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This year is Allure's 30th Anniversary, and we're celebrating by looking back at iconic moments in beauty from the past three decades. This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of the magazine.
It rarely rains in the birthplace of Barbie. The weather oscillates between beach- and brunch-appropriate. And yet for a five-day stretch in February, it’s raining in the Los Angeles suburbs. From the 10th floor of the Mattel tower, the flat cityscape blurs into a field of gray. The conference room is also hopelessly colorless, punctuated only by the hot pink and purple posters on the wall opposite the windows.
OUR PROMISE: We create the experiences that capture kids’ hearts, open their minds, and unlock their potential through play.
OUR PURPOSE: We inspire wonder in the next generation to shape a brighter tomorrow.
I have been invited to Mattel on the occasion of Barbie’s 60th birthday. My story pitch was: Barbie’s 60! What’s going on with her? And the answer is: Wow, a lot.
Barbie was named after Barbara, the daughter of Mattel founders Elliot and Ruth Handler, the latter of whom was the doll’s creator. In 1959, Barbie seemed to serve more like a mannequin, not a mirror. But she grew up to be an 11-inch plastic projection of what it means to be an adult woman in the world.
In the past several years, that projection has been reflected back from a wider, oft-ignored swath of the female population. The average American woman wears a size 16 or 18, and the Barbie line now includes dolls that represent a larger silhouette. More than one in four Americans has a mental or physical disability, and Mattel has debuted a doll in a wheelchair and one with a prosthetic leg.
Barbie is the original influencer.
Despite Barbie’s new iterations, she doesn’t age. At 60, Barbie still looks 27. Her skin is as taut as an Apple laptop, and her thick, not-at-all-menopausal hair radiates with synthetic luster. Barbie has integrated herself seamlessly into the fabric of American culture, and unlike the social handcuffs that come with aging in today’s society, she continues to flourish. The quintessential doll has a 98 percent brand-awareness rate worldwide, meaning you are more likely to have heard of her than almost anything else.
Barbie is the original influencer. No doll (or human, really) has procured a larger following, with people and trends lapping at her invisible Barbie heels. Three years before Working Girl premiered, Day-to-Night Barbie debuted, wearing a skirt suit that transitioned into tulle cocktail attire. Two years after the United States began a 42-day air strike on Iraq, Desert Storm Barbie appeared, dressed in an “authentic desert battle uniform” and a maroon beret recalling the U.S. Air Force. Barbie has had more careers than most people have had vacations, from doctor to zoo doctor to ballerina to, presently, robotics engineer and Instagram star.
As a brand, Barbie has been central to Mattel — 100 dolls are sold every minute, according to Lisa McKnight, global general manager and senior vice president for Barbie. In an industry that is losing ground to tech-forward toys, Barbie reported 12 percent growth in gross sales in the last quarter of 2018, a rise attributed in part to a more diverse array of dolls that resonate better with socially conscious parents.
This is fine and all, but as every person and doll knows, time is a single-lane freeway hurtling us toward the unknown, or to a landfill outside Albany. Barbie, despite her six decades of trailblazing, is still a work in progress. “We’ve got to keep pushing because society changes so rapidly,” says Kim Culmone, senior vice president of design for Barbie. “We want to stay in step with that.” Meaning: Barbie has to continually stay relevant, a shining beacon inspiring wonder, igniting the ambitions of young children for a lifetime of brighter tomorrows, or at least until they move on to riding bikes.
For me, it means journeying deep within Mattel’s nucleus to play with some dolls.
On March 9, 1959, Barbara Millicent Roberts entered the world wearing a black-and-white swimsuit. If Ruth Handler is Barbie’s mother, then Bild Lilli — the German doll intended as a risqué gag gift for men — is her deceased sister, whose spirit has haunted Barbie’s legacy for the better part of the past century. (The brand maintains that Lilli did not inspire Barbie but merely revealed to Handler the possibility of manufacturing an 11-inch doll.)
Bild Lilli was a single-panel comic character in a German tabloid — a sweet, ditzy, curvy figment of the male imagination, frequently losing her clothes and enjoying the company of men. Each punch line hinged on Bild Lilli’s hotness, her horniness, or her lack of common sense. When a police officer informed Bild Lilli that the two-piece swimsuit she was wearing was in violation of decency laws, she responded earnestly, “Which piece do you want me to take off?”
The original Barbie seemed to share Bild Lilli’s makeup and her alien proportions, which Handler was supposedly attracted to exactly for their dissimilitude to real human features, per the Hulu documentary Tiny Shoulders. This doll, with her triangular boobs and elliptical head, was like nothing they had seen before. “The original doll appealed to girls because she was terrifying,” says M.G. Lord, the author of Forever Barbie and a pop culture scholar. “She did look like a space alien.”
Prior to Bild Lilli and Barbie, the doll market was limited to three-dimensional babies and two-dimensional paper fashion dolls. Handler made Barbie a woman — something to dress up, but also something to look forward to.
