I'm a Barbie Girl: The Ups and Downs of the Famous Doll
| LAST UPDATE 05/14/2023
Everyone in the world knows Barbie, but do we really know her story? Like many, it begins with a girl with a big dream. Here's all about the history of Barbie, from a toy doll to a mega-movie star.
It is hard to imagine a world before there was Barbie. The plastic doll that stands at 11.5 inches has changed how young children play everywhere. So, what did kids do before Barbie was created?
Children - primarily girls - throughout history have consistently played with dolls. Archaeologists even found a doll in the grave of a Roman girl that dates back to 2,000 years ago. Though it was crafted from ivory, it looked similar to the toys that girls play with today. There were always dolls, but not always Barbie.
A Girl Named Ruth
In 1916, Ida and Jacob Mosko welcomed their tenth child into the world. They named their little girl Ruth. Ida and Jacob had immigrated from Poland to Denver, Colorado, to build a new life in America. Ruth went to live with her Aunt Sarah when her mother fell ill. It was living with her aunt that she developed a love for business.
Ruth would help out in her aunt's drugstore. She preferred to spend her time working rather than playing. In Ruth's family, it wasn't unusual for women to work. She wasn't afraid of reaching for the stars and toiling hard for what she wanted in life. Then, she met a boy...
Ruth and Elliot
His name was Elliot Handler, and the two met in high school. The two fell in love. It didn't take long for them to realize they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. However, Ruth's family was not as excited that she had found someone. Handler was a struggling art student.
Her family was worried about Handler's job status. Yet, they gave their blessing. The two lovebirds married in 1938. Ruth worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios while Elliot was studying at the Art Center College of Design and working as a lighting fixture designer. Elliot built the furniture in their home, and a lightbulb went off in Ruth's head.
Creating Mattel Together
Inspired by her husband's furniture, Ruth came up with an idea. What if they made furniture using the two new plastics that Elliot had used for the items in their home? From that, they created Mattel. Elliot was the man behind the design, while Ruth was the woman behind the sales.
At first, Mattel was a furniture-making business. However, during World War II, they downsized. Literally! They started to make plastic toy furniture. The success the Handlers saw from this pivot made them believe there was something in the toy industry.
One Fateful Vacation
Ruth and Elliot built their company and their family together. They had two children. In 1956, the Handlers took a family vacation to Europe. Ruth's teenage daughter, Barbara, spotted a doll in a store's window. She told the New York Times, "It was more like a paper doll, but in plastic."
Barbara wanted the doll and different outfits for it. But every outfit required buying a new doll. That got her mother thinking. Barbara said, "She bought a couple of them. And when we got back, I never saw them again. They were torn apart and researched, and they got the idea of the separate clothes, and the rest is history."
It was time for the Barbie doll to make her big debut. After three years of perfecting the design and direction of the doll, Handler showcased her new invention at the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959. This date would become Barbie's birthday.
Per History, Handler "saw Barbie as a reflection of the times, with the first doll mimicking the glamour of the 1950s stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe." The first Barbie wore a zebra-striped bathing suit, kitten heels, and hoop earrings. She sported a ponytail and was available as a brunette and a blonde.
A Smash Hit
Barbie became an overnight sensation. According to History, in the first year, there were over 300,000 dolls sold. The very first doll sold for $3.00 at the time, equivalent to $31.12 today. Ruth designed the dolls, while Charlotte Johnson created Barbie's clothes.
Ruth had a hit on her hands, and Mattel was bound for a new direction. The doll's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, but she goes by Barbie. The inspiration for her name came from Ruth's daughter. Fun fact, the first Barbie dolls were made in Japan.
Despite the Handlers' major success with their new toy, some trouble appeared on the horizon for them. There was another doll that claimed Barbie was based on her. Mattel was slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit from the inventors of the Bild Lilli doll.
The Bild Lilli doll was based on a German cartoon character. Bild Lilli came in two sizes and had a wardrobe available to purchase separately. She even had a dollhouse that came with realistic furniture and accessories. Ruth and Elliot purchased the rights to the German doll for $21,600 in 1963, putting an end to the feud.
Two years after Barbie was introduced to the world, it was time for her to get the accessory of all accessories. A boyfriend, of course! Ken Carson was introduced in 1961 by Mattel. The doll would become Barbie's longtime, on-again-off-again boyfriend.
The Ken doll was named after Ruth's son, Kenneth. He became Barbie's companion through everything. The iconic duo would become part of pop culture like no dolls have before. But before we get to that, what does every young girl need? A place to eat, sleep, and dream about her future. Enter the Barbie Dreamhouse.
Barbie's First Home
The Barbie Dreamhouse became just as famous as the doll herself throughout the years. With the ultra-pink setups with furniture that flips around and lights that actually work, every girl's dream was to have a Barbie Dreamhouse. Barbie's first home was a homage to the times.
