Greta Gerwig’s new blockbuster Barbie movie incorporates many elements of the famed doll’s real appearance and history: Barbie’s permanently arched feet, her pink DreamHouse and even the company responsible for the toy. Many of the film’s impeccably dressed Barbies work in fields historically dominated by men, like diplomacy, medicine, physics and politics. “This Barbie is a Supreme Court justice,” reads one promotional poster. “This Barbie is president,” states another. The movie’s male characters, meanwhile, are identified simply as Kens.

Barbie’s star-studded lineup takes inspiration from real Barbies who were ahead of their time. Since the doll’s debut 64 years ago, in March 1959, Barbie has served as an evolving commercial embodiment of the American woman. Created by Ruth Handler, co-founder of toy company Mattel alongside her husband, Elliot Handler, and Harold Matson, Barbie was named after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara. Whereas most dolls of the era looked like the young children who played with them, Barbie was a woman. Mattel marketed her as a doll that young girls could use to act out a grown-up’s life. As a sweet voice sings in Barbie’s first television commercial, “Someday, I’m going to be exactly like you. Til then, I know just what I’ll do: Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”

Barbie | Main Trailer

Building on this premise, Mattel gave Barbie many different lives for children to emulate in play, developing a diverse universe of Barbies with different styles, passions and careers. According to Mattel, the doll has held more than 250 jobs, with Barbie sometimes entering sectors of the workforce real women had yet to break into. Ahead of Barbie’s arrival in theaters on July 21, read about Barbies who made it to the top of the career ladder before (or around the same time as) their real-life counterparts, as well as some of the actual women who followed in these dolls’ footsteps.

One small step for tiny feet: Astronaut Barbie

Miss Astronaut, 1965
Astronaut Barbie debuted in 1965. Mattel Inc.

In 1962, less than a year after Alan Shepard became the first American to go to space, a young girl named Linda Halpern wrote to President John F. Kennedy. Like many Americans, Halpern was enraptured by the space race, from scientists’ use of futuristic technology to their exploration of new frontiers. She asked the president what she needed to do to become an astronaut herself. NASA’s Office of Public Services and Information responded on Kennedy’s behalf, replying, “Your willingness to serve your country as a volunteer woman astronaut is commendable. However, … we have no present plans to employ women on space flights because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.”

Sally Ride Barbie, 2019
Sally Ride Barbie doll, 2019 Mattel Inc.

Where Halpern was barred, Barbie prevailed—at least symbolically. In 1965, Mattel embraced the space craze by launching Barbie into orbit with a new title: Miss Astronaut. Dressed in a silver suit reminiscent of the uniform worn by members of Project Mercury, the NASA program that first put Americans in space, Barbie donned spacefaring gear 13 years before NASA welcomed women into its astronaut corps in 1978 and 18 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to outer space in June 1983.

After Ride’s history-making spaceflight, Halpern—by then a successful Texas attorney—shared the letter she’d received from NASA with the astronaut. As the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum noted in a 2016 blog post, Halpern wanted Ride to “know that she was fulfilling so many young girls’ long-deferred dreams of spaceflight. … Ride kept [the letter] in her files for the rest of her life.” Today, the museum houses both the missive and a Miss Astronaut doll (plus her helmet, boots, mittens and American flag) in its collections.

Barbie’s space adventures didn’t end with Miss Astronaut. Astronaut Barbie, decked out in a hot pink spacesuit, followed in 1985; more recent entries in Mattel’s space-themed offerings include Mars Explorer Barbie and Barbie Space Discovery dolls, which come with miniature astronaut food. In 2019, Mattel made a custom doll of Ride as part of its “Inspiring Women” series. And just last year, astronauts took two Barbies to space, where they briefly resided at the International Space Station.

Paging Doctor Barbie

Doctor Barbie, Scrubs, 1973
Doctor Barbie, 1973 Mattel Inc.
Doctor Barbie, Lab Coat, 1973
Doctor Barbie came with a lab coat and medical accessories. Mattel Inc.

Doctor Barbie first took the Hippocratic oath in 1973, at a time when women were fighting back against a century of barriers to medical careers. She wore a cinched teal dress made of vaguely scrub-like material and a surgical mask. Another outfit featured a white lab coat, a stethoscope and a head mirror (implying an ear, nose and throat specialization). Her accessories included a diagram of a human skeleton, a medical school diploma and a corded rotary phone.

