Over the years, Barbie has had countless competitors, including Jem and the Holograms, the Disney Princesses, and even Spectra, the chic pink-haired gal from outer space with metallic limbs and eye makeup rivaling the likes of David Bowie. Among the many contenders, none have challenged Barbie quite like the Heart Family, who—ironically—appeared to be the complete opposite of all that Barbie represented. Odder still, the Heart Family was manufactured by Mattel Incorporated, the very same company responsible for the Barbie empire.
While Barbie successfully fulfilled her dreams in a variety of roles (astronaut, paleontologist, professional figure skater, etc.) and demonstrated that a girl could be whatever she wanted, she and Ken also lived a wonderfully glamorous—albeit unrealistic—life. Perfectly fit, tan, and attired in figure hugging clothing (sometimes very little of it), the couple was perpetually surrounded by a multitude of vehicles, houses, and friends, spending their weekends at the beach in Malibu or jet-setting from one stylish destination to the next. Together, the pair seemed to epitomize Southern California life during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sure, it looked like great fun, but what about those of us living a quieter life, perhaps on the east coast where it snows and the beach isn’t accessible 24/7? What about those of us with one car, a two-bedroom house, and just a couple of close friends?
Enter the Heart Family: a beautiful brunette mother attired in a sensible pink dress; a successful, dashing father clad in trousers, blue shirt, tie, and suspenders; and, of course, their adorably coordinated twin son and daughter. Mattel first introduced the family of four to the world in 1985 as friends of Barbie, but they quickly abandoned that back story. The Heart family demonstrated a more family-oriented, simplified lifestyle, which seemed a refreshing change from those countless weekends in Malibu. In place of a pink Corvette and large motor home, the Hearts drove a sensible Volkswagen Cabriolet complete with car seats for the kids, illustrative of their safety-conscious nature, while the convertible top suggested they still had a fun-loving side. Furthermore, the Heart Family didn’t reside in an enormous dream mansion, instead occupying a sensible four-room home that included the basic furniture and necessities required for family life, such as bassinets, high chairs, and the all-important family table. In short, the Heart Family seemed to convey that the house wasn’t nearly as important as the love inside it.
The Heart Family enjoyed immense popularity during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seemed every girl my age owned the four figures. Although no one ever mentioned where the Hearts came from, nor were the family members ever given first names, the resulting focus emphasized the family as a whole, not the individual characters themselves. The lack of names made the figures slightly more generic, encouraging children to select their own names when playing with the figures, perhaps even drawing upon their own family for inspiration. In doing so, children related to the characters in a way that they didn’t with Barbie or Ken.
Despite the Heart Family’s rapid rise to national and international fame, their reign atop the doll kingdom proved short-lived. Over the past couple decades, it seems many have forgotten about them, perhaps because the Hearts didn’t aspire to celebrity and glamour. I like to think that they’ve spent the years carrying on as any family does. The kids have gone off to college and likely graduated by now, while Mr. and Mrs. Heart are probably getting ready to enjoy the early retirement they’ve planned for so carefully. Soon they’ll set off to do some traveling.
Unlike the Hearts, Barbie hasn’t aged a day, and her tan hasn’t faded a bit. Ken has retained his six-pack abs and his perfectly coifed hair, and the Corvette still runs like a dream. Maybe there is something to be said for Malibu after all. Rumor has it it’s first on the list of travel destinations for Mr. and Mrs. Heart.