Barbie, a Timeless Icon of the American Dream?

The movie

Directed by Greta Gerwig and produced by Margot Robbie, who plays the titular doll, the movie marks the first film adaptation of Barbie, bringing to life her mythical persona, loaded with history and endless contradictions. It's a parable that uses the Barbie character as a tool to reflect on the transition to womanhood, what it means to be a woman and what kind of woman we aspire to be, when society seeks to assign us a different role. The film skillfully tackles the challenges of growing up through themes such as nostalgia, the difficulty of becoming a woman, gender stereotypes and persistent sexism in society. This contemporary tale evokes the dreams and aspirations of young girls, how they can sometimes get lost in reality and, finally, how to deal with them.

Interestingly, the film also features a number of contemporary allusions: a reference to Stanley Kubrick's film "2001 A Space Odyssey", to the Supreme Court on pregnancy, even to the Supreme Court on Trump, not to mention Ken's wearing of a mink fur similar to that worn by the QAnon shaman during the January 6 uprising.

Post-war America gave birth to Barbie

Barbie was introduced at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. She was a thin plastic doll, designed as a fashion model for teenage girls, dressed in a black and white striped swimsuit, with a signature ponytail, heels and sunglasses – for a modest $3 retail price. Her full bust and slim waist defied all natural proportions.

It was Ruth Handler, wife of Mattel co-founder Robert, who intuitively noticed that little girls were more interested in role-playing games featuring teenagers and adults. She watched her daughter play at pretending her paper dolls were college students, cheerleaders or adults with careers, rather than acting as a baby doll's mom. Up to that point, the dominant post-war ideology encouraged ‘baby boomers’ to assume maternal and domestic roles. The adult Barbie doll was unlike the then popular baby dolls, signalling a profound evolution of teenage culture. For Ruth Handler, Barbie "was the doll through which the little girl could become anything she wanted to be". Barbie was the embodiment of the idea that women had other choices than being mothers and housewives.

The extraordinary commercial success of the Barbie doll is largely a consequence of a perfect symbiosis between product design and social context. Marketed in 1959, her association with materialism and consumerism is no coincidence, but a reflection of the social context in which Mattel launched her.

She arrives right at the center of American mass consumerism and the post-war development of real estate projects such as Levittowns – mass-produced home developments in the suburbs – and women leaving the workforce to return home after the war. Her rise was part of a vision of a boundless post-war prosperity which historians refer to as “the American dream”. Consumerism was embraced as a source of pleasure and social cohesion, and there was a large generation of children whose parents had disposable income.

The American dream is partly a dream of consumption. Girls had a lot of fun dressing up Barbie, with constantly changing outfits and accessories. This was the expression of the exuberant lifestyle of society in the aftermath of the Second World War. American wardrobes had become fashionable and distinguished, and appearance played a key role in the development of social relationships.

What meanings can a material object convey?

At first glance, historians view Barbie as an icon of American femininity, a symbol of female liberation but also an instrument of female oppression. The wide variety of meanings she elicits probably stems from her personification of shifting feminine ideals, while simultaneously perpetuating post-war American conservatism and conformity. Perhaps the ambiguities embodied by Barbie are rooted in deep-seated and persistent ambivalences about gender roles, entrenched in American culture and experienced by her creator, Ruth Handler.

In her 64 years of existence, Barbie has helped change perceptions and promoted inclusion and diversity, challenging gender stereotypes by embracing an active lifestyle. She inspired young girls to aim high and maximize their potential. She graduated from college in 1963, at a time when few women went to university, became a surgeon in 1973, an entrepreneur in 1986, a top diplomat and airline pilot in 1990, and a presidential candidate on several occasions. Barbie became an astronaut in 1965, almost 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983.

What's more, Barbie played a decisive role in the transformation of moral codes that became known as the ‘sexual revolution’. The pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, the year after Barbie was born. With her body-conscious outfits, she symbolized a form of liberation: the freedom to say yes.

The creation of Barbie: Ruth Handler’s American dream illustrated

Ruth Hander's childhood, which helped shape one of the toy industry's most impressive career paths, was far from ordinary. The youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants, she was born on November 14, 1916 in Denver. After arriving at Ellis Island in 1907, her parents settled in Denver, the center of the railroad industry, where blacksmiths, like Handler's father, were in great demand for railroad construction and repair.

From an early age, she worked at the family drugstore and soda fountain to make ends meet. The strong work ethic that traveled with the family to America would later serve Handler well, as she launched one of the most successful toy companies in history, Mattel.

Perhaps inspired by her own unconventional upbringing, she was committed to fill a void: a void in young girls’ ability to dream big and realize their potential outside of the bounderies set by society for a future restricted to the role of mother and housewife.

With her husband Elliot, passionate about new materials, especially acrylic plastic, and endowed with design skills, Ruth displayed exceptional commercial talents, and the two of them formed a winning team. Despite initial difficulties in convincing reluctant toy buyers, the Handlers persisted; by dint of conviction, Mattel sold 300,000 Barbies in the first year of launch, 1959.

The story of Ruth and Elliot Handler magnificently illustrates the power of believing in the American dream – a belief central to American identity – which holds that everyone, regardless of origin or social class, has a fair shot at success in a society that gives everyone the opportunity to conceive their own version of the American dream and live it to its fullest [ American Dream v2.0].

Final thoughts

Right from the outset, Barbie made millions of girls dream. The dolls are both materialistic and idealistic, offering a typically American fantasy – for a price.

All in all, she has 250 professional options to choose from and makes her own money. It’s surprising, then, that she continues to represent some form of objectification and oppression. Clearly, this is not the spirit in which children will keep playing with her to engage their imagination.

To conclude, I would like to salute Mattel's remarkable success: more than 60 years after its launch, it is estimated that one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in over 150 countries. Her appeal is global. This long-term success testifies to Mattel's ability to react and adapt to the changing cultural and political discourse in society and around the doll.

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