The doll hit shelves more than a century after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a medical degree in 1849. Yet women were still the minority in the field, making up just 7 percent of physicians in the United States in 1970, according to records kept by the American Medical Association. That same year, the Women’s Equity Action League filed a class-action lawsuit against every medical school in the country for discriminatory admissions habits. The number of female graduates began to rise, increasing from around 6 percent in the mid-1960s to 16 percent by the mid-1970s.

In 2021, women made up more than one-third of the U.S.’s active physician workforce, per the Association of American Medical Colleges. Still, as the Harvard Business Review noted in 2022, “a large amount of anecdotal evidence and one small-sample study indicate that a significant proportion of female physicians either no longer work full-time or are considering cutting back,” in part due to challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID Medical Barbies
Mattel made a special lineup to honor women fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Mattel Inc.

The 1973 doctor doll was one of the first Barbies in the medical field. (A Barbie Registered Nurse outfit preceded Doctor Barbie by 12 years; it featured white open-toe heels, a hot water bottle, a medicine bottle and a metal spoon.) Some later iterations swapped out Barbie’s dresses for pants (see “Barbie Baby Doctor”), while others simply updated the doll’s dress design.

In 2021, Mattel released six Barbies modeled after real women fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, including Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinologist from the University of Oxford who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and emergency room nurse Amy O’Sullivan, who treated a Brooklyn hospital’s first Covid-19 patient in March 2020.

Working 9 to 5: Day-to-Night Barbie

Day-to-Night Barbie in Pantsuit
Day-to-Night Barbie's daytime look Mattel Inc.
Day-to-Night Barbie in Dress
Day-to-Night Barbie's date outfit Mattel Inc.

Day-to-Night Barbie, also known as CEO Barbie, debuted in 1985. She carried a briefcase containing the business section of a newspaper, two magazines and a tiny calculator. The doll’s daytime outfit was a hot pink blazer and skirt, which transformed into a cocktail dress for Barbie to wear after work when reversed. Margot Robbie, who plays the lead Barbie in Gerwig’s film, channeled the iconic look at the movie’s South Korean premiere in Seoul, donning a pink blazer and pencil skirt, a white hat, and a pink scarf.

Other business-themed Barbies include Working Woman Barbie, a 1999 doll accompanied by a CD-ROM featuring games and other activities; Career Girl Barbie, a 2006 rerelease of a 1963 tweed ensemble; and ’80s Edition Career Girl, a 2021 throwback doll who sported a pink peplum top and a pink brick cellphone.

Day-to-Night Barbie led Mattel’s 1985 “We girls can do anything, right, Barbie?” advertising campaign. She also joined a growing number of women in the white-collar workforce. In 1983, 39 percent of employees in the finance and banking sectors were women. By 2016, women made up 52 percent of workers in “financial activities” jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, the field’s leadership roles remain dominated by men. In 2021, women’s share of management jobs within financial services firms was 24 percent. As of this June, 10 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—approximately 52 individuals—are women.

80s Career Barbie
A 1980s-style career Barbie Mattel Inc.
1999 Working Woman
A 1999 version of a working Barbie. Mattel Inc.

Ten-hut! Barbies in the military

Army Barbie debuted in 1989, a year in which the number of active-duty women enlisted in the U.S. military stood at 195,532—the highest number recorded by the Department of Defense between 1973 and 2010. She wore Mattel’s take on an Army officer’s evening uniform, according to the back of the doll’s box, which proclaimed, “Military galas are grand!” and described Barbie as “pretty and proud.” The box lauded Barbie’s attendance at embassy parties, military dinners, and “many other formal affairs around the world with the men and women who serve their country.”

At the time of Army Barbie’s release, the military’s share of female officers was rising steadily. In 1973, just 4 percent of commissioned officers were women. Sixteen years later, this figure was up to around 11 percent. More recently, in 2021, women made up 19 percent of officers across service branches.

Air Force Barbie hit shelves in 1990, dressed in an olive green jumpsuit and brown leather bomber jacket. She debuted shortly before Air Force pilot Lisa Wilson became the first enlisted woman to fly in a combat situation in January 1991, noted Senior Master Sergeant James W. Crissinger in a 1997 paper. Two years later, in 1993, Jeannie Leavitt became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot.

Air Force Barbie
Mattel's 1991 Air Force Barbie doll Mattel Inc.
Marine Corps Barbie
"Sergeant Barbie" came out in 1991. Mattel Inc.

In 1994, Barbie also joined the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s team of aerobatic pilots, who demonstrate the branch’s capabilities at air shows around the world. Just six female pilots have flown with the Thunderbirds since their inception in 1953. The first was Nicole Malachowski, who joined in 2005, 11 years after Barbie.