McKnight, the head of the Barbie brand, believes that this strain of make-believe is at the core of the success of doll play. “The doll is a great catalyst for storytelling, creative expression, and imagination,” she tells me, more or less restating the "Promise" poster behind her. Children imagine themselves as grown-ups; they see themselves in Barbie.
Sometimes this is not a great thing to do. Barbie’s critics say she is not a desirable role model, given her looks and her hyperfeminine, pink-washed worldview. But what else is out there? Other dolls have tried and failed to fill the swirling market void of “like Barbie, but not so damaging to the psyches of young children”: Lord pointed out that the 1991 “Happy to Be Me” doll, created in response to Barbie’s impossible proportions, was a “hard tank.” The Lammily doll, launched in 2014, whose body was forged in plastic scaled in accordance with the CDC’s measurements for the average 19-year-old girl, generated lots of acclaim but fewer American dollars; the dolls were retired last year.
And Americans love glamour. Our cup of celebrities runneth over, so much that some of them are in public office. Barbie is perfect for us because she isn’t us. She’s prettier, more successful, turns 60 without creasing a cheek. “Dolls are stylized,” says Mattel’s Culmone. “They’re referential of human beings — they aren’t literal to human beings.” It’s true that dolls aren’t real, but why are we so invested in them looking and acting like us? Why would we even want a role model that has such a tenuous basis in reality?
One fifth of my Mattel entourage, a cheerful blonde publicist, suggests we leave the conference room and move on to the next portion of the tour: the enormous workshop where Barbies are imagined and forged; the factory where the imaginations of children are smelt into plastic. It’s not open to the public, and you have to take a shuttle bus to get there.
Before Barbie crosses the threshold of an American household, before she is assembled by a team overseas, and right after she is a glint in a brand designer’s (human) eye, she is assembled by artisans as a prototype, at the Handler Team Center, in the shadow of LAX.
Every facial feature, from lipstick to iris, is painted on a plastic head using a barb-thin and whisper-soft brush. Her hair is then rooted into the scalp at the hands of an enormous metal sewing machine, its needle gnashing atop Barbie’s smiling face, threading, in this case, a gorgeous head of curls into the hairline. Each hair is a gossamer strand of thin plastic—Barbie's genetic material descends from Saran wrap. In manufacturing, this process is automated on an unimaginable scale.
The curls represent a diversity push for Mattel that came about in better-late-than-never 2016, when the brand unveiled what designers referred to internally as Project Dawn, which multiplied Barbie kaleidoscopically into vast combinations of height (tall, petite, original), body type (curvy, original), facial features, and hair types (the brand had begun to embrace a range of skin tones a year earlier). Though Mattel says this was all part of reimagining the brand with “no limitations,” the project could also possibly be linked to decades of critical warfare between Mattel and the general public, waged over original Barbie’s tiny waist.
[Mattel] discovered a kind of material that replicates the tight coil pattern found in certain types of African-American hair.
Much ado was made about the body types, which garnered mixed to positive feedback, but fewer people focused on the other changes. The physiognomy, for example, which diversified Barbie’s Anglo-Saxon features across a more global racial spectrum, with new eye, nose, and lip shapes. Or the different hair textures. Recently, the brand discovered a kind of material that replicates the tight coil pattern found in certain types of African-American hair. There’s also a velour that, when applied to Barbie’s scalp, looks like a buzz cut.
When Barbie debuted, she was only available as a binary blonde or brunette. But the Barbie most of us are familiar with didn’t debut until 1971, when Mattel permanently dyed her hair the color of a California sunset beaming through a glass of Chardonnay, and Malibu Barbie was born.
It was also the genesis of the image Barbie’s name conjures: blonde, blue eyes, smile with a touch of teeth, eyes staring straight ahead. The original Barbie’s eyes were downcast and to the side, as was the case in 19th-century erotic nudes. The Malibu Barbie, however, “looked straight ahead,” says Lord. “Like Manet’s Olympia, she did not avert her eyes in shame. Malibu Barbie was brazen.”
Lord hypothesizes this was a response to the era’s sexual revolution, the content of which might be lost on the three-to-five-year-old demographic in the palm of Barbie’s hand, but not on their mothers and toy designers. Helen Gurley Brown was editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, teaching women that sexual desire was innate and acceptable. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves, a seminal text on the sexual health of women, the same year Barbie began looking forward.
And then there was the makeup evolution. The “classic” Barbie that people think of often had overdrawn eyes, eye shadow, and lipstick. “The Dynasty days are very different than the Glossier days,” when makeup serves to accentuate existing features, not shellac them, says Culmone. Today’s Barbie can be found wearing lighter makeup and looser hair.
The publicist cheerily decides it’s time to move on to a studio unofficially known as the 3-D sculpting room, where the dreams of children are rendered tangible. “A cool room to walk through,” she says, leading me down a hall, her pendulous blonde hair swinging whenever she turns to address me. I am warned it is also “terrifying.” But how terrifying could a Barbie workshop be?
