Barbie, You're Beautiful

No. 1 Ponytail Barbie, Mattel, Inc., 1959, from the collection of Strong National Museum of PlayBarbie. Love her or not, you have to admit that she is important. Here are three reasons:

1) Even as the competition creeps up, she’s the essential doll. Nearly all American girls own one and the average girl will own between eight and ten before she ages out of doll play. (I know we had a house full.)

2) Barbie is an ageless favorite. She debuted in 1959, after Mattel executive Ruth Handler vacationed in Germany and brought back a naughty tobacco-shop gag doll called Bild Lilli. Handler’s skeptical colleagues dissed the idea of a glamour doll, but she convinced them to produce a version for American girls. Mattel didn’t change the tall and top-heavy Teutonic figure much for the American market, guessing that, in addition to pretending to be mommies by playing with baby dolls, little girls would want a doll that would help them pretend to be bigger girls. They guessed right. About a billion Barbies have sold over the past five decades.

3) Barbie mirrors culture. Initially a sultry siren in a zebra swimsuit, she was little more than an ornament. But since then she has appeared as a fighter-jet pilot, a paleontologist, a pediatrician, a presidential candidate, a dentist, a diplomat, an astronaut, an Olympic athlete, a Rockette, a Starfleet Officer, and many other incarnations.

Like fifty year-old women in the real world, Barbie is an inspiration, and she’s still a knockout.