How long has barbie been around? After more than 40 animated made-for-TV movies, the first live-action Barbie film is set to hit big screens around the world this weekend.
While its release has been delayed in the UAE, it seems no one is immune to the buzz created by the comedy’s impending arrival.
Already a social media and marketing triumph, Barbie features a stellar cast including Margot Robbie in the titular role, Ryan Gosling as her friend Ken, as well as Dame Helen Mirren, Dua Lipa, Issa Rae and Simu Liu.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Greta Gerwig, it’s pegged for opening-weekend success at the box office by industry insiders.
The excitement is a testament to the doll’s enduring popularity 64 years after it was launched by toymaker Mattel. After many physical evolutions and more than 200 careers on her CV, Barbie is still one of the most hardworking and bestselling dolls in history.
Last year alone, the dolls generated $1.49 billion in sales, according to data company Statista.
When was Barbie born?
Barbie’s birthday is celebrated on March 9, the day she made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York City in 1959.
The brainchild of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, the first doll was named after Handler’s daughter Barbara. The first Barbie wore a zebra-print swimsuit, with a topknot ponytail and had a pair of sunglasses as an accessory. Barbara Millicent Roberts was available in either brunette or blonde versions.
Retailing at $3, the first few dolls replicated the glamour of 1950s Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
The immediate success of Barbie was largely attributed to the fact that she was an adult-bodied woman, as opposed to most dolls of that time that were representations of infants.
Ken joins the party
Barbie’s on-and-off boyfriend Kenneth Sean “Ken” Carson was introduced in 1961, named after Handler’s son Kenneth. Like Barbie, Ken made his debut wearing a swimsuit, but soon had his own fashionable line of clothing and accessories.
And just like Barbie, but nowhere near as prolific, he also has an impressive CV, from barista to banker.
In 2004, Mattel announced Barbie and Ken had called a timeout on their relationship, choosing to remain just friends. However, they rekindled their romance on Valentine’s Day in 2011, although it is unclear where it stands today.
In the animated film Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, released in 2018 and available to stream on Netflix, Ken was only described as Barbie’s “next-door neighbour”.
The Barbie family expands
Since her introduction, Barbie has caused consternation among some parents. To counter criticism, Mattel introduced a number of characters, including her best friend Midge in 1963 and her sister Skipper in 1964.
Then in 1968 came Christie, an African-American Barbie and one of the first such dolls on the market.
However, it wasn’t until 1980 that Mattel truly diversified its dolls by introducing its first African-American doll that was called Barbie, rather than a different name. A Latina Barbie was also introduced that year.
Today there are more than 40 international Barbies of various nationalities and ethnicities.
In 1967, Mattel launched its first Barbie in the likeness of a celebrity. British model and actress Twiggy was the first to be turned into a Barbie.
Celebrities around the world have since been turned into Barbies, from Jennifer Lopez and Shonda Rhimes, to Queen Elizabeth II, Zendaya, Beyonce and even Elton John.
First hijab-wearing Barbie
A doll modelled on American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was launched in 2018 as part of the Barbie Shero line honouring women who break boundaries. Muhammad was the first American to compete at the Olympics while wearing a hijab, and won a bronze medal in fencing at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I had so many moments as an athlete where I didn’t feel included, where I was often in spaces where there was a lack of representation,” Muhammad said in 2017.
“So to be in this moment, as a US Olympian, to have Mattel, such a global brand, diversify their toy line to include a Barbie doll that wears a hijab is very moving to me.”
A Barbie for everyone
Mattel released its most diverse collection of Barbies to date in 2019, including two new dolls with disabilities – one with a prosthetic leg and another one, a black Barbie, in a wheelchair.
“As a brand, we can elevate the conversation around physical disabilities by including them in our fashion doll line to further showcase a multidimensional view of beauty and fashion,” Mattel said in a statement.
Today, Barbies come in more than 22 skin tones, 94 hair colours, 13 eye colours and five body types.
Heroes and role models
Over the years, Babies have also celebrated inspirational role models. In 2019, in honour of Barbie’s 60th anniversary and International Women’s Day, Mattel announced 20 new Barbie figures based on the likeness of top women, including activist and supermodel Adwoa Aboah; conservationist and daughter of the late “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin, Bindi Irwin; actress, model and activist Yara Shahidi; tennis star Naomi Osaka; and film director Ava DuVernay.
British coronavirus vaccine developer Sarah Gilbert was honoured with a Barbie in 2021, while British primatologist Jane Goodall had a doll made in her likeness last year.
“I wanted a doll to be me even before this idea came up. I’ve seen little girls playing with Barbie dolls and certainly at the beginning, they were all very girlie-girlie, and I thought little girls need some choice,” Goodall said.
More recently in March, British scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who’s been praised for her contributions in making space and science accessible to girls, was also honoured with a doll.
Aderin-Pocock is also known for her appearances on the BBC’s The Sky At Night.
Barbie doll with Down’s syndrome
Expanding on its inclusivity, Barbie in April launched a doll that represents a person with Down’s syndrome as part of its Fashionistas line.
The aim is to show children representations that are more diverse, Mattel said.
“As the most diverse doll line on the market, Barbie plays an important role in a child’s early experiences, and we are dedicated to doing our part to counter social stigma through play,” said Lisa McKnight, executive vice president and global head of Barbie and Dolls at Mattel.
Mattel worked closely with the National Down Syndrome Society in the US to create the doll. The society offered guidance and help with the design process from start to finish.
This included sculpting the face and body, adding fashion and accessories (including the colours yellow and blue, which are associated with Down’s syndrome awareness) and the inclusion of pink ankle foot orthotics that are sometimes worn by children to support their feet.
The doll also wears a pink pendant necklace with three arrows that represent the third 21st chromosome that individuals with Down’s syndrome have.
“It was an honour working with Barbie on the Barbie doll with Down’s syndrome,” said Kandi Pickard, president and chief executive of the society. “This means so much for our community, who for the first time, can play with a Barbie doll that looks like them.
This Barbie serves as a reminder that we should never underestimate the power of representation. It is a huge step forward for inclusion and a moment that we are celebrating.”
A tribute to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders
In May, to tie in with Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the US, Mattel launched a Barbie in honour of trailblazer Anna May Wong. Recognised as the first Chinese-American Hollywood star, Wong’s Barbie has her trademark fringe, eyebrows and well-manicured nails.
The doll is dressed in a red gown with a shiny golden dragon design and cape, inspired by Wong’s appearance in the 1934 movie Limehouse Blues.
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