A Cultural History of Barbie

Loved and loathed, the toy stirs fresh controversy at age 64

six Barbie dolls wearing zebra striped swimsuits in a synchronized formation in a swimming pool
Barbie’s first swimsuit, in 1959, was a stylish, zebra-striped one-piece. Photo Illustration by David Parise

Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband, Elliot Handler, and Harold Matson in 1945, noticed her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls and dreaming about what kind of woman she would become. Ruth decided there should be a proper doll onto which girls could project their highest aspirations. (In another version of this origin story, Ruth got the idea from an adult novelty doll she’d seen while vacationing in Switzerland.) Ruth named the doll Barbie, after her daughter. The first model went on display in March 1959 at the annual Toy Fair in New York City.

In Barbie’s first television ad, broadcast that same year, a woman sings from the point of view of a young girl, promising that one day, she’ll be just like Barbie. “Til then, I know just what I’ll do: Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”

Despite toy industry naysayers, who carped that nobody would want to play with a doll that had breasts, Barbie—with her tiny waist and changeable yet always idealized looks—became a global phenomenon. Three hundred thousand Barbie dolls were sold in the first year. The toy swiftly grew so popular she needed her own entourage. In 1961, Barbie got a boyfriend, Ken, named, perhaps oddly, after the Handlers’ son. In 1963, she got a best friend, Midge, and, in 1964, a little sister, Skipper. In 2021, Mattel shipped more than 86 million dolls from the Barbie universe, which comes to about 164 dolls a minute. From the beginning, Barbie has been about allowing young girls to dream. The dolls are at once idealistic and materialistic, offering a characteristically American fantasy—for a price.

Barbie soon became central to the cultural and political conversation, often scandalizing critics across the political spectrum. Barbie adopted progressive stances: The same year as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Mattel introduced Christie, a Black doll with a mod swimsuit. Many activists, though, took issue with the dolls. At the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City, some marchers asserted their independence with the chant, “I am not a Barbie doll!”

a Black toy barbie blended with the real hair of women in a photo illustration
A digital collage featuring a Barbie doll from Plastic Bodies, a 2003 series by photo artist Sheila Pree Bright. Photo Illustration by Sheila Pree Bright

However shakily, Barbie was pressing toward equality. Christie, though part of the extended Barbie universe, was not herself a Barbie—but in 1980, Mattel introduced the first Black Barbie, designed by Kitty Black Perkins. Her box read: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” By 1985, Barbie had entered the male-dominated corporate world, donning a pink power suit that could take her from the boardroom to a night on the town. Then, in 1992—ironically, the same year Teen Talk Barbie mechanically pronounced, “Math class is tough!,” drawing criticism for presenting teenage girls as ditzy—Barbie set her sights on the executive branch with “Barbie for President,” wearing a red, blue and silver gown. (She has run in every presidential election since.) According to Mattel, Barbie has had over 250 careers—an impressive variety that’s currently being touted in ads for the upcoming Barbie movie.

“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Ruth wrote in her 1994 autobiography. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Families like the Handlers were navigating choices of identity in their own way. The Handlers were Jewish and developed the doll at a time when many American Jews were working through their own ambivalence about assimilating in America, where they sought a delicate balance between feeling secure as Americans without losing their roots. Indeed, a 2005 short documentary, The Tribe, uses Barbie and Ruth Handler as examples of the contradictions American Jews continue to navigate: “Ruth brought this Aryan ideal of beauty,” the narrator says, “and achieved the American dream.”

Of course, even as Mattel released more diverse models that gestured toward civil rights and feminism, the original ideal of beauty remained dominant. As Elizabeth Chin, an anthropologist and professor at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, puts it, “Everyone knows the real Barbie is the blonde, white one,” and traditional blonde Barbies continue to be competitive with their more diverse counterparts—including the fuller-figured models that Mattel introduced in 2016 as an expression of body positivity.

But once she’s out of the box, Barbie can be anything—and while many Barbie models today still project an unattainable notion of beauty, scholars and therapists say that children often use these dolls in surprising ways that don’t necessarily comport with the packaging. Chin notes certain videos she’s seen on YouTube in which Barbie is cheating on Ken with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, or wearing a wedding dress made of toilet paper. As Chin says, children “often go off script in ways that are super interesting and can be quite provocative or very thoughtful.”

And despite the ways in which she’s a feminine throwback, Barbie has always suggested the future as well. After all, an American woman wouldn’t make it to space until Sally Ride went in 1983, whereas Astronaut Barbie first came out in 1965. Eventually, Astronaut Barbie became a representation of what was. At first, though, she showed us what might be.

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This article is a selection from the June 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Not Your Average Beau

He began as Barbie’s sidekick. Over time he became a man of his own
By Chris Klimek

A variety of Ken toy dolls in different outfits
Courtesy Mattel Inc.

He had his first fateful meeting with Barbie when the two co-starred in a 1961 TV commercial. Since then, Ken—full name, Ken Carson—has served as her longtime on-and-off romantic partner and has enjoyed an astonishingly varied career, including stints as an astronaut, Olympian in multiple sports, soda jerk, dog trainer, dentist and rapping rock star. Of course, Ken has to be a Renaissance man to keep up with Barbie. These are just a few of his many lives.


Introduced as Barbie’s boyfriend at that year’s Toy Fair, the 12-inch-tall doll (a half-inch taller than Barbie) had a molded plastic coif and was ready for aquatic adventures: Ken ’61 came with sandals, a yellow beach towel and a pair of stylish red swim trunks.

Superstar Ken
Amid disco fever, this dance-floor dynamo was billed as “More poseable than ever!” and sported a vibrant blue jumpsuit with bell bottoms. Some versions came with a human-scale “Sparkling SuperStar ring” so kids could accessorize just like Ken.

Sunsational Malibu Ken

This model came in three ethnicities: a blond, blue-eyed white version; a Black version with a tall Afro; and, shortly after that, a Hispanic version. Black Sunsational Ken in particular remains a sought-after rarity among Barbie collectors.

Earring Magic Ken

Mattel based Ken’s new look on a survey of young girls, who said they wanted Ken to be cooler. The result was viewed as the first, if accidental, gay Ken. But controversy quickly followed, and despite its popularity, Mattel discontinued the doll.

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