Ruth Handler, the central figure in Barbie’s design, claimed that she based the idea for Barbie on what she saw in the doll-play practices of children. Apparently, much of this interaction was overlooked by others—probably because of the dominance of baby dolls on the toy market.
Handler noticed that girls were using dolls “to reflect the adult world around them. They would sit and carry on conversations, making the dolls real people. I used to watch that over and over and think: If only we could take this play pattern and three-dimensionalize it, we would have something very special”. However, Barbie was never merely a three-dimensional paper doll. Important design dimensions separate her from earlier fashion dolls, given that both the static and the movable parts of Barbie were assembled in such a way as to maintain a glamorous pose, however she was positioned. This design not only was complex and modern in a technical sense but was also a visualization of the fashion model that relied on the everyday recognizability of glamorous movie poses.
Although it is crucial to think about Barbie’s form when talking about the uses and meanings of the dolls, it is equally important to recognize that Barbie’s highly successful form, despite its apparent homogeneity over decades, has never been fixed. Changes to Barbie began almost immediately, when her heavy makeup was removed in 1961. Barbie’s face alone can be used to map a series of telling changes to the image Barbie is designed to convey. Beginning in 1971, with Malibu Barbie, the doll began to look straight ahead rather than coyly to one side; and with the mid-1970s superstar face mold, Barbie gained as a permanent standard feature a dazzling smile rather than cupid’s-bow lips.
But across these changes to the standard face, we can also trace the proliferation of minor variations. By the superstar period, we can clearly see the diversification of Barbie into a standard but gradually changing “playline” and its variation in multiple supplementary novelty marketing lines. The same trajectory can be seen in Barbie’s bodily form, where some changes are short-lived-for example, the introduction in 1970’s “Living Barbie” of jointed ankles, which allowed the doll to wear flat shoes as well as high heels. Others, such as bendable knees and a swivel waist, became part of the standard playline model. The history of Barbie’s physical form is one in which gradual design changes mark out the expected parameters of Barbie play, all of which tend toward making her lifestyle play more flexible. Such variations are always something more than marketing gimmicks.
The twisting body that made the sixties Barbie more groovy may have remained, even though her flexible elbows have come and gone. And the bizarre narrative of adolescence in 1975’s “Growing Up Skipper” (you wind her arm, and she grows height and breasts), or the various mechanical gimmicks that allow Barbie to have facial movement or be attached to various accessories, are even more transient. But Barbie’s variations are always statements about the dominant and possible forms of femininity at a given time. When standard Barbie’s exaggerated attached eyelashes were replaced by less pronounced, painted-on eyelashes, this signaled, in part, changes to the role of makeup in dominant images of female beauty as well as changes to the presumed normative relationship between childhood play and adult gender roles.
Even novelty changes to Barbie say something about dominant and emergent gender narratives of the time, as with Busy Barbie’s (1972) “holding hands” for grasping her accompanying TV, record player, suitcase, and a tray with glasses, reflecting fresh access to newly diverse material goods marketed at adolescents. Changes to Barbie’s hair are exemplary in this regard. The move from ponytail Barbie to “bubble cut” Barbie is a story about the displacement of the “teenybopper” by the “mod” as an icon of cool girlhood, and a subsequent model like “Growing Pretty Hair Barbie” (1971) allows girls to play games with the way different hairstyles comprise different-however partial and transient-modes of femininity.