Life in Plastic, It's Fantastic

Happy Birthday, Barbie: An Ode to America’s Hottest 59-Year-Old

We look back on some of the doll’s biggest milestones.

By Abby Ledoux March 9, 2018

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Image: Shutterstock

Barbara “Barbie” Millicent Roberts was born on March 9, 1959 to George and Margaret Roberts of Willows, Wisconsin. Don’t worry, this isn’t an obituary–not even close. Today, on Barbie’s 59th birthday, we celebrate the continuing legacy of the Mattel fashion doll that largely informed the childhood of millions of Americans—this writer included.

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Image: Shutterstock

We get that Barbie is not without fault, and nary a think piece has been written without making mention of the dangerous implications of her unrealistic proportions and lack of diversity—both flaws Mattel has attempted to remedy to varying degrees of success. We’re well aware of “Barbie Syndrome” as it contributes to low self-esteem and, in extreme situations, more hazardous psychological consequences. We sympathize with the scores of girls who feel misrepresented–or not represented at all. 

But, much like Whitman, we contain multitudes. We can recognize and accept Barbie’s failings while still appreciating her influence. Some of our happiest memories of only childhood in the '90s and early '00s revolve around the doll, over a hundred of her friends, a Volkswagen beetle in every color, a Dream House and a Town House, and boxes upon boxes of her clothes and accessories—we can still feel the acute pain of a plastic stiletto or mini hairbrush beneath the arch of our foot.

For years, Barbie formed the bulk of all holiday gift requests. Barbie was the centerpiece of friendships, after-school hours spent in bedrooms and basements conjuring intricate storylines and really rad outfits. When we mimicked the family dynamic of daytime soaps in our own toy worlds, Barbie taught us about imagination. When we fought over who got to play the newest, prettiest model, our parents forced to intercept, Barbie taught us how to share. When we considered the doll’s latest endeavor as a chef, astronaut, or paratrooper, Barbie taught us about ambition.

“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Barbie creator Ruth Handler said. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Here, we reflect on 59 years of a life well-lived. So, happy birthday, Barbie. No, you’re not perfect–far from it–but who among us is?

1956: On a trip to Europe, American businesswoman Ruth Handler is introduced to German doll “Bild Lilli,” a blonde bombshell and working girl with a closet full of great separates. Lilli would become the impetus for Barbie, named after Handler’s daughter.

1959: Barbie debuts at the American International Toy Fair in New York in her first-ever outfit, a black-and-white striped zebra swimsuit by Mattell fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. Marketed as “a teen-age fashion model,” she was meant to fill a market void–aside from paper varieties, most dolls were babies. About 350,000 Barbies are sold in her inaugural year.

1962: Barbie’s two-year, two-day tenure as an independent woman who don’t need no man comes to a screeching halt with the introduction of Ken, her male counterpart, named after Handler’s son.

1964: Mattel buys the rights to the Lilli doll, three years after Louis Marx and Company sued, claiming Barbie was nothing but a second-rate Lilli wannabe (we’ve taken some liberty with the language). 

1971: Barbie’s chronic side-eye is adjusted with a forward gaze, drastically reducing her RBF.

1980: The first black and Hispanic Barbies hit the market.

1997: Mattel introduces “Share a Smile Becky,” who comes with a wheelchair and hinged knees allowing her to sit in it. Shortly after, this writer’s stepdad trips on Becky, snapping off the bottom half of her leg at the knee, rendering her wheelchair-dependent.

2003: Barbie is outlawed in Saudi Arabia for being a promiscuous symbol of "the perverted West." Never say she’s not doing her part to fight ISIS.

2004: Barbie and Ken break up after 43 years. Some attributed the split to the recent arrival of Cali Girl Barbie, but Mattel denied there was any truth to that rumor, instead offering the vague missive that the legendary couple deemed it “time to spend some quality time–apart.” 

2006: Fresh off a makeover, Ken calls himself “a changed man” in attempt to win now 47-year-old Barbie back from Blaine, the Australian boogie boarder she’s been linked to since shortly after the split. (Cougar alert!)

2009: Barbie makes her New York Fashion Week debut for her 50th birthday with a runway show featuring designs by such high-profile couturiers as Christian Louboutin, Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, and Vera Wang.

2011: It only took Ken five years to prove his new duds were indicative of a deeper change–or maybe five years of the vacuous Blaine left Barbie yearning for something more. Either way, the on-again, off-again couple are decidedly on-again. They wed at Faraway Castle in Plasticity a full 50 years after they first got together.

2016: Barbie (finally) gets with the times in the form of new "tall, curvy, and petite"-bodied dolls in a range of skin tones and hair styles.

Later in 2016: America finally gets a female president, albeit an 11.5-inch plastic rendition. Honestly, at this point, we'll take it.

2018: On the eve of her 59th year, Barbie celebrates International Women’s Day with a new release of 14 historical dolls–“Sheroes,” modeled after such inspirational women as Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo (okay, this one’s a little iffy), 17-year-old Olympian Chloe Kim, and Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician depicted in Hidden Figures. What did you do for your birthday?

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