The very first Barbie Dreamhouse was launched in 1962. It was made of cardboard and resembled a midcentury ranch house. The house included a record player, a vanity for getting ready, a bookcase, and artwork decorating the walls. Everything a girl needs! There was something else missing from Barbie's life, though…
Expanding the Entourage
The blonde now had a boyfriend and a home, but Barbie needed something else - a best friend! A couple of years after welcoming Ken, Mattel added another doll to the entourage, Midge Hadley. Midge was introduced as Barbie's best friend in 1963. She had freckles, dark curly hair, and blue eyes.
According to History, Mattel included Midge in the Barbie universe to counteract criticisms that Barbie was purely a sex symbol. A year after Midge, Barbie gained a little sister, Skipper Roberts. Later on, Barbie would go on to have more family members and a bigger friend group.
Ruth Handler was a brilliant and driven lady. She spearheaded her family business into a huge, global empire. While doing market research for Barbie, many mothers criticized the doll's figure. So, what did Mattel do? They decided they would market directly to children and not their parents.
Ruth made a deal to become the sole sponsor of the Mickey Mouse Club, per Britannica. As part of that deal, the dolls were advertised on the show and directly to the audience, which were children. They became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to kids.
9 to 5
Kids everywhere were buying Barbie dolls. So, naturally, she became a role model for many young girls and boys. She continued to break the glass - or probably, in her case, plastic - ceiling. Barbie was a working woman who has had over 200 careers in her existence.
Her first career was as a fashion designer when a Barbie was released in a matching jacket and skirt set with a sketchbook in 1960. Since then, she has held positions like an astronaut, lifeguard, president, yoga instructor, paleontologist, farmer, rock star, and many more. She inspires girls to aim for the stars!
Twiggy Goes Plastic
Twiggy is a British icon. She was one of the most famous faces in the 1960s, known for her big eyes, long eyelashes, and her pixie haircut. The supermodel went by the nickname Twiggy, but her full name is Lesley Lawson. She was one of the first international supermodels and a force in fashion.
Another claim to fame is she became the first celebrity to become a Barbie doll. The Twiggy Barbie was released in 1967. She would become the first of many stars to get the plastic treatment. Later on, Cher, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Goodall, Simone Biles, and more would receive this honor.
Center of Controversy
Barbie was in the center of the universe, but she was also the center of many controversies. Since her inception, many have raised complaints about Barbie's proportions. Studies have been done about how eating disorders are connected to Barbie's unrealistic body image.
In 1963, a "Barbie Baby-Sits" outfit came with a book titled How to Lose Weight with the advice "Don't eat!" written inside. The same book was also included in another outfit two years later. Uh-oh, Barbie! Other controversies include concerns about a lack of diversity and the potential of a bad influence on girls.
Handlers Are Out
Not only has Barbie had to deal with controversies, but so did her creator. Ruth Handler was under investigation for producing fraudulent financial reports. Authorities were looking closely at what the Handlers were doing. Ruth and Elliot resigned from Mattel in 1974.
They were forced to say goodbye to the company they built from the ground up. Investigations continued even after their resignation, and Ruth was charged with fraud and false reporting in 1978. She ended up being fined and sentenced to community service hours.
Representing Girls Everywhere
The power of Barbie continued, despite her creator no longer being in charge of her. She kept up with the times, changing her outfits, hairstyles, and professions for whatever was in vogue at the moment. When the Olympics came around, a sporty Olympics Barbie was released.
She also began to represent girls from all over the globe. Christie, introduced in 1968, was the first African-American doll to be presented as Barbie's friend. Following Christie, the first Hispanic doll, Teresa was added to the entourage in 1980.
Andy Warhol's Take
Barbie became an icon. She gained celebrity status and received a lot of attention because of this. One person whose eye she caught was the famous painter Andy Warhol, who was known for his Pop Art and artwork featuring celebrities. However, as the story goes, Barbie wasn't the original subject Warhol wanted to paint.
According to History, Warhol wanted to paint his longtime friend and jewelry designer, BillyBoy. However, he refused and told Warhol, "Do a portrait of Barbie because... Barbie, c'est moi." Warhol painted the iconic doll, and almost 20 years later, Mattel teamed up with The Andy Warhol Foundation to create an Andy Warhol Barbie.
Pop Culture Queen
She continued to dominate pop culture and has become synonymous with fashion, femininity, and pink, of course! Barbie became more than a doll - she turned into a movement. Barbiecore is a fashion trend that channels Barbie's signature hot pink and infectious confidence.
The Economist wrote, "When Barbie first burst into the toy shops, just as the 1960s were breaking, the doll market consisted mostly of babies, designed for girls to cradle, rock and feed. By creating a doll with adult features, Mattel enabled girls to become anything they want."
In a Barbie World
This really is Barbie's world, and we're all just living in it! In the '70s, a part of Times Square was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week. Another example of this being her world is Warhol's famous painting of the iconic blonde sold for $1.1 million in 2014. Plus, Barbie's a Halloween costume staple.
She inspired an episode of The Simpsons titled "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy." The group Aqua made a song called Barbie Girl. The song took the world by storm! A Barbie-themed restaurant called Barbie Cafe opened up in Taiwan. However, there's a dark side to the bright pink rainbow...
