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Culture Re-View: From 1959 to 2023 - the surprising longevity of Barbie

A Barbie Doll
A Barbie Doll Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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On this day, an adult-figured doll debuted on the American toy market. We're still obsessed with her 64 years later.

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9 March 1959: Barbie makes her debut

For a doll that was created in the 50s, it’s incredible to think that Barbie is having a new moment in 2023. It all stems from the upcoming film by director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) and starring Margot Robbie.

We’ve been treated to snapshots of the film through production stills and an incredible teaser trailer riffing off of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. All in all, the purported off-kilter take by Gerwig is expected to be the cinematic event of the year.

Added to that is the story Euronews Culturereported on this week when British scientist Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock was honoured with a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll in her likeness in celebration of both International Women’s Day.

It’s clear Barbie still has huge cultural relevance today. Which is pretty impressive, all things told.

Before Barbie entered the scene, her creator Ruth Handler had noticed that most of the dolls girls were playing with were infants. On a 1956 trip to Germany with her children Barbara and Kenneth (yes, really), Handler came across Bild Lilli, an adult-figured doll unlike anything she’d seen in the American market.

She brought Bild Lilli back to the US and redesigned it for the Mattel toy company. The original Barbie doll made her debut on 9 March 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York City.

Barbie became the cultural icon she is in the 60s. She was a brand new doll on the market that young girls could look to aspirationally.

Barbie was beautiful by the beauty standards of the day and you could customise her clothing. But more than that, Barbie had a career. Starting off as a fashion designer, Barbie would quickly go on to have a whole host of jobs.

Styled like Jackie Kennedy, Barbie was an independent woman with a career and an optional boyfriend, Ken. In her first decade, she encapsulated so much of the 60s’ sexual revolution. Just like Barbie, women were freer to pursue their career and love interests to a greater extent than ever before.

Barbie was the original girl-boss icon. She was the plastic embodiment of chic. And we love her for that.

The archetype of the pretty blonde figure has been criticised throughout the years for its perpetuation of unattainable body types and a lack of diversity, but the appeal of a glamorous woman with endless careers and outfits has endured.

In the past two years, Barbies have sold better than they have in 20 years, with an incredible $1.68 billion in sales in 2021. As Handler hoped when her doll debuted in 1959, the ceiling for achievement of Barbie may be pushed even further when Robbie takes her first steps on the silver screen as the iconic toy this summer.

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