Barbie: the real story behind the world’s most famous doll

As Greta Gerwig’s Barbie hits the big screen, here’s a look back at the disparate history behind the doll

Fashion Designer Charlotte Johnson designing for Barbie Dolls

In 1959, the eternally young Barbara Millicent Roberts left her sleepy (fictional) hometown of Willows, Wisconsin for the sunshine and growing glamour of Malibu, California, in search of something more than the average life she was expected to live.

Since then, she has gone on to run for president, become a doctor, an Olympic gymnast, and even land on the moon in 1965; four years before either astronauts or cosmonauts had the chance to. Barbie, as she shortened her name to once she got to Malibu, was not something that just appeared overnight; the dolls, the careers, the dresses, cars and dreamhouses all came from the mind of her creator, Ruth Handler.

Ruth Handler was the initial inventor behind the Barbie doll. And the story that Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, accredit the conception of the doll’s creation to is embedded deeply within the rise of second wave feminism that occurred throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It it against this cultural backdrop that Handler created the idea for Barbie, and it began specifically by watching her daughter play with toys that were traditionally marketed to young girls.

A girl in pigtails sings along with a 7" record called 'Barbie Sings' which plays on a portable phonograph player, 1961. Two dolls, Barbie and Ken, stand on the phonograph

As the day-to-day charade of what was to be the woman’s American dream of living (the typical story of being the perfect housewife and mother) began to lose its charm on many, Handler realised how this dwindling attitude towards the traditional had trickled down into the interest of children. Her chidren, centrally.

As there was a vast market of toys and opportunity being served to her son Kenneth (who Barbie’s counterpart Ken is based on), she couldn’t help but find a stark contrast between what was being offered to her daughter Barbara. The baby doll was really the only option for her, and Barbara had begun to grow tired of it. Instead developing a growing interest in fashion and paper dolls, Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll.

The moment of glory did not strike Handler until she was holidaying with her family in Europe in the late 1950’s when she came across a 12-inch-tall plastic bombshell and saw the potential it had to cure the growing boredom of young girls and their baby dolls. Her name was Bild Lilli – but she was not for young girls.

Lilli was often used as a novelty gift for businessmen in Germany throughout the mid-1950's and 60’s. She was a gold-digging sex symbol from the popular comic strip by Reinhard Benthien for newspaper Bild.

Lilli was often depicted in fishnet stockings, black leather opera gloves and scandalously short dresses all while wearing floor length trench or fur coats, and almost always serving as an anti to the Barbie we know today.

A portrait of Ruth and Elliott Handler, the couple who introduced the Barbie doll in 1959, holding a Barbie and Ken doll. The couple received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Doll Reader magazine in 1987

Regardless, Handler saw its potential. She took the doll back to the United States and debuted it at the New York Toy Fair in 1959. Handler and her husband Elliot had already founded Mattel in 1945 alongside Harold Mattson, but it existed as a furniture making company before it pivoted into toys – and Barbie was their big breakthrough, named after their daughter.

The doll was designed to capture the attention of young girls, an opportunity to project the ideas of their future selves onto this doll and envision their lives beyond the home. However, mothers were not too pleased with the appearance of the doll. In an interesting fashion, many of the same complaints that were directed towards Mattel in 1959 are still being used against the company today.

Many of the complaints circulated around the doll's appearance. Many believed the slender figure and long legs of the doll would lead young girls down a path of low self-esteem and body image issues. Despite this Mattel continued to design and release more dolls to compliment the original line of Barbie’s that was released.

In 1960, Mattel began releasing ‘career dolls’ that showcased Barbie in different fields of work, starting with Fashion Designer Barbie and later being followed by Pilot Barbie, Graduate Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and CEO Barbie.

The toy doll Barbie appears in her various incarnations at Leuralla NSW toy and railway museum, as the iconic doll approached her 50th birthday on May 18, 2007 in Sydney, Australia. Barbie has worn the outfits of the great designers such as Dior, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Versace and many others, and has seen a career of almost 50 years of dramatic social, cultural and political changes

And perhaps most notably is Barbie’s counterpart, Kenneth Carson. Handler decided to make it known that Ken was not Barbie’s husband, to cement the idea that a woman did not need a husband to be successful.

Again in 1962, the highly popular release of Barbie’s Dream House was marketed as Barbie’s own property; considered daring at a time when few women could access property without the sign off and approval of their husband. And the release of Barbie’s Roadster that same year was developed to highlight to young girls that it is possible for them to get behind the wheel too. This was also considered to be a monumental release for Mattel because women accounted for 39 per cent of drivers in the USA the same year.

By taking the baby dolls out of the hands of young girls, and putting a fashion doll dressed as an astronaut, a pilot, or a college graduate, the horizons of dreams that would later turn into realities began to expand.

Mattel has continued to release and create dolls for over six decades and since the release of its first career doll in 1960, Mattel has developed Barbie in over 200 occupations. And now we get to see its sixty year legacy played out on the silver screens in the summer’s most highly-anticipated film release, in what feels like Barbie’s second coming.