The Often Wacky, Sometimes Wicked, and Always Wondrous Eras of Barbie

“This is the most effective day ever,” says Barbie to Barbie in Barbie, the bubblegum blockbuster out in theaters Thursday. “And so was yesterday, and so is tomorrow.” The dwelling is simple once you’re a doll in a dream home, every day completely the identical: get up, greet your folks, cruise the strip in a convertible, smile broad. Do it sufficient, and you might even grow to be president. However within the film, which stars Margot Robbie and was directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie realizes that one thing is amiss within the universe when all these finest days ever cease mixing collectively and one thing extremely overseas to her—change, irrepressible change—begins to creep in.

Out right here in the true world, in fact—the actual actual world, not the Actual World depicted throughout the confines of the Barbie film—change is a continuing, and uncertainty is a enterprise alternative. Simply ask the oldsters at Mattel.

The Unique Teenage Trend Mannequin Barbie Doll was launched to Individuals in 1959, and since then Barbie has crossed oceans and constructed fortunes and grow to be shorthand—although precisely what the doll is shorthand for has lengthy been up for debate. Imaginative play or unattainable perfection? Dowdy toy or Nicki Minaj’s alter ego? “We women can do something!” proclaimed a 1985 Barbie model marketing campaign, and it’s true. Barbie can do every part and be something—and she or he has, in methods each cherished and absurd, for her entire lifetime.

So right here—with because of the pop star who has been referred to as a Barbie by each Margot Robbie (in an admiring method) and Camille Paglia (the alternative)—is a touch by way of the numerous eras of Barbie’s, and Barbie’s, existence. They weren’t at all times the most effective days ever, however it could have felt fallacious in the event that they had been.

The Starting: The Bored Teenagers and Hornt-Up Germans Period

Because the story goes, Ruth Handler, a mother and toyco entrepreneur who owned Mattel together with her husband again in postwar Southern California, was watching their younger teen daughter play with paper dolls when she realized there was a big-haired, slim-waisted, well-dressed gap within the doll economic system. On the time, three-dimensional dolls got here primarily in two types: baby or ageless cherub. Ruth’s daughter, Barbara (nicknamed Babs), most popular her paper dolls, which depicted extra adult-looking girls.

Thus, an thought was born, and in 1956, whereas on a household tour of Europe, Handler noticed a doll in a Swiss retailer window that was precisely the type of factor she had in thoughts. That toy—referred to as Lilli—was initially a lascivious icon mined from a suggestive German comic strip and offered as a gag gift, however that didn’t matter to Handler. She noticed it as proof of idea and acquired a bunch to take again to the States for additional analysis.

Within the years that adopted, Mattel executives traveled to Japan to look into the most recent in molded-plastics know-how, and Handler met with a type of socio-consumerist Svengali named Ernest Dichter to determine how finest to market her new doll—to be named Barbie as a result of Babs was already copyrighted. (Dichter recommended larger tits.) In 1959, Handler offered Barbie on the annual Toy Truthful in New York, and whereas the patrons there have been unenthusiastic, the market demand wound up being astounding. The remainder, as they are saying, is herstory.

The Nineteen Sixties: The Mad-Males-Meets-Female-Mystique Period

It’s troublesome to examine Barbie’s early years with out picturing Don and Peggy and Joan. In any case, they’d have been Ruth Handler’s contemporaries: The Mad Males universe runs from 1960 to 1970, mainly the identical as Barbie’s first decade. The guide Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Well-known Doll, by Robin Gerber, comprises all types of particulars that you might think about displaying up in a Matthew Weiner screenplay.

Like Dichter’s Freudian advertising babble. Or the truth that Handler ruthlessly screened job candidates herself and deemed most of them to be “NMM”—not Mattel materials. (Can’t you simply hear that phrase popping out of Joan’s mouth?) Or that one of many individuals who was Mattel materials, Barbie designer Jack Ryan, was an absolute wild child of a person who was as soon as married to Zsa Zsa Gabor and who put in a moat, drawbridge, throne, and lagoon at his Bel-Air estate. (You recognize Megan Draper partied there.) And each time one in every of these folks thought of how finest to attraction to mothers, they should have been picturing somebody like Betty Draper—who epitomized each the kind of lady that Mattel hoped would buy its merchandise and likewise the kind of lady that the corporate sought to distinguish Barbie from.

Betty Friedan’s The Female Mystique, printed in 1963, famously outlined the malaise of mid-century trendy housewives within the Betty Draper mould. Handler might relate: She instructed the LA Occasions in 1959 that “if I needed to keep residence I’d be essentially the most dreadful, mixed-up, sad lady on the planet.” And so Barbie wasn’t made to be a spouse or a mom—she was made to be something you need. (One early model of the toy was a babysitter Barbie.) There was Ken, in fact—named after Ruth’s son, Ken, he debuted in 1961 after Mattel obtained a excessive quantity of letters from kids that requested a sweetheart for Barbie—however he was perceived much less as a person of the home and extra as Barbie’s tagalong simp. The primary iteration of the Barbie Dreamhouse, which got here out in 1962, was modest—nevertheless it was all hers.