As it turns out, quite terrifying. Spooky, bony black trees (remnants of old Halloween decorations) make it seem as though you are walking into a deadened forest. And because much of Barbie’s shapely body is digitally created (before multiplying into armies of shapely bodies), most of the non-office furnishings are disembodied doll heads. Some are tests from across Mattel’s brands that never made it to production, which adds a layer of pathos to this particular room, which is also very dark.
This unlit cave of horrors is, unfortunately, home to my favorite part of the Handler Team Center tour: a display case that includes unproduced celebrity Likeness dolls.
As part of the brand’s commitment to providing young girls with bite-size role models, Mattel has supplanted Barbie’s fictional posse with dolls that are more or less based on real people, with varying accuracy. Gigi Hadid’s Likeness doll, for example, looks nearly identical to the model. Frida Kahlo’s Likeness doll, though, looks like Frida Kahlo if Frida Kahlo had the nose and toothpick proportions of Gigi Hadid. I ask a designer if the Likeness dolls are supposed to look like the person, or like Barbie, and he confirms that, well, no, neither. “This is a Barbie doll representing Frida Kahlo,” explains Robert Best, a senior product designer for the brand. “It’s a costume, if you will.” Frida Kahlo Barbie is no more Frida Kahlo than a Vegas Cher impersonator is Cher.
In certain cases, says Best, the doll will make it all the way to a full sculpt — a final draft of a doll — before the designers find out whether or not they’ll be able to produce it on a larger scale. “So then it languishes here in development, never being seen by the public.” He points to a near-perfect replica of a public figure I am not at liberty to describe, who beams back at us.
The Barbieverse distinguishes between two Barbies. There’s Barbie “the icon,” or “brand,” who can be blonde and short or black and svelte or Frida Kahlo and white. There’s Barbie “the character,” who is exactly who you’re thinking of, and will be played by Margot Robbie in an upcoming film. Then there are the Likeness dolls, including Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Hadid, who are added voices to the Barbie universe, her friends, and she-roes.
Several times throughout the tour I am assured that Barbie is apolitical, which isn’t entirely true — in 2017, a photo posted to @barbiestyle’s Instagram featured her and a doll version of influencer Aimee Song wearing “Love Wins” T-shirts, indicating that Barbie supports same-sex marriage, an obvious political issue. (Barbie has also run for president on an undisclosed platform.)
In response to questions about how Barbie, America’s highest-profile working woman, has handled the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Culmone mentions “empowerment.” That’s an adult conversation, she says, whereas Mattel’s approach to teaching pre-K children about the horrors of the living world is by informing them, in myriad ways, that they can be anything they want to be.
She also mentions Barbie Vlogger, a YouTube series in which Barbie the Character takes to her webcam to share anecdotes from her life in Malibu. I do not mean to be rude, but the animation is bone-chilling: a teen avatar whose movements and mannerisms are identical to that of a living and breathing human person. The content, however, is nuanced, as Barbie candidly discusses everything from personal boundaries to her favorite classes in school.
In one video, the tenor of Barbie’s voice drops, as CGI sunlight streams into her bedroom. “I woke up this morning feeling a little blue,” she confesses. “No real reason. Just — blue.” She goes on to list coping mechanisms that have mood-boosting benefits, like journaling. “I’m known for being an upbeat person. But I’m not, always. I don’t have to always be upbeat and positive. To camouflage myself to fit into a mold of how I should feel or think, well, that doesn’t help anyone.”
This is by no means an exhaustive discussion on treatment for depression (it would be hard to imagine Barbie comparing the side effects of Prozac versus Wellbutrin), but the message is clear to young people: It’s OK to be sad sometimes. “She is certainly not perfect,” says McKnight. “She has flaws. She is showing vulnerability.”
Barbie is lucky to have an extensive support system. Ken has been her male accessory for the better part of the past 60 years, save for a brief intermission in 2004, when the pair broke up. (The general public believed this to be a publicity stunt for the brand in response to declining profits, but we notice that it also dovetailed with the impending financial and housing crisis of 2006.) Like the tortured soul she is, Barbie declined to use this time as a period of introspection and instead spent it rebounding with an Australian, Blaine, the summer of the breakup. Despite Blaine’s rash guard, six-pack, and undeniable exotic appeal, Barbie rejoined Ken in 2011. Blaine can now be found pre-owned on Amazon.
As interviews with Mattel executives throttle me between the world of make-believe, where the sun is always shining and Barbie is both your pediatrician and your unopposed candidate for president, and present-day Los Angeles, where it is damp and gray, it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated. My three-year-old niece thinks Belle from Beauty and the Beast is a real princess, who lives close enough to the Cleveland Zoo to casually visit. She’s still too young for Barbie, but if and when they meet, will she think of her as a projection of her future self, as a flawed confidante, or as a thing to put clothes on?
Mattel has, for better or worse, decided to bring Barbie to life by giving her a voice and a platform. She’s no more real to people than Beyoncé or Rihanna, or any other person who is inaccessible to the public, available only through the lens of Instagram, TMZ, or a merchandise line at Target; a person who serves as a proxy for a more exciting, more glamorous, more vibrant life. When Barbie speaks, her voice sounds human. My niece doesn’t know the difference.
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Originally Appeared on Allure