Navy Barbie appeared in 1991, “wearing the official uniform for enlisted women,” according to the back of her box. “Authentic insignia and campaign ribbons on her jumper blouse indicate that she is a petty officer first class and quartermaster [who] has been in the Navy for eight years.” In 1990, about 11 percent of Naval officers were women, according to the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center. In 2021, female Naval personnel made up 20 percent of active-duty officers.

Marine Corps Barbie, or “Sergeant Barbie,” also debuted in 1991. According to her box, she was already decorated with “the multi-stripe Desert Storm Medal for her participation in that campaign.” Barbie symbolically accompanied the roughly 1,000 real women Marines deployed for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. Today, 9 percent of active-duty Marines are women.

Play ball, doll: NBA Barbie, WNBA Barbie and MLB Barbie

In 1998, Mattel released a series of Barbies representing teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The 29 NBA Barbies wore uniforms inspired by the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks and more. Each of the ponytailed dolls came with a miniature basketball and a jacket sporting their team’s logo.

Also in 1998, Barbie joined a relatively new league: the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). The WNBA began playing professionally in June 1997, more than a century after women first participated in the game in 1892. (James Naismith invented basketball in 1891; the following year, Senda Berenson, a gymnastics instructor at Smith College, adapted the rules for women’s matches.)

WNBA Barbie
A 1999 NBA Barbie, representing the Dallas Mavericks Mattel Inc.

The WNBA Barbies didn’t represent specific teams: Some wore blue-and-green uniforms, while others donned blue-and-red uniforms, each branded simply with the WNBA logo. Sneakers, knee guards and jackets completed the get-up. The dolls came packaged with a basketball hoop and tiny ball, which Barbie could “shoot” if you placed it in her hand and pressed a button on her back. The back of the box featured a real WNBA player and offered fun facts about the nascent league: for instance, that it was made up of ten teams, and two-thirds of spectators at games were women.

To date, no women have played in the NBA, though the New Orleans Jazz did draft Lusia Harris, a 6-foot-3 center who excelled in college basketball, in 1977. Harris decided not to start training with the team, later reflecting, “I didn’t think I was good enough. Competing against a woman, yes. It’s a different story competing against a man. So, I decided not to go. I said no to the NBA.”

The same year Barbie joined the NBA and the WNBA, she stepped up to the plate of Major League Baseball as MLB Barbie, holding a small wooden bat and wearing the official uniforms of the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Twenty-five years later, Barbie remains the only “woman” to play on an MLB team; unlike basketball, the league has no women’s counterpart. Still, some shining stars have made their mark on the sport. In 2015, the MLB included a female baseball player in its international registration list for the first time, adding 16-year-old Melissa Mayeux of France. And last year, Kelsie Whitmore became the first female player in the Atlantic League, a partner league of the MLB.

Commander in chief: Barbie for president

The first female presidential candidate in the U.S. was Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who ran in 1872. But it wasn’t until 2016 that a woman, Democrat Hillary Clinton, secured the nomination of a major political party and had a real shot at the job. Barbie, meanwhile, has run for president almost every election year since 1992.

That first year, the doll wore a patriotic ball gown. She came in a box labeled “Barbie for President” and had a red pantsuit as an alternate outfit. Per the Washington Post, subsequent iterations boasted ensembles ranging from a royal blue jacket and skirt with matching tights and heels to a doll “sporting wedge heels, a design that allowed her to stand upright for the first time ever.”

2016 Barbie Candidates
An all-female Barbie ticket in 2016 Mattel Inc.

In 2016, Mattel promoted an all-woman ticket, selling President and Vice President Barbies as a matching pair. Four years later, the company unveiled an all-female campaign team made up of a candidate, campaign manager, fundraiser and voter. Exactly what office the candidate doll was running for was unspecified. That year, Kamala Harris was elected as the U.S.’s first woman vice president.

Gerwig’s new film takes Barbie past the candidacy phase of her campaign for the first time. Issa Rae stars as President Barbie, who wears a pink ballgown and a sash identifying her as Barbie Land’s commander in chief. As the actress tells the Guardian, when asked to picture someone who might play with a doll based on her character, she imagined her “bossy” childhood self, who “wanted to be a leader.” In the film, President Barbie works out of a pink Oval Office and has an all-female staff clad in pastel pantsuits. Fittingly, Mattel released a matching President Barbie doll to mark the movie’s release, confirming that Barbie has finally broken the presidential glass ceiling after more than 30 years of campaigning.

President Barbie Doll, 2023
President Barbie, inspired by Issa Rae's character in Greta Gerwig's Barbie Mattel Inc.

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