Barbie: The world's most famous plastic doll

Greta Gerwig's new film has generated a lot of hype. But what is behind the mystique of Barbie — the doll that has always been more than just a toy

Barbie stands in a desert landscape (Photo: DW)
Barbie stands in a desert landscape (Photo: DW)


There she stands, a monolith in a desert landscape: icon, goddess, superwoman. The first teaser trailer of "Barbie" directed by Greta Gerwig parodied the iconic Dawn of Man opening from director Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In this version, young girls sit around playing with old-fashioned baby dolls, who then dump their vintage toys after a towering, statuesque Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) appears in high heels and a striped bathing suit, before winking at viewers over her white-framed, cat-eye sunglasses.

Set to the instantly recognizable "Space Odyssey" score, the teaser trailer was released by Warner Bros Pictures in December 2022. Not only a sly wink to Kubrick's classic, it also refers to Barbie's founding legend and recipe for success.

Ruth Handler (1916-2002), the "Mother of Barbie," didn't want to produce another doll designed for her daughter and her friends to practice for their future role as mothers. Her doll, which was to become one of the world's best-selling toys, was a young woman who was self-confident, attractive and gainfully employed.

The US American Handler hailed from a Polish-Jewish emigrant family in which everyone, whether male or female, had to contribute to the income. Together with her husband, Elliot, and Harold Matson, she founded the company Mattel in a garage in 1945. The trio manufactured picture frames and dollhouse furniture. Since the doll furniture sold well, they specialized in the production of various toys. It is now one of the world's leading toy companies.

Barbie was modelled to be a career woman. Not just as a secretary, but as a doctor, pilot, astronaut and even the female President of the United States, something that has yet to happen in reality. All this, of course, in appropriately coordinated outfits.

To this day, the toy company says that Barbie "inspires the limitless potential in every girl."

Susan Shapiro, an avowed Barbie fan, describes the message like this: "You don't have to be a mommy taking care of little babies. You don't have to get married. You don't have to have your father or your husband supporting you. You can support yourself. You could do anything you want. You could have one of hundreds of careers."

Barbie has her own house and her own car, in which her ever-loyal companion Ken has been allowed to sit in the passenger seat since 1961. He could never keep up with her glamour, however, and Ryan Gosling as Ken in the Barbie movie even sings a sad song about that. "Doesn't seem to matter what I do. I'm always number two … I'm just Ken."

Feminist icon or toxic beauty ideal?

The fact that Ruth Handler had created a working and financially independent woman out of the doll named after her daughter Barbara was a provocation in the conservative 1950s and early 1960s. Nevertheless, Barbie fell into disrepute in feminist circles. For the US American author and feminist Jill Filipovic, Barbie conveys "a really unhealthy, ideal image of femininity and what it means to be an attractive woman, a good woman, worthy woman."

Endless legs, a wasp waist, a toned body: With Barbie, this ideal was transported into children's rooms: "Young, white, no disabilities, ready for action and performance in a capitalist world," is how cultural scientist Elisabeth Lechner sums it up to DW. A questionable ideal of beauty that can trigger a distorted body image in girls, as studies suggest.

Mattel has reacted to this and expanded the product range and made it more diverse. There are now Barbies with different body shapes, Barbies with prosthetic legs, in wheelchairs, a chemotherapy Barbie and, most recently, one with Down syndrome. For Elisabeth Lechner, who has studied body images and body positivity in depth, that doesn't change the basic problem.

"There are now studies that prove that even forms of objectification that are also meant to be positive, i.e. positive compliments on appearance, remind women that it's always just about their appearance," she says.

Barbie and diversity

The first step towards diversification was already taken in the 1960s, when deep racial conflicts shook the USA. The year Martin Luther King was assassinated, the first Black doll appeared in the Barbie universe. Her name was Christie. In her documentary "Black Barbie," director Lagueria Davis traces the story of its creation.

Working Black women like Lagueria Davis' aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, were the ones who convinced Ruth Handler of the idea: "We want a Black toy! We want a Black doll! A doll that African American girls could identify with." But it wasn't until 1980 that this black doll was allowed to be called Barbie.

"Mattel's narrative is one thing where they are very progressive with introducing a Black friend for Barbie through our lens, through the story in which we enter it, you know, the Black woman lens. While that feels progressive for them, it feels less progressive for us in the sense that for 21 years there wasn't a Black fashion doll worthy of the Barbie brand name," Davis told DW.

And yet, for many women of Beulah May Mitchell's generation at the time, it was a triumph: A Black Barbie — proof that African American women were beautiful, that they could be glamorous and successful.

Competition from Africa

Meanwhile, Black Barbie has a serious rival on the African continent. Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoya saw a gap in the market in 2007. The trigger was his young daughter. In a conversation, she had expressed that she would rather be white than black, because white was beautiful. So, he looked for a figure that would show African girls that they could be proud of their skin color and their figure.

This is how the Queens of Africa came into being, who are not simply dark-skinned mirror images of globalized beauty standards. Okoya's dolls are based on the different skin tones of the many Nigerian ethnic groups, their hairstyles and their clothing.

"It's my identity. It's who I am. And that was a message that was behind the Queens of Africa," he told DW.

But is Barbie sustainable?

A doll is more than just a toy. It can be a figure of identification for a child, shaping its future image of normality and beauty. So, it's no wonder that Barbie, probably the world's best-selling doll, is still the subject of debate today: About empowerment, beauty ideals and not least, sustainability. The Conversation reports that American researchers last year quantified what each doll costs the climate. Every 182-gram Barbie causes about 660 grams of carbon emissions, including plastic production, manufacture and transport.

In more than six decades of Barbie history, Mattel has always cleverly adapted its marketing to the spirit of the times and, of course, has now also launched a Barbie made of recycled plastic. Barbie is probably the "wokest doll" ever. There is only thing she's not allowed to do yet: age. No matter her skin color Barbie remains "forever young."

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