The Dark Side of Barbie
While Barbie inspires many girls to go after their dreams and be anything they want, she also inspires many to try and imitate her unattainable body proportions. The behavior has been coined "Barbie syndrome." While it is mainly associated with girls in their adolescence, it can affect people of all ages and any gender.
British mom Sarah Burge made headlines when she spent over $300,000 and underwent 27 procedures to look like the plastic doll. In America, reality television personality Lacey Wildd also had over 36 surgeries to look more like Barbie. She is known as the "Million Dollar Barbie."
Rodrigo Alves, who now goes by Jessica Alves, transformed herself to become a plastic doll. Jessica was known as "the Human Ken Doll." It cost over $1 million and involved over 100 different surgeries. The procedures included ab implants to create a six-pack, chest implants, a butt lift, and many more.
Justin Jedlica is another man who also has the nickname "the Human Ken Doll." Four days after his eighteenth birthday, he got his first nose job. Over the years, he has undergone 190 cosmetic procedures. Although many love Barbie, there is another side to the story.
A Shocking Breakup
The news broke in 2004 that devastated people everywhere. Barbie and Ken broke up. Per Fox News, Barbie's publicist, Ken Sunshine, said, "This is an announcement we thought we'd never make. I will confirm that Ken and Barbie are going to go their separate ways." How devastating!
Barbie started dating an Australian surfer named Blaine in the meantime. However, Ken was determined to get his girl back. Seven years later, the couple reunited just in time for Valentine's Day. VP of Marketing at Mattel said the couple realized they were meant for each other after being reunited on the set of Toy Story 3.
Happy 50th Birthday!
Barbie reached a massive milestone in 2009. It was her 50th birthday, and there was only one way to celebrate - big! Mattel joined together with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to create a fabulous 50th birthday runway show. Fifty designers, from Vera Wang to Diane Von Furstenberg, created looks for the show.
Fashion designer Michael Kors said, "Barbie is everything that an all-American gal should be - sporty, smart, sophisticated and sexy." While Tommy Hilfiger said, "Barbie is the quintessential American icon… she holds a special place in the fashion world and is an inspiration to many designers."
If it seems like Barbie is everywhere, it's because she is! She has books, cosmetics, and apparel. She can be seen as the star of animated films like Barbie in the Nutcracker and The Princess and the Pauper. In the past, there was a Barbie website where girls could play online games and a fan club they could subscribe to.
She has continued to remain relevant all these years through her many evolutions. She currently has a YouTube channel where she vlogs and discusses her fictional life. Plus, there are multiple television series that she stars in. Apparently, everyone has Barbie fever! It doesn't stop there, either…
On the Cover
Barbie joined the exclusive ranks of celebs like Kim Kardashian, Kate Upton, and Ashley Graham. The doll appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in 2014. The campaign was in honor of the 50th-anniversary edition of the issue.
Her black-and-white striped swimsuit paid homage to her original outfit when she debuted in 1959. The issue proclaimed Barbie "The Doll That Started It All." A limited-edition Sports Illustrated Barbie was also sold in honor of her moment as a cover girl.
Hollywood Is Calling
The most unbelievable thing about Barbie was that she didn't have a live-action film yet. Now, for the first time, she is getting her own live-action adaptation, but it was not easy to get there. The film was announced way back in 2009. Can you believe it?!
It wasn't until 2014 that work started to be done on the movie. However, the producers had difficulty finding a writer and a director for the project. They constantly changed who was attached, and the movie's rights kept switching hands between the Hollywood studios. Was Barbie's dream of being a Hollywood actress doomed?!
Barbie on the Big Screen
It certainly felt that way for a long time. There was a moment when comedian Amy Schumer would star as Barbie and rewrite the script. However, that arrangement fell through. There were other rumors that Anne Hathaway was considering the role, but that also never came true.
Then, everything changed when Suicide Squad actress Margot Robbie was confirmed for the titular role of Barbie. Little Women director Greta Gerwig was attached to direct, and she co-wrote the script with her partner Noah Baumbach. La La Land actor and heartthrob Ryan Gosling was cast as Ken. Barbie was officially happening.
Since promotional photos started to be released, fans cannot contain their excitement for the movie. The film will be released on July 21, 2023, and is bound to be plastic-fantastic. The star-studded cast also includes Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, and Will Ferrell - just to name a few.
If you were hoping to see everything Barbie come to life, you're not the only one! Actress Carey Mulligan asked Margot Robbie during Variety's "Actors on Actors" if there would be Dreamhouses. Robbie said, "The Dreamhouses? You'll see some Dreamhouses. And it will be everything you ever dreamed of."
Everyone's Favorite Doll
Ruth Handler wrote in her autobiography, "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." While Ruth passed away in 2002 due to complications from surgery, her legacy lives on through Barbie.
Barbie is much more than just a doll. She is a pop culture icon and a global phenomenon. By Barbie's 50th birthday, Mattel sold more than one billion copies of the doll per TIME. We can't wait to see where Barbie takes us next because, at the end of the day, we're all just Barbie girls.