Opinions on all this had been blended, as they at all times are on the subject of Barbie. (“I don’t know if there’s a doll that anybody is as mad at,” Barbie director Greta Gerwig recently told The New Yorker.) A grumpy 1963 piece in The Saturday Night Put up complained that “women at present are spurning the normal pudgy toddler dolls for the very talked-about new doll which boasts a ripe bosom, lengthy, shapely legs and, in fact—for that is the core of the doll’s symbolic worth—her personal boyfriend doll.” A much less uptight story in The New York Occasions that same year identified “the revolutionary concept that little women at present are viewing their lady dolls more and more as themselves and never as their infants” and raised an eyebrow at “a society the place a mom has been heard to comment of her daughter, ‘I wouldn’t thoughts her being married at 16 almost as a lot as I’d thoughts her not being married at 18.’” (Can’t you simply see Sally Draper rolling her eyes and going again to creating her Barbie dolls kiss?)

However what wasn’t blended had been the gross sales numbers. As Gerber writes, Mattel earned revenues of $26 million in 1963, making it the world’s largest toy firm, and reached $180 million three years later.

The ’70s: The Company Shenanigans Period

Barbie’s second decade proved to be a extra tumultuous time for her creators. The Nationwide Group for Ladies listed Mattel as a sexist advertiser. “I’m not a Barbie doll!” chanted some marchers on the 1970 Ladies’s Strike for Equality in New York, which was a part of the rising girls’s liberation motion and included speeches from activists like Gloria Steinem. “I’m so grateful I didn’t develop up with Barbie,” Steinem would later recall in a 2018 Barbie documentary referred to as Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie. “Barbie is every part we didn’t wish to be and had been instructed to be.” However this sort of mindset wasn’t the one headwind dealing with Mattel on the time. Dockworkers had been placing, and the U.S. economic system was about to completely go on the fritz, even in the event you wouldn’t understand it from the carefree vibes of Malibu Barbie, launched in 1971.

Handler, in the meantime, was coping with issues of her personal. With the considered increasing her child-centric empire, she initiated a deal during which Mattel would purchase Ringling Bros. for $48 million. She additionally underwent a mastectomy after being identified with most cancers and had much less bandwidth to dedicate to the enterprise. The cash acquired tight.

And so the bean counters determined to fudge issues: a false bill right here, an inflated quantity there, story as outdated as time. (Mattel’s auditor, the late, not-great Arthur Andersen, didn’t increase any flags; Ruth blamed a newly employed government named Seymour Rosenberg.) Finally, the fishy scent turned overpowering sufficient that shareholder lawsuits ensued, accusing Mattel executives of economic malfeasance. Mattel quietly offered Ringling Bros. Ruth was pressured to go away the corporate in 1975. In 1978 she pleaded no contest to costs of false reporting to the SEC and mail fraud and was sentenced to a $57,000 high quality and a pair of,500 hours of neighborhood service.

Mattel would get better by the tip of the last decade (under new leadership). However within the years earlier than it did, The Wall Road Journal reported on a joke that was making the rounds: “Have you ever heard about Mattel’s new speaking doll? Wind it up and it forecasts a 100% improve in gross sales and earnings. Then it falls flat on its face.”

Right here’s one other: Have you ever heard about Mattel’s new puberty doll? Twist its arm, and it grows boobs. Then it falls flat on its face. Oh wait, I’m simply speaking about “Rising Up Skipper,” the unusual 1975 launch of a model of Barbie’s child sister who is completely pulsating with hormones. Response to the doll was what you may think, however my drawback with it’s that they didn’t go far sufficient—it could have been method realer if Skipper had developed a scorching case of backne and a impolite disposition.

The ’80s: The Globalist Period

“She’s black! She’s stunning! She’s dynamite!” learn the copy on the field for the primary Black Barbie, who was lastly unveiled in 1980. (In 1968, Mattel had launched a Black buddy of Barbie named Christie.) That very same yr, Mattel started its “Dolls of the World” line, which might finally develop to characteristic 91 completely different Barbies from across the globe, although not without missteps alongside the best way.

