From plastic doll to CGI movie star, Barbie has influenced and inspired young girls for generations, and the franchise’s continued efforts to make their brand more inclusive and empowering are a testament to the timelessness of the doll.
The first Barbie doll was created by Ruth Handler, after drawing inspiration for a 3D doll from her daughter Barbara’s paper creations. She debuted the first doll, whose full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, at the New York Toy Fair in New York City on March 9 1959, hence why National Barbie Day shares the same date.
Handler envisioned the doll as a vessel through which young girls could live out their dreams, which is why there are over 200 dolls inspired by Barbie’s multitude of careers, ranging from astronaut to paleontologist. In this way, the Barbie doll has served as a catalyst for female autonomy and ambition, allowing young girls to envision themselves in careers that extend far beyond the stereotypical housewife. Additionally, the release of dolls inspired by real, ground-breaking women like Amelia Earhart and Frida Kahlo has cemented the legacy of female historical figures who often go unnoticed.
Barbie was initially a blonde haired, blue eyed solo act, but the brand grew more diverse in 1980, when the first official African American and Latina Barbie dolls were introduced, along with more than 40 other international dolls. Throughout the decades, the brand has also made efforts to make the Barbie doll more reflective of real women, introducing more body types, skin tones and hairstyles, and even releasing a bald “Chemo Barbie” named Ella in 2014 to help young girls with cancer. As Ruth Handler herself once said, “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” and now that is reflected not only by Barbie’s numerous careers, but the representation of a multitude body types and skin tones, as well.
Barbie made the shift from toy store to big screen in 2001, with the release of the Barbie in the Nutcracker, the first film of the franchise. Since then, more than 30 films have been released, some of which are original stories, like Barbie: Princess Charm School, while others are empowering, gynocentric retellings of classic tales, like Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper, a spin off of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The films are known for their ambitious, independent main characters and their emphasis on the importance of friendship rather than romantic relationships.
Growing up, I remember always being more attracted to the Barbie movies than the equally popular Disney princess movies. As a senior in high school, I have come to realize that the answer to why I loved the Barbie movies so much may lie in the differences between the franchises’ main characters.
From my perspective, it always seemed that the main characters in Barbie movies were more active and goal-oriented than those in the Disney princess movies, but I wanted to definitively determine if my conjecture was correct, so I turned it into my AP Research project. I am attempting to answer the question of which franchise portrays a more ambitious role model for young girls through their main female characters. Celebrating Women’s History Month and National Barbie Day makes this project that much more relevant, and hopefully, I can also share my results once the project is completed.
Whether my hypothesis is supported or not, Barbie has nonetheless served as a perennial beacon of female empowerment for decades and whether future generations enjoy her in the form of plastic or CGI, her legacy of femininity, self-sufficiency and inclusivity is likely to echo long into the future.