56 years later: Have we had enough of Barbie?

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It seems Barbie is not so much of a girl anymore; on the 12th of February she celebrates her 56th birthday. Most people you ask will know about Barbie dolls, she’s a toy that broke onto the market and just never seemed to lose popularity, despite plenty of controversy around the figure. There are now multiple versions of Barbie, family members, Barbies of different ethnicities, and of course the infamous Ken doll.

Most people remember playing with Barbie dolls at some point, or at least knowing someone who had them. I remember I had a limited edition one that was supposed to be a female matador. She had the most beautiful dress, but I wasn’t allowed to play with her in case I broke it. There are many others like this, limited edition Barbie dolls that range from the mid price to the absolutely insane. One such of the latter is the Stefano Canturi doll which was made after Mattel launched a collection in Australia. It features an Australian pink diamond in the necklace along with other diamonds and will set the purchaser back £425,000. Aside from the limited edition ones there are the regular Barbies, which apparently most people go through a phase of pulling the heads off or putting them in the microwave (so says a study lead by the University of Bath). Apparently this is representative of a phase of childhood, which we reject as we grow up.

The Barbie doll itself has not been without her controversies of course. The most obvious being that she has a completely unrealistic body; a tiny waist, legs up to her eyeballs, tall and blonde, and titchy feet (it has been calculated that if Barbie were real she wouldn’t be able to walk due to her feet being proportionally too small too hold her up!). Other than the faintly ridiculous, the more serious side of this issue is that Barbie’s proportions might trigger anorexic tendencies. Scientists have figured out that if Barbie was scaled up to 5ft 9inches then she would not have the right body fat % to actually be healthy. She would be scarily underweight. It wasn’t until 1997 that doll designer, Mattel, gave her a slightly wider waist in order to “fit in with contemporary designs”.

Another area in which Barbie has often fallen foul of controversy is in the attempted to portrayal of ethnic minorities. It was in 1967 when this first attempt was made with the so-called “coloured Francie” but she was produced using the existing Barbie doll moulds, and therefore had exactly the same features as the white doll. There were other attempts to make an African-American version of the doll, but they always drew the criticism that they still had Caucasian features. It wasn’t until as late as 2009 – fifty years after Barbie’s first creation – that Mattel released a range which attempted to depict a more appropriate portrayal for ethnicities other than Caucasian.

However, it seems that regardless of what people think of the Barbie doll she is here to stay on the toy markets. The parent company is still coming up with new versions of Barbie in an attempt to prolong her appeal. I suppose the question is whether she will stay relevant to young children, but having survived nearly sixty years, I’m guessing she’ll cling on with her fingernails to stay an iconic toy.

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