In 1985, Mattel launched a brand new advert marketing campaign referred to as “We Ladies Can Do Something.” It additionally launched one of many greats: Day to Evening Barbie, whose twin outfits had been the inspiration for two different Margot Robbie press tour lewks. (I do want the “day” Barbie had sported some nice commuter sneakers to go together with these shoulder pads and that briefcase.) In 1986, as a response to Hasbro’s profitable Jem and the Holograms doll line, Barbie and the Rockers made their debut, getting Shrinky Dinks and a 1987 TV special and every part. Round that very same time, Andy Warhol painted Barbie as an homage to a friend named BillyBoy.

In keeping with Gerber’s guide, the try to show Barbie into much more of a worldwide commodity was successful: Gerber writes that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, The New York Occasions ran a photograph of “a bit lady climbing over the cement and twisted steel, carrying a Barbie doll.”

The ’90s: The Excessive Drama Period

“Loggers Need Barbie to Play a Completely different Tune,” read the headline of a 1990 LA Occasions article about an Oregon-based group of loggers who had been sad about commercials for one thing referred to as the “Barbie Kids’s Summit”—type of a United Nations for all of dollkind. The commercials, which pictured kids singing, contained the next lyrics: “We will save our world collectively / We will cease the bushes from falling.” In response, the Oregon Lands Coalition cautioned that Mattel’s advertising threatened to “inflame the debates about our forests” and promote the “radical agenda” of environmentalists. However the group additionally careworn that this wasn’t private. “Who might be anti-Barbie?” one spokesperson instructed the Occasions. “This isn’t Barbie-bashing.”

This dustup would set the tone for the remainder of Barbie’s ’90s. This decade introduced us a few of Barbie’s very best: I submit that the Completely Hair Barbie, which was launched in 1992 and featured a wonderful Pucci-ish shift gown to go together with lengthy crimped locks, is the GOAT. (Sorry, 1993 Earring Magic Ken.) However this period additionally featured fixed drama, every scenario extra performative than the final.

In 1992, Mattel launched Teen Speak Barbie, a doll programmed to say 4 phrases picked randomly from a library of 270 traces. The small speak notably didn’t embrace a reprise of the 1965 line “Don’t eat!” (initially seen in a Barbie food regimen guide), nevertheless it did include things like “Who will you invite to the picnic?” and “I’m finding out to be a physician!” and “My horse is a present jumper!” It additionally included the notorious “Math class is hard,” which set an entire lot of individuals off.

The American Affiliation of College Ladies cited that line in a report concerning the systemic failures within the methods women had been being taught math. A culture-jamming operation calling itself the Barbie Liberation Group carried out rogue voice field surgical procedures between Barbie and G.I. Joe, swapping the little audio system contained in the toys in order that G.I. Joe vented about math being robust whereas Barbie mentioned issues like “Eat lead, Cobra!” In Sandusky, Ohio, a thriller man went round slashing and dismembering Barbies for months; even the FBI got involved.

A 1994 Simpsons episode referred to as “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” lampooned the speaking characteristic, showcasing a doll that claims, “Don’t ask me, I’m only a lady.” Talking of women, in 1997 a Danish and Norwegian musical group referred to as Aqua launched a banger referred to as “Barbie Lady” that angered Mattel a lot the corporate sued. (And misplaced. The choose famous, “The events are suggested to relax.”)

Not all Barbie-adjacent happenings within the ’90s had been humorous or frivolous, although. In 1994, Ken Handler died of issues from AIDS, in accordance with Gerber’s guide. In 1996, Iranian authorities started denouncing Barbie as a “Computer virus” that may carry decadent Western values into their more and more fundamentalist society, a proclamation that culminated in threats to forcibly take away the product from cabinets in favor of a set of accepted dolls named Sara and Dara. “My daughter prefers Barbies,” one Iranian mother instructed Reuters years later. “She says Sara and Dara are ugly and fats.”

The 2000s: The Finish of an Period

Whereas Ruth Handler had not been at Mattel for many years, it nonetheless felt like the tip of an period when she handed away in 2002. “My entire philosophy of Barbie was that by way of the doll, the little lady might be something she wished to be,” Handler wrote in her memoir, Dream Doll. “Barbie at all times represented the truth that a girl has decisions.” After Handler left Mattel, her selection was to start out one thing new: an organization referred to as Almost Me that manufactured and offered prosthetic breasts to girls who had gone by way of mastectomies.

Within the early a part of the aughts, Barbie appeared in a cluster of straight-to-DVD choices and confronted stiff competitors from a cheeky new doll lineup referred to as Bratz. With their huge eyes and palpable ’tudes, Bratz caught consideration directly. “Barbie Gross sales Sag as Bratz Perk Up,” reported the New York Put up. Bratz formally outsold Barbies within the U.Ok. in 2004. Lawsuits between Mattel and the creator of Bratz, who had labored at Mattel for a time, naturally started. (A few of them concerned cross-examinations about pornography.)

