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Will Greta Gerwig's 'Barbie' be the feminist icon we've been dreaming of?

Barbie may seem commonplace now, but in 1959, her presence was revolutionary. Here’s a look at Barbie’s legacy.
Margot Robbie in the new Barbie movie.
Margot Robbie in the new "Barbie" movie.Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros.

Barbie may stand at a mere 11.5 inches tall, but her legacy is gigantic.

At 62 years young, Barbie is headlining a splashy new live-action movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. In the movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie is expelled from Barbieland for her so-called imperfections, catalyzing her to go off on an adventure into the real world.

Barbie, of course, has had a reputation for her anatomically-impossible figure, gender-normative behavior and a lack of diversity. To be fair, Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, has made strides. The physical look of Barbie has expanded to include dolls with diverse body types, over 35 skin tones and even prosthetic limbs. There are dolls in wheelchairs, dolls with hearing aids, gender neutral dolls and even a doll undergoing chemotherapy.

Even though the Barbie universe has expanded, many still associate Barbie as a blonde without much depth, a stereotype reinforced by the various Barbie-animated series with episode titles like "Perf Pool Party" and "Virtually Famous." And the big question is how Gerwig, who directed films featuring strong and independent females, including “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” will portray Barbie in the movie, which comes out next summer. Will she be pictured as the feminist icon many of us have been waiting for?

Barbie’s beginnings

Barbie may seem commonplace now, but in 1959, her presence was revolutionary.

Prior to Barbie, children who wanted to play with dolls had two options. They could play with baby dolls, or they could choose paper dolls that had a broader range of play—and tons of clothes—but often fell apart after a few uses.

Enter Barbie, a three-dimensional adult doll who could wear all the latest fashions. She made her debut at an annual industry gathering known as Toy Fair in March of 1959 sporting a blond ponytail, blue eyes and her now-iconic black-and-white striped strapless bathing suit.

Barbie had her roots in the risqué German Bild-Lilli doll, which was based on a sexy, opportunistic comic character. The doll was not designed for children's play; it was generally purchased as a gag gift for male buyers. Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband, spotted that doll on a European trip in 1956 and realized that it was the type of toy she was hoping to create. Handler used the doll as inspiration for the first Barbie doll, who she named after her daughter Barbara.

Inspiration for Barbie stemmed from the German Bild-Lilli doll, pictured above.
Inspiration for Barbie stemmed from the German Bild-Lilli doll, pictured above.Courtesy of The Strong Museum of Play.

Even the first Barbie had a career at a time when many women didn’t work outside the home: Barbara Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wisconsin was a teenage fashion model.

But that wasn’t Barbie’s only career.

Through the years, she has been an astronaut in 1965 (four years before a man walked on the moon), she was a surgeon in 1973 (even though women never made up more than 6 percent of medical school classes before 1970) and she ran for president in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012—and joined the first all-woman Presidential ticket in 2016. She once again stepped up her game in 2020 with a diverse female campaign team.

Aside from her careers, Barbie was revolutionary in other ways. She moved into her Dream House—alone—in 1962, more than 10 years before women who were single, widowed or divorced could borrow money without a male cosigner. The fact that she and Ken have been in a long-term relationship but never married is also noteworthy.

Barbie’s new role

Is the doll, which many associate as a gorgeous blonde with a penchant for clothes, the best role model for our children?

In writing her 2015 unauthorized biography of Barbie, “The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us,” author Tanya Lee Stone examined Barbie’s legacy.

“I didn't play with Barbies when I was little. And I did sort of just assume, without any knowledge, that Barbie was just one more thing in the culture making girls feel bad about themselves,” said Stone. “And then I did this historical research. And I discovered that no, it's what people ‘put on’ the 11-inches of plastic.”

Essentially, Barbie doesn’t just “put on” clothes; she also wears the assumptions we “put on” her.

Stone solicited thoughts, memories and anecdotes from roughly 500 people for her book. Approximately half thought she was a bad role model for their children in terms of values and body image, and the other half thought she was an excellent example of female empowerment.

The children who played with Barbie, on the other hand, were not conflicted at all. “They were thinking about how they can make her be anything they want her to be,” said Stone.

