In January 2022, many were surprised to see news reports about a new “Barbie” made in the likeness of Ida B. Wells, the legendary African American journalist and anti-lynching activist. While doll collectors rejoiced to learn that Mattel made a new addition to its Inspiring Women Series of Barbies, many weren’t aware that the series even existed. Though this subject may seem tangential to the concerns of middle and high school educators, the emergence and evolution of Barbie provides meaningful insight into changing conceptions of gender, race, and education—as well as the role that educational objects like dolls play in young women’s development today.
Bursting onto the shelves in 1959, Barbie has become a towering brand that has won both fierce fans and detractors who insist that the toy promotes unrealistic beauty standards to impressionable young minds. Though a great many critiques have been leveled against Barbie in its 63-year tenure, the introduction of Barbie represented, in many ways, a radical departure from the American toy landscape that preceded it. Prior to Barbie, the dolls commercially available for young girls to play with were all baby dolls and were thus intended to cultivate girls’ readiness to nurture and mother. In the 1950s, however, inventor Ruth Handler made a counterintuitive discovery that would disrupt the status quo.
While observing her own daughter and her daughter’s friends play with paper dolls, Handler noticed that they appeared to be more interested in imitating a wider array of adolescent and adult social relations than merely mimicking the act of childrearing. Handler’s insight would materialize into what has come to be known as Barbie in 1959 when, together with Mattel founder and husband Elliot Handler, the toy made its debut at the American International Toy Fair. In contrast to dolls previously sold in the U.S., Barbie presented an aspirational image of a young, fashionable woman with an identity and physical appeal that were not immediately tied to her capacity to mother. Despite the doubts of early critics, Barbie quickly became highly successful and was one of the first toys to be marketed directly to children via television advertisements. Though the doll’s unrealistic, sexualized appearance would set the stage for critiques of Barbie and its impact on young girls’ self-esteem, the emergence of Barbie also marked an important moment of cultural transformation.
In contrast to the baby dolls that had previously dominated the toy market for young girls, Barbie effectively validated social relationships for girls that lie beyond the singular function of mothering and stretch into a more varied array of adult friendships and relationships. Further, Mattel began to produce Barbie dolls that reflect women’s widening array of professional options and convey the relevance of those options to young girls learning about the world and themselves. The first Barbies held professional roles including fashion model, fashion designer, registered nurse, flight attendant, and babysitter—one that came with books on subjects like how to get a raise and travel. Another important example is Miss Astronaut Barbie which debuted in 1965 two years after Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel to outer space. Though women were not permitted to join NASA’s astronaut corps until 1978, the “Miss” in the name of the doll and its presentation effectively invited young girls to imagine themselves as single career women—a radical development in this period. Mattel continued doll development in this vein and, in 1973, released a new Barbie that worked as a surgeon—a far cry from the candy striper role that Barbie had held only 9 years prior.
Around this time, the company also began to expand the racial diversity of the dolls made under the Barbie brand. In 1968, for example, Mattel released “Christie,” a Black doll that served as a friend and counterpart to Barbie. The doll faced criticism, however, from those who were concerned that its design effectively reinforced European beauty standards rather than elevating African ones. To fill this void, Black entrepreneur Diahann Carroll released the pathbreaking Black Julia dolls in the late 1960s—an effort inspired by her own life-changing experience playing with a doll that looked like her. Some years later, Mattel made another try at diversifying its pool of Barbies. Mattel’s “Christie” doll was ultimately discontinued and replaced with “Nikki” in 1980—described by some as the first “official” Black Barbie—along with the first Latina Barbie, Teresa.