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Image courtesy of Mattel Inc.

Barbie: An Icon on the path to redemption?

An Indisputable Icon with a Tainted Past

My relationship with Barbie dates back to when I was a little girl – as it does for millions of women around the world. This enduring icon made her first appearance in 1959 and I got to know her in the mid-1980s when she was all ‘big-hair-don’t-care’ and leader of global rock sensation, Barbie and the Rockers!

Barbie & The Rockers | Image courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

While the name Barbie will always conjure up images of a buxom blue-eyed blonde, thinking of her also stirs other memories, both good and bad. Although I definitely had Barbies (many of which were hand-me-downs, and others which I had no doubt demanded to pacify my juvenile play) such luxuries were hard-earned by my parents, who for the most part were pretty cash-strapped throughout my childhood. I have a vivid memory (no doubt part real and part imagined, as all our memories are) of my mother telling me I couldn’t have the Barbie of the day. The denial had me on the brink of a tantrum as my child’s mind couldn’t grasp the fact that on top of putting food on the table and clothes on our backs, she simply couldn’t afford it. This is no sob story though! My mother, one of the most creative and inventive people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, made me a Tinkerbell costume for my best friend’s birthday party that rivalled Hollywood’s own dressmakers. It won me that very same doll for being the best dressed at the party. I’ve always considered my mother’s ingenuity a real privilege.

I also have countless memories of playtime, make-believe and dreaming up the future with my said best friend Samara (who to this day, still holds that title) and of trying to untangle Totally Hair Barbie’s matted plastic mane that I eventually cut off out of frustration – who knows, perhaps that was the start of my journey into the career path I have found myself on today?

2019 Barbie 60th Anniversary Role Model Doll Collection | Image courtesy of Mattel Inc.

Sexy Faux pas & discord

While there is no disputing that Barbie is a fashion and beauty icon (and even considered a sex symbol by some) of the 20th century, this recognition hasn’t come without a fair amount of controversy for Barbie and her makers. Though come to think of it, what beauty icon hasn’t come with a lengthy list of faux pas and dissension? So before we move on to the progress that Mattel, Inc (Barbie’s makers) have made over the years (which some might say is a case of too little, too late), let’s address some of the accusations.

The list of Barbie’s wrongdoings is lengthy and includes everything from copyright infringement, promoting unrealistic body ideals which potentially inspire eating disorders and a historic lack of any real diversity (the first official Black Barbie was launched in 1980, along with a Hispanic line some 21 years after Barbie hit the streets, but they were still made with caucasian features), to being a bad influence for being too suggestive, encouraging girls to get tattoos, reiterating gendered stereotypes, the leaking of potentially hazardous toxic chemicals (like most plastics!) and her iconic pink box being made from exotic hardwoods that promoted deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest. This isn’t even an exhaustive list. While it’s undeniable that some of these missteps and indiscretions are wholly unacceptable, I feel it’s worth pausing for a moment and looking at the inspiration and origins of Barbie. 

Iconoclastic Origins

The idea of Barbie was born out of a mother’s observation of her daughter giving paper-dolls grown-up roles during play. In the 1950s, the only easily accessible dolls were infant dolls, which, let’s face it, tell a young girl that she is only destined to be a wife and mother. So the very genesis of Barbie was, in fact, an iconoclastic idea that sought to encourage a departure from these limiting roles for women. On a trip to Europe in 1956, inventor of Barbie, Ruth Handler encountered a doll similar to one she had imagined for her daughter, Barbara. It was a grown-up female doll, intended for adults rather than children (although, being a doll, she did naturally become popular with kids too) called Bild Lilli from German.  Lilli was a physical representation of a blonde, ‘man-eating’ bombshell comic strip character from the tabloid newspaper Bild, and the original inspiration behind Ruth Handler’s iconic Barbie doll.

So whatever proverbial baggage Barbie comes with, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the very important role she has played for young girls from all walks of life for six decades. She allowed us to imagine a future beyond being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. After all, Barbie’s stated purpose is “To inspire the limitless potential in every girl.” I feel it’s also fair to say that Mattel has taken the criticism of their shortcomings onboard over the years and have provided a far more inclusive, diverse line of dolls for children of varying ethnicities, body shapes, abilities, hair types and eye colours to recognise themselves in. 

Looking for something to watch? Why not try this documentary on for size.

Is this what redemption looks like?

Barbie Fashionistas dolls now come in 6 body types, 9 skin tones, 6 eye colours, 11 hair colours and 10 hairstyles.  Wheelchair Barbie was relaunched earlier this year (after it originally appeared on the market in 1997 under the ‘Becky’ range, and the wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the dollhouse doors) along with a doll with a removable prosthetic limb, normalising playtime for many less-abled children around the world. Mattel’s partnership with CureSearch for Children’s Cancer charity has developed a bald doll named Ella, which they refer to as Special Barbie. She is presented to children fighting cancer to normalise the hair loss associated with the treatment of disease. This doll is not available through retail channels and is only provided to children affected by childhood cancer, siblings of children affected by childhood cancer, and children whose parent/guardian is affected by cancer in the United States. All they appear to be missing from todays modern and inclusive beauty standards is Vitiligo Barbie! I could see a Winnie Harlow doll fitting in perfectly to their Role Model collection. Couldn’t you?

Creatable World

In September 2019, Mattel released a new doll line called Creatable World.  This line sees a range of not only racially inclusive but gender-inclusive dolls too. A range that proudly announces “All Welcome!” asserting that they are “As limitless as the kids who play with them”. It is a range long overdue for many, but sadly, realistically only commercially viable through our more woke 2019 eyes.  

Image courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

Parting thoughts

Whether you love or loathe Barbie, her status and stature are written into the history books. Her fashion and beauty choices are defined by the trends of each passing decade, and in some instances, have even led the charge.

In researching this article, I discovered Barbie has her very own YouTube vlog and thought I’d share her pearls of wisdom for women and sensitive souls of any age on the ‘Sorry Reflex’. Have a read through the comment thread on this video (which has only been viewed 1,169,003 times) and you will see just how important Barbie has been for so many.

untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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