie to be more more inclusive and realistic.
The team rolls out and test groups curvy Barbies, short Barbies, tall Barbies. While test groups met each Barbie with varying enthusiasm — “Hello, I’m a fat person,” one child in the test group said of a curvy Barbie doll — Mattel eventually released a line of diverse Barbie dolls.
But, as Gilbert points out, this debate about Barbie might be the symptom of a broader problem: the over-preoccupation with women’s physical appearance. “But the most fascinating aspect of the movie is how it uses Barbie as a metaphor for a culture that’s still infinitely more preoccupied with what a woman looks like than what she says.”
As Gilbert and others make clear, Barbie, instead of symbolizing the gold standard for women, is what we project upon women in debates about what women should and shouldn’t be. Should Barbie, and women, be tall, thin and blonde? Perfectly made up? Sans makeup? What’s her ideal body size? Ideal job? Or should she work at all? Should she be at home? Married to Ken? Married at all?
It’s a heavy burden for one doll to bear. But Barbie bravely carries the weight, all without being able to stand on her own tiny, freakishly-arched two feet.
As Wright points out in her essay, female representation, and therefore Barbie, has “abiding cultural significance.” But she concludes that we must approach discussions around women with the acknowledgement that what it fundamentally means to be a woman is different for everyone.
Wright concludes, “So long as American culture remains conflicted about the role and identity of women, we must think and talk in nondeterministic ways about women: women who age, mature, work, play and yes, even wonder.”
But what about Ken?
As Barbie has bounced from career to career, lifestyle to lifestyle, there has been one constant: her loyal and ditzy boyfriend, Ken.
If Ken had a career, he’d be a perky barista. If he had a hobby, it’d be surfing. If he were a dog, he’d be a golden retriever. While Barbie has undergone evolution after evolution, career after career, Ken has remained relatively the same.
This is something that has been cleverly highlighted in the promo posters for 2023’s “Barbie” movie. Each Barbie has a notable and impressive career, as mentioned on their posters: “This Barbie is a mermaid,” “This Barbie has a Nobel Prize in physics,” “This Barbie is a celebrated author” and more.
Meet our Barbies and Kens ✨#BarbieTheMovie pic.twitter.com/KO2pwszXNJ— Barbie Movie (@barbiethemovie) April 4, 2023
The Ken dolls, on the other hand, have the same vagueness as their doll counterparts. As Ryan Gosling’s poster says, “He’s just Ken.” The other Ken posters follow suit: “He’s Ken too,” “He’s another Ken,” “Ken again!” and “You guessed it. He’s a Ken.”
Meet more Barbies and Kens, and Allan… #BarbieTheMovie pic.twitter.com/ordXE57CVP— Barbie Movie (@barbiethemovie) April 4, 2023
Who is Ken? As far as I can tell, he’s just Barbie’s dreamy and loyal boyfriend. While it’s unsurprising that Ken has received such a treatment — he’s marketed as the perfect boyfriend to 10-year-olds — should he have the same care and consideration as Barbie?
It looks like Ken’s career aspirations still remain a mystery, but he’s undergone a similar diversity makeover as Barbie. Mattel unveiled a collection of diverse Ken dolls in 2017, per CNN.
The newest iteration of Ken dolls include dolls with different ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as body types. Mattel also included a Ken doll in a wheelchair, complete with his own ramp.
To celebrate #TheNewCrew, take a look back at Ken through the years! #TheDollEvolves -> https://t.co/v95s96PONx pic.twitter.com/lo7EMK1aTC— Toys"R"Us (@ToysRUs) June 20, 2017
While diversifying Ken was likely needed, does he need more? Should Ken have, like, ambitions? (A question I never thought I’d ask). Or hobbies? It feels like Barbie has a myriad of hobbies and career choices ahead of her — should Ken have the same?
What was the original Ken doll?
According to Barbie Media, Ken made his first appearance in 1961, two years after Barbie’s creation. “Ken doll was 12 inches tall, had ‘molded’ plastic hair (blond and brunette) and came dressed in red bathing suit trunks with a yellow towel and sandals.”
Ken has undergone multiple physical transformations since then. In 1973, he took on a “more ‘natural’ hairstyle.” In 1979, he began his “iconic” surf lifestyle, and Sunsational Malibu Ken doll was introduced in 1982.
How old is Ken?
Per Barbie Media, Ken’s official birthday is March 11, 1961 — making him 62 years old today.
Why did Barbie and Ken break up?
Dearest reader, I have news for you that will likely shock you as much as it shocked me: Ken and Barbie’s relationship has not always been strong. In fact, they split in 2004, per Barbie Media.
According to Insider, the iconic couple broke up due to “Ken’s failure to commit and Barbie’s excitement to commit, wearing multiple wedding gowns.”
But not to worry. In 2006, “after months of silence and introspection, Ken announced to the world that he wants Barbie back,” per Barbie Media. The pair rekindled their love in 2011, and by 2012, Ken and Barbie were “still dating and couldn’t (have been) happier.”
How do young girls really feel about Barbie?
Maybe the best way to approach the Barbie controversy is to ask young girls themselves. How do they feel about her? What does she represent to them?
There have been multiple studies, but with varying conclusions. One study in 2015 explored Barbie’s impact on a woman’s “family characteristics, satisfaction with their own appearance, and eating behaviors.” The study found that, “Neither age of acquisition or number of Barbies owned had a significant impact on self-evaluations of appearance or on dieting behavior.”
In a 2016 study, researchers explored the impact of Barbies on body dissatisfaction among 6- to 8-year-olds. They found that “girls tended to desire a body shape more closely aligned to the dolls with which they played” and that “girls who played with thin dolls tended to desire even thinner body sizes following exposure.”
I think that Barbie’s impact, whether positive or negative, varies from woman to woman. For myself, Barbie didn’t really impact my self-esteem. I saw her as both aspirational and something I could never be, but wished I could. And while as a little girl (with frizzy brown hair and a thick unibrow, padded in baby fat) I knew it was OK to be thin, white and blonde, I think it would have been good to know that it was OK to be something else, too.