Notable Barbie dolls of the aughts included the Alien-esque “Pregnant Midge” of 2002; the 2008 “Black Canary Barbie,” who wore black leather-based shorts and fishnet stockings that upset British Christians; and the “Completely Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie,” which allowed youngsters to provide Barbie a heart-shaped tattoo that mentioned KEN. (Looking for headlines in 2004, Mattel had Barbie and Ken canonically break up. However they’d reunite in 2011.)

If it was the tip of 1 period, although, the aughts additionally marked a starting—the beginning of makes an attempt to reclaim and have fun Barbie. In 2009, Nicki Minaj began referring to one in every of her alter egos as Harajuku Barbie. Additionally in 2009, Mattel introduced a partnership with Common Photos to develop a Barbie film, a mission that may wind up being stalled, recast, and shuffled round for greater than a decade earlier than lastly, blessedly getting made.

The 2010s: The Growth Hell Period

In keeping with a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek feature on the profitable previous and way forward for Disney princess IP, Barbie gross sales fell 20 p.c between 2012 and 2014. The corporate tried stunts to show issues round, like placing old-school Barbie on the quilt of the Sports activities Illustrated swimsuit concern, however by 2015 issues had deteriorated additional, resulting in an ouster of the CEO. In 2016 Mattel efficiently launched a line of Barbies with completely different physique shapes: petite, curvy, and tall.

Whereas the corporate was struggling, the trouble to carry Barbie to the large display was additionally flailing. The 2009 collaboration with Common had been a bust, and Mattel was anxious to emulate the success of a 2014 film based mostly on the merchandise of toy competitor Lego. So Mattel transferred the Barbie rights to a workforce at Sony, and a carousel of expertise started to spin. At numerous factors, writers like Jenny Bicks of Intercourse and the Metropolis and the quippy Diablo Cody had been connected to the mission. Amy Schumer after which Anne Hathaway had been tapped to play the titular Barbie. However years glided by, and finally Sony’s possibility expired.

Not too long ago, Cody said she “shit the mattress” on the mission however added that “they wished a girl-boss feminist twist on Barbie, and I couldn’t determine it out as a result of that’s not what Barbie is.” And Schumer admitted that her excuse for dropping out—“scheduling conflicts”—wasn’t actually the reality. (The reality concerned inventive variations over Jell-O high heels, clearly.)

It’s arduous to translate Barbie to a brand new medium as a result of, “Math class is hard” excepted, Barbie doesn’t often communicate. She is a tabula rasa, flexibly inflexible, smiling and gleaming and blandly nude below all these cool tailor-made garments, ready to be projected upon. Lastly, in 2018, Margot Robbie acquired concerned, and she or he was blissful to select up the doll and begin taking part in. So was Greta Gerwig, who signed on to Barbie in 2019 after having written what she describes as a model of the Apostles’ Creed to win the pitch. Gerwig wouldn’t present the complete model to Vogue when recently asked, however one can think about: I imagine in Barbie, the dollmighty …

The Now: The “Hello, Barbie!” Period

“Hello, Barbie!” chirped a girl in Barbie-branded pants and sizzling pink lipstick within the concessions line earlier than my current displaying of Barbie. I wasn’t certain whether or not she was speaking to me, however earlier than I might suppose too arduous about it, 4 completely different folks behind me had already replied, “Hello, Barbie!” with gusto. I thought of all of them fondly a couple of minutes into the movie. “All these girls are Barbie,” intones Barbie’s narrator because the digicam pans over an extended line of achieved, assured Barbie Land residents in all sizes and styles. “And Barbie is all of those girls.”

We’re Barbie: We’re legion. Positive, the doll has been divisive over the past 60-some-odd years, however there was a way of camaraderie within the theater, a shared pleasure from having little thought of what to anticipate from Gerwig and Robbie’s interpretation of the supply materials. Barbie is sort of a cross between Toys and The Truman Present, between Girl Chicken and Elf. It has musical numbers and painted by hand skyscapes; it has dueling, catty Kens and one expensive, candy, singular Allan. It’s a film that unlocks all the identical chaotic creativity that taking part in with a Barbie doll at all times has, leading to a glance that’s half pastiche, half wholly, dementedly unique. It’s self-aware and confident. (Similar to Ryan Gosling!)

Mattel needs much more the place this got here from. A recent New Yorker article concerning the firm famous that the toy behemoth, which launched its personal manufacturing firm a number of years again, has greater than a dozen initiatives within the works based mostly on its mental property, like a Daniel Kaluuya movie about Barney and a Lena Dunham–led Polly Pocket car. A few of these won’t ever see the sunshine of day; some might be Barbie on the subsequent stage; and a few might be most cringe. Which sounds about proper: You may’t at all times have the most effective day ever when there are actual, dwell, difficult people concerned. That type of factor is for the dolls—and it retains even them on their toes.

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