How Barbie became a feminist icon

As a brand new trailer for Greta Gerwig's anticipated film drops, we chart Barbie's ascent from humble doll to movie star.

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

Gloria Steinem may have described Barbie as everything we didn’t want to be, and were told to be”, but in 2023 the tide appears to have turned. The initial trailer for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming fantasia, released this summer and starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Hari Nef, Issa Rae, Dua Lipa and Ncuti Gatwa to name a few, has been viewed more than nine million times. Sales of dolls are up 20 per cent at parent company Mattel and a cursory glance at TikTok reveals that Barbiecore is fantastic once again. Given we’re in a fourth (or is it fifth?) wave of women’s liberation, how did we get here?


Barbara Millicent Roberts – Barbie to her friends – is born. She was created by a woman, Ruth Handler, and was partially inspired by Bild Lili, a sexy, sharp-eyebrowed German doll originally marketed at, um, men. 1963 Four toy-years later, Barbie has her Dream House and a growing number of outfits. One, Barbie Baby-Sits, comes with a book called How to Lose Weight with the advice Don’t eat!” Two years later, a Slumber Party pack arrives with a set of scales stuck at 110 lbs – underweight for a woman of Barbie’s 5’9 height. Eesh.


The first Black Barbie is introduced. She’s made by Kitty Black-Perkins, an African-American former fashion designer who’d never owned a Barbie before working at Mattel. By 1991, Black-Perkins is a principal designer, making more than 100 outfits for Barbie every year. 1993 Activists calling themselves The Barbie Liberation Organization cause havoc in toy stores. Adherents switch the voice boxes in Barbies and G.I. Joes. Now she says vengeance is mine” and he says the beach is the best place for summer”. Finally: Barbie is given a voice by the feminist cause.


Valentine’s Day brings a conscious uncoupling for Barbie and long-term boyfriend Ken: Mattel is quoted as saying the pair feel it’s time to spend some quality time – apart.” Commitment issues are cited. The OG himbo does eventually see what he’s missing: after starring in 2010’s Toy Story 3, they get back together when Ken confesses his love for Barbie on a series of real billboards.


Natasha Walter publishes Living Dolls, a book decrying the return of sexism. The cover features a picture of a naked woman with a Barbie covering her crotch. This is the peak of Noughties toxic sexism when, Walter argues, women like Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton took the plastic look so far that they seem to have been created by Mattel”.


Research shows that, were Barbie a real woman, she wouldn’t be able to lift her neck, would only have room for half a liver and she’d have to crawl on all fours because her ankles are so small. The Daily Mail calls her a mutant. Bit harsh.


Jeremy Scott, creative director at Moschino, makes an entire collection of Barbie outfits, scaled up. Like every girl and gay boy, I loved Barbie,” he tells Vogue. Her and I share the same things: we just want to bring joy to people.” As long as they had £1,620 for a pink leather cross-body bag shaped like a motorcycle jacket.


Mattel launches New Body Types, meaning you can now buy Barbie in curvy, petite and tall sizes”. The move addresses long-held concerns about promoting unreal body imagery. It’s also an effort to boost the brand: Mattel announce a 14 per cent drop in Barbie sales.


What a difference five years makes. Barbie is now a figurehead for the bimbo movement on TikTok, one dripping in irony, but also challenging the idea you have to wear black to be smart. This is Barbie with a wink, but also with a point. She loves pink, sure, but she also loves trans rights and female empowerment. Lots, then, for Gerwig to get stuck into – she signs on as director of the live-action movie.


Barbiecore, you know the score: Barbie pink becomes the colour of the year, seen in everything from Kim K’s IG posts to Megan Fox on the red carpet. Lyst report that searches for pink increased by 416 per cent, while Net-a-Porter sell more than 8,000 pink items in a week. Meanwhile, Gerwig begins shooting in her bespoke Barbie Land. In California, right? No, just outside Watford, at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden. 2023 Barbie is released in July. But while it’s the images of Ryan Gosling as a particularly muscle-packed Ken that cause the stop everything” moment, this is a movie with a message: To live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place. Unless you have a full-on existential crisis. Or you’re a Ken.” The feminist rebrand of our living doll is complete.

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