She’s got the look

Barbie originally was designed to be a mini mannequin who wore clothes well. She was given an hourglass figure, a look that was popular at the time.

Barbie’s proportions have come under fire a number of times through the years, including from the “Get Real Barbie” campaign from the South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative. The campaign alleges that if Barbie were a real woman, she would be 5-foot, 9-inches tall, have a 39-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, 33-inch hips and a size 3 shoe -- proportions that would mean she was so top-heavy that she would have to walk on all fours.

Carol Spencer, 89, knows Barbie’s proportions well. She began working for Mattel as a designer for Barbie in 1963 and stayed with the company for over 35 years. Spencer was the first designer to have her name on Barbie’s packaging and the only designer to have her name emblazoned on the back of the doll. She also created 1983’s “Great Shape Barbie,” a doll whose turquoise unitard and striped leggings were inspired by the enormously popular "Jane Fonda's Workout" videos.

Carol Spencer created "Great Shape Barbie," pictured above, in 1983.
Carol Spencer created "Great Shape Barbie," pictured above, in 1983.Courtesy of The Strong Museum of Play.

When Spencer began working at Mattel, she said that being a designer was one of roughly “five jobs” that were available to women in the late 1950s. She had been creating clothes for women and children in Minneapolis and Wisconsin, but she was desperate to find a warmer climate. Mattel was based in Los Angeles.

Even so, Spencer wondered: “Do I want to work for a doll?”

Carol Spencer, 89,began working for Mattel as a designer for Barbie in 1963 and stayed with the company for over 35 years.
Carol Spencer, 89,began working for Mattel as a designer for Barbie in 1963 and stayed with the company for over 35 years.Courtesy of The Strong Museum of Play.

In many companies, “designers were usually [located] next to sweatshops and you weren’t always paid every week,” said Spencer. “Mattel was air conditioned, nice and clean, no creepy crawlers, and a paycheck every Friday. That was wonderful incentive to work there.”

As a company, Mattel had a very forward-thinking culture. The open workplace allowed employees of different backgrounds and genders to work together, which was not common at the time, said Stone.

And Spencer saw Mattel as being extremely equitable: “The wages [for women] were so much better than at other places that I would say they were comparable to a man’s salary.”

62 years of Barbie

Spencer noted that Mattel’s original plan was “to have Barbie change as we changed.” Stone insisted the company was “incredibly progressive” about these changes.

When Barbie debuted, women were seen as being demure, and thus the first Barbie’s eyes were cast down and to the side. Fairly soon after, the women’s empowerment movement began to take hold. At that time, Stone said, “They changed Barbie’s face to have a direct gaze to reflect that. And that face stuck.”

Barbie’s clothes have also changed with the times, especially in relation to teen culture, gender roles and consumer culture, said Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

“In the 1970s, Barbie’s wardrobe reflected the loosening dress code and mores of the counterculture. During the Reagan-Bush years, Barbie paraded bold styles, bright colors, and striking silhouettes in outfits that ranged from spandex to power suits to lace and jeans. She’s always been a miniature time capsule,” said Parnett-Dwyer.

Ultimately, Barbie has many layers. She’s both a fashion model and a robotics engineer. She is in terrific shape and still finds time to run for office. She has Ken by her side and also flies solo (sometimes literally).

Greta Gerwig attends the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Feb. 9, 2020 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Director Greta Gerwig attends the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Feb. 9, 2020 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Gerwig is directing "Barbie," which will be out next summer. Taylor Hill / FilmMagic file

But is Barbie a good role model? And for all of the ways Mattel has changed and diversified Barbie in terms of skin color, size and ability, what type of doll do kids actually want for their birthday? And when you close your eyes and think of Barbie, which Barbie do you envision?

The answer may not be so clear cut. Yes, in many ways she represents impossible beauty standards, gender stereotypes and materialism. But at the same time, she also represents a sky’s-the-limit attitude in terms of occupation. Also, her friendship-trumps-all viewpoint is refreshing, and she offers children essential opportunities to process emotions through play.

Robbie admitted to British Vogue that creating a Barbie movie “comes with a lot of baggage” She added, “But with that come[s] a lot of exciting ways to attack it. People generally hear ‘Barbie’ and think, ‘I know what that movie is going to be,’ and then they hear that